Structural Crisis in the World-System: Where Do We Go from Here? -Immanuel Wallerstein

I have written repeatedly on the structural crisis in the world-system, most recently in New Left Review in 2010.2 So, I shall just summarize my position, without arguing it in detail. I shall state my position as a set of premises. Not everyone agrees with these premises, which are my picture of where we are at the present time. On the basis of this picture, I propose to speak to the question, where do we go from here?

Premise No. 1 is that all systems—from the astronomical universe to the smallest physical phenomena, and including of course historical social systems—have lives. They come into existence at some point, which needs to be explained. They have “normal” lives, the rules of which need to be explicated. The functioning of their normal lives tends, over time, to move them far from equilibrium, at which point they enter a structural crisis, and in due course cease to exist. The functioning of their normal lives has to be analyzed in terms of cyclical rhythms and secular trends. The cyclical rhythms are sets of systemic fluctuations (upturns and downturns), in which the system regularly returns to equilibrium. However, it is a moving equilibrium since, at the end of a downturn, the system never returns to exactly where it was at the beginning of the upturn. This is because secular trends (slow, long-term increases in some systemic characteristic) push the curve slowly upward, as measured by some percentage of that characteristic in the system.

Eventually, the secular trends move the system too near its asymptotes, and the system is unable to continue its normal, regular, slow upward push. Thereupon, it begins to fluctuate wildly and repeatedly, leading to a bifurcation—that is, to a chaotic situation in which a stable equilibrium cannot be maintained. In such a chaotic situation, there are two quite divergent possibilities of recreating order out of chaos, or a new stable system. This period we may call the structural crisis of the system, and there is a system-wide battle—for historical social systems, a political battle—over which of two alternative possible outcomes will be collectively “chosen.”

Premise No. 2 is the description of the most important characteristics of how the capitalist world-economy has operated as a historical social system. The driving underlying objective of capitalists in a capitalist system is the endless accumulation of capital, wherever and however this accumulation may be achieved. Since such accumulation requires the appropriation of surplus value, this drive precipitates the class struggle.

Serious capital accumulation is only possible when one firm or a small group of firms has a quasi-monopoly of world-economy-wide production. Possessing such a quasi-monopoly depends on the active support of one or more states. We call such quasi-monopolies leading industries, and they foster considerable forward and backward linkages. Over time, however, all such quasi-monopolies are self-liquidating, since new producers (attracted by the very high level of profit) are able, in one way or another, to enter the market and reduce the degree of monopoly. Increased competition reduces sales prices but also reduces the level of profit and therefore the possibility of significant capital accumulation. We can call the relation of monopolized to competitive productive activities a core-periphery relationship.

The existence of a quasi-monopoly permits the expansion of the world-economy in terms of growth and allows for trickle-down benefits to large sectors of the world-system’s populations. The exhaustion of the quasi-monopoly leads to a system-wide stagnation that reduces the interest of capitalists in accumulation through productive enterprises. Erstwhile leading industries shift location to zones with lower costs of production, sacrificing increased transactions costs for lowered production costs (notably wage costs). The countries to which the industries are relocated consider this relocation to constitute “development,” but they are essentially the recipients of cast-off, erstwhile core-like operations. Meanwhile, unemployment grows in the zones in which the industries are relocated, and former trickle-down advantages are reversed, or partially reversed.

This cyclical process is often called Kondratieff long waves, and has in the past tended to last an average of fifty to sixty years for the entire cycle.3 Such cycles have been occurring over the past five hundred years. One systemic consequence is a constant slow shift in the location of the zones that are most favored economically, without, however, changing the proportion of zones that are so favored.

A second major cyclical rhythm of the capitalist world-economy is that involving the interstate system. All states within the world-system are theoretically sovereign but actually highly constrained by the processes of the interstate system. Some states are, however, stronger than others, meaning that they have greater control over internal fragmentation and outside intrusion. No state, nonetheless, is wholly sovereign.

In a system of multiple states, there are rather long cycles in which one state manages to become for a relatively brief time the hegemonic power. To be a hegemonic power is to achieve a quasi-monopoly of geopolitical power, in which the state in question is able to impose its rules, its order, on the system as a whole, in ways that favor the maximization of accumulation of capital to enterprises located within its borders.

Achieving the position of being the hegemonic power is not easy, and has only been truly achieved three times in the five-hundred-year history of the modern world-system—the United Provinces in the mid-seventeenth century, the United Kingdom in the mid-nineteenth century, and the United States in the mid-twentieth century.4

True hegemony has lasted, on average, only twenty-five years. Like quasi-monopolies of leading industries, quasi-monopolies of geopolitical power are self-liquidating. Other states improve their economic, and then their political and cultural, positions and become less willing to accept the “leadership” of the erstwhile hegemonic power.

Premise No. 3 is a reading of what has happened in the modern world-system from 1945 to 2010. I divide this into two periods: 1945 to circa 1970; circa 1970-2010. Once again, I summarize what I have argued at length previously. The period 1945-circa 1970 was one of great economic expansion in the world-economy, indeed by far the most expansive Kondratieff A-period in the history of the capitalist world-economy. When the quasi-monopolies were breached, the world-system entered a Kondratieff B-downturn in which it still finds itself. Predictably, capitalists since the 1970s have shifted their focus from the production arena to the financial arena. The world-system then entered the most extensive continuous series of speculative bubbles in the history of the modern world-system, with the greatest level of multiple indebtednesses.

The period 1945 to circa 1970 was also the period of full U.S. hegemony in the world-system. Once the United States had made a deal with the only other militarily strong state, the Soviet Union (a deal rhetorically called “Yalta”), U.S. hegemony was essentially unchallenged. But then once the geopolitical quasi-monopoly was breached, the United States entered into a period of hegemonic decline, which has escalated from a slow decline into a precipitate one during the presidency of George W. Bush.5 U.S. hegemony was far more extensive and total than those of previous hegemonic powers, and its full decline promises to be the swiftest and most total.

There is one other element to put into the picture—the world-revolution of 1968, which occurred essentially between 1966 and 1970, and took place in all three major geopolitical zones of the world-system of the time: the pan-European world (the “West”), the Socialist bloc (the “East”), and the third world (the “South”).6

There were two common elements to these local political uprisings. The first was the condemnation not only of U.S. hegemony but also of Soviet “collusion” with the United States. The second was the rejection not only of dominant “centrist liberalism” but also of the fact that the traditional antisystemic movements (the “Old Left”) had essentially become avatars of centrist liberalism (as had mainstream conservative movements).7

While the actual uprisings of 1968 did not last very long, there were two main consequences in the political-ideological sphere. The first was that centrist liberalism ended its long reign (1848-1968) as the only legitimate ideological position, and both the radical left and the conservative right resumed their roles as autonomous ideological contestants in the world-system.

The second consequence, for the left, was the end of the legitimacy of the Old Left’s claim to be the prime national political actor on behalf of the left, to which all other movements had to subordinate themselves. The so-called forgotten peoples (women, ethnic/racial/religious “minorities,” “indigenous” nations, persons of non-heterosexual sexual orientations), as well as those concerned with ecological or peace issues, asserted their right to be considered prime actors on an equal level with the historical subjects of the traditional antisystemic movements. They rejected definitively the claim of the traditional movements to control their political activities and were successful in their new demand for autonomy. After 1968, the Old Left movements acceded to their political claim to equal current status for their demands, in place of deferring these demands to a post-revolutionary future.

Politically, what happened in the twenty-five years succeeding 1968 is that the reinvigorated world right asserted itself more effectively than the more fragmented world left. The world right, led by the Reagan Republicans and the Thatcher Conservatives, transformed world discourse and political priorities.

The buzzword “globalization” replaced the previous buzzword “development.” The so-called Washington Consensus preached privatization of state productive enterprises, reduction of state expenditures, opening of the frontiers to uncontrolled entry of commodities and capital, and the orientation to production for export. The prime objectives were to reverse all the gains of the lower strata during the Kondratieff A-period. The world right sought to reduce all the major costs of production, to destroy the welfare state in all its versions, and to slow down the decline of U.S. power in the world-system.

Mrs. Thatcher coined the slogan, “There is no alternative” or TINA. To ensure that, in fact, there would be no alternative, the International Monetary Fund, backed by the U.S. Treasury, made as a condition of all financial assistance to countries with budgetary crises adherence to its strict neoliberal conditions.

These draconian tactics worked for about twenty years, bringing about the collapse of regimes led by the Old Left or the conversion of Old Left parties to adherence to the doctrine of the primacy of the market. But by the mid-1990s, there surfaced a significant degree of popular resistance to the Washington Consensus, whose three main moments were the neo-Zapatista uprising in Chiapas on January 1, 1994; the demonstrations at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, which scuttled the attempt to enact worldwide constraints on intellectual property rights; and the founding of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001.

The Asian debt crisis in 1997 and the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble in 2008 brought us to our current public discussion of the so-called financial crisis in the world-system, which is, in fact, nothing but the next-to-last bubble in the cascading series of debt crises since the 1970s.

Premise No. 4 is the description of what happens in a structural crisis, which the world-system is in at the present time, has been in at least since the 1970s, and shall continue to be in until probably circa 2050. The primary characteristic of a structural crisis is chaos. Chaos is not a situation of totally random happenings. It is a situation of rapid and constant fluctuations in all the parameters of the historical system. This includes not only the world-economy, the interstate system, and cultural-ideological currents, but also the availability of life resources, climatic conditions, and pandemics.

The constant and relatively rapid shifts in immediate conditions make even short-term calculations highly problematic—for the states, for enterprises, for social groups, and for households. The uncertainty makes producers very cautious about producing since it is far from certain that there are customers for their products. This is a vicious circle, since reduced production means reduced employment, which means fewer customers for producers. The uncertainty is compounded by the rapid shifts in currency exchange rates.

Market speculation is the best alternative for those who hold resources. But even speculation requires a level of short-term assurance that reduces risk to manageable proportions. As the degree of risk increases, speculation becomes more nearly a game of pure chance, in which there are occasional big winners and mainly big losers.

At the household level, the degree of uncertainty pushes popular opinion both to make demands for protection and protectionism and to search for scapegoats as well as true profiteers. Popular unrest determines the behavior of the political actors, pushing them into so-called extremist positions. The rise of extremism (“The center cannot hold”) pushes both national and world political situations toward gridlock.

There can be moments of respite for particular states or for the world-system as a whole, but these moments can also be rapidly undone. One of the elements undoing the respites are sharp rises in the costs of all the basic inputs both to production and daily life—energy, food, water, breathable air. In addition, the funds to prevent or at least reduce the damages of climate change and pandemics are insufficient.

Finally, the significant increase in the living standards of segments of the populations of the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and some others) actually compounds the problems of capital accumulation for capitalists by spreading out the surplus-value and thus reducing the amounts available for the thin upper crust of the world’s populations. The development of the so-called emerging economies actually compounds the strain on existing world resources and thereby also compounds the problem for these countries of effective demand, threatening their ability to maintain their economic growth of the last decade or two.

Davos versus Porto Alegre

All in all, it is not a pretty picture, and brings us to the political question, What can we do in this kind of situation? But first, who are the actors in the political battle? In a structural crisis, the only certainty is that the existing system—the capitalist world-economy—cannot survive. What is impossible to know is what the successor system will be. One can envisage the battle as one between two groups that I have labeled “the spirit of Davos” and “the spirit of Porto Alegre.”

The objective of the two groups is totally opposite. The proponents of “the spirit of Davos” want a different system—one that is “non-capitalist” but still retains three essential features of the present system: hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization. The proponents of “the spirit of Porto Alegre” want the kind of system that has never existed heretofore, one that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian. I call these two positions “spirits” because there are no central organizations on either side of this struggle, and indeed, the proponents inside each current are deeply divided as to their strategy.

The proponents of the spirit of Davos are divided between those who proffer the iron fist, seeking to crush opponents at all levels, and those who wish to co-opt the proponents of transformation by fake signs of progress (such as “green capitalism” or “poverty reduction”).

There is division as well among the proponents of the spirit of Porto Alegre. There are those who want a strategy and a reconstructed world that is horizontal and decentralized in its organization, and insist on the rights of groups as well as of individuals as a permanent feature of a future world-system. And there are those who are seeking once again to create a new international that is vertical in its structure and homogenizing in its long-term objectives.

This is a confusing political picture, compounded by the fact that large parts of the political establishments and their reflections in the media, the punditry, and academia still insist on talking the language of a passing, momentary difficulty in an essentially equilibrated capitalist system. This creates a fog within which it is difficult to debate the real issues. Yet we must.

I think it is important to distinguish between short-term political action (the short term being the next three to five years at most) and medium-term action aimed at enabling the spirit of Porto Alegre to prevail in the battle for the new “order out of chaos” that will be collectively “chosen.”

In the short term, one consideration takes precedence over all others—to minimize the pain. The chaotic fluctuations wreak enormous pain on weaker states, weaker groups, weaker households in all parts of the world-system. The world’s governments, increasingly indebted, increasingly lacking financial resources, are constantly making choices of all kinds. The struggle to guarantee that the cuts in revenue allocation fall least on the weakest and most on the strongest is a constant battle. It is a battle that, in the short run, requires left forces always to choose the so-called lesser evil, however distasteful that is. Of course, one can always debate what the lesser evil in a given situation is, but there is never an alternative to that choice in the short term. Otherwise, one maximizes rather than minimizes the pain.

The medium-term option is the exact opposite. There is no halfway house between the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre. There are no compromises. Either we shall have a significantly better world-system (one that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian) or we shall have one that is at least as bad and, quite possibly, far worse. The strategy for this choice is to mobilize support everywhere at every moment in every way. I see a medley of tactics that might move us in the right direction.

The first is to place great emphasis on serious intellectual analysis—not in a discussion conducted merely by intellectuals, but throughout the populations of the world. It must be a discussion animated by a large openness of spirit among all those who are inspired, however they define it, by the spirit of Porto Alegre. This seems anodyne to recommend. But the fact is that we have never really had this in the past, and without it we cannot hope to proceed, much less to prevail.

A second tactic is to reject categorically the goal of economic growth and replace it with the goal of maximum decommodification—what the movements of indigenous nations in the Americas are calling buen vivir. This means not only resisting the increased drive to commodification of the last thirty years—of education, of health structures, of the body, of water and air—but decommodifying as well agricultural and industrial production. How this is done is not immediately obvious, and what it entails we shall only know by experimenting widely with it.

A third approach is an effort to create local and regional self-sufficiencies, especially in the basic elements of life such as food and shelter. The globalization we want is not a single totally integrated division of labor but an “alterglobalization” of multiple autonomies that interconnect in seeking to create a “universal universalism” composed of the multiple universalisms that exist. We must undermine the provincial claims of particular universalisms to impose themselves on the rest of us.8

A fourth derives immediately from the importance of the autonomies. We must struggle immediately to end the existence of foreign military bases, by anyone, anywhere, for any reason. The United States has the widest collection of bases, but it is not the only state to have such bases. Of course, the reduction of bases will also enable us to reduce the amount of the world’s resources we spend on military machines, equipment, and personnel, and permit the allocation of these resources for better uses.

A fifth tactic that goes along with local autonomies is the aggressive pursuit of ending the fundamental social inequalities of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexualities—and there are others. This is now a piety among the world left, but has it been a real priority for all of us? I do not think so.

And, of course, we cannot expect a better world-system circa 2050 if, in the interim, any of the three pending supercalamities occurs: irrevocable climate change, vast pandemics, and nuclear war.

Have I created a naive list of non-realizable tactics by the world left, the proponents of the spirit of Porto Alegre, for the next thirty to fifty years? I do not think so. The one encouraging feature about a systemic crisis is the degree to which it increases the viability of agency, of what we call “free will.” In a normally functioning historical system, even great social effort is limited in its effects because of the efficacy of the pressures to return to equilibrium. But when the system is far from equilibrium, every little input has great effect, and the totality of our inputs—made every nanosecond in every nanospace—can (can, not will) add up to enough to tilt the balance of the collective “choice” in the bifurcation.


  1. This essay is based on a talk given at the conference, “Global Crisis: Rethinking Economy and Society,” University of Chicago, December 3-5, 2010, Session on “Understanding the Crisis Historically.”
  2. Immanuel Wallerstein, “Structural Crises,” New Left Review, no. 62 (March-April 2010): 133-42. An earlier, more extensive discussion of this topic is to be found in Utopistics, or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century (New York: The New Press, 1998), esp. chapter 2.
  3. For a broader explanation of how Kondratieff cycles work, see the Prologue to the new edition of Volume III of The Modern World-System (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
  4. For a broader explication of how the hegemonic cycle works, see the Prologue to the new edition of Volume II of The Modern World-System (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
  5. See my “Precipitate Decline: The Advent of Multipolarity,”Harvard International Review (Spring 2007): 54-59.
  6. See my “1968, Revolution in the World-System: Theses and Queries,” Theory and Society, XVIII (July 4, 1989): 431-49; also with Giovanni Arrighi and Terence K. Hopkins, “1989, the Continuation of 1968,” Review, XV, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 221-42.
  7. On the explanation of the ways in which radicals and conservatives became avatars of centrist liberalism, see “Centrist Liberalism as Ideology,” chapter 1, The Modern World-System, IV: The Triumph of Centrist Liberalism, 1789-1914 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
  8. I have argued the case for this in European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power (New York: The New Press, 2006).


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The Libyan Rebellion: The West’s Cloak over the Gulf (by Sukant Chandan)

( Source: )

Fidel Castro was right.  The West was planning an attack on a sovereign third world nation imminently: Libya.  Nothing like a good old war against brown and black people in Libya by the West to remind oneself of what Western civilisation is all about.  Many of us who have been politically active since the 1990s are painfully aware of the trauma that humanitarian imperialism causes on peoples of the Global South.

Libya has been one of the most controversial conflicts to have taken place in the Arab world, and the Goebbelsian propaganda machine of most of the media (except for Russia Today, which has been the only critical voice on Libya) has whipped up narrow-minded hysteria against Ghadafi, which has not helped anyone understand some of the more insidious things that are currently taking place.

Why did the UN Security Council pass the resolution last night?  Why at this time?  Up until the passing of the resolution there was a consensus in mainstream media that the rebellion in Libya had lost momentum around a week ago and was on its last legs, having been defeated everywhere apart from Benghazi and Tobruk.  It is even more interesting that the USA went ahead with supporting the no-fly-zone aspect of the UNSC resolution as it was one of the most vocal in expressing the great challenge that a bombing campaign on Libya with its associated civilian deaths would entail.  Perhaps the USA knows that there is little that actually can be done and there is not much to lose by posturing as the erstwhile ‘shock and aweing’ power.  However, there are some other factors to consider as well, especially in relation to the current people’s movements developing across the Arab world.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently went on a business trip to the Gulf where he sold British weapons to his puppet states of the region just as the people’s movements were erupting in Yemen, Bahrain and even in what was always considered relatively quiet and stable Oman.  Al-Jazeera English (AJE), the voice of the Qatari gulf monarchy, instead of criticising Cameron’s arms-selling trip, decided to hand over its air time so that Cameron could conduct war propaganda against Libya.  While it is true that AJE and Qatar have one foot supporting the resistance, one has to be honest and state that Qatar also has the other foot hosting the USA’s biggest military base in the region — Centcom — and Bahrain hosts Centcom’s naval fleet.  Here you have AJE protecting British interests in the region while Arab people in Gulf are being killed by British-trained and British-armed regimes.

The West is terrified of the Arab and North African uprisings and going all out to co-opt them the best it can, or as one of my close colleagues Daniel Renwick states, imperialists are ‘reforming to conserve’.  AJE seems to be playing into this reform-to-conserve strategy by positioning itself as the voice and activist media of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, but giving much less respect and airtime to the uprisings in ‘Saudi’ Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain, going so far as to even roll with the Western line that Bahrain has a lot to do with Shia-Sunni issues and Iran.  Arguably, as long as AJE has this editorial policy, it will be an obstacle to the development of a growing anti-imperialist strategy of the region’s uprisings.

The Gulf countries are the most reactionary, medieval states in the region, established by British colonialism and maintained by British and US patronage.  The Gulf States have the benefit — or tragedy, depending on which way one looks at the issue — of possessing vast amounts of oil reserves which is fundamental to the running of the Western military machine.  The US and Britain know that they may lose the energy resources of the Gulf due to the political changes rocking the region, and are in desperate need to secure an alternative source of oil and gas.  That’s where Libya comes in, and nearly every time pro-Western analysts speak of Libya, they seem to also salivate at the prospect of the vast gas reserves in Algeria.  The West wants Libya to ensure its energy supplies in case the Gulf is lost, and if it managed to have full control of Libyan oil, then this would be a boost for the West and might give it another half century of life when all indicators are that the West will totally lose its world position within a few decades.

While Saudi and Qatari troops are occupying Bahrain and killing the protestors there, while the US-drone-supporting Yemeni president has massacred around 50 people in the capital in the last day, the UNSC resolution on Libya and the whole campaign against Libya seems to be a well-managed manoeuvre to deflect, distract and divide attention away from the Gulf uprisings and has relatively successfully recruited much of Arab and Western liberal opinion in this campaign against Libya.

The forces of the Libyan rebellion are totally beholden to the West, with no sign of any real anti-imperialist forces in the rebellion.  Rather it is clear that all the forces so far have been fully supported by the West today and historically, with Western special forces openly going into Libya to train and arm the rebels.  Hilary Clinton, who seems single-minded in her crusade to slap down the Arabs and kill them with her version of kindness, was trooping around Egypt and Tunisia immediately before the UNSC resolution on Libya, showing how the USA and the West in general want to colonise the Arab uprisings, maintain and deepen the US hegemonic position in the region, squeeze out rivals such as the Chinese and Russians, and re-focus the uprisings against those regimes which are obstacles to their rule in the region: Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Algeria.  It is no coincidence that Clinton was in Egypt the day before the UNSC resolution, and then after the resolution is passed, news emerges that Egypt is arming the Libyan rebels: a clear strategy to get the Arab people to sabotage their uprisings through divide and rule.  The West has also been trying to stoke uprisings in Algeria, Iran and Syria all in the first week of the Libyan rebellion, as well as in China, Zimbabwe and Vietnam, all countries where the West dreams of regaining its full control back, which was lost since the colonial days, an era at which it looks back with nostalgia and which still defines Western mentality by and large.

The West is doing everything it can to co-opt and sabotage the Arab and North African uprisings.  In comparison, anti-imperialist critique and strategies are yet to be worked out in the region’s struggles, apart from the heroic anti-imperialist impetus and instincts of the Arab masses, which AJE has censored out for the most part, whereas Iran’s Press TV has highlighted.  Western and Gulf State policies towards Libya and the associated media hysteria has thrown a considerable spanner in the works regarding the potential for anti-imperialist victories in the region, all the while spinning the Libyan rebellion as some kind of popular uprising akin to Tunisia and Egypt.

Ghadafi and Libya have always been a strategic problem for the West, even in the first decade of the 2000s when Ghadafi’s relations with the West thawed and developed somewhat.  Western puppets tend not to call for reparations of $7 trillion dollars to Africa from the former colonial powers, call out the UNSC as being a terrorist organisation, argue that Africa must have a permanent seat on the UNSC, criticise that Arabs are hopelessly divided when they should unite against the common enemy in the West and Zionism.  Leaders of the third world have often been killed by the West for only saying such things, Patrice Lumumba being a case in point.  Those elements in the Libyan state who were corrupted by these relations with the West, illustrated especially by those Libyan ambassadors who went over to the side of Europe and North America, have exposed themselves and done Ghadafi and his loyalists a favour by self-purging themselves.  The Western-backed overthrow of Ghadafi is not the path of liberation of the Arab masses.  Freedom never comes by hitching a lift on Ceasar’s chariot, or on a US F-16 fighter jet.

The Arab people have centuries of resistance to colonialism and neo-colonialism to draw upon.  They have a massive wealth of revolutionary anti-imperialist experience from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s successful anti-imperialist and Islamic-socialist revolution, to the experience of the factions of the PLO throughout the 1970s, ’80s and even early 90s, to the Popular Front of the Liberation of the Arab Gulf.  Liberation will come through ending the West’s most vicious and backward puppets in the region: the Gulf States.  The West knows this.  That’s why it never gives up on its central strategy when dealing with the ‘natives’: divide and rule.

In this Libyan debacle, the West has, with the support of the region’s news media, attempted to create divisions between the Arabs and the revolutionaries in Latin America, within the camp of the anti-imperialist nations of the Global South and between black Africans and lighter skinned Arabs, all the while being relatively successful in getting mass Arab support for its agenda on Libya.  However, already there are indications that Arab sentiment is slowly turning against the West’s interference and aggression towards Libya.

The historic victories of the Iranians, the Palestinian revolutionaries in Hamas and other factions, Hizbullah, the resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan show that that Arab and Middle Eastern peoples can fight and defeat the West and its ally in the Zionist state.  History will show that the Arab people will develop their fighting militant mass anti-imperialist organisations through the crucible of struggle.  And the sharpest edge of this struggle currently is in Arabia, Yemen and especially Bahrain.  Getting world opinion to turn away from the Gulf towards Libya must be resisted by those who believe in true independence and freedom from the West, the West being the veritable heart of darkness behind oppression across the world.

Sukant Chandan is a London-based political analyst and filmmaker and runs the blog.  He can be contacted on <>.


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ALBA and the Promise of Cooperative Development -Martin Hart-Landsberg

Monthly Review Volume 62 Number 7

Existing international economic institutions and relations operate in ways detrimental to third world development. That is why eight Latin American and Caribbean countries—led by Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia—are working to build the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a regional initiative designed to promote new, nonmarket-shaped structures and patterns of economic cooperation.1

ALBA does this, in part, by providing a framework for member governments to create partnerships between existing national state enterprises as well as new regional public enterprises. The resulting initiatives, although still few in number, have helped member governments strengthen planning capacities, modernize national industrial and agricultural operations, and provide essential social services to their citizens.2

In response to worsening international economic conditions, ALBA has recently stepped up efforts to promote a full-blown regional development process. In November 2008, member governments announced their support for an ALBA People’s Trade Agreement “that protects our countries from the depredation of transnational capital, foments the development of our economies and constitutes a space liberated from the inoperative global financial institutions and the monopoly of the dollar as the currency for trade and reserves.”3Although the precise terms of the agreement are still to be negotiated, official statements point to the creation of an integrated trade and monetary zone, with a new regionally created currency, the sucre.

This is a bold initiative that deserves to be taken seriously. Doing so requires grappling with some critical questions. How important/necessary is this initiative? How should the zone be structured? What are the potential challenges to, and benefits from, a successful outcome? These are big questions and, given that ALBA has not yet concretized its own plans, difficult to engage in a productive way.

However, we do have the benefit of history; this is not the first attempt at collective regional development. One of the most successful attempts, and perhaps the most relevant for understanding and evaluating ALBA’s effort, took place in Europe shortly after the end of the Second World War, when members of the Marshall Plan-sponsored Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) established the European Payments Union (EPU).4 Studying the EPU experience offers us a practical way to begin thinking about these questions and the promise of cooperative development.

In what follows, I first discuss the rationale for a cooperative development strategy. Next, I analyze the political-economic dynamics that led powerful European countries to commit to such a strategy. Then, I examine the workings of the EPU as well as the dynamics leading to its eventual dissolution. I conclude with a discussion of relevant lessons for ALBA countries.

The Need for a Cooperative Development Strategy

Third world countries face enormous obstacles to development, the majority of which are the consequence of their forced integration into the capitalist world system. One of the most difficult to overcome is a historically created import dependence. Weak and distorted industrial and technological sectors (and, in many cases, limited agricultural and primary commodity production capabilities) mean that third world attempts to boost economic activity normally trigger, at least in the short run, a sharp rise in the demand for imports.

If third world countries remain open to global market forces, their governments must find ways to obtain the foreign exchange necessary to finance the import surge. This means that most third world governments are forced, almost from the beginning of their development effort, to give priority to the creation of a competitive export sector, which involves channeling resources into satisfying foreign rather than domestic needs.

The complications quickly multiply. One of the fastest ways to establish a competitive export sector is to attract export-oriented transnational corporations. Unfortunately, because third world countries face similar development challenges, their governments end up competing among themselves to attract the desired foreign investment, offering ever greater labor, tax, and environmental concessions.

Growth is possible under such conditions, at least for a few countries. However, given the nature of transnational production networks, even the “successful” ones find it difficult to use their gains from trade to promote a domestically responsive and self-reinforcing process of technological and social development.

Aware of the destructive consequences of global market dynamics, some third world governments have tried to delink their respective economies from the capitalist world-system. However, this too has generally proven an unworkable strategy. Among the most important reasons is that few governments have the organizational capacity, much less power, to refashion or reorient sufficient economic activity to achieve significant delinking. Another reason is that few countries have the resources required to meet national needs without substantial trade.

Not surprisingly, then, there is need for an alternative development strategy. It is in this context that we can best appreciate ALBA’s interest in collective development, as expressed by its recently approved People’s Trade Agreement. In brief, this approach represents a “middle-ground” strategy of group delinking. ALBA governments hope that delinking will provide the protection they need to engage in the coordinated planning and production required to overcome existing economic distortions and weaknesses. And, by acting as a group, they hope to ensure that their respective national enterprises will have access to the broader markets they need in order to enjoy economies of scale and obtain scarce resources and technology.

ALBA’s effort is, in many ways, unprecedented, especially because ALBA is composed of countries with diverse political visions—for example, three, Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela, are led by governments explicitly committed to building socialism. Still, there have been other attempts at cooperative development that can help shed light on the challenges and choices facing ALBA. This is true even if they were organized by capitalist governments to further capitalist interests.

When capitalist governments are under great pressure—as they were, for example, in the 1930s when the Great Depression forced them to initiate a series of public works and employment programs, or in the 1940s, when the Second World War forced them to promote public ownership and production—their actions can often illuminate possibilities and even policies that can be adapted by governments with radically different aims (which is not to say that state policies are ever class-neutral).

I believe that the situation in Europe following the end of the Second World War offers another example. European governments at the time were under great pressure from the United States to liberalize their economies. Their response, specifically their creation of the European Payments Union, offers important and positive lessons for those supportive of the ALBA initiative.

Background to the Formation of the EPU

For complex historical reasons, the developed capitalist countries of Europe faced economic challenges in the immediate postwar period that were remarkably similar to those faced by many third world countries today. U.S. government and business elites wanted to establish an international economic system underpinned by freely traded (convertible) currencies and liberalized trade. This posed a problem for European governments.

European economies had been greatly weakened by the war. As a consequence, their import needs were far greater than their export capacities. If European governments accepted U.S. demands for liberalization, their countries would quickly run large trade deficits. Since they lacked sufficient foreign exchange, they would be forced to implement austerity measures (in order to reduce the demand for imports), leading to a downward spiral of production and employment.

Such an outcome would be nothing new for most third world countries, whose governments have routinely been pressured into liberalizing international economic activity. However, despite its weakened position, Europe was not the third world. In particular, European governments retained considerable negotiating leverage with U.S. policymakers.

Europe’s importance as part of the capitalist core meant that U.S. elites could not be indifferent to the political ramifications of Europe’s economic choices. European workers could be expected strongly to oppose the austerity required to restore trade balances if European governments embraced liberalization. Both U.S. and European elites feared that this opposition could dramatically strengthen the already considerable influence of the left throughout the region.

Equally important, European governments managed economies that were already heavily regulated, which meant that they had tools in place to control trade directly if they decided to resist U.S. pressure. Controls were first introduced during the depression era; among the most effective were quantitative restrictions on imports. For example, as of 1937, almost all German and Italian imports, more than half of those of France, Switzerland, and Austria, and approximately one-quarter of those of Belgium and the Netherlands, were subject to quota restrictions.5 The outbreak of the Second World War led to a further tightening of restrictions on trade. Many currencies ceased to be convertible for both residents and nonresidents.

Under these conditions, European governments found that the easiest way to organize trade was through bilateral agreements. By the end of 1947, more than two hundred such agreements were in effect, accounting for more than 60 percent of Western European trade.6

European elites did not oppose a return to a fully multilateralized capitalist world system; after all, they had greatly benefited from its past operation. Their concern was that, under existing conditions, they were not well placed to benefit from its revival. At the same time, they were also aware that the status quo was far from satisfactory. The controls that enabled European governments to regulate economic activity made it harder to restore business confidence (and, by extension, growth) and strengthened left demands for a broader structural transformation of existing capitalist institutions and relations.

In short, European elites desperately needed an alternative strategy, one that would support regional economic revitalization by providing protection from U.S. competition, while simultaneously weakening obstacles to Europe’s eventual participation in a renewed multilateral system. The U.S. government, for its own reasons, eventually agreed to support the search for such a strategy.


OEEC governments negotiated several agreements in the late 1940s which, supported by Marshall Plan aid, were designed to promote intra-European currency convertibility and trade liberalization. But their limited scope yielded meager gains. Frustrated by the slow pace of change, the U.S. government eventually took charge. In October 1949, after the State Department overcame Treasury Department objections, Marshall Plan director Paul Huffman called on the OEEC Council to take concrete steps toward the creation of a single integrated European market. Two months later, one of his assistants put forward a plan for achieving this outcome. Significantly, this plan served as the basis for the EPU agreement which was approved by OEEC members on July 7, 1950.7

The EPU broke with bilateralism by establishing a highly regulated multilateral payments system. Trade continued to be controlled as before, but now, if intra-OEEC and approved by the governments concerned, it could proceed without regard to national holdings of foreign exchange. Previously, for example, if a Dutch importer was granted permission by the Dutch government to import tractors, and decided to purchase German ones, the trade could be completed only if the Dutch central bank held sufficient German marks. Often, that was not the case, which meant that the importer had no choice but to import tractors from another country, one whose currency was held in ample supply by the Dutch central bank.

The EPU changed this. Under the new system, the Dutch importer would simply pay its central bank in Dutch guilders, the Dutch central bank would inform the German central bank of the importer’s desired purchase, and (assuming the German government approved the sale) the German central bank would itself pay its exporter in marks. The German central bank would record a surplus position in Dutch guilders in its account with the Dutch central bank, while the Dutch central bank would record a deficit in German marks in its account with the German central bank.

At the end of every month, each central bank would calculate its net position with every other central bank and convert it—using existing national exchange rates—into a balance in its own currency. Then, it would total its separate national balances and report an overall final balance in its own currency to the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), which operated as the EPU’s financial agent. The BIS would take these national balances, convert them into EPU units of account, or “ecus,” and calculate final balances.8 In this way, EPU member nations registered monthly deficits or surpluses with the EPU itself, not other member nations. Because the EPU was a closed system, the sum of all intra-EPU trade balances had to equal zero.

Finally, the BIS would determine the payment required to settle these outstanding monthly balances. The amount depended on the value of each country’s cumulative debt or surplus (since the start of the EPU), relative to its assigned quota. And its assigned quota was set equal to 15 percent of its total visible and invisible trade with other member nations and their monetary areas in 1949.

A debtor country with a monthly deficit would have that deficit fully covered by EPU credit as long as its cumulative debt remained equal to or less than 20 percent of its assigned quota. As monthly trade results pushed a country’s cumulative debt above the 20 percent mark, a growing percentage of its monthly balance had to be paid in U.S. dollars (or gold). If a country’s cumulative debt exceeded its quota, it was obligated to pay its entire monthly deficit in dollars.

Surplus countries were treated somewhat differently. A surplus country with a monthly surplus would have to give its full surplus in credit to the EPU if its total surplus was less than 20 percent of its assigned quota. However, rather than receive a growing percentage of its monthly surpluses in dollars as its total surplus grew beyond the 20 percent mark, its dollar share was set at a constant 50 percent. It was left up to the Managing Board to determine how the monthly surplus of a country with a cumulative surplus larger than its quota would be compensated.

Of course, national trade balances fluctuated. Countries with cumulative surpluses sometimes ran monthly deficits, while countries with cumulative deficits sometimes posted monthly surpluses. In such cases, the “last-in, first-out” principle applied: the most recent credits to or from the EPU were erased and the most recent dollars paid to or received from the EPU were returned.

Depending on how the deficits and surpluses were allocated across countries, EPU dollar receipts from deficit countries could be, and sometimes were, less than required dollar payouts to surplus countries. Therefore, the EPU needed a capital fund; this was provided by the United States at the time of the EPU’s launch.

It is easy to imagine why deficit countries embraced this system—it provided them with credit and reduced their potential dependence on any one creditor country. But there were also benefits for surplus countries. For example, the system assured them that they would receive dollar payments for their exports, regardless of the foreign exchange holdings of the importing country. The EPU clearing mechanism also promoted trade as well as trade liberalization (discussed below), both of which disproportionately benefited surplus countries.

The EPU Managing Board

Key to the operation of the EPU was the Managing Board, and there were serious disagreements between U.S. and OEEC negotiators over its proposed authority. The U.S. government wanted a “supranational” Managing Board with the power to discipline governments whose policies were viewed as a threat to the region’s achievement of currency convertibility and trade liberalization. The OEEC countries did not agree, and they prevailed. The Managing Board was limited to making policy recommendations (which could be carried by majority vote) to the OEEC Council, where they had to receive unanimous support from all the member governments before they could take effect.

Struggles also took place over the composition of the Managing Board. The IMF strongly disapproved of the EPU project, fearing that it would strengthen regionalism, which was contrary to the IMF mission of promoting universal liberalization. In particular, the IMF feared that the Managing Board would become a powerful rival. At a minimum, the IMF wanted a voting seat on the Managing Board. OEEC countries disagreed, and won this battle as well. In 1953 the OEEC Council did agree to allow an IMF representative to attend Managing Board meetings, but only as an observer.

These victories by OEEC governments stand as tribute to the fact that European elites continued to enjoy considerable unity and collective capacity to defend their interests. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that European and U.S. elites shared a common commitment to rebuilding a strong, functioning global capitalist order. No doubt, this made it easier for the United States to yield to European wishes.

It was originally assumed that, because the EPU clearing system would automatically ensure regional stability and growth, the work of the Managing Board would be routine. However, this assumption was quickly challenged by events; the enormous differences in national economic circumstances almost immediately produced significant trade imbalances that could not be handled by normal EPU operations. As a consequence, the Managing Board, with the support of the OEEC Council, was forced to take the lead in developing responses to a series of crises.

Challenges and Responses

The Achilles’ heel of the EPU was its asymmetrical treatment of surplus and deficit countries. Surplus countries enjoyed a structural advantage over deficit countries, and there was nothing in the EPU clearing mechanism that forced surplus countries to adjust their policies. As a result, deficit countries bore the full weight of adjustment, even if their deficit was exacerbated by the policies of surplus countries.

This was an especially serious problem for the EPU system because, given its regional structure, total intra-regional surpluses had to be balanced by equivalent intra-regional deficits. Thus, if one or more member countries succeeded in recording large, continuous trade surpluses, it was likely that one or more member countries would be recording large, continuous trade deficits. If these debtor nations suffered too great a loss of reserves, they might well be forced into restoring restrictions on regional transactions, thereby threatening the EPU project.

John Maynard Keynes worried about this very same problem in the early 1940s, while working on a draft proposal for a World Bank. He sought to overcome it by recommending the following: All countries were to have accounts at the World Bank, which would record their deficits and surpluses with all other members. The Bank would have the authority to create its own international reserve currency, the bancor; it would extend credit in the form of bancors to debtor countries up to an established quota limit. All countries with large trade imbalances relative to their assigned quotas (regardless of whether surplus or deficit) would be required to pay interest penalties to the Bank. Because penalties increased as the imbalances grew larger, both deficit and surplus countries would have a material interest in adjusting their respective policies to achieve more balanced trade.9

The OEEC created an EPU that differed from Keynes’s draft proposal for a World Bank in two important ways. First, the OEEC chose not to create a new international reserve currency; the ecu functioned only as a virtual unit of account. Second, the OEEC did not create any mechanism to force surplus countries to adjust their policies in the interest of achieving balanced trade patterns. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Deficit countries were required to pay interest on the credit advanced to them by the EPU, while surplus countries were paid interest on the credit they advanced to the EPU.

Not surprisingly, then, the first crisis to confront the EPU Managing Board was the result of a large and growing trade deficit. The German government had unsuccessfully tried to control its deficit. It had sharply raised interest rates in an attempt to slow down economic activity and, by extension, imports. It had also tried more direct measures to reduce its trade deficit. For example, it required businesses seeking an import license to make a bank deposit equal to 50 percent of the cost of the goods to be imported. Import licenses were required, even if the goods were not subject to quotas.

Despite these efforts, by October 1950, Germany’s cumulative debt had grown so large that it was close to exhausting its quota. If this happened, the government would have to pay dollars to finance the country’s future monthly deficits, something that it could not long do because of a foreign exchange shortage. The EPU Managing Board recognized that it would have to act quickly or Germany would be forced to take even more drastic actions. And, if Germany dramatically tightened its trade regime, other countries would find their own exports affected, which would make it harder for them to keep their markets open. The likely result would be a regression to the previous system of bilateral trade arrangements.

In December 1950, determined to avoid this outcome, the Managing Board granted Germany a special credit. The Managing Board also called on the other member countries to do what they could to increase their imports of German goods.

By February 1951, Germany had used most of its special credit. The German government, with the support of the Managing Board, suspended its trade liberalization efforts and stopped issuing import licenses. Even more striking, the OEEC Council, responding to a Managing Board recommendation, decided on the following:

If Germany’s payments position improved enough to warrant issuance of new import licenses these were to be allocated according to principles interpreted by a Mediation Group of three independent experts appointed by the Council. Taking account of “the essential needs of the German economy,” the Mediation Group was to recommend allocation of licenses “primarily in favor of Denmark, Greece, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey,” countries which were heavily in debt to the EPU and which would suffer particularly from a cut in German imports.10

Germany’s situation did improve enough for the Managing Board to recommend resumption of import licensing, but only according to the terms noted above. The OEEC Council, following Mediation Group recommendations, set an upper limit for the total monthly value of German imports. Within that total, upper limits were then established for the value of imports for different categories of goods; the biggest division was between the imports of goods that had previously been liberalized and those that remained restricted by quota.

The countries singled out by the Mediation Group, which were themselves struggling to finance their deficits, were given preferential rights to supply Germany with goods that had previously been liberalized. Imports of goods that remained regulated were to be divided among all suppliers according to another Council-determined formula based on past trade patterns. Germany was given the right to make minor adjustments to the plan and could appeal to the OEEC Council if it felt that major ones were necessary.

Germany was not the only country to suffer large deficits. Before the end of EPU’s first year, Austria, Greece, and Iceland had also exhausted their quotas and been given additional credits. The Netherlands faced a similar problem, but rather than aid, it was granted a larger quota.

What is perhaps most significant about the actions described above is that they demonstrate that the Managing Board and OEEC Council were willing and able to act in defense of the collective interest as defined by the objectives of the EPU. Said differently, member governments demonstrated an impressive willingness to yield significant power to higher-level bodies, power that enabled these bodies actually to shape national trade activity. Equally noteworthy, this power was used—most aggressively in the case of Germany—to impose a system of regulation that (temporarily) reversed past liberalization efforts.

New challenges arose in the second year. In response to growing trade deficits, France, in February 1952, suspended its trade liberalization and tightened its foreign exchange controls. However, the most serious threats to the system in this period came from surplus countries, in particular Belgium. At the end of July 1951, Belgium’s cumulative surplus almost equaled its quota. And, as noted previously, the EPU had no established rules specifying how countries in such a position should be compensated for their monthly trade surpluses.

Rather than compensate Belgium in dollars for its surpluses and risk exhausting the EPU’s hard currency holdings, the Managing Board decided temporarily to increase Belgium’s quota. This meant that future Belgium surpluses would continue to be settled on the basis of 50 percent dollars and 50 percent credit. Belgium continued to register strong surpluses into 1952, and the Managing Board successfully pressured it into five additional quota expansions.

Rather than allow this situation to continue, the OEEC Council pressed the Belgian government to change its economic policies. Eventually, the Belgian government consented; it limited the nation’s exports to other member countries and restricted imports from outside Europe in order to encourage greater regional purchases.

Although the agreement creating the EPU gave the organization only a two-year life, it was renewed annually seven additional times. However, these renewals were far from automatic. The negotiations were marked by growing tensions, especially between surplus and deficit countries, with the former increasingly unhappy about being forced to accept credits rather than hard currency for their surpluses.

European governments had always viewed the EPU as a necessary but transitional arrangement. Perhaps not surprisingly, the United Kingdom, because of its interest in restoring the pound as an international currency, and the major creditor countries—Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany (which had overcome its previous trade problems)—were the most eager to terminate the EPU. In 1955 these countries succeeded in winning OEEC Council approval of the European Monetary Agreement (EMA), which called for termination of the EPU when countries holding more than half the total EPU quota requested it. The EMA did not establish a successor regime, only a financial safety net, the European Fund, to assist countries that found currency convertibility difficult to finance.

Finally, on December 27, 1958, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom informed the OEEC Council that they were ready to end the EPU. The next day, all member countries (except Greece, Iceland, and Turkey) restored external convertibility for nonresident holders of their currencies, which meant that those living outside the EPU area could now freely exchange any European currency they acquired through current account activity for any other European currency or dollars. The Council officially approved implementation of the EMA on December 30, 1958; the final business of the EPU was concluded on January 15, 1959.


The EPU multilateral clearing system proved remarkably successful in promoting intra-regional trade and national growth. In particular, it encouraged trade by greatly reducing Europe’s need for scarce foreign exchange. Over the system’s roughly eight years of operation, 70 percent of all bilateral trade imbalances were settled by automatic EPU adjustments.

More generally, by structuring balance of payments accounts around the EPU rather than individual nations, and providing a number of mechanisms for harmonizing trade between surplus and deficit countries, the system also helped reduce austerity pressures on deficit countries, with beneficial consequences for the surplus countries as well. The economic gains achieved over this period are indeed striking:

In the OEEC area as a whole, gross national product grew, in real terms, by 48 percent and industrial output by 65 percent during the EPU period. This corresponded to annual compound rates of growth of about 5 and 7 percent respectively. No precedent exists in the records of market economies for such intense growth in so many countries over so long a period of years. The United States did not quite reach that rate even in the years from 1940 to 1949, when it mobilized a depressed economy for war and postwar reconstruction.11

For European elites, perhaps the most meaningful measure of the EPU’s success was the region’s return to a position of relative dominance in a renewed liberalized international economic order. European countries began the postwar period, forced to regulate international economic activity largely because of a shortage of dollars. The EPU supported European recovery in part by shielding European producers from U.S. imports. European exports to the dollar area were not, however, similarly restricted.

As Europe recovered, so did its dollar exports and dollar reserves. Europe’s reserves, which totaled $10.5 billion at the end of 1945 and $10.1 billion at the end of 1951, were $17.7 billion by the end of 1957.12 By the end of the decade, Western European economies had become strong enough to earn all the dollars they needed. In fact, Europeans began dumping dollars for gold, a clear indicator that dollars were no longer scarce. Significantly, 1958 marked the first year in which the United States suffered a major decline in its gold stock, raising international concerns about whether the U.S. government would be able to defend the existing dollar-gold exchange rate. The United States would soon be forced to seek European assistance to defend the existing international system.

The EPU and Trade Liberalization

The establishment of the EPU reflected the priority OEEC governments gave to achieving intra-European currency convertibility. Although important in its own right, OEEC governments also saw the EPU as a critical precondition to the achievement of another goal, trade liberalization. In other words, OEEC governments sought the creation of a regionally protected, integrated monetary and trade zone. Thus, shortly after approving the formation of the EPU, they signed another agreement that committed them to reducing their quantitative restrictions on intra-OEEC trade.

In 1952 a Steering Board for Trade, comparable to the EPU Managing Board, was established to oversee the implementation of trade initiatives and promote further liberalization (which referred only to reducing quantitative restrictions on trade, not tariff reductions).13European trade liberalization proceeded slowly but steadily over the decade. By the end of 1956, 89 percent of private intra-European trade had been liberalized. The combined effect of the EPU settlement system and intra-regional quota liberalization “contributed to a spectacular increase in intra-European trade. With 1949 equal to 100, the volume of intra-European imports rose to 141 in 1950, to 151 in 1951, and, by 1956, had climbed to 226.”14

For years, liberalization was strictly a European affair. For example, “At the beginning of 1953, only 11 percent of Western European (OEEC) imports from the United States and Canada were free from quantitative restrictions. By the beginning of 1954, this figure had been raised to 32 percent, by April 1, 1955 to 47 percent, and by June 30, 1956 to 59 percent. In 1957, almost two thirds of Western European imports from the United States and Canada were free from quantitative restrictions.”15

While OEEC governments had made great strides toward their goal of trade liberalization, it is important to recognize that, at the close of 1958, some thirteen years after the end of the Second World War, approximately 10 percent of intra-European trade and 30 percent of European trade with the United States and Canada remained restricted by quota. Moreover, tariff levels stayed high. It was not until 1961 that the leading OEEC countries fully liberalized their trade with the dollar area.


I believe that the EPU experience offers many valuable lessons for third world countries pursuing development, especially those in ALBA that seek to create their own regionally protected, integrated currency and trade zones. One lesson is that states can effectively impose strong regulations over international economic activity for an extended period of time. Mainstream economists strongly criticize third world countries for trying to implement tough quantitative controls when faced with serious balance-of-payments problems. Yet, as we have seen, European governments resisted opening their economies to market competition, choosing instead to rely on an ever expanding system of state controls.

Another lesson is that it is possible to construct a cooperative development process that does promote the collective interests of its participants. As highlighted above, European governments did join together to create mechanisms that promoted regional integration and economic rebuilding, most importantly the EPU. During periods of crisis, EPU governing institutions proved willing and able to make decisions in the broader interest of the community, even when that meant implementing policies that discriminated against the stronger economies.

Finally, the EPU experience strongly suggests that it may be a mistake to conceive of development solely as a national project. European countries, among the most powerful countries in the world, faced enormous rebuilding challenges at the close of the Second World War. Rather than go it alone, they coalesced around a plan for a long-term, protected cooperative development process that was anchored by the EPU.

Significantly, many third world countries are already enmeshed in a form of economic integration, some by choice and others by compulsion. It is a neoliberal integration designed to promote greater liberalization, deregulation, privatization, and capital mobility. As a consequence, its achievements are best measured by exports, inflows of foreign direct investment, and corporate profitability, not social gains. In some cases, this process of integration has been formalized: examples include NAFTA, AFTA, and Mercosur.16

The postwar European approach to integration, although still shaped by capitalist imperatives, was very different—more protected and cooperative, and thus development oriented. No doubt, its embrace by European governments is best explained by the historically specific conditions of the time. Regardless, the operation of the EPU offers a productive starting point for thinking about the structures and mechanisms required to anchor an alternative, progressive integration project.

The EPU experience, however, does not offer a precise blueprint for today’s third world countries. For example, while European governments sought to structure a slow, sustained regional liberalization process, third world governments will need to structure a regionalization process that enhances their respective planning and regulatory capacities. And, while the OEEC Council rejected any overall regional planning, along with any mechanism to promote regional balance by forcing adjustment of surplus as well as deficit country trade patterns, these decisions are the opposite of what a successful third world effort would require.

At present, ALBA offers the most promising, if not the only meaningful, attempt at cooperative development anywhere in the world. Consistent with the organization’s state-centered orientation, most ALBA activities have, to this point, involved bilaterally negotiated agreements between state enterprises in which one country provides the other with goods, technical or financial support for investments in core industries, affordable energy resources, and/or assistance in delivering critical social services. However, ALBA’s declaration of intent to create an integrated trade and currency zone, backed by a new regional currency, appears to signal a serious commitment by member countries to move beyond existing bilateral efforts to foster a regional development process.

Significantly, ALBA’s early steps to concretize its People’s Trade Agreement contain echoes of the EPU experience. Although negotiations on zone operating principles continue, ALBA appears close to establishing a sucre system with a Regional Monetary Council, a Central Clearing House, a regional reserve and emergency fund, and the sucre itself.

Several countries have already deposited agreed upon amounts of their respective national currencies into a special sucre fund. These monies are then converted into sucre. At this point, the sucre exists only as a virtual unit of account, with an exchange value of $1.25, and is being used only for targeted trade of specific commodities. The first sucre-denominated transaction, involving Venezuelan rice exports to Cuba, occurred in January 2010. Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador also have plans to engage in sucre-denominated trade. ALBA’s long-term goal is for the sucre to become an international reserve currency much like the euro.

Drawing further on the EPU experience, one could imagine the ALBA cooperative development process unfolding as follows: the ALBA Council would first select several key development drivers—perhaps health care, education, energy, and food production—to serve as focal points for protected regional activity. Then, it would encourage the adoption of many of the same currency and trade policies employed by EPU countries to further the creation of regionally anchored health, education, energy, and food production systems. If structured properly, these systems would provide benefits to every member country (for example, offering access to affordable medicine and sustainably produced agricultural goods) and ensure that every member country had a role to play in its operation through an assigned area of specialization.

Although in an ideal world, each driver would be anchored by a different country, in reality, most ALBA members do not yet have the research-production-service core capacities necessary to play such a role. However, Cuba is well placed to advance regional efforts in health care and basic education, and Venezuela is capable of doing the same with energy. ALBA countries, as a group, have the ability to make meaningful strides toward the achievement of regional food sovereignty.

The aim of such an effort would not be the creation of identical systems in each country—which would be impossible even if desired—but rather a collective effort to ensure that critical goods and services are sustainably produced and shared within the ALBA community. For example, in the case of health care, structured trade could promote the development and regional distribution of Cuban pharmaceuticals. At the same time, other member countries could support the strengthening of the Cuban health system by providing Cuba with difficult to obtain inputs, such as lab equipment, specialty vehicles, and computer systems and services. Similarly, ALBA governments could increase their capital contributions to the ALBA bank and direct it to fund the sustainable production of basic food items in member countries, transportation networks to distribute them, and state-owned marketing outlets in each country to sell them at affordable prices.17

While successful national development ultimately depends on choices made by the citizens of the nation itself, collective projects like the EPU or ALBA do have a critical role to play. Complex struggles are under way in Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela to define and shape a socialist political economy appropriate for the twenty-first century. Significantly, the operation and evolution of ALBA could prove pivotal in tipping the balance of forces toward a favorable outcome. ALBA initiatives, such as the People’s Trade Agreement, have the potential to offer these countries an important degree of economic assistance and political protection, both of which are absolutely necessary to help counter U.S. opposition. Advances in these countries would, in turn, likely have a powerful and positive effect on the direction of the ALBA project itself, as well as development in the other member countries.

Economic development is a multifaceted and difficult process. Yet there is much we can learn from both the EPU experience and the ALBA project—and good reason to be optimistic about the future.


  1. Venezuela and Cuba signed the first ALBA exchange agreement in 2004. Bolivia joined in 2006, Nicaragua in 2007, Dominica and Honduras in 2008, and Ecuador, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda in 2009. A United States-supported coup in Honduras installed a right-wing government that withdrew the country from ALBA in 2010. In 2009 the member countries of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas changed the name of the organization to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.
  2. For a discussion of ALBA structures and initiatives, see Martin Hart-Landsberg, “Learning from ALBA and the Bank of the South: Challenges and Possibilities,” Monthly Review 61, no. 4 (September 2009): 1-18 .
  3. Louis Bilbao, “Two Paths in the Face of Capitalism’s Global Fracture” (translated by Federico Fuentes). LINKS, International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 2009,
  4. EPU membership included Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Trieste, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, as well as all countries and territories that were part of an existing European currency area.
  5. William Diebold, Trade and Payments in Western Europe: A Study in Economic Cooperation, 1947-51 (New York: Published for the Council on Foreign Relations by Harper, 1952), 217.
  6. Fred L. Block, The Origins of International Economic Disorder: A Study of United States International Monetary Policy From World War II to the Present (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977), 237; Diebold, Trade and Payments in Western Europe, 19-20.
  7. Jacob J. Kaplan and Guenther Schleiminger, The European Payments Union, Financial Diplomacy in the 1950s (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 31.
  8. An ecu was set equal in value to the gold content of one U.S. dollar. This exchange relationship allowed the BIS to create a set of exchange rates between each European currency and the ecu.
  9. The U.S. government successfully defeated this proposal. U.S. elites opposed it because it threatened the status of the U.S. dollar as the leading international currency and would have forced the United States, as a leading surplus country, into significant policy changes.
  10. Diebold, Trade and Payments in Western Europe, 123.
  11. Kaplan and Schleiminger, The European Payments Union, 346.
  12. Randal Hinshaw, “Toward European Convertibility,” Essays in International Finance, International Finance Section, Department of Economics and Sociology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, November 1958, No. 31, 17.
  13. At this time, there was little support within Europe for reductions in tariffs. The reason was that, as members of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, European countries could not discriminate in their use of tariffs. In other words, if they offered tariff reductions to other OEEC countries, they would have been forced to extend the same reductions to countries outside the region.
  14. Hinshaw, “Towards European Convertibility,” 16.
  15. Ibid., 17.
  16. NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement. AFTA is the ASEAN Free Trade Area. Mercosur is a South American free trade agreement. Neoliberal integration does not require a formal structure for its operation. For example, transnational corporations have created a China-centered, East Asian regional production system. See Martin Hart-Landsberg, “The U.S. Economy and China: Capitalism, Class and Crisis,” Monthly Review 61, no. 9 (February 2010): 14-31.
  17. ALBA governments have already announced their intention to create a supra-national food enterprise, ALBA Alimentos, with the aim of boosting regional technological cooperation and training, rural infrastructure investment, and integrated food distribution.



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Continuing Sources of Marxism: Looking for the Movement as a Whole – Richard Levins

Monthly Review Volume 62 Number 8


In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels state that what distinguishes communists from other socialists is internationalism andlooking for the movement as a whole. “Looking for the movement as a whole” is a fluid concept that expands to embrace ever more inclusive struggles against capitalism and for a just and sustainable world. Increasingly, a movement centered on the working class has to champion the entire cause of the species.

In 1913 Lenin identified three intellectual sources of Marxism: German philosophy, English political economy, and French utopian socialism—each in turn created in the social conditions of their societies.1 But the process did not end there. Marxism continues to grow and to learn from the most advanced, liberating ideas of each period. (It is also influenced in negative ways, narrowing its horizons and getting dragged along by fashion in times of defeat). Here, I want to identify four contemporary sources of enrichment of Marxism: ecology, feminism, national/racial struggles, and pacifism. It is important to recognize them as sources of ideas, not only as allies in political struggles. Their interaction with Marxism is, of course, different from the pre-Marxist sources. They come to Marxism from the outside, but from an outside already influenced in part by Marxism, and they are both welcomed and resisted.


Marxism, since its origin, took a global approach to the position of our species in the world.2 The plundering of nature by early industrialization, the metabolic rift between city and countryside, the pollution of the cities and the whole earth, were already known, denounced, and incorporated into the critique of capitalism. The inseparability of humanity and nature was implicit in a dialectical view of life and society.

But socialist movements also resisted ecology. Especially those movements that had abandoned the socialist goal saw jobs as the overwhelming urgency of the male working class, and any notions that might slow down job creation were viewed with hostility. Environmental movements that were based in the middle and upper classes were seen as a bourgeois luxury, and environmentalism, with its use of the generic “we” for all of humanity, often was seen to be a way to divert us from class struggle. Concern for animals was dismissed as obscene in the face of so much human suffering. In Bertold Brecht’s poem “To Posterity,” we are told, “Ah, what an age it is/When to speak of trees is almost a crime/For it is a kind of silence about injustice.”3 Now, of course, we would say the opposite (congruent with Brecht’s irony): silence about trees is the crime, complicit with injustice.

Yet, despite this uneasiness about ecology, individual Marxists participated in environmental struggles and developed ecological theory. In the USSR and its European allies, an early constitutional commitment to the preservation of nature was undermined by the frantic urgency to expand production under a progressivist notion of modernization that did not criticize capitalist technology but only its uses. With the later debasing of Marxism, Soviet pioneering in soil science, evolutionary ecology, and ecosystem, research languished. Brezhnev’s touting of “the scientific-technical revolution” as the solution for the economic stagnation of the USSR also accepted the notion of a single pathway of development of production, which was especially disastrous for agriculture. Fines had long been imposed for polluting, but soon, state enterprises began to incorporate the payment of these fines into their budgets for their five-year plans.

In the third world, where environmental destruction was obviously part of the colonialist onslaught, the defense of the environment was more immediately and obviously seen as part of the struggle for liberation. But this insight came into conflict with the urgency for “development.”

Individual Marxists always participated in the struggles against pesticide poisoning, especially of farm workers, and of occupational hazards. Rachel Carson wrote The Silent Spring in 1962. And, starting in the 1960s, the left began to struggle toward reincorporating ecology into its worldview and politics. Students for a Democratic Society and the New University Conference published pamphlets about the environment as part of a liberating agenda. A dialectical approach to humanity saw us as a species among the species of the world, caught in a six-thousand-year detour through class society, and changing its relations with the rest of nature whenever a new social form replaced the previous one. In Cuba the 1980s and ’90s saw the self-conscious adoption of an ecological pathway of development that included ecological agriculture in the cities and countryside, reforestation, protection of water resources and fragile habitats, and concern for biodiversity and climate change.4 Ecology’s contribution to modern Marxism is as a guide to practice and as criticism of the opportunist sacrifice of the future for immediate urgency where Marxists lead governments. It focuses resistance to capitalist destruction where governments do not. In the domain of large-scale theory, Marxist ecology looks out for the species as a whole.


The second refreshing influence on Marxism is feminism. Early feminist writings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft, called for women’s equality and rejected any religious or biological justification for the subordination of women. They sometimes attributed the suppression of women to a hypothesized patriarchal revolution. This was a view that was carried over into classical Marxism in Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which referred to “the world historical defeat of the female sex.”5

Engels pointed out that a society is built on its relations of “production and reproduction of immediate life” but in practice, reproduction has usually been acknowledged and then ignored.6 Marxist movements produced outstanding feminist women such as Eleanor Marx, Alexandra Kollontai, and Claudia Jones, but often marginalized them (or their concerns) within the movement as a whole. Male-dominated unions and parties saw women in the workforce as a threat to men’s employment and called for a family wage that would allow a man to keep “his” woman and children. The emergence of bourgeois feminism was used to justify the rejection of feminism as a diversion from the class struggle. But in the 1940s, a core of strong proto-feminist women emerged in the Communist Party USA just at the time when McCarthyism was making all red organizing difficult.7 Many of the pioneers of Second Wave feminism in the United States had roots in communist and socialist movements and the unions.

Left-wing feminists soon came to grips with the triple oppression of class, gender, and race, struggling against “classism” (beliefs associated with class hierarchy), sexism, and racism. But although the three oppressions are linked linguistically as “ism”s and in slogans as manifestations of oppression, our goal in relation to each of them is different. Racism will be eliminated by the elimination of the pseudo-biological category of race, not by abolishing pigmentation. Sexism will not fall by erasing sexual differences but gender oppression. And “classism” is not to be defeated by promoting a more “tolerant” attitude but by abolishing class society.

Feminism enriched Marxism not only through the recognition of the exploitation of women, but also through the leading roles women often played in labor and peace struggles. Feminism also gave our movement some important theoretical propositions (and critical questions) that deepen our understanding of labor, reproduction and sexuality, social process, ideology, and organization.

(1) Women work. They probably do the majority of the world’s work, contradicting the heroic cartoon “worker,” a muscle-bound male pounding steel. Women’s labor is allocated between production and reproduction in each society, and how this is done is a major determinant of their social status. But further analysis has focused on production, while reproduction has been largely ignored in the building of our theory. Reproduction is a broader category than pregnancy, including all activities that produce the population of producers. This includes child care and socialization and extends to non-reproductive sexuality.

(2) Women are wage workers in many industries; they engage in service employment as domestic, restaurant, and hotel workers; they carry out unpaid labor within the farm and home. Much of what we label “consumption” is really the final stages of production, such as artisanal food preparation, and a significant part of what we call consumer goods are the tools and inputs for this production.

(3) The private life of any society is a social product. The inequality that a class society imposes on women is also expressed within the home, so that left feminism came forward with the slogan “The Personal is Political.” Sexism within the home and within left political movements has resulted in a major weakening of struggle, a waste of talent, a reproduction of the oppression in the public sphere. Therefore the struggle against sexism is an essential ingredient in building a movement and in building socialism. When a society falters in its commitment to feminism, it is often a symptom of regression toward capitalism. In Cuba the struggle against sexism is embodied in the Family Code, which prescribes equal rights and obligations in the family. But sexism remains in the culture, and feminists must continually identify and challenge sexist expression in prevailing practices and attitudes. Revolutionaries also have personal lives. Young revolutionaries have to decide on their life course, how to combine personal goals with their commitment to social change, how to deal with the emotional impact of oppression both for themselves and their children, how to combine risking the disruption of their lives with responsible parenthood. To the extent that we ignore the personal and inner dimensions of our commitment, we will be vulnerable to the lure of magical and religious views of the world.

(4) The feminist criticism of male domination expanded to become a critique of hierarchical structures in organizations and in society. This was often informed by an anarchist sensibility. Feminist organizations introduced procedures aimed at making sure that everybody had not only a chance but also real encouragement to participate; that in discussion, a topic has to be finished before new subjects are raised (“Roberta’s Rules” in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union). The Marxist tradition of criticism and self-criticism evolved to include the evaluation of meetings from the point of view of how a discussion helped people develop their capacities.

(5) Inequality and abuse in reproduction, and more broadly in sexual relations, made the examination of these areas of life part of feminist thinking. Even though both men and women engage in sex, it is often embedded in unequal relations of power. Women took the lead in the struggles around sexuality and from there also against homophobia.

(6) The women’s movement is not a single thing. In the United States it usually has been associated with the middle-class white feminism that dominates organizations such as the National Organization for Women and journals such as Ms., and emphasizes the issues closest to that constituency. The male media have led the way in defining feminism and anointing its leaders. But this most visible, almost respectable, feminism coexisted with various kinds of radical feminism, lesbian separatism, socialist feminism, ecofeminism, and the womanism of those people of color who rejected feminism’s white middle-class bias.8 Groups such as Redstockings, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, and the Combahee River Collective and publications such as Sojourner developed a stance against the whole system of oppression. Within feminism, Marxists have played a leading role in insisting on a class analysis that showed that “women” cannot be treated as a homogeneous mass with common interests, and also struggled against racism within the feminist movement. It is now more common for left feminists to look at the intersection of race, class, and gender without trying to rank them in order of importance. The Combahee River Collective, a collective of black feminists, prepared their Black Feminist Statement in 1977. “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based on the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”9 But sometimes this obscures the real differences among kinds of oppression: race is a socially constructed category with an entirely false biological justification. Our goal is to abolish this socially constructed racial-biological category as a definer of peoples. Gender is a differentiation of social roles derived from biology but passed through the sieve of social relations beginning with the family in each society. Our goal here is to abolish gender oppression so that men and women can relate as equals. Finally, classes are the divisions of society through which economic exploitation (the appropriation of the surplus product of the direct producers) takes place. Here, our goal is the abolition of classes.

(7) Household labor is not commodity production, although it has its economic aspects. The producer is not alienated from the product of her labor but has a stake in its outcome and satisfactions from the process. It is one area of life not constrained into narrow specialization. The resistance to commoditization of all of life shows up as resistance to the capitalist penetration of agriculture, where women have often led the struggles against the sacrifice of production for use to production for exchange. Such sacrifice makes farming more vulnerable to ecological depredation, as well as and making such basic, essential activities as the harvesting of wood and water more difficult. The household is also the center of resistance to the commoditization of reproductive functions, emotional support, and sex, which at all times characterize capitalist market relations. Because commodity production is the ultimate alienation from nature, women have often been seen as closer to nature. This is not inherent in their double-X chromosomes but their social condition, and it has resulted in women being especially prominent in seeking a humane and sustainable relation to the rest of nature.

National/Racial Struggles

People connect to the whole of humanity through many kinds of affiliation such as class, religion, ethnic and racial identities, and in some places, by caste. Marxists have generally dismissed non-class affiliations such as religion and nationality as products of oppression that keep working people divided. Therefore, we often undervalued the importance that these loyalties play in the struggles for human liberation and the consciousness of oppressed peoples. Taken by themselves, they can be reactionary if they divide working people, but in oppressed groups, they have also served as rallying points against oppression. Thus, we have had to maintain a dual view of nationalism. We oppose the aggressive nationalism that serves as a rationale for empire, and give relative support to the defensive nationalisms of the oppressed. In South Africa the struggle against apartheid was a struggle for black liberation. But today, appeals to black solidarity against the continuing inequality are being used as a weapon against the African National Congress’s goal of a non-racial society. Yet the solidarity among different peoples of color as in the African diaspora is a way of confronting the dominant racist ideology. The major error that Marxist movements have made in this regard has been to confuse the ultimate obsolescence of ethnic and racial identity with its immediate significance in people’s lives, and to ignore the complexities of racist ideology. Despite the fear that black consciousness can divide a people who need to be united, we need to absorb from the various black consciousness movements the reality of the persistence of racism and the need for active struggle against it in all its forms, before and after the overthrow of capitalism. Racism will not go away by itself. The inequality received from the past remains as a social and economic reality that provides the daily experience that reinforces racist beliefs and practices. This vicious circle has to be broken at many levels simultaneously by allowing ethnic and racial solidarity to become a bridge to the whole of humanity.

José Carlos Mariátegui la Chira, the Peruvian Communist, raised the “Indian Question”10 as a key to revolutionary movements in Latin America, an orientation carried forward by the Bolivian, Venezuelan, and Ecuadorean revolutions today.

Therefore, we reject the primitive, linear kind of Marxism that imagines that societies with pre-capitalist systems of production are also backward intellectually and that their replacement by capitalist relations is progressive. And we also reject the sentimentalized versions of the past that often start with “The Ancients say…” without asking which Ancients, how come their sayings were preserved and not the sayings of other equally ancient ones, what was their social location, what experiences gave them insight, and what blinded them? What pre-capitalist achievements can help us look beyond capitalism? Which can hold us back?

The defense of peoples’ cultures does not mean supporting everything a culture does because it is “ours.” Pre-capitalist societies also had their oppressions. There is nothing progressive in the traditional and often barbaric forms of sexism. Today our cultures are not something to freeze-dry to preserve against colonialism but the base from which to build a new, more humane society.

The examination of cultures of the oppressed is also a major theoretical issue, combining social determination with relative autonomy of ideology and confronting the problem of how beliefs change. In Latin America, the new efforts to build “Twenty-first Century Socialism” derive their inspiration from indigenous movements and liberation theology as well as the traditional left. Their major innovations have been around bottom-up collective governance and humanist values, not as something new but as a priority.

It is important here not to use the cheap argument that some theories are foreign or old, and therefore not relevant to us. Most ideas in any one place are foreign, and most good ideas are foreign almost everywhere where they have not been adopted. The welcoming of revolutionary thought wherever it arises and the study of the experiences of all movements for liberation are quite different from the copying of iconic examples.


In the peace movement and in the civil rights movement, we often work with pacifists who bring their Christian, Ghandian, humanist, and other sources of inspiration. Although often described as pacifism, they derive the term from peacefulness, not passivity. They are in no sense passive. The term “pacifism” itself is misleading, and is often replaced by “nonviolence.” I continue to use the term “pacifist” for want of a better noun.

The first thing we learn from pacifists is that nonviolence is not passivity in the face of oppression but a particular way of confronting it. The shared struggles of Marxists with pacifists expanded from alliance to ties of mutual regard and affection and deep discussion. Pacifists show that the intensity of anger is not the measure of commitment. They also give us the principle of witness: whereas we too often think that an action is not worthwhile unless it mobilizes masses, the notion of witness is that a few people’s commitment can teach large numbers.11 The French Communists were relatively passive about the oppression of colonized Algerians out of fear of isolating themselves from the masses, until individual rank-and-file members began to protest and dragged their Party along. The fear of being isolated, a common response to the bad experience of going out on a dogmatic limb, has often deterred communists from “looking for the movement as a whole.”

Pacifists have, of course, emphasized the critique of violence. What we can learn from them is to look at the full range of consequences of proposed actions, not only the desired target. The full consequences of our actions include the impact on the immediate direct target of our action, the long-term effect on people whom we oppose but who should be on our side and whom we will have to live with afterward, the effect on observers of our activity, and the effect on ourselves. “Our actions” also includes our non-actions. Do our decisions strengthen our revolutionary humanism or do they make us callous about the inevitability of injuries? Does an action win or lose allies? Does it make us better or worse revolutionaries? Is the appeal to violence an evasion of the more difficult task of organizing people and convincing them of the need for a new society? To the callous aphorism “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” we learn to acknowledge that breaking eggs doesn’t make an omelet. How will bystanders understand what we do? What will they learn from our actions? And after it is over (and every campaign will sooner or later be over), does what we do leave the movement ahead of where we started? Therefore, for us, the question of violence has always to be reexamined in the broadest social context beyond (but including) individual morality. In any revolutionary human movement, it is our humanity itself that is at stake, and the movement should be judged ultimately in these terms.

To all these infusions into Marxism from partway outside, it is easy, in retrospect, to say, “Of course, we knew it all along” and to document this claim with appropriate citations. We both knew it and did not know it, not as something deeply felt in the core of our movements. The partly external, partly internal influences help to correct a common pattern of error that comes from the dominant mechanistic philosophies of our time: posing a problem too narrowly; treating as static what is always changing; taking as a given boundary condition that which has a history, got the way it is, and need not stay that way; a pragmatism that disguises itself as realism and even materialism. Openness to new currents in mutual influence continues to help us to “Look for the movement as a whole.”


  1. Written in March 1913, first published in Bolshevik monthly magazine Prosveshcheniye, vol. 3 (August 1913). Translated from Collective Works, vol. 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1998), 23-28. Transcribed for the Internet by Lee Joon Koo and Marc Luzetti, June 1998.
  2. John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).
  3. Bertolt Brecht, “To Posterity,” Selected Poems (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), 172.
  4. Richard Levins, “Cuba’s Environmental Strategy,” DRCLAS News (David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2000).
  5. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 120.
  6. Engels, Origin of the Family.
  7. Kate Weigand, Red Feminism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2001).
  8. In Latin America, the term “feminist” is used by radical as well as conservative women. Here, I use the term generically.
  9. Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,”This Bridge Called My Back, Cherrie L. Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, eds. (Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1981).
  10. José Carlos Mariátegui la Chira, Seven Interpretive Essays on the Peruvian Reality (Austin: Austin University Press, 1971).
  11. The notion of witness is that a small number of people, multiplied by the intensity of their commitment, can change the consciousness of large numbers. It often involves risk, sacrifice, or the living demonstration of another way to act in the world.



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The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism and Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation -Samir Amin

Monthly Review Volume 62 Number 9


The Long Rise of Capitalism

The long history of capitalism is composed of three distinct, successive phases: (1) a lengthy preparation—the transition from the tributary mode, the usual form of organization of pre-modern societies—which lasted eight centuries, from 1000 to 1800; (2) a short period of maturity (the nineteenth century), during which the “West” affirmed its domination; (3) the long “decline” caused by the “Awakening of the South” (to use the title of my book, published in 2007) in which the peoples and their states regained the major initiative in transforming the world—the first wave having taken place in the twentieth century. This struggle against an imperialist order that is inseparable from the global expansion of capitalism is itself the potential agent in the long road of transition, beyond capitalism, toward socialism. In the twenty-first century, there are now the beginnings of a second wave of independent initiatives by the peoples and states of the South.

The internal contradictions that were characteristic of all the advanced societies in the pre-modern world—and not only those specific to “feudal” Europe—account for the successive waves of the social-technological innovation that were to constitute capitalist modernity.

The oldest wave came from China, where changes began in the Sung era (eleventh century) and developing further in the Ming and Qing epochs gave China a head start in terms of technological inventiveness and the social productivity of collective work—not to be surpassed by Europe until the nineteenth century. The “Chinese” wave was to be followed by a “Middle Eastern” wave, which took place in the Arabo-Persian Caliphate and then via the Crusades and their aftermath, in the towns of Italy.

The last wave concerns the long transition of the ancient tributary world to the modern capitalist world. This began in earnest in the Atlantic part of Europe following the conquest/encounter with the Americas, and for three centuries (1500-1800) took the form of mercantilism. Capitalism, which gradually came to dominate the world, is the product of this last wave of social-technological innovation. The European (“Western”) form of historical capitalism that emerged in Atlantic and Central Europe, in its offspring in the United States, and later, in Japan, developed its own characteristics—notably a mode of accumulation based on the dispossession, first, of the peasants and then of the peoples in the peripheries, who were integrated as dependencies into its global system. This historical form is therefore inseparable from the centers/peripheries contradiction that it endlessly constructs, reproduces, and deepens.

Historical capitalism took on its final form at the end of the eighteenth century with the English Industrial Revolution that invented the new “machine factory” (together with the creation of the new industrial proletariat) and the French Revolution that gave rise to modern politics.

Mature capitalism developed over the short period that marked the apogee of this system in the nineteenth century. Capital accumulation then took on its definitive form and became the basic law that governed society. From the beginning, this form of accumulation was constructive (it enabled a prodigious and continuous acceleration in the productivity of social labor). But it was, at the same time, destructive. Marx observed that accumulation destroys the two bases of wealth: the human being (victim of commodity alienation) and nature.

In my analyses of historical capitalism I particularly stressed a third dimension of accumulation’s destructiveness: the material and cultural dispossession of the dominated peoples of the periphery—whom Marx had somewhat overlooked. This was no doubt because, in the short period when Marx was producing his works, Europe seemed almost exclusively dedicated to the requirements of internal accumulation. Marx thus relegated this dispossession to a temporary phase of “primitive accumulation” that I, on the contrary, have described as permanent.

The fact remains that during its short mature period, capitalism fulfilled undeniable progressive functions. It created the conditions that made it possible and necessary for it to be overtaken by socialism/communism, both on the material level and on that of the new political and cultural consciousness that accompanied it. Socialism (and even more so, communism) is not, as some have thought, to be conceived as a superior “mode of production” because it is capable of accelerating the development of the forces of production and of associating them with an “equitable” distribution of income. Socialism is something else again: a higher stage in the development of human civilization. It is not, therefore, by chance that the working-class movement took root in the exploited population and became committed to the fight for socialism, as evident in nineteenth century Europe, and expressed in The Communist Manifesto in 1848. Nor is it by chance that this challenge took the form of the first socialist revolution in history: the Paris Commune in 1871.

Monopoly Capitalism: The Beginning of the Long Decline

At the end of the nineteenth century, capitalism entered into its long period of decline. I mean by this that the destructive dimensions of accumulation now won out, at a growing rate, over its progressive, constructive dimension. This qualitative transformation of capitalism took shape with the setting up of new production monopolies (no longer only in the areas of trade and colonial conquest, as in the mercantilist period) at the end of the nineteenth century. This was in response to the first long structural crisis of capitalism that started in the 1870s, shortly after the defeat of the Paris Commune. The emergence of monopoly capitalism (as famously highlighted by Hilferding and Hobson) showed that classic, freely competitive capitalism, and indeed capitalism itself, had by now “had its day,” and become “obsolete.” The bell sounded for the necessary and possible expropriation of the expropriators. This decline found its expression in the first wave of wars and revolutions that marked the history of the twentieth century. Lenin was therefore right in describing monopoly capitalism as the “highest stage of capitalism.”

But, optimistically, Lenin thought that this first long crisis would be the last, with the socialist revolution on the agenda. History later proved that capitalism was able to overcome this crisis, at the cost of two world wars, and was even able to adapt to the setbacks imposed on it by the Russian and Chinese Revolutions and national liberation in Asia and Africa. But after the short period of monopoly capitalist revival (1945-1975), there followed a second, long structural crisis of the system, starting in the 1970s. Capital reacted to this renewed challenge by a qualitatively new transformation that took the form of what I have described as “generalized monopoly capitalism.”

A host of major questions arise from this interpretation of the “long decline” of capitalism, which concern the nature of the “revolution” that was the order of the day. Could the “long decline” of historical monopoly capitalism be synonymous with the “long transition” to socialism/communism? Under what conditions?

From 1500 (the beginning of the Atlantic mercantilist form of the transition to mature capitalism) to 1900 (the beginning of the challenge to the unilateral logic of accumulation), the Westerners (Europeans, then North Americans and later, the Japanese) remained the masters of the game. They alone shaped the structures of the new world of historical capitalism. The peoples and nations of the periphery who had been conquered and dominated did, of course, resist as well as they could, but they were always defeated in the end and forced to adapt themselves to their subordinate status.

The domination of the Euro-Atlantic world was accompanied by its demographic explosion: the Europeans, who had constituted 18 percent of the planet’s population in 1500, represented 36 percent by 1900—increased by their descendants emigrating to the Americas and Australia. Without this massive emigration, the accumulation model of historical capitalism, based on the accelerated disappearance of the peasant world, would have simply been impossible. This is why the model cannot be reproduced in the peripheries of the system, which have no “Americas” to conquer. “Catching up” in the system being impossible, people of the peripheries have no alternative than to opt for a different development path.

The Initiative Passes to the Peoples and Nations of the Periphery

In 1871 the Paris Commune which, as mentioned, was the first socialist revolution, was also the last one to take place in a country that was part of the capitalist center. The twentieth century inaugurated—with the “awakening of the peoples of the peripheries”—a new chapter in history. Its first manifestations were the revolutions in Iran (1907), in Mexico (1910-1920), China (1911), and “semi-peripheral” Russia in 1905. This awakening of the peoples and nations of the periphery was carried forward in the Revolution of 1917, the Arabo-Muslim Nahda, the constitution of the Young Turk movement (1908), the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, and the formation of the Indian Congress (1885).

In reaction to the first long crisis of historical capitalism (1875-1950), the peoples of the periphery began to liberate themselves around 1914-1917, mobilizing themselves under the flags of socialism (Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba) or of national liberation (India, Algeria) associated to different degrees with progressive social reforms. They took the path to industrialization, hitherto forbidden by the domination of the (old) “classic” imperialism, forcing the latter to “adjust” to this first wave of independent initiatives of the peoples, nations, and states of the peripheries. From 1917 to the time when the “Bandung project” (1955-1980) ran out of steam and Sovietism collapsed in 1990, these were the initiatives that dominated the scene.

I do not see the two long crises of aging monopoly capitalism in terms of long Kondratieff cycles, but as two stages in both the decline of historical globalized capitalism and the possible transition to socialism. Nor do I see the 1914-1945 period exclusively as “the 30 years” war for the succession to “British hegemony.” I see this period also as the long war conducted by the imperialist centers against the first awakening of the peripheries (East and South).

This first wave of the awakening of the peoples of the periphery wore out for many reasons, including its own internal limitations and contradictions, and imperialism’s success in finding new ways of dominating the world system (through the control of technological invention, access to resources, the globalized financial system, communication and information technology, weapons of mass destruction).

Nevertheless, capitalism underwent a second long crisis that began in the 1970s, exactly one hundred years after the first one. The reactions of capital to this crisis were the same as it had had to the previous one: reinforced concentration, which gave rise to generalized monopoly capitalism, globalization (“liberal”), and financialization. But the moment of triumph—the second “belle époque,” from 1990 to 2008, echoing the first “belle époque,” from 1890 to 1914—of the new collective imperialism of the Triad (the United States, Europe, and Japan) was indeed brief. A new epoch of chaos, wars, and revolutions emerged. In this situation, the second wave of the awakening of the nations of the periphery (which had already started), now refused to allow the collective imperialism of the Triad to maintain its dominant positions, other than through the military control of the planet. The Washington establishment, by giving priority to this strategic objective, proves that it is perfectly aware of the real issues at stake in the struggles and decisive conflicts of our epoch, as opposed to the naïve vision of the majority currents in Western “alterworldism.”

Is Generalized Monopoly Capitalism the Last Phase of Capitalism?

Lenin described the imperialism of the monopolies as the “highest stage of capitalism.” I have described imperialism as a “permanent phase of capitalism” in the sense that globalized historical capitalism has built up, and never ceases from reproducing and deepening, the center/periphery polarization. The first wave of constituting monopolies at the end of the nineteenth century certainly involved a qualitative transformation in the fundamental structures of the capitalist mode of production. Lenin deduced from this that the socialist revolution was on the agenda, and Rosa Luxemburg believed that the alternatives were now “socialism or barbarism.” Lenin was certainly too optimistic, having underestimated the devastating effects of the imperialist rent—and the transfer associated with it—on the revolution from the West (the centers) to the East (the peripheries).

The second wave of the centralization of capital, which took place in the last third of the twentieth century, constituted a second qualitative transformation of the system, which I have described as “generalized monopolies.” From now on, they not only commanded the heights of the modern economy; they also succeeded in imposing their direct control over the whole production system. The small and medium enterprises (and even the large ones outside the monopolies), such as the farmers, were literally dispossessed, reduced to the status of sub-contractors, with their upstream and downstream operations, and subjected to rigid control by the monopolies.

At this highest phase of the centralization of capital, its ties with a living organic body—the bourgeoisie—have broken. This is an immensely important change: the historical bourgeoisie, constituted of families rooted locally, has given way to an anonymous oligarchy/plutocracy that controls the monopolies, in spite of the dispersion of the title deeds of their capital. The range of financial operations invented over the last decades bears witness to this supreme form of alienation: the speculator can now sell what he does not even possess, so that the principle of property is reduced to a status that is little less than derisory.

The function of socially productive labor has disappeared. The high degree of alienation had already attributed a productive virtue to money (“money makes little ones”). Now alienation has reached new heights: it is time (“time is money”) that by its virtue alone “produces profit.” The new bourgeois class that responds to the requirements of the reproduction of the system has been reduced to the status of “waged servants” (precarious, to boot), even when they are, as members of the upper sectors of the middle classes, privileged people who are very well paid for their “work.”

This being so, should one not conclude that capitalism has had its day? There is no other possible answer to the challenge: the monopolies must be nationalized. This is a first, unavoidable step toward a possible socialization of their management by workers and citizens. Only this will make it possible to progress along the long road to socialism. At the same time, it will be the only way of developing a new macro economy that restores a genuine space for the operations of small and medium enterprises. If that is not done, the logic of domination by abstract capital can produce nothing but the decline of democracy and civilization, to a “generalized apartheid” at the world level.

Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation

My interpretation of historical capitalism stresses the polarization of the world (the contrast of center/periphery) produced by the historical form of the accumulation of capital. This perspective questions the visions of the “socialist revolution,” and, more broadly, the transition to socialism, that the historical Marxisms have developed. The “revolution”—or the transition—before us is not necessarily the one on which these historical visions were based. Nor are the strategies for surmounting capitalism the same.

It has to be recognized that what the most important social and political struggles of the twentieth century tried to challenge was not so much capitalism in itself as the permanent imperialist dimension of actually existing capitalism. The issue is therefore whether this transfer of the center of gravity of the struggles necessarily calls capitalism into question, at least potentially.

Marx’s thinking associates “scientific” clarity in the analysis of reality with social and political action (the class struggle in its broadest sense) aimed at “changing the world.” Confronting the basics—i.e., the discovery of the real source of surplus value produced by the exploitation of social labor by capital—is indispensable to this struggle. If this fundamental and lucid contribution of Marx is abandoned, a double failure is inevitably the result. Any such abandonment of the theory of exploitation (law of value) reduces the analysis of reality to that of appearances only, a way of thinking that is limited by its abject submission to the requirements of commodification, itself engendered by the system. Similarly, such abandonment of the labor value-based critique of the system annihilates the effectiveness of strategies and struggles to change the world, which are thereby conceived within this alienating framework, the “scientific” claims of which have no real basis.

Nevertheless, it is not enough just to cling to the lucid analysis formulated by Marx. This is not only because “reality” itself changes, and there are always “new” things to be taken into account in the development of the critique of the real world that started with Marx. But more fundamentally, it is because, as we know, the analysis that Marx put forward in Capital was left incomplete. In the planned sixth volume of this work (which was never written), Marx proposed treating the globalization of capitalism. This now has to be done by others, which is why I have dared to advocate the formulation of the “law of globalized value,” restoring the place of the unequal development (through the center/periphery polarization) that is inseparable from the global expansion of historical capitalism. In this formulation, “imperialist rent” is integrated into the whole process of the production and circulation of capital and the distribution of the surplus value. This rent is at the origin of the challenge: it accounts for why the struggles for socialism in the imperialist centers have faded, and it highlights the anti-imperialist dimensions of the struggles in the peripheries against the system of capitalist/imperialist globalization.

I shall not return here to discuss what an exegesis of Marx’s texts on this question would suggest. Marx, who is nothing less than a giant, with his critical acumen and the incredible subtlety of his thought, must have had at least an intuition that he was coming up against a serious question here. This is suggested by his observations on the disastrous effects of the alignment of the English working class with the chauvinism associated with the colonial exploitation of Ireland. Marx was therefore not surprised that it was in France—less developed than England economically, but more advanced in political consciousness—that the first socialist revolution took place. He, like Engels, also hoped that the “backwardness” of Germany would enable an original form of advance to develop, fusing together both the bourgeois and the socialist revolutions.

Lenin went still further. He emphasized the qualitative transformation that was involved in the passage to monopoly capitalism, and he drew the necessary conclusions: that capitalism had ceased to be a necessary progressive stage in history and that it was now “putrefied” (Lenin’s own term). In other words, it had become “obsolete” and “senile” (my terms), so that the passing to socialism was on the agenda, which was both necessary and possible. He conceived and implemented, in this framework, a revolution that began in the periphery (Russia, the “weak link”). Then, seeing the failure of his hopes in a European revolution, he conceived of the transfer of the revolution to the East, where he saw that the fusion of the objectives of the anti-imperialist struggle with those of the struggle against capitalism had become possible.

But it was Mao who rigorously formulated the complex and contradictory nature of the objectives in the transition to the socialism that were to be pursued in these conditions. “Marxism” (or, more exactly, the historical Marxisms) was confronted by a new challenge—one which did not exist in the most lucid political consciousness of the nineteenth century, but which arose because of the transfer of the initiative to transform the world to the peoples, nations, and states of the periphery.

Imperialist rent not “only” benefited the monopolies of the dominant center (in the form of super profits), it was also the basis of the reproduction of society as a whole, in spite of its evident class structure and the exploitation of its workers. This is what Perry Anderson analyzed so clearly as “Western Marxism,” which he described as “the product of defeat” (the abandonment of the socialist perspective)—and which is relevant here. This Marxism was then condemned, having renounced “changing the world” and committing itself to “academic” studies, without political impact. The liberal drift of social democracy—and its rallying both to the U.S. ideology of “consensus” and to Atlanticism at the service of the imperialist domination of the world—were the consequences.

“Another world” (a very vague phrase to indicate a world committed to the long road toward socialism) is obviously impossible unless it provides a solution to the problems of the peoples in the periphery—only 80 percent of the world population! “Changing the world” therefore means changing the living conditions of this majority. Marxism, which analyzes the reality of the world in order to make the forces acting for change as effective as possible, necessarily acquires a decisive tricontinental (Africa, Asia, Latin America) vocation.

How is this related to the terrain of struggle that confronts us? What I propose, in answer to this question, is an analysis of the transformation of imperialist monopoly capitalism (“senile”) into generalized monopoly capitalism (still more senile for this reason). This is a qualitative transformation in response to the second long crisis of the system that began in the 1970s, and that has still not been resolved. From this analysis, I draw two main conclusions: (1) The imperialist system is transformed into the collective imperialism of the Triad, in reaction to the industrialization of the peripheries, imposed by the victories of the first wave of their “awakening.” This occurs together with the implementation by the new imperialism of new means of control of the world system, based on the military control of the planet and its resources, the super-protection of the exclusive appropriation of technology by the oligopolies and their control over the world financial system. There is an accompanying transformation of the class structures of contemporary capitalism with the emergence of an exclusive dominant oligarchy.

“Western Marxism” has ignored the decisive transformation represented by the emergence of generalized monopoly capitalism. The intellectuals of the new Western radical left refuse to measure the decisive effects of the concentration of the oligopolies that now dominate the production system as a whole, in the same way that they dominate all political, social, cultural, and ideological life. Having eliminated the term “socialism” (and, a fortiori, “communism”) from their language, they no longer envisage the necessary expropriation of the expropriators, but only an impossible “other capitalism” with what they call a “human face.” The drift of the “post” discourses (postmodernist, post-Marxist, etc.) is the inevitable result. Negri, for example, says not a word concerning this decisive transformation that, for me, is at the heart of the issues of our time.

The newspeak of these crazy ravings should be seen in the literal sense of the term, as an illusory imaginary detached from all reality. In French, le peuple (and better still, les classes populaires), as in Spanish el pueblo (los clases populares), is not a synonym for “everyone.” It refers to the dominated and exploited classes and therefore also emphasizes their diversity (of the kinds of relationship they have with capital), which makes it possible to build effective concrete strategies and to make them into active change agents. This is in contrast to the English equivalent: “people” does not have this meaning, being synonymous with les gens (everyone) and, in Spanish, la gente. Newspeak ignores these concepts (marked by Marxism and formulated in French or Spanish) and substitutes for them some vague word like Negri’s “multitude.” It is a philosophical delirium to attribute to this word (which adds nothing but subtracts a lot) a so-called analytical power, by invoking its use by Spinoza, who lived at a time and in conditions which have nothing to do with our own.

The fashionable political thought of new Western radical leftists also ignores the imperialist character of the domination of the generalized monopolies, replacing it with the empty term of “Empire” (Negri). This Western-centrism, taken to the extreme, omits any reflection on the imperialist rent without which neither the mechanisms of social reproduction nor the challenges that they thus constitute can be understood.

In contrast, Mao presented a view that was both profoundly revolutionary and “realistic” (scientific, lucid) about the terms in which the challenge should be analyzed, making it possible to deduce effective strategies for successive advances along the long road of transition to socialism. For this reason, he distinguishes and connects the three dimensions of reality: peoples, nations, states.

The people (popular classes) “want the revolution.” This means that it is possible to construct a hegemonic bloc that brings together the different dominated and exploited classes, as opposed to the one that enables the reproduction of the system of the domination of imperialist capitalism, exercised through the comprador hegemonic bloc and the state at its service.

Mention of nations refers to the fact that imperialist domination denies the dignity of the “nations” (call them what you will), forged by the history of the societies of the peripheries. Such domination has systematically destroyed all that give the nations their originality—in the name of “Westernization” and the proliferation of cheap junk. The liberation of the people is therefore inseparable from that of the nations to which they belong. And this is the reason why Maoism replaced the short slogan, “Workers of all countries, unite!” by a more embracing one: “Workers of all countries, oppressed peoples, unite!” Nations want their “liberation,” seen as being complementary to the struggle of the people and not conflictual with it. The liberation in question is not, therefore, the restoration of the past—the illusion fostered by a culturalist attachment to the past—but the invention of the future. This is based on the radical transformation of the nation’s historical heritage, rather than the artificial importation of a false “modernity.” The culture that is inherited and subjected to the test of transformation is understood here as political culture—care being taken not to use the undifferentiated term of “culture” (encompassing “religious” and innumerable other forms), which neither means anything, because genuine culture is not abstract, nor is a historical invariant.

The reference to the state is based on the necessary recognition of the relative autonomy of its power in its relations with the hegemonic bloc that is the base of its legitimacy, even if this is popular and national. This relative autonomy cannot be ignored as long as the state exists, that is, at least for the whole duration of the transition to communism. It is only after this that we can think of a “stateless society”—not before. This is not only because the popular and national advances must be protected from the permanent aggression of imperialism, which still dominates the world, but also, and perhaps above all, because “to advance on the long transition” also requires “developing productive forces.” In other words, the goal is to achieve that which imperialism has been preventing in the countries of the periphery, and to obliterate the heritage of world polarization, which is inseparable from the world expansion of historical capitalism. The program is not the same as “catching up” through the imitation of central capitalism—a catching up which is, incidentally, impossible and above all, undesirable. It imposes a different conception of “modernization/industrialization,” based on the genuine participation of the popular classes in the process of implementation, with immediate benefits for them at each stage as it advances. We must therefore reject the dominant reasoning that demands that people wait indefinitely until the development of the productive forces have finally created the conditions of a “necessary” passage to socialism. These forces must be developed right from the beginning with the prospect of constructing socialism. The power of the state is evidently at the heart of the conflicts between these contradictory requirements of “development” and “socialism.”

“The states want independence.” This must be seen as a twofold objective: independence (extreme form of autonomy) vis-à-vis the popular classes; independence from the pressures of the capitalist world system. The “bourgeoisie” (broadly speaking, the governing class in commanding positions of the state, whose ambitions always tend toward a bourgeois evolution) is both national and comprador. If circumstances enable them to increase their autonomy vis-à-vis dominant imperialism, they choose to “defend the national interest.” But if circumstances do not so permit, they will opt for “comprador” submission to the requirements of imperialism. The “new governing class” (or “governing group”) is still in an ambiguous position, even when it is based on a popular bloc, by the fact that it is animated by a “bourgeois” tendency, at least partially.

The correct articulation of reality at these three levels—peoples, nations, and states—conditions the success of the progress on the long road of the transition. It is a question of reinforcing the complementarity of the advances of the people, of the liberation of the nation, and of the achievements by the power of the state. But if contradictions between the popular agent and the state agent are allowed to develop, any advances are finally doomed.

There will be an impasse if one of these levels is not concerned about its articulation with the others. The abstract notion of the “people” as being the only entity that counts, and the thesis of the abstract “movement,” capable of transforming the world without worrying about taking over power, are simply naïve. The idea of national liberation, “at all costs”—viewed as independent of the social content of the hegemonic bloc—leads to the cultural illusion of irretrievable attachment to the past (political Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are examples) and is, in fact, powerless. This generates a notion of power, conceived as being capable of “attaining achievements” for the people, but which is, in fact, to be exercised without them. It thus leads to the drift to authoritarianism and the crystallization of a new bourgeoisie. The deviation of Sovietism, which evolved from a “capitalism without capitalists” (state capitalism) to a “capitalism with capitalists,” is the most tragic example of this.

Since peoples, nations, and states of the periphery do not accept the imperialist system, the “South” is the “storm zone,” one of permanent uprisings and revolts. Beginning in 1917, history has consisted mainly of these revolts and independent initiatives (in the sense of independence of the tendencies that dominate the existing imperialist capitalist system) of the peoples, nations, and states of the peripheries. It is these initiatives, despite their limits and contradictions, that have shaped the most decisive transformations of the contemporary world, far more than the progress of the productive forces and the relatively easy social adjustments that accompanied them in the heartlands of the system.

The second wave of independent initiatives of the countries of the South has begun. The “emerging” countries and others, like their peoples, are fighting the ways in which the collective imperialism of the Triad tries to perpetuate its domination. The military interventions of Washington and their subaltern NATO allies have also proved a failure. The world financial system is collapsing and, in its place, autonomous regional systems are in the process of being set up. The technological monopoly of the oligopolies has been thwarted.

Recovering control over natural resources is now the order of the day. The Andean nations, victims of the internal colonialism that succeeded foreign colonization, are making themselves felt on the political level.

The popular organizations and the parties of the radical left in struggle have already defeated some liberal programs (in Latin America) or are on the way to doing so. These initiatives, which are, first of all, fundamentally anti-imperialist, are potentially able to commit themselves along the long road to the socialist transition.

How do these two possible futures relate to each other? The “other world” that is being built is always ambiguous: it carries the worst and the best within it, both of them “possible” (there are no laws in history previous to history itself to give us an indication). A first wave of initiatives by the peoples, nations, and states of the periphery took place in the twentieth century, until 1980. Any analysis of its components makes no sense unless thought is given to the complementarities and conflicts on how the three levels relate to each other. A second wave of initiatives in the periphery has already started. Will it be more effective? Can it go further than the preceding one?

Ending the Crisis of Capitalism?

The oligarchies in power of the contemporary capitalist system are trying to restore the system as it was before the financial crisis of 2008. For this, they need to convince people through a “consensus” that does not challenge their supreme power. To succeed in this, they are prepared to make some rhetorical concessions about the ecological challenges (in particular about the question of the climate), green-washing their domination, and even hinting that they will carry out social reforms (the “war on poverty”) and political reforms (“good governance”).

To take part in this game of convincing people of the need to forge a new consensus—even defined in terms that are clearly better—will end up in failure. Worse, still, it will prolong fatal illusions. This is because the response to the challenge raised by the crisis of the global system first requires the transformation of power relationships to the benefit of the workers, as well as of international relationships to the benefit of the peoples of the peripheries. The United Nations has organized a whole series of global conferences, which have yielded nothing—as one might have expected.

History has proved that this is a necessary requirement. The response to the first long crisis of aging capitalism took place between 1914 and 1950, mainly through the conflicts that opposed the peoples of the peripheries to the domination of the imperial powers and, to different degrees, through the internal social relationships benefiting the popular classes. In this way, they prepared the path for the three systems of the post-Second World War period: the really existing socialisms of that time, the national and popular regimes of Bandung, and the social-democrat compromise in the countries of the North, which had been made particularly necessary by the independent initiatives of the peoples of the peripheries.

In 2008 the second long crisis of capitalism moved into a new phase. Violent international conflicts have already begun and are visible: will they challenge the domination of the generalized monopolies, based on anti-imperialist positions? How do they relate to the social struggles of the victims of the austerity policies pursued by the dominant classes in response to the crisis? In other words, will the peoples employ a strategy of extricating themselves from a capitalism in crisis, instead of the strategy to extricate the system from its crisis, as pursued by the powers that be?

The ideologues serving power are running out of steam, making futile remarks about the “world after the crisis.” The CIA can only envisage a restoration of the system—attributing the greater participation of “emerging markets” in liberal globalization as to the detriment of Europe, rather than the United States. It is incapable of recognizing that the deepening crisis will not be “overcome,” except through violent international and social conflict. No one knows how it will turn out: it could be for the better (progress in the direction of socialism) or for the worse (world apartheid).

The political radicalization of the social struggles is the condition for overcoming their internal fragmentation and their exclusively defensive strategy (“safeguarding social benefits”). Only this will make it possible to identify the objectives needed for undertaking the long road to socialism. Only this will enable the “movements” to generate real empowerment.

The empowerment of the movements requires a framework of macro political and economic conditions that make their concrete projects viable. How to create these conditions? Here we come to the central question of the power of the state. Would a renewed state, genuinely popular and democratic, be capable of carrying out effective policies in the globalized conditions of the contemporary world? An immediate, negative response on the left has led to calls for initiatives to achieve a minimal global consensus, as a basis for universal political change, circumventing the state. This response and its corollary are proving fruitless. There is no other solution than to generate advances at the national level, perhaps reinforced by appropriate action at the regional level. They must aim at dismantling the world system (“delinking”) prior to eventual reconstruction, on a different social basis, with the prospect of going beyond capitalism. The principle is as valid for the countries of the South which, incidentally, have started to move in this direction in Asia and Latin America, as it is for the countries of the North where, alas, the need for dismantling the European institutions (and that of the euro) is not yet envisaged, even by the radical left.

The Indispensable Internationalism of the Workers and the Peoples

The limits of the advances made by the awakening of the South in the twentieth century and the exacerbation of the contradictions that resulted were the cause of the first liberation wave losing its impetus. This was greatly reinforced by the permanent hostility of the states in the imperialist center, which went to the extent of waging open warfare that—it has to be said—was supported, or at least accepted, by the peoples of the North. The benefits of the imperialist rent were certainly an important factor in this rejection of internationalism by the popular forces of the North. The communist minorities, who adopted another attitude, sometimes strongly so, nevertheless failed to build effective alternative blocs around themselves. And the passing of the socialist parties en masse into the “anticommunist” camp largely contributed to the success of the capitalist powers in the imperialist camp. These parties have not, however, been “rewarded,” as the very day after the collapse of the first wave of struggles of the twentieth century, monopoly capitalism shook off their alliance. They have not learned the lesson of their defeat by radicalizing themselves: on the contrary, they have chosen to capitulate by sliding into the “social-liberal” positions with which we are familiar. This is the proof, if such was needed, of the decisive role of the imperialist rent in the reproduction of the societies in the North. Thus, the second capitulation was not so much a tragedy as a farce.

The defeat of internationalism shares part of the responsibility for the authoritarian drifts toward autocracy in the socialist experiences of the past century. The explosion of inventive expressions of democracy during the course of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions gives the lie to the too easy judgment that these countries were not “ripe” for democracy. The hostility of the imperialist countries, facilitated by the support of their peoples, largely contributed to making the pursuit of democratic socialism even harder in conditions that were already difficult, a consequence of the inheritance of peripheral capitalism.

Thus, the second wave of the awakening of the peoples, nations, and states of the peripheries of the twenty-first century starts out in conditions that are hardly better, in fact, are even more difficult. The so-called characteristic of U.S. ideology of the “consensus” (meaning submission to the requirements of the power of the generalized monopoly capitalism); the adoption of “presidential” political regimes that destroy the effectiveness of the anti-establishment potential of democracy; the indiscriminate eulogy of a false, manipulated individualism, together with inequality (seen as a virtue); the rallying of the subaltern NATO countries to the strategies implemented by the Washington establishment—all these are making rapid headway in the European Union which cannot be, in these conditions, anything other than what it is, a constitutive bloc of imperialist globalization.

In this situation, the collapse of this military project becomes the first priority and the preliminary condition for the success of the second wave of the liberation being undertaken through the struggles of the peoples, nations, and states of the three continents. Until this happens, their present and future advances will remain vulnerable. A possible remake of the twentieth century is not, therefore, to be excluded even if, obviously, the conditions of our epoch are quite different from those of the last century.

This tragic scenario is not, however, the only possible one. The offensive of capital against the workers is already under way in the very heartlands of the system. This is proof, if it were necessary, that capital, when it is reinforced by its victories against the peoples of the periphery, is then able to attack frontally the positions of the working classes in the centers of the system. In this situation, it is no longer impossible to visualize the radicalization of the struggles. The heritage of European political cultures is not yet lost, and it should facilitate the rebirth of an international consciousness that meets the requirements of its globalization. An evolution in this direction, however, comes up against the obstacle of the imperialist rent.

This is not only a major source of exceptional profits for the monopolies; it also conditions the reproduction of the society as a whole. And, with the indirect support of those popular elements seeking to preserve at all costs the existing electoral model of “democracy” (however undemocratic in reality), the weight of the middle classes can in all likelihood destroy the potential strength arising from the radicalization of the popular classes. Because of this, it is probable that the progress in the tricontinental South will continue to be at the forefront of the scene, as in the last century. However, as soon as the advances have had their effects and seriously restricted the extent of the imperialist rent, the peoples of the North should be in a better position to understand the failure of strategies that submit to the requirements of the generalized imperialist monopolies. The ideological and political forces of the radical left should then take their place in this great movement of liberation, built on the solidarity of peoples and workers.

The ideological and cultural battle is decisive for this renaissance—which I have summed up as the strategic objective of building a Fifth International of workers and peoples.


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The Bolivarian Revolution: Achievements and Challenges – an Interview


Iselin Asedrotter Stronen is a social anthropologist, studying for a PhD at the University of Bergen, Norway. She is researching social movements in Venezuela, doing her fieldwork in the barrios of Caracas. In discussion with Samuel Grove she explores in detail an extensive range of issues concerning the nature and prospects of Bolivarian Socialism.

Why don’t you begin by saying a little bit about how you became in interested in Venezuela.

I became interested in Venezuela in 2005, when I was looking for a research topic for my Master’s thesis in Anthropology of Development. However I had been interested in Latin America and Latin American politics for a long time, and had also studied Politics and Human Rights in Chile. As I learned more about Venezuela, I became more curious, and went off to do fieldwork in Caracas for 6 months. In 2006 I also made a documentary from Venezuela together with a friend.

What is your line of research?

In my Master’s thesis I looked primarily at social movements. I have now expanded on this for my doctoral thesis, which also takes a bottom-up perspective from the barrios (shantytowns) in Caracas. I am looking at the Communal Councils (organs of grass roots decision making established over the past few years) as a way to understand issues of resource distribution, local development and the changing relationship between the popular sectors and the state. Furthermore, I look at questions of political conflicts at various levels particularly in a context of Venezuela being an oil state; asking how this affects society, from a historical and contemporary perspective.

Hugo Chavez has been president of Venezuela for twelve years, winning 15 out of 16 elections or referenda in the process. What is the secret of his electoral success?

His popularity derives from a number of factors. Firstly, it is important to put it into context: he was elected after almost two decades of increasing poverty and a crisis of legitimacy for the traditional political elites.  Hence, he didn’t just pop out of a box. It is perhaps better to see him as a catalyst for long-simmering social grievances.

Former governments presided over a significant degree of social exclusion of the popular sectors, as well as a substantial amount of state violence in order to perpetuate their exclusion. Perhaps the most significant event in recent political history was el Caracazo—a popular riot in 1989 when hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand were killed. The riot was triggered by a new round of IMF reforms, after several years of increasing poverty and social unrest. In 1992, Chavez led a military uprising against the president who had ordered the military to quash the riots. Even though Chavez failed, he became extremely popular. That says something about the social and political crisis that the country was in.

It is also important to be aware of the huge difference between rich and poor in Venezuelan society. Spatially, socially and economically they live very different lives, and have very different lived experiences and historical memories. The better off have a lot of poorly hidden class and race based resentment towards the popular sectors, and while some leaders from the opposition now try to “reach out to the poor”, they have a real lack of credibility.

Under Chavez there have been major improvements in the quality of life for the country’s poor. The Gini-coefficient (measuring the income difference between the rich and poor) has been lowered and social improvements in the form of health, education, alimentation, sports, culture, and on a range of other fields have been significant.

These achievements have been very dependent on grass roots participation. Having grown up in poverty himself, Chavez communicates extremely well with the popular sectors; something which has facilitated their inclusion in the political realm. People have moved from a state of marginalization to taking an active part in social and political public life. Besides reducing poverty, recognition and inclusion into society are perhaps the most important factors for Chavez’s electoral success.

And of course, the opposition has so far not been able to present a credible alternative to Chavez. It is however important to be aware that there is more support for Chavez as President than support for his party, something that was reflected in the recent elections to the National Assembly, when the pro-government parties failed to secure an absolute majority.

Criticism from the right has maintained that Chavez has resorted to more insidious means for holding on to power. In particular there is a lot of talk about the breakdown of freedom of the press. What is your evaluation of the level of press freedom in Venezuela?

In terms of audience share, the private media overwhelmingly dominates the media spectrum. Te be precise, private open channels and pay-tv have a share of more than 94 percent, according to a report by Mark Weisbrot and Tara Ruttenberg from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC. Few people in Venezuela still consider the national private media as a media outlet as such, but rather largely as a propaganda machine for the opposition. The most aggressive now are the TV station Globovision, and the newspapers El Nacional and El Universal. It is beyond doubt that the major private TV-stations were involved in the 2002 coup attempt, and the opposition media both airs and puts in print things that would be considered far beyond journalistic standards, and even subject to sanctions, in other countries.

The most infamous case of “breakdown of freedom of press” in Venezuela was when the government’s broadcasting regulation body refused to renew the public broadcasting license of the private channel RCTV in 2007- which continued broadcasting from Miami by cable. This was strictly speaking a legal right granted to a government body, and it was done both on the grounds of RCTVs clear involvement in the 2002 coup, and because of repeated administrative-legal infringes. One can ask oneself if this was a violation of the freedom of press, or if it was a state’s legitimate decision within a country’s legal framework. The answer to that depends on the eyes of the beholder, but is also closely related to the qualitative content of the “freedom of the press”-ethos. Is it legitimate of a media outlet to call for the overthrow of a democratically elected government? To what extent is it reasonable that the corporate media use their aggregated power to actively pursue their owner’s private political and economical agendas? How far can they pull the string of journalistic work ethics and still claim to be “the media”? Is freedom of the press an absolute right? What happens when the media breaks with the responsibility entrusted to them as the custodians of an informed public debate?  A lot of polemics on the media in Venezuela revolves around issues like this.

Many people have learned to become quite media savvy- they view the media with skepticism. The government-associated media outlets have various practices. There are many good debates, documentaries and creative programs aired on the government-sympathizing channels, and many are made by or with people emerging from the popular sectors. This is important, because these are voices that were previously excluded from the public debate. The government news channel VTV reports from the government’s point of view as well, but have a very limited audience in comparison with Globovision for example.

In the international media, it often seems that “everything is allowed” when it comes to Venezuela: obvious biases, selective use of sources and inaccuracies. The mainstream journalist community in Caracas moves around in their own little circle, and primarily spends time with people with an opposition bias. Their reporting reflects that. But of course, this doesn’t only come down to individual journalists. The biases of the international mainstream media are a lot more complex than that.

There also seems to be a great deal of distortion ‘by omission’. For many of us on the Left it is the creation and proliferation of community councils that is the most interesting and inspiring feature of the Bolivarian process; however we in the West don’t get to hear very much about them. Can you say a little bit about what they are and what they do?

The Communal Councils grew out of the multiple forms of grass roots organization that emerged after Chavez was elected – in particular the “social missions”. These depended on local level organization and a lot of organizational experience was conceived through this.

In short, a Communal Council consists of 150-400 families in urban areas (less in rural and indigenous areas). It plans and carries out local development projects with resources from the state. The projects so far have primarily been focusing on infrastructure and housing, but it can also be on whatever the community deems necessary—health, education, culture, sports, gender equality, socio-economic activities and so on. They have quite a complicated legal structure, so I won’t go into details—but basically, the community elects a group of people to head the Community Council- they are called spokespersons. All major decisions are taken in a Citizen Assembly and prior to deciding on projects, quite an exhaustive social diagnostic is carried out identifying the needs and resources in the community.

Around 30 000 Communal Councils have been registered around the country, though far from all of them are active. The decision to form a Communal Councils is taken by the community itself. The resources come from special state funds and are channeled through the state institution Fundacomunal, which also does the administrative follow up. They can also solicit funds from the Municipality, other government institution and some state banks.

It is often quite impressive what they have been able to achieve in terms of local improvements for the community, although there have also been a lot of problems along the way. The law was revised in 2009 to try to address this.

Some of the issues were insufficient coordination and oversight over the institutional follow-up, which provided space for economic mismanagement as well as inadequate institutional assistance. Other issues also dealt with the legal design of the Communal Councils- now the whole elected Council is a judicial body for example, and there are more chances to legally process cases of corruption. Elected spokespersons can also be revoked from the position if they don’t follow up on their responsibility. The new law also lowered the required number of families in a Communal Council area to provide better flexibility for organizing around “natural belonging”. But I think it is also important to underscore that these past years- or the first Communal Council “electoral cycle” if you can call it that- has been a learning process, both for the institutions and the Communal Councils. It is unrealistic to think that everything will go smooth from the very beginning. Prior to the revision of the law there was a major popular consultation across the country. Now, the question is of course to see what effects the “lessons learned” has had- on all levels. I am planning on going back to Venezuela this year to follow up on that.

In 2005 Chavez rejected capitalism as a model for Venezuela and called for the creation of 21st century socialism. Presumably the community councils are fundamental to this vision?

In general, they have distanced themselves from Socialist experiences from the past, and one of the basic ideas is that it is a non-dogmatic approach to Socialism – dependent on the particular conditions of each society.

The discourse revolves around a combination of state control over strategic sectors, combined with extensive spaces and mechanisms for bottom-up collective organization. Private property and initiatives are vital, but new forms of ownership and management are also introduced. For example they talk of social ownership, where the whole community, and not only a cooperative, “own” and benefits from a locally based production unit. One of the main pieces in the bottom-up component is the Communal Councils. The long term vision is that these will eventually “give birth” to a Socialist Commune (Comuna) – a “confederation” of various Communal Councils that take on more and more responsibility for the public services and local development in an area. Some areas have been constituted as a Commune already, but the experiences so far are limited and quite varied. It is hard to say to what extent the Commune will actually materialize in the form that it is envisioned, I don’t think that either the people or the state institutions are really prepared for this yet, as it implies a lot of legal and institutional issues. However, the law regulating it was approved in December 2010, so time will tell.

The reforms that Chavez promoted- and narrowly lost- in a popular vote in 2006 were about changing certain structural conditions for speeding up change. However, Venezuela is still by all means a capitalist economy in spite of increased welfare services, broader political participation, experiments with collective production-and decision making organs, and more state intervention in basic sectors. It is far from clear what “Socialism of the 21st Century” really means.

You mentioned the fact that in the recent elections for the National Assembly the PSUV (Chavez’s party) didn’t achieve an outright majority. Perhaps more ominously the PSUV only received one percent more than the opposition coalition in the popular vote. As you say this does not necessarily reflect a major shift in public sentiment towards Chavez himself. However it does (at the very least) indicate a certain degree of public exhaustion with the government. What do the recent National Assembly elections suggest for the long term prospects of ‘Bolivarian Socialism’?

I am not very fond of predicting the future, but perhaps in a few months time it will be easier to say something, when we see how the new National Assembly work together. It will be interesting to observe what attitude the opposition block (which has been absent for the past five years because they chose to boycott the 2005 elections) will assume, and if the two blocks can actually find a way to dialogue. Perhaps it is telling that the first thing some of the newly elected opposition lawmakers did, instead of showing up for the first session in the National Assembly, was to go to Washington and make an appeal to the President and various member of the Organization for American States (OAS) to react against the “devastation” of the Venezuelan democracy. This reflects the oppositions’ general strategy to shore up support abroad, above all in the US, for their opposition to Chavez. I think many of the new opposition lawmakers will use their position as a platform to agitate against Chavez, both at home and abroad, instead of actually engaging in political discussions.

The issue in particular that they vented in Washington was the Enabling Laws that Chavez was granted by the National Assembly in the beginning of the December. This came in the aftermath of the torrential rains that destroyed large parts of the infrastructure and agricultural crops, killed several dozens of people, and left well over 100 000 homeless. Through the Enabling Laws, which is a constitutional right, Chavez himself can submit law proposals to the National Assembly- within the framework and areas that the legislature has defined. The opposition claims that this is a way to stall the work of the new National Assembly, whilst the government claims that it is necessary in order to address in a substantial way the reconstruction work and preventive measures in the aftermath of the disaster. However, it is interesting to note that Chavez, in his first speech to the National Assembly, asked the lawmakers to reduce the time lapse of the Enabling Laws to five months instead of 18 months, as he originally was granted. This indicates that he is eager to show that he is stretching out a hand to cooperate with the opposition. He also vetoed a new Educational Law that had attracted a lot of criticism by the opposition, and sent it back to the new National Assembly for a new round of discussions.

I think that the failure to secure an absolute majority worries the government more than they will admit, but it is also important to recognize that the opposition actually secured fewer seats now than the last time they participated- in the 2000 elections. But I think it is good that they are back in, also for the government block. There is a need for dialogue between the two sides.

What other problems does the government currently face?

The main problems are, in short, corruption, bureaucracy and crime. Corruption was one of the main sources of anger towards the old elites, so it is a huge problem that continues under the current government, in spite of occasional crack-downs both on government-and opposition figures. Though to what extent is of course difficult to quantify, but there is an increasing frustration among the people. There is however a lot of awareness of it, and on a lower level there is an impetus to change practices- in some communities people demand to supervise public work- to exercise a form of social controllership through the Communal Councils. The bureaucracy is also too slow, too inefficient, and has not been properly able to adapt to the new policies. Many who work in the grass roots are really frustrated because their initiatives get halted in the bureaucratic grind mill. Crime is also a major problem. Somehow (and somewhat counter-intuitively) crime rates have risen in spite of major social improvements. That is a bit of a puzzle for many who work with Venezuela.

In a long-term perspective I would say that the main challenge is to diversify the economy away from its major dependence on oil. This is a huge structural endeavor.

Yes. I think they call it Dutch disease (the precipitate decline in the manufacturing sector accompanying an increase in natural resource extraction). At the Copenhagen Summit last year Chavez spoke of urgency of the world moving to a post-oil era—and yet, as you say, Venezuela is more reliant on oil than most. What steps is Venezuela taking towards a “post-oil era”?

I don’t think that they are seriously thinking of making the leap to a post-oil nation; rather the opposite. PDVSA has an ambitious strategy plan for expanding the oil-and gas industry. Many researchers, myself included, are concerned with the continuation of a vision of progress that relies on extractive industries as the cornerstone for national development. This issue is a blind spot in political debate, and goes to the heart of Venezuelan identity, history and society as such.

But in order to try to diversify the economy they are working on various fronts, both strengthening the national industry and national agricultural production. The countryside was gradually abandoned as oil revenues started to pour into state coffers more than half a century back, and the great bulk of the population lives in urban centers and along the coast line. This of course also puts major pressure on infrastructure, public services, and employment, as well as a whole range of other areas.

Venezuela also imports around 70 percent of their food, and the government has defined increased food self sufficiency as one of its major goals. As in other Latin American countries, there is a perverse concentration of land in very few hands, and much of it is lying idle. To increase food production and employment, the government has redistributed land to small farmers- campesinos- through land reforms, set up agricultural schemes and training and whole range of other initiatives, like making tractors with the help of Iran for example. But there is a long way to go here. Many campesinos have also been killed by hit men hired by the rich landowners.

State-controlled banks also have special financing schemes for productive activities. There are many more or less pinned down plans for stimulating local production in urban areas, as well as drawing up a new “production map” for the country- stimulating to increased local production based on each region’s specificities. This was also a central part of the reform package that the government lost in the 2006 referendum.

But to return to the original question: even though the non-oil sector has grown more than the oil sector during the past years, the overwhelming share of export incomes still come from oil, and Venezuela is in every sense an oil economy. To some extent, new production initiatives have had some success, but to radically change production-, consumption-, and settlement patterns is extremely complex. So they have a long way to go, and substantial success is far from given.

Samuel Grove is an editor of,  a website covering politics, media and culture in Latin America. He is the associate producer of the feature-length documentary ‘Inside the Revolution: A Journey Into the Heart of Venezuela’ (Alborada Films, 2009). He is also is one of the founders of Level Ground, an organisation that challenges elite opinion and showcases alternatives (see   He has published articles on global politics for magazines such as ‘Red Pepper’ in the UK and websites such as ‘Monthly Review Online’  and ‘Upside Down World’. He is a PhD student at Nottingham University in the UK.

Source: New Left Project ;

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Repeating Lenin by Slavoj Zizek

Lenin’s Choice

The first public reaction to the idea of reactualizing Lenin is, of course, an outburst of sarcastic laughter: Marx is OK, even on Wall Street, there are people who love him today — Marx the poet of commodities, who provided perfect descriptions of the capitalist dynamics, Marx of the Cultural Studies, who portrayed the alienation and reification of our daily lives -, but Lenin, no, you can’t be serious! The working class movement, revolutionary Party, and similar zombie-concepts? Doesn’t Lenin stand precisely for the FAILURE to put Marxism into practice, for the big catastrophe which left its mark on the entire XXth century world politics, for the Real Socialist experiment which culminated in an economically inefficient dictatorship? So, in the contemporary academic politics, the idea to deal with Lenin is accompanied by two qualifications: yes, why not, we live in a liberal democracy, there is freedom of thought… however, one should treat Lenin in an “objective critical and scientific way,” not in an attitude of nostalgic idolatry, and, furthermore, from the perspective firmly rooted in the democratic political order, within the horizon of human rights — therein resides the lesson painfully learned through the experience of the XXth century totalitarianisms.

What are we to say to this? Again, the problem resides in the implicit qualifications which can be easily discerned by the “concrete analysis of the concrete situation,” as Lenin himself would have put it. “Fidelity to the democratic consensus” means the acceptance of the present liberal-parliamentary consensus, which precludes any serious questioning of how this liberal-democratic order is complicit in the phenomena it officially condemns, and, of course, any serious attempt to imagine a society whose socio-political order would be different. In short, it means: say and write whatever you want — on condition that what you do, does not effectively question or disturb the predominant political consensus. So everything is allowed, solicited even, as a critical topic: the prospects of a global ecological catastrophe, violations of human rights, sexism, homophobia, antifeminism, the growing violence not only in the far-away countries, but also in our megalopolises, the gap between the First and the Third World, between the rich and the poor, the shattering impact of the digitalization of our daily lives… there is nothing easier today than to get international, state or corporate funds for a multidisciplinary research into how to fight the new forms of ethnic, religious or sexist violence. The problem is that all this occurs against the background of a fundamental Denkverbot, the prohibition to think. Today’s liberal-democratic hegemony is sustained by a kind of unwritten Denkverbot similar to the infamous Berufsverbot in Germany of the late 60s — the moment one shows a minimal sign of engaging in political projects that aim to seriously challenge the existing order, the answer is immediately: “Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!” The ideological function of the constant reference to the holocaust, gulag and the more recent Third World catastrophes is thus to serve as the support of this Denkverbot by constantly reminding us how things may have been much worse: “Just look around and see for yourself what will happen if we follow your radical notions!” And it is exactly the same thing that the demand for “scientific objectivity” means: the moment one seriously questions the existing liberal consensus, one is accused of abandoning scientific objectivity for the outdated ideological positions. This is the point on which one cannot and should not concede: today, the actual freedom of thought means the freedom to question the predominant liberal-democratic “post-ideological” consensus — or it means nothing.

Habermas designated the present era as that of the neue Undurchsichtlichkeit — the new opacity.1 More than ever, our daily experience is mystifying: modernization generates new obscurantisms, the reduction of freedom is presented to us as the arrival of new freedoms. In these circumstances, one should be especially careful not to confuse the ruling ideology with ideology which SEEMS to dominate. More then ever, one should bear in mind Walter Benjamin’sreminder that it is not enough to ask how a certain theory (or art) declares itself to stay with regard to social struggles — one should also ask how it effectively functions IN these very struggles. In sex, the effectively hegemonic attitude is not patriarchal repression, but free promiscuity; in art, provocations in the style of the notorious “Sensation” exhibitions ARE the norm, the example of the art fully integrated into the establishment.

One is therefore tempted to turn around Marx’s thesis 11: the first task today is precisely NOT to succumb to the temptation to act, to directly intervene and change things (which then inevitably ends in a cul de sac of debilitating impossibility: “what can one do against the global capital?”), but to question the hegemonic ideological coordinates. If, today, one follows a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space — it will be an act WITHIN the hegemonic ideological coordinates: those who “really want to do something to help people” get involved in (undoubtedly honorable) exploits like Medecins sans frontiere, Greenpeace, feminist and anti-racist campaigns, which are all not only tolerated, but even supported by the media, even if they seemingly enter the economic territory (say, denouncing and boycotting companies which do not respect ecological conditions or which use child labor) — they are tolerated and supported as long as they do not get too close to a certain limit. This kind of activity provides the perfect example of interpassivity2: of doing things not to achieve something, but to PREVENT from something really happening, really changing. All the frenetic humanitarian, politically correct, etc., activity fits the formula of “Let’s go on changing something all the time so that, globally, things will remain the same!”

Let us take two predominant topics of today’s American radical academia: postcolonial and queer (gay) studies. The problem of postcolonialism is undoubtedly crucial; however, “postcolonial studies” tend to translate it into the multiculturalist problematic of the colonized minorities’ “right to narrate” their victimizing experience, of the power mechanisms which repress “otherness,” so that, at the end of the day, we learn that the root of the postcolonial exploitation is our intolerance towards the Other, and, furthermore, that this intolerance itself is rooted in our intolerance towards the “Stranger in Ourselves,” in our inability to confront what we repressed in and of ourselves — the politico-economic struggle is thus imperceptibly transformed into a pseudo-psychoanalytic drama of the subject unable to confront its inner traumas… The true corruption of the American academia is not primarily financial, it is not only that they are able to buy many European critical intellectuals (myself included — up to a point), but conceptual: notions of the “European” critical theory are imperceptibly translated into the benign universe of the Cultural Studies chic.

My personal experience is that practically all of the “radical” academics silently count on the long-term stability of the American capitalist model, with the secure tenured position as their ultimate professional goal (a surprising number of them even play on the stock market). If there is a thing they are genuinely horrified of, it is a radical shattering of the (relatively) safe life environment of the “symbolic classes” in the developed Western societies. Their excessive Politically Correct zeal when dealing with sexism, racism, Third World sweatshops, etc., is thus ultimately a defense against their own innermost identification, a kind of compulsive ritual whose hidden logic is: “Let’s talk as much as possible about the necessity of a radical change to make it sure that nothing will really change!” Symptomatic is here the journal October: when you ask one of the editors to what the title refers, they will half-confidentially signal that it is, of course, THAT October — in this way, one can indulge in the jargonistic analyses of the modern art, with the hidden assurance that one is somehow retaining the link with the radical revolutionary past… With regard to this radical chic, the first gesture towards the Third Way ideologists and practitioners should be that of praise: they at least play their game in a straight way, and are honest in their acceptance of the global capitalist coordinates, in contrast to the pseudo-radical academic Leftists who adopt towards the Third Way the attitude of utter disdain, while their own radicality ultimately amounts to an empty gesture which obliges no one to anything determinate.

It is true that, today, it is the radical populist Right which is usually breaking the (still) predominant liberal-democratic consensus, gradually rendering acceptable the hitherto excluded topics (the partial justification of Fascism, the need to constrain abstract citizenship on behalf of ethnic identity, etc.). However, the hegemonic liberal democracy is using this fact to blackmail the Left radicals: “we shouldn’t play with fire: against the new Rightist onslaught, one should more than ever insist on the democratic consensus — any criticism of it willingly or unwillingly helps the new Right!” This is the key line of separation: one should reject this blackmail, taking the risk of disturbing the liberal consensus, up to questioning the very notion of democracy.

So how are we to respond to the eternal dilemma of the radical Left: should one strategical support center-Left figures like Bill Clinton against the conservatives, or should one adopt the stance of “it doesn’t matter, we shouldn’t get involved in these fights — in a way, it is even better if the Right is directly in power, since, in this way, it will be easier for the people to see the truth of the situation”? The answer is the variation of old Stalin’s answer to the question “Which deviation is worse, the Rightist or the Leftist one?”: THEY ARE BOTH WORSE. What one should do is to adopt the stance of the proper dialectical paradox: in principle, of course, one should be indifferent towards the struggle between the liberal and conservative pole of today’s official politics — however, one can only afford to be indifferent if the liberal option is in power. Otherwise, the price to be paid may appear much too high — recall the catastrophic consequences of the decision of theGerman Communist Party in the early 30s NOT to focus on the struggle against the Nazis, with the justification that the Nazi dictatorship is the last desperate stage of the capitalist domination, which will open eyes to the working class, shattering their belief in the “bourgeois” democratic institutions. Along these lines, Claude Lefort himself, whom no one can accuse of communist sympathies, recently made a crucial point in his answer to Francois Furet: today’s liberal consensus is the result of 150 years of the Leftist workers’ struggle and pressure upon the State, it incorporated demands which were 100 or even less years ago dismissed by liberals as horror.3 As a proof, one should just look at the list of the demands at the end of the Communist Manifesto: apart from 2 or 3 of them (which, of course, are the key one), all others are today part of the consensus (at least the disintegrating Welfare State one): the universal vote, the right to free education, universal healthcare and care for the retired, limitation of child labor…

Interpretation versus Formalization

So where are we to begin? In the present climate of the New Age obscurantism, it may appear attractive to reassert the lesson of Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism: in today’s popular reading of quantum physics, as in Lenin’s times, the doxa is that science itself finally overcame materialism — matter is supposed to “disappear,” to dissolve in the immaterial waves of energy fields.4 It is also true (as Lucio Colletti emphasized), that Lenin’s distinction between the philosophical and the scientific notion of matter, according to which, since the philosophical notion of matter as reality existing independently of mind precludes any intervention of philosophy into sciences, the very notion of “dialectics in/of nature” is thoroughly undermined. However… the “however” concerns the fact that, in Materialism and Empiriocriticism, there is NO PLACE FOR DIALECTICS, FOR HEGEL. What are Lenin’s basic theses? The rejection to reduce knowledge to phenomenalist or pragmatic instrumentalism (i.e., the assertion that, in scientific knowledge, we get to know the way things exist independently of our minds — the infamous “theory of reflection”), coupled with the insistence of the precarious nature of our knowledge (which is always limited, relative, and “reflects” external reality only in the infinite process of approximation). Does this not sound familiar? Is this, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of analytical philosophy, not the basic position of Karl Popper, the archetypal anti-Hegelian? In his short article “Lenin and Popper,”5 Colletti recalls how, in a private letter from 1970, first published in Die Zeit, Popper effectively wrote: “Lenin’s book on empiriocriticism is, in my opinion, truly excellent.”6

This hard materialist core of Empiriocriticism persists in the Philosophical Notebooks from 1915, in spite of Lenin’s rediscovery of Hegel — why? In his Notebooks, Lenin is struggling with the same problem as Adorno in his “negative dialectics”: how to combine Hegel’s legacy of the critique of every immediacy, of the subjective mediation of all given objectivity, with the minimum of materialism that Adorno calls the “predominance of the objective” (this is the reason why Lenin still clings to the “theory of reflection” according to which the human thought mirrors objective reality).7 However, both Adorno and Lenin take here the wrong path: the way to assert materialism is not by way of clinging to the minimum of objective reality OUTSIDE the thought’s subjective mediation, but by insisting on the absolute INHERENCE of the external obstacle which prevents thought from attaining full identity with itself. The moment we concede on this point and externalize the obstacle, we regress to the pseudo-problematic of the thought asymptotically approaching the ever-elusive “objective reality,” never being able to grasp it in it infinite complexity.8 The problem with Lenin’s “theory of reflection” resides in its implicit idealism: its very compulsive insistence on the independent existence of the material reality outside consciousness is to be read as a symptomatic displacement, destined to conceal the key fact that the consciousness itself is implicitly posited as EXTERNAL to the reality it “reflects.” The very metaphor of the infinite approaching to the way things really are, to the objective truth, betrays this idealism: what this metaphor leaves out of consideration is the fact that the partiality (distortion) of the “subjective reflection” occurs precisely because the subject is INCLUDED in the process it reflects — only a consciousness observing the universe from without would see the whole of reality “the way it really is.”9

This, of course, in no way entails that the tracing of the difference between idealism and materialism is today not more crucial than ever: one should only proceed in a truly Leninist way, discerning — through the “concrete analysis of concrete circumstances” — WHERE this line of separation runs. One is thus tempted to claim that, even WITHIN the field of religion, the singular point of the emergence of materialism is signalled by Christ’s words on the cross “Father, why have you forsaken me?” — in this moment of total abandonment, the subject experiences and fully assumes the inexistence of the big Other. More generally, the line of division is that between the “idealist” Socratic-Gnostic tradition claiming that the truth is within us, just to be (re)discovered through an inner journey, and the Judeo-Christian “materialist” notion that truth can only emerge from an EXTERNAL traumatic encounter which shatters the subject’s balance. “Truth” requires an effort in which we have to fight our “spontaneous” tendency.

And what if we were to connect this notion of the truth emerging from an external encounter with the (in)famous Lenin’s notion, from What Is to Be Done?, of how the working class cannot achieve its adequate class consciousness “spontaneously,” through its own “organic” development, i.e. of how this truth has to be introduced into it from outside (by the Party intellectuals)? In quoting Kautsky at this place, Lenin makes a significant change in his paraphrase: while Kautsky speaks of how the non-working-class intellectuals, who are OUTSIDE THE CLASS STRUGGLE, should introduce SCIENCE (providing objective knowledge of history) to the working class, Lenin speaks of CONSCIOUSNESS which should be introduced from outside by intellectuals who are outside the ECONOMIC struggle, NOT outside the class struggle! Here is the passage from Kautsky which Lenin quotes approvingly —

“/…/ socialism and class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other; each arises under different conditions. /…/ The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia /…/ Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously.”10

— and here is Lenin’s paraphrase of it:

“ /…/ all worship of the spontaneity of the working-class movement, all belittling of the role of ‘the conscious element,’ of the role of Social-Democracy, means, quite independently of whether he who belittles that role desires it or not, a strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon workers. /…/ the only choice is — either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course /…/ the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology /…/ for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism.”11

It may SOUND the same, but it’s NOT: in Kautsky, there is no space for politics proper, just the combination of the social (working class and its struggle, from which intellectuals are implicitly EXCLUDED) and the pure neutral classless, asubjective, knowledge of these intellectuals. In Lenin, on the contrary, “intellectuals” themselves are caught in the conflict of IDEOLOGIES (i.e. the ideological class struggle) which is unsurpassable. (It was already Marx who made this point, from his youth when he dreamt of the unity of German Idealist philosophy and the French revolutionary masses, to his insistence, in late years, that the leadership of the International should under no conditions be left to the English workers: although the most numerous and best organized, they — in contrast to German workers — lack theoretical stringency.)

The key question thus concerns the exact STATUS of this externality: is it simply the externality of an impartial “objective” scientist who, after studying history and establishing that, in the long run, the working class has a great future ahead, decides to join the winning side? So when Lenin says “The theory of Marx is all-powerful, because it is true,” everything depends on how we understand “truth” here: is it a neutral “objective knowledge,” or the truth of an engaged subject? Lenin’s wager — today, in our era of postmodern relativism, more actual than ever — is that universal truth and partisanship, the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its UNIVERSAL truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly PARTISAN position — truth is by definition one-sided. (This, of course, goes against the predominant doxa of compromise, of finding a middle path among the multitude of conflicting interests.) Why not, then, shamelessly and courageously ENDORSE the boring standard reproach according to which, Marxism is a “secularized religion,” with Lenin as the Messiah, etc.? Yes, assuming the proletarian standpoint IS EXACTLY like making a leap of faith and assuming a full subjective engagement for its Cause; yes, the “truth” of Marxism is perceptible only to those who accomplish this leap, NOT to any neutral observers. What the EXTERNALITY means here is that this truth is nonetheless UNIVERSAL, not just the “point-of-view” of a particular historical subject: “external” intellectuals are needed because the working class cannot immediately perceive ITS OWN PLACE within the social totality which enables it to accomplish its “mission” — this insight has to be mediated through an external element.

And why not link these two externalities (that of the traumatic experience of the divine Real, and that of the Party) to the third one, that of the ANALYST in the psychoanalytic cure? In all three cases, we are dealing with the same impossibility which bears witness to a materialist obstacle: it is not possible for the believer to “discover God in himself,” through self-immersion, by spontaneously realizing its own Self — God must intervene from outside, disturbing our balance; it is not possible for the working class to actualize spontaneously its historical mission — the Party must intervene from outside, shaking it out of its self-indulgent spontaneity; it is not possible for the patient/analyst to analyze himself — in contrast to the Gnostic self-immersion, in psychoanalysis, there is no self-analysis proper, analysis is only possible if a foreign kernel which gives body to the object-cause of the subject’s desire. Why, then, this impossibility? Precisely because neither of the three subjects (believer, proletarian, analyst) is a self-centered agent of self-mediation, but a decentered agent struggling with a foreign kernel. God, Analyst, Party — the three forms of the “subject supposed to know,” of the transferential object, which is why, in all three cases, one hears the claim “God/Analyst/ the Party is always right”; and, as it was clear already to Kierkegaard, the truth of this statement is always its negative — MAN is always wrong. This external element does not stand for objective knowledge, i.e. its externality is strictly INTERNAL: the need for the Party stems from the fact that the working class is never “fully itself.”

In his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx already deploys something like the logic of hegemony: the emergence of a “universal class,” a particular class which imposes itself as universal, engendering global enthusiasm, standing for society AS SUCH against the ancien regime, anti-social crime AS SUCH (like bourgeoisie in the French revolution). After follows the disillusion so sarcastically described by Marx: the day after, the gap between universal and particular becomes visible again, capitalist vulgar profit as the actuality of universal freedom, etc. — For Marx, of course, the only universal class whose singularity (exclusion from society of property) guarantees its ACTUAL universality, is the proletariat. This is what Ernesto Laclau rejects in his logic of hegemony: for Laclau, the short-circuit between the Universal and the Particular is ALWAYS illusory, temporary, a kind of “transcendental paralogism.”12However, is Marx’s proletariat really the negative of positive full essential humanity, or “only” the gap of universality AS SUCH, irrecoverable in any positivity?13In Alain Badiou’s terms, proletariat is not another PARTICULAR class, but a SINGULARITY of the social structure, and AS SUCH the universal class, the non-class among the classes.

What is crucial here is the properly temporal-dialectical tension between the Universal and the Particular. When Marx says that, in Germany, because of the compromised pettiness of the bourgeoisie, it is too late for the partial bourgeois emancipation, and that, because of it, in Germany, the condition of every particular emancipation is the UNIVERSAL emancipation, one way to read this is to see in it the assertion of the universal “normal” paradigm and its exception: in the “normal” case, partial (false) bourgeois emancipation will be followed by the universal emancipation through the proletarian revolution, while in Germany, the “normal” order gets mixed up. There is, however, another, much more radical way to read it: the very German exception, the inability of its bourgeoisie to achieve partial emancipation, opens up the space for the possible UNIVERSAL emancipation. The dimension of universality thus emerges (only) where the “normal” order enchaining the succession of the particulars is perturbed. Because of this, there is no “normal” revolution, EACH revolutionary explosion is grounded in an exception, in a short-circuit of “too late” and “too early.” The French Revolution occurred because France was not able to follow the “normal” English path of capitalist development; the very “normal” English path resulted in the “unnatural” division of labor between the capitalists who hold socio-economic power and the aristocracy to which was left the political power.

One can also make the same point in the terms of the opposition between interpretation and formalization14: the external agent (Party, God, Analyst) is NOT the one who “understands us better than ourselves,” who can provide the true interpretation of what our acts and statements mean; it rather stands for the FORM of our activity. Say, Marx’s deployment of the commodity form in the Chapter 1 of Capital is NOT a “narrative,” a Vorstellung, but a Darstellung, the deployment of the inner structure of the universe of merchandises — the narrative is, on the contrary, the story of the “primitive accumulation,” the myth capitalism proposes about its own origins. (Along the same lines, Hegel’s Phenomenology — contrary to Rorty’s reading — does not propose a large narrative, but the FORM of subjectivity; as Hegel himself emphasizes in the Foreword, it focuses on the “formal aspect /das Formelle/.15 This is how one should approach the absence of large all-encompassing narratives today — recall Fredric Jameson’s supple description of the deadlock of the dialogue between the Western New Left and the Eastern European dissidents, of the absence of any common language between them:

“To put it briefly, the East wishes to talk in terms of power and oppression; the West in terms of culture and commodification. There are really no common denominators in this initial struggle for discursive rules, and what we end up with is the inevitable comedy of each side muttering irrelevant replies in its own favorite language.”16

Jameson at the same time insists that Marxism still provides the universal meta-language enabling us to situate and relate all other partial narrativizations/interpretations — is he simply inconsistent? Are there two Jamesons: one, postmodern, the theorist of the irreducible multiplicity of the narratives, the other, the more traditional partisan of the Marxist universal hermeneutics? The only way to save Jameson from this predicament is to insist that Marxism is here not the all-encompassing interpretive horizon, but the matrix which enables us to account for (to generate) the multiplicity of narratives and/or interpretations. It is also here that one should introduce the key dialectical distinction between the FOUNDING figure of a movement and the later figure who FORMALIZED this movement: ultimately, it was Lenin who effectively “formalized” Marx by way of defining the Party as the political form of its historical intervention, in the same way that St. Paul “formalized” Christ and Lacan “formalized” Freud.17

This formalization is strictly correlative to focusing on the Real of an antagonism: “class struggle” is not the last horizon of meaning, the last signified of all social phenomena, but the formal generative matrix of the different ideological horizons of understanding. That is to say, one should not confuse this properly dialectical notion of Form with the liberal-multiculturalist notion of Form as the neutral framework of the multitude of “narratives” — not only literature, but also politics, religion, science, they are all different narratives, stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves, and the ultimate goal of ethics is to guarantee the neutral space in which this multitude of narratives can peacefully coexist, in which everyone, from ethnic to sexual minorities, will have the right and possibility to tell his story. The properly dialectical notion of Form signals precisely the IMPOSSIBILITY of this liberal notion of Form: Form has nothing to do with “formalism,” with the idea of a neutral Form, independent of its contingent particular content; it rather stands for the traumatic kernel of the Real, for the antagonism, which “colors” the entire field in question. In this precise sense, class struggle is the Form of the Social: every social phenomenon is overdetermined by it, which means that it is not possible to remain neutral towards it.

Of Apes and Men

Lenin’s legacy to be reinvented today is the politics of truth. We live in the “postmodern” era in which truth-claims as such are dismissed as an expression of hidden power-mechanisms — as the reborn pseudo-Nietzscheans like to emphasize, truth is a lie which is most efficient in asserting our will to power. The very question, apropos of some statement, “Is it true?”, is supplanted by the question “Under what power conditions can this statement be uttered?”. What we get instead of the universal truth is the multitude of perspectives, or, as it is fashionable to put it today, of “narratives” — not only literature, but also politics, religion, science, they are all different narratives, stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves, and the ultimate goal of ethics is to guarantee the neutral space in which this multitude of narratives can peacefully coexist, in which everyone, from ethnic to sexual minorities, will have the right and possibility to tell his story. THE two philosophers of today’s global capitalism are the two great Left-liberal “progressives,” Richard Rorty and Peter Singer — honest in their consequent stance. Rorty defines the basic coordinates: the fundamental dimension of a human being is the ability to suffer, to experience pain and humiliation — consequently, since humans are symbolic animals, the fundamental right is the right to narrate one’s experience of suffering and humiliation.18 Singer then provides the Darwinian background.19

Singer — usually designated as a “social Darwinist with a collectivist socialist face” — starts innocently enough, trying to argue that people will be happier if they lead lives committed to ethics: a life spent trying to help others and reduce suffering is really the most moral and fulfilling one. He radicalizes and actualizesJeremiah Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism: the ultimate ethical criterion is not the dignity (rationality, soul) of man, but the ability to SUFFER, to experience pain, which man shares with animals. With inexorable radicality, Singer levels the animal/human divide: better kill an old suffering woman that healthy animals… Look an orangutan straight in the eye and what do you see? A none-too-distant cousin — a creature worthy of all the legal rights and privileges that humans enjoy. One should thus extend aspects of equality — the right to life, the protection of individual liberties, the prohibition of torture — at least to the nonhuman great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas).

Singer argues that “speciesism” (privileging the human species) is no different from racism: our perception of a difference between humans and (other) animals is no less illogical and unethical than our one-time perception of an ethical difference between, say, men and women, or blacks and whites. Intelligence is no basis for determining ethical stature: the lives of humans are not worth more than the lives of animals simply because they display more intelligence (if intelligence were a standard of judgment, Singer points out, we could perform medical experiments on the mentally retarded with moral impunity). Ultimately, all things being equal, an animal has as much interest in living as a human. Therefore, all things being equal, medical experimentation on animals is immoral: those who advocate such experiments claim that sacrificing the lives of 20 animals will save millions of human lives — however, what about sacrificing 20 humans to save millions of animals? As Singer’s critics like to point out, the horrifying extension of this principle is that the interests of 20 people outweighs the interests of one, which gives the green light to all sorts of human rights abuses.

Consequently, Singer argues that we can no longer rely on traditional ethics for answers to the dilemmas which our constellation imposes on ourselves; he proposes a new ethics meant to protect the quality, not the sanctity, of human life. As sharp boundaries disappear between life and death, between humans and animals, this new ethics casts doubt on the morality of animal research, while offering a sympathetic assessment of infanticide. When a baby is born with severe defects of the sort that always used to kill babies, are doctors and parents now morally obligated to use the latest technologies, regardless of cost? NO. When a pregnant woman loses all brain function, should doctors use new procedures to keep her body living until the baby can be born? NO. Can a doctor ethically help terminally ill patients to kill themselves? YES.

The first thing to discern here is the hidden utopian dimension of such a survivalist stance. The easiest way to detect ideological surplus-enjoyment in an ideological formation is to read it as a dream and analyze the displacement at work in it. Freud reports of a dream of one of his patients which consists of a simple scene: the patient is at a funeral of one of his relatives. The key to the dream (which repeats a real-life event from the previous day) is that, at this funeral, the patient unexpectedly encountered a woman, his old love towards whom he still felt very deeply — far from being a masochistic dream, this dream thus simply articulates the patient’s joy at meeting again his old love. Is the mechanism of displacement at work in this dream not strictly homologous to the one elaborated by Fredric Jameson apropos of a science-fiction film which takes place in California in near future, after a mysterious virus has very quickly killed a great majority of the population? When the film’s heroes wander in the empty shopping malls, with all the merchandises intact at their disposal, is this libidinal gain of having access to the material goods without the alienating market machinery not the true point of the film occluded by the displacement of the official focus of the narrative on the catastrophe caused by the virus? At an even more elementary level, is not one of the commonplaces of the sci-fi theory that the true point of the novels or movies about a global catastrophe resides in the sudden reassertion of social solidarity and the spirit of collaboration among the survivors? It is as if, in our society, global catastrophe is the price one has to pay for gaining access to solidary collaboration…

When my son was a small boy, his most cherished personal possession was a special large “survival knife” whose handle contained a compass, a sack of powder to disinfect water, a fishing hook and line, and other similar items — totally useless in our social reality, but perfectly fitting the survivalist fantasy of finding oneself alone in wild nature. It is this same fantasy which, perhaps, give the clue to the success of Joshua Piven’s and David Borgenicht’s surprise best-seller The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.20 Suffice it to mention two supreme examples from it: What to do if an alligator has its jaws closed on your limb? (Answer: you should tap or punch it on the snout, because alligators automatically react to it by opening their mouths.) What to do if you confront a lion which threatens to attack you? (Answer: try to make yourself appear bigger than you are by opening your coat wide.) The joke of the book thus consists in the discord between its enunciated content and its position of enunciation: the situations it describes are effectively serious and the solutions correct — the only problem is WHY IS THE AUTHOR TELLING US ALL THIS? WHO NEEDS THIS ADVICE?

The underlying irony is that, in our individualistic competitive society, the most useless advice concerns survival in extreme physical situations — what one effectively needs is the very opposite, the Dale Carnegie type of books which tell us how to win over (manipulate) other people: the situations rendered in The Worst-Case Scenario lack any symbolic dimension, they reduce us to pure survival machines. In short, The Worst-Case Scenario became a best-seller for the very same reason Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, the story (and the movie) about the struggle for survival of a fishing vessel caught in the “storm of the century” east of the Canadian coast in 1991, became one: they both stage the fantasy of the pure encounter with a natural threat in which the socio-symbolic dimension is suspended. In a way, The Perfect Storm even provides the secret utopian background of The Worst-Case Scenario: it is only in such extreme situations that an authentic intersubjective community, held together by solidarity, can emerge. Let us not forget that The Perfect Storm is ultimately the book about the solidarity of a small working class collective! The humorous appeal of The Worst-Case Scenario can thus be read as bearing witness to our utter alienation from nature, exemplified by the shortage of contact with “real life” dangers.

We all know the standard pragmatic-utilitarian criticism of the abstract humanist education: who needs philosophy, Latin quotes, classic literature — one should rather learn how to act and produce in real life… well, in The Worst-Case Scenario, we get such real life lessons, with the result that they uncannily resemble the useless classic humanist education. Recall the proverbial scenes of the drilling of young pupils, boring them to death by making them mechanically repeat some formulas (like the declination of the Latin verbs) — the Worst-Case Scenario counterpoint to it would have been the scene of forcing the small children in the elementary school to learn by heart the answers to the predicaments this book describes by repeating them mechanically after the teacher: “When the alligator bites your leg, you punch him on the nose with your hand! When the lion confronts you, you open your coat wide!”21

So, back to Singer, one cannot dismiss him as a monstrous exaggeration — what Adorno said about psychoanalysis (its truth resides in its very exaggerations)22fully holds for Singer: he is so traumatic and intolerable because his scandalous “exaggerations” directly renders visible the truth of the so-called postmodern ethics. Is effectively not the ultimate horizon of the postmodern “identity politics” Darwinian — defending the right of some particular species of the humankind within the panoply of their proliferating multitude (gays with AIDS, black single mothers…)? The very opposition between “conservative” and “progressive” politics can be conceived of in the terms of Darwinism: ultimately, conservatives defend the right of those with might (their very success proves that they won in the struggle for survival), while progressives advocate the protection of endangered human species, i.e., of those losing the struggle for survival.23

One of the divisions in the chapter on Reason in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit speaks about “das geistige Tierreich” (the spiritual animal kingdom): the social world which lacks any spiritual substance, so that, in it, individuals effectively interact as “intelligent animals.” They use reason, but only in order to assert their individual interests, to manipulate others into serving their own pleasures.24 Is not a world in which the highest rights are human rights precisely such a “spiritual animal kingdom,” a universe? There is, however, a price to be paid for such liberation — in such a universe, human rights ultimately function as ANIMAL rights. This, then, is the ultimate truth of Singer: our universe of human right is the universe of animal rights.

The obvious counterargument is here: so what? Why should we not reduce humankind to its proper place, that of one of the animal species? What gets lost in this reduction? Jacques-Alain Miller, the main pupil of Jacques Lacan, once commented an uncanny laboratory experiment with rats25: in a labyrinthine set-up, a desired object (a piece of good food or a sexual partner) is first made easily accessible to a rat; then, the set-up is changed in such a way that the rat sees and thereby knows where the desired object is, but cannot gain access to it; in exchange for it, as a kind of consolation prize, a series of similar objects of inferior value is made easily accessible — how does the rat react to it? For some time, it tries to find its way to the “true” object; then, upon ascertaining that this object is definitely out of reach, the rat will renounce it and put up with some of the inferior substitute objects — in short, it will act as a “rational” subject of utilitarianism.

It is only now, however, that the true experiment begins: the scientists performed a surgical operation on the rat, messing about with its brain, doing things to it with laser beams about which, as Miller put it delicately, it is better to know nothing. So what happened when the operated rat was again let loose in the labyrinth, the one in which the “true” object is inaccessible? The rat insisted: it never became fully reconciled with the loss of the “true” object and resigned itself to one of the inferior substitutes, but repeatedly returned to it, attempted to reach it. In short, the rat in a sense was humanized; it assumed the tragic “human” relationship towards the unattainable absolute object which, on account of its very inaccessibility, forever captivates our desire. On the other hand, it is this very “conservative” fixation that pushes man to continuing renovation, since he never can fully integrate this excess into his life process. So we can see why did Freud use the term Todestrieb: the lesson of psychoanalysis is that humans are not simply alive; on the top of it, they are possessed by a strange drive to enjoy life in excess of the ordinary run of things — and “death” stands simply and precisely for the dimension beyond ordinary biological life.

This, then, is what gets lost in Singer’s “geistige Tierreich”: the Thing, something to which we are unconditionally attached irrespective of its positive qualities. In Singer’s universe, there is a place for mad cows, but no place for an Indian sacred cow. In other words, what gets lost here is simply the dimension of truth — NOT “objective truth” as the notion of reality from a point of view which somehow floats above the multitude of particular narratives, but truth as the Singular Universal.” When Lenin said “The theory of Marx is all-powerful, because it is true,” everything depends on how we understand “truth” here: is it a neutral “objective knowledge,” or the truth of an engaged subject? Lenin’s wager — today, in our era of postmodern relativism, more actual than ever — is that universal truth and partisanship, the gesture of taking sides, are not only not mutually exclusive, but condition each other: in a concrete situation, its UNIVERSAL truth can only be articulated from a thoroughly PARTISAN position — truth is by definition one-sided. This, of course, goes against the predominant doxa of compromise, of finding a middle path among the multitude of conflicting interests. If one does not specify the CRITERIA of the different, alternate, narrativization, then this endeavor courts the danger of endorsing, in the Politically Correct mood, ridiculous “narratives” like those about the supremacy of some aboriginal holistic wisdom, of dismissing science as just another narrative on a par with premodern superstitions. The Leninist narrative to the postmodern multiculturalist “right to narrate” should thus be an unashamed assertion of the right to truth. When, in the debacle of 1914, all European Social Democratic parties (with the honorable exception of the Russian Bolsheviks and the Serb Social Democrats) succumbed to the war fervor and voted for the military credits, Lenin’s thorough rejection of the “patriotic line,” in its very isolation from the predominant mood, designated the singular emergence of the truth of the entire situation.

In a closer analysis, one should exhibit how the cultural relativism of the “right-to-narrate” orientation contains its own apparent opposite, the fixation on the Real of some trauma which resists its narrativization. This properly dialectical tension sustains today’s the academic “holocaust industry.” My own ultimate experience of the holocaust-industry police occurred in 1997 at a round table in the Centre Pompidou in Paris: I was viciously attacked for an intervention in which (among other things) I claimed, against the neoconservatives deploring the decline of faith today, that the basic need of a normal human being is not to believe himself, but to have another subject who will believe for him, at his place — the reaction of one of the distinguished participants was that, by claiming this, I am ultimately endorsing the holocaust revisionism, justifying the claim that, since everything is a discursive construct, this includes also the holocaust, so it is meaningless to search for what really happened there… Apart from displaying a hypocritical paranoia, my critic was doubly wrong: first, the holocaust revisionists (to my knowledge) NEVER argue in the terms of the postmodern discursive constructionism, but in the terms of very empirical factual analysis: their claims range from the “fact” that there is no written document in which Hitler would have ordered the holocaust, to the weird mathematics of “taking into account the number of gas ovens in Auschwitz, it was not possible to burn so many corpses.” Furthermore, not only is the postmodern logic of “everything is a discursive construction, there are no direct firm facts” NEVER used to deflate the holocaust; in a paradox worth noting, it is precisely the postmodern discursive constructionists (like Lyotard) who tend to elevate the holocaust into the supreme ineffable metaphysical Evil — the holocaust serves them as the untouchable-sacred Real, as the negative of the contingent language games.26

The problem with those who perceive every comparison between the holocaust and other concentration camps and mass political crimes as an inadmissiblerelativization of the holocaust, is that they miss the point and display their own doubt: yes, the holocaust WAS unique, but the only way to establish this uniqueness is to compare it with other similar phenomena and thus demonstrate the limit of this comparison. If one does not risk this comparison, of one prohibits it, one gets caught in the Wittgensteinian paradox of prohibiting to speak about that about which we cannot speak: if we stick to the prohibition of the comparison, the gnawing suspicion emerges that, if we were to be allowed to compare the holocaust with other similar crimes, it would be deprived of its uniqueness…

Lenin As a Listener of Schubert

So how can the reference to Lenin deliver us from this stuff predicament? Some libertarian Leftists want to redeem — partially, at least — Lenin by opposing the “bad” Jacobin-elitist Lenin of What Is To Be Done?, relying on the Party as the professional intellectual elite which enlightens the working class from OUTSIDE, and the “good” Lenin of State and Revolution, who envisioned the prospect of abolishing the State, of the broad masses directly taking into their hands the administration of the public affairs. However, this opposition has its limits: the key premise of State and Revolution is that one cannot fully “democratize” the State, that State “as such,” in its very notion, is a dictatorship of one class over another; the logical conclusion from this premise is that, insofar as we still dwell within the domain of the State, we are legitimized to exercise full violent terror, since, within this domain, every democracy is a fake. So, since state is an instrument of oppression, it is not worth trying to improve its apparatuses, the protection of the legal order, elections, laws guaranteeing personal freedoms… — all this becomes irrelevant. The moment of truth in this reproach is that one cannot separate the unique constellation which enabled the revolutionary takeover in October 1917 from its later “Stalinist” turn: the very constellation that rendered the revolution possible (peasants’ dissatisfaction, a well-organized revolutionary elite, etc.) led to the “Stalinist” turn in its aftermath — therein resides the proper Leninist tragedy. Rosa Luxembourg’s famous alternative “socialism or barbarism” ended up as the ultimate infinite judgement, asserting the speculative identity of the two opposed terms: the “really existing” socialism WAS barbarism.27

In the diaries of Georgi Dimitroff, which were recently published in German,28 we get a unique glimpse into how Stalin was fully aware what brought him to power, giving an unexpected twist to his well-known slogan that “people (cadres) are our greatest wealth.” When, at a diner in November 1937, Dimitroff praises the “great luck” of the international workers, that they had such a genius as their leader, Stalin, Stalin answers:

“… I do not agree with him. He even expressed himself in a non-Marxist way.
Decisive are the middle cadres.”(7.11.37)

He puts it in an even clearer way a paragraph earlier:

“Why did we win over Trotsky and others? It is well known that, after Lenin, Trotsky was the most popular in our land.
But we had the support of the middle cadres, and they explained our grasp of the situation to the masses … Trotsky did not pay any attention to these cadres.”

Here Stalin spells out the secret of his rise to power: as a rather anonymous General Secretary, he nominated tens of thousands of cadres who owed their rise to him… This is why Stalin did not yet want Lenin dead in the early 1922, rejecting his demand to be given poison to end his life after the debilitating stroke: if Lenin were to die already in early 1922, the question of succession would not yet be resolved in Stalin’s favor, since Stalin as the general secretary did not yet penetrate enough the Party apparatus with his appointees — he needed another year or two, so that, when Lenin effectively dies, he could count on the support of thousands of mid-level cadres nominated by him to win over the big old names of the Bolshevik “aristocracy.”

Here are some details of the daily life of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the following years, which, in their very triviality, render palpable the gap from the Stalinist nomenklatura. When, in the evening of 24 October 1917, Lenin left his flat for the Smolny Institute to coordinate the revolutionary takeover, he took a tram and asked the conductress if there was any fighting going on in the center that day. In the years after the October Revolution, Lenin was mostly driving around in a car only with his faithful driver and bodyguard Gil; a couple of times they were shot at, stopped by the police and arrested (the policemen did not recognize Lenin), once, after visiting a school in suburbs, even robbed of the car and their guns by bandits posing as police, and then compelled to walk to the nearest police station. When, on 30 August 1918, Lenin was shot, this occurred while he got in a conversation with a couple of complaining women in front of a factory he just visited; the bleeding Lenin was driven by Gil to Kremlin, were there were no doctors, so his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya suggested someone should run out to the nearest grocer’s shop for a lemon… The standard meal in the Kremlin kantina in 1918 was buckwheat porridge and thin vegetable soup. So much about the privileges of nomenklatura!

Lenin’s slanderers like to evoke his famous paranoiac reaction at listening to Beethoven’s appasionata (he first started to cry, then claimed that a revolutionary cannot afford to let himself go to such sentiments, because they make him too weak, wanting to pat the enemies instead of mercilessly fighting them) as the proof of his cold self-control and cruelty — however, even at its own terms, is this accident effectively an argument AGAINST Lenin? Does it not rather bear witness to an extreme sensitivity for music that needs to be kept in check in order to continue the political struggle? Who of today’s cynical politicians still displays even a trace of such a sensitivity? Is not Lenin here at the very opposite of the high-ranked Nazis who, without any difficulty, combined such a sensitivity with the extreme cruelty in taking political decisions (suffice it to recall Heydrich, the holocaust architect, who, after a hard day’s work, always found time to play with his comrades Beethoven’s string quartets) — is not the proof of Lenin’s humanity that, in contrast to this supreme barbarism, which resides in the very unproblematic unity of high culture and political barbarism, he was still extremely sensitive to the irreducible antagonism between art in power struggle?

Furthermore, one is tempted to develop a Leninist theory of this high-cultured barbarism. Hans Hotter’s outstanding 1942 recording of Schubert’s Winterreiseseems to call for an intentionally anachronistic reading: it is easy to imagine German officers and soldiers listening to this recording in the Stalingrad trenches in the cold Winter of 42/43. Does the topic of Winterreise not evoke a unique consonance with the historical moment? Was not the whole campaign to Stalingrad a gigantic Winterreise, where each German soldier can say for himself the very first lines of the cycle:

“I came here a stranger,
As a stranger I depart”?

Do the following lines not render their basic experience:

“Now the world is so gloomy,
The road shrouded in snow.
I cannot choose the time
To begin my journey,
Must find my own way
In this darkness.”

Here we have the endless meaningless march:

“It burns under both my feet,
Even though I walk on ice and snow;
I don’t want to catch my breath
Until I can no longer see the spires.”

The dream of returning home in the Spring:

“I dreamed of many-colored flowers,
The way they bloom in May;
I dreamed of green meadows,
Of merry bird calls.”

The nervous waiting for the post:

“From the highroad a posthorn sounds.
Why do you leap so high, my heart?”

The shock of the morning artillery attack:

“The cloud tatters flutter
Around in weary strife.
And fiery red flames
Dart around among them.”

Utterly exhausted, the soldiers are refused even the solace of death:

“I’m tired enough to drop, have taken mortal hurt.
Oh, merciless inn, you turn me away?
Well, onward then, still further, my loyal walking staff!”

What can one do in such a desperate situation, but to go on with heroic persistence, closing one’s ears to the complaint of the heart, assuming the heavy burden of fate in a world deserted by Gods?

“If the snow flies in my face,
I shake it off again.
When my heart speaks in my breast,
I sing loudly and gaily.
I don’t hear what it says to me,
I have no ears to listen;
I don’t feel when it laments,
Complaining is for fools.
Happy through the world along
Facing wind and weather!
If there’s no God upon the earth,
Then we ourselves are Gods!”

The obvious counter-argument is that all this is merely a superficial parallel: even if there is an echo of the atmosphere and emotions, they are in each case embedded in an entirely different context: in Schubert, the narrator wanders around in Winter because the beloved has dropped him, while the German soldiers were on the way to Stalingrad because of Hitler’s military plans. However, it is precisely in this displacement that the elementary ideological operation consists: the way for a German soldier to be able to endure his situation was to avoid the reference to concrete social circumstances which would become visible through reflection (what the hell were they doing in Russia? what destruction did they bring to this country? what about killing the Jews?), and, instead, to indulge in the Romantic bemoaning of one’s miserable fate, as if the large historical catastrophe just materializes the trauma of a rejected lover. Is this not the supreme proof of the emotional abstraction, of Hegel’s idea that emotions are ABSTRACT, an escape from the concrete socio-political network accessible only to THINKING.

And one is tempted to make here a Leninist step further: in our reading of the Winterreise, we did not just link Schubert to a contingent later historical catastrophe, we did not just try to imagine how this song-cycle resonated to the embattled German soldiers in Stalingrad. What if the link to this catastrophe enables us to read what was wrong in the Schubertian Romantic position itself? What if the position of the Romantic tragic hero, narcissistically focused on his own suffering and despair, elevating them into a source of perverted pleasure, is already in itself a fake one, an ideological screen masking the true trauma of the larger historical reality? One should thus accomplish the properly Hegelian gesture of projecting the split between the authentic original and its later reading colored by contingent circumstances back into the authentic original itself: what at first appears the secondary distortion, a reading twisted by the contingent external circumstances, tells us something about what the authentic original itself not only represses, leaves out, but had the function to repress. Therein resides the Leninist answer to the famous passage from the Introduction to the Grundrisse manuscript, in which Marx mentions how easy it is to explain Homer’s poetry from its unique historical context — it is much more difficult to explain its universal appeal, i.e. why it continues to give us artistic pleasure long after its historical context disappeared29: this universal appeal is based in its very ideological function of enabling us to abstract from our concrete ideologico-political constellation by way of taking refuge in the “universal” (emotional) content. So, far from signalling some kind of trans-ideological heritage of the humankind, the universal attraction of Homer relies on the universalizing gesture of ideology.

“Entre nous: If they kill me…”

In what, then, resides Lenin’s greatness? Recall Lenin’s shock when, in the Fall of 1914, the Social Democratic parties adopted the “patriotic line” — Lenin even thought that the issue of Vorwärts, the daily newspaper of the German Social Democracy, which reported how Social Democrats in Reichstag voted for the military credits, was a forgery of the Russian secret police destined to deceive the Russian workers. In that era of the military conflict that cut in half the European continent, how difficult it was to reject the notion that one should take sides in this conflict, and to fight against the “patriotic fervor” in one’s own country! How many great minds (inclusive of Freud) succumbed to the nationalist temptation, even if only for a couple of weeks! This shock of 1914 was — in Badiou’s terms — a desastre, a catastrophe in which an entire world disappeared: not only the idyllic bourgeois faith in progress, but ALSO the socialist movement which accompanied it. Lenin himself (the Lenin of What Is to Be Done?) lost the ground under his feet — there is, in his desperate reaction, no satisfaction, no “I told you so!” THIS the moment of Verzweiflung, THIS catastrophe opened up the site for the Leninist event, for breaking the evolutionary historicism of the Second International — and only Lenin was the one at the level of this opening, the one to articulate the Truth of THIS catastrophe.30 Through this moment of despair, the Lenin who, through reading Hegel, was able to detect the unique chance for revolution, was born. His State and Revolution is strictly correlative to this shattering experience — Lenin’s full subjective engagement in it is clear from this famous letter to Kamenev from July 1917:

Entre nous: If they kill me, I ask you to publish my notebook “Marxism & the State” (stuck in Stockholm). It is bound in a blue cover. It is a collection of all the quotations from Marx & Engels, likewise from Kautsky against Pannekoek. There is a series of remarks & notes, formulations. I think with a week’s work it could be published. I consider it imp. for not only Plekhanov but also Kautsky got it wrong. Condition: all this is entre nous.”31

The existential engagement is here extreme, and the kernel of the Leninist “utopia” arises out of the ashes of the catastrophe of 1914, in his settling of the accounts with the Second International orthodoxy: the radical imperative to smash the bourgeois state, which means the state AS SUCH, and to invent a new communal social form without a standing army, police or bureaucracy, in which all could take part in the administration of the social matters. This was for Lenin no theoretical project for some distant future — in October 1917, Lenin claimed that “we can at once set in motion a state apparatus constituting of ten if not twenty million people.”32 This urge of the moment is the true utopia. One cannot overestimate the explosive potential of The State and Revolution — in this book, “the vocabulary and grammar of the Western tradition of politics was abruptly dispensed with.”33 What then followed can be called, borrowing the title of Althusser’s text on Machiavellila solitude de Lenine: the time when he basically stood alone, struggling against the current in his own party. When, in his “April Theses” from 1917, Lenin discerned the Augenblick, the unique chance for a revolution, his proposals were first met with stupor or contempt by a large majority of his party colleagues. Within the Bolshevik party, no prominent leader supported his call to revolution, and Pravda took the extraordinary step of dissociating the party, and the editorial board as a whole, from Lenin’s “April Theses” — far from being an opportunist flattering and exploiting the prevailing mood of the populace, Lenin’s views were highly idiosyncratic. Bogdanov characterized “April Theses” as “the delirium of a madman,”34 and Nadezhda Krupskaya herself concluded that “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”35

“Lenin” is not the nostalgic name for old dogmatic certainty; quite on the contrary, to put it in Kierkegaard’s terms, THE Lenin which we want to retrieve is the Lenin-in-becoming, the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which old coordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to REINVENT Marxism — recall his acerbic remark apropos of some new problem: “About this, Marx and Engels said not a word.” The idea is not to return to Lenin, but to REPEAT him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation. The return to Lenin aims neither at nostalgically reenacting the “good old revolutionary times,” nor at the opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old program to “new conditions,” but at repeating, in the present world-wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of reinventing the revolutionary project in the conditions of imperialism and colonialism, more precisely: after the politico-ideological collapse of the long era of progressism in the catastrophe of 1914. Eric Hobsbawn defined the CONCEPT of the XXth century as the time between 1914, the end of the long peaceful expansion of capitalism, and 1990, the emergence of the new form of global capitalism after the collapse of the Really Existing Socialism. What Lenin did for 1914, we should do for 1990. “Lenin” stands for the compelling FREEDOM to suspend the stale existing (post)ideological coordinates, the debilitating Denkverbot in which we live — it simply means that we are allowed to think again.

One of the standard accusations against Lenin is that, insensible for the universal human dimension, he perceived all social events through the lenses of the class struggle, of “us against them.” However, are Lenin’s appeals against the patriotic fervor during the World War I not an exemplary case of practicing what Alain Badiou36 calls the universal function of “humanity,” which has nothing whatsoever to do with so-called “humanism.” This “humanity” is neither a notional abstraction, nor the pathetic imaginary assertion of the all-encompassing brotherhood, but a universal function which actualizes itself in unique ecstatic experiences, like those of the soldiers from the opposite trenches starting to fraternize. In Jaroslav Hasek’s legendary comical novel The Good Soldier Schwejk, the adventures of an ordinary Czech soldier who undermines the ruling order by simply following orders too literally, Schwejk finds himself at the frontline trenches in Galicia, where the Austrian army is confronting the Russians. When Austrian soldiers start to shoot, the desperate Schwejk runs into the no-man’s-land in front of their trenches, waving desperately his hands and shouting: “Don’t shoot! There are men on the other side!” This is what Lenin was aiming at in his call to the tired peasants and other working masses in the Summer of 1917 to stop fighting, dismissed as part of a ruthless strategy to win popular support and thus gain power, even if it meant the military defeat of one’s own country (recall the standard argument that, when, in the Spring of 1917, Lenin was allowed by the German state to pass on a sealed train through Germany on his way from Switzerland to Sweden, Finland and then Russia, he was de facto functioning as a German agent).

There is a long literary tradition of elevating the face to face encounter with an enemy soldier as THE authentic war experience (see the writings of Ernst Juenger, who celebrated such encounters in his memoirs of the trench attacks in World War I): soldiers often fantasize about killing the enemy soldier in a face to face confrontation, looking him into the eyes before stabbing him. The singular experience of humanity occurs when the mystique of such a face to face encounter is rendered meaningless. The same sublime moment of solidarity took place in the battle for Stalingrad, when, on New Year’s Eve of December 31 1942, Russian actors and musicians visited the besieged city to entertain the troops; the violinist Mikhail Goldstein went to the trenches to perform a one-man concert for the soldiers:

“The melodies he created drifted out through loudspeakers to the German trenches and the shooting suddenly ceased. In the eerie quiet, the music flowed from Goldstein’s dipping bow.

When he finished, a hushed silence hung over the Russian soldiers. From another loudspeaker, in German territory, a voice broke the spell. In halting Russian it pleaded: ‘Play some more Bach. We won’t shoot.’

Goldstein picked up his violin and started a lively Bach gavotte.”37

This same experience of humanity, of the meaninglessness of the conflict we are engaged in, can also take a much more mundane shape, that of a simple exchange of gazes which tells everything. During one of the anti-apartheid demonstrations in the old South Africa, when a troop of white policemen was dispersing and pursuing black demonstrators, a policeman was running after a black lady, a rubber truncheon in his hand. Unexpectedly, the lady lost one of her shoes; automatically obeying his “good manners,” the policeman picked up the shoes and gave it to her; at this moment, they exchanged glances and both became aware of the inanity of their situation — after such a gesture of politeness, i.e. after handling her the lost shoe and waiting for her to put it on again, it was simply IMPOSSIBLE for him to continue to run after her and to hit her with the truncheon; so, after politely nodding at her, the policeman turned around and walked away… The moral of this story is NOT that the policeman suddenly discovered his innate goodness, i.e. we are NOT dealing here with the case of natural goodness winning over the racist ideological training; on the contrary, in all probability, the policeman was — as to his psychological stance — a standard racist. What triumphed here was simply his “superficial” training in politeness.

When the policeman stretched his hand in order to pass the shoe, this gesture was more than a moment of physical contact. The white policeman and the black lady literally lived in two different socio-symbolic universes with no direct communication possible: for each of the two, the barrier which separated the two universes was for a brief moment suspended, and it was as if a hand from another, spectral, universe reached into one’s ordinary reality. The situation is similar to the scene in one of the early Joan Crawford films (Possessed from 1930), in which she plays a poor small town girl who, on her way home, has to stop before the rails since a train is passing slowly through the small town; through the wagon’s windows, she observes the wealthy life going on inside (a cook preparing an exquisite meal, a couple dancing…). It is as if she found herself in a cinema theatre, a spectator confronted with scenes of the life she longs for, scenes which are close, but nonetheless simultaneously somewhat ethereal, spectral, threatening to dissolve at any moment. And then, a true miracle occurs — when the train stops for a brief moment, an elder kind gentlemen is standing on the observation platform immediately in front of the girl, with his hand holding a glass with a drink stretching outwards, from the fantasmatic reality of the train to the everyday reality of the girl, and engages in a friendly conversation with her — a magical moments when the dream itself seems to intervene into our daily reality… The effect of this last shot resides in the way everyday reality itself — the scene of a train passing by an ordinary working girl — acquires the magic dimension of the poor girl encountering her dream. And it is against the background of this scene that one should interpret the eerie event which took place on the evening of November 7, 1942, when, in his special train rolling through Thuringia, Hitler was discussing the day’s major news with several aides in the dining car; since allied air raids had damaged the tracks, the train frequently slowed its passage:

“While dinner was served on exquisite china, the train stopped once more at a siding. A few feet away, a hospital train marked time, and from their tiered cots, wounded soldiers peered into the blazing light of the dining room where Hitler was immersed in conversation. Suddenly he looked up at the awed faces staring in at him. In great anger he ordered the curtains drawn, plunging his wounded warriors back into the darkness of their own bleak world.”38

The miracle of this scene is redoubled: on each side, they experienced what they saw through the window-frame as a fantasmatic apparition: for Hitler, it was a nightmarish view of the results of his military adventure; for the soldiers, it was the unexpected encounter with the Leader himself. The true miracle would have been here if a hand were to stretch through the window — say, Hitler reaching over to a wounded soldier. But, of course, it was precisely such an encounter, such an intrusion into his reality, that Hitler dreaded, so, instead of stretching his hand, he in panic ordered the curtains drawn.

A Cyberspace Lenin?

So what are we to say to the standard reproach of “extremism”? Lenin’s critique of the “Leftism as the Child Illness of the Communism” is more than actual in the last decades, in which Left often succumbed to the terrorist temptation. Political “extremism” or “excessive radicalism” should always be read as a phenomenon of ideologico-political displacement: as an index of its opposite, of a limitation, of a refusal effectively to “go to the end.” What was the Jacobin’s recourse to radical “terror” if not a kind of hysterical acting out bearing witness to their inability to disturb the very fundamentals of economic order (private property, etc.)? And does the same not go even for the so-called “excesses” of Political Correctness? Do they also not display the retreat from disturbing the effective (economic etc.) causes of racism and sexism? Perhaps, then, the time has come to render problematic the standard topos, shared by practically all the “postmodern” Leftists, according to which political “totalitarianism” somehow results from the predominance of material production and technology over the intersubjective communication and/or symbolic practice, as if the root of the political terror resides in the fact that the “principle” of instrumental reason, of the technological exploitation of nature, is extended also to society, so that people are treated as raw stuff to be transformed into a New Man. What if it is the exact opposite which holds? What if political “terror” signals precisely that the sphere of (material) production is denied in its autonomy and subordinated to political logic? Is it not that all political “terror,” from Jacobins to Maoist Cultural Revolution, presupposes the foreclosure of production proper, its reduction to the terrain of political battle?

Recall Badiou’s exalted defense of Terror in the French Revolution, in which he quotes the justification of the guillotine for Lavoisier: “La republique n’a pas de besoin de savants. [The Republic has no need for scientists.]” Badiou’s thesis is that the truth of this statement emerges if we cut it short, depriving it of its caveat: “La republique n’a pas de besoins. [The Republic has no needs.]” The Republic gives body to the purely political logic of equality and freedom which should follow its path with no consideration for the “servicing of goods” destined to satisfy the needs of the individuals.39 In the revolutionary process proper, freedom becomes an end-in-itself, caught in its own paroxysm — this suspension of the importance of the sphere of economy, of the (material) production, brings Badiou close to Hannah Arendt for whom, in a strict homology to Badiou, freedom is opposed to the domain of the provision of services and goods, of the maintenance of households and the exercise of administration, which do not belong to politics proper: the only place for freedom is the communal political space. In this precise sense, Badiou’s (and Sylvain Lazarus’40) plea for the reappraisal of Lenin is more ambiguous than it may appear: what it effectively amounts to is nothing less than the abandonment of Marx’s key insight into how the political struggle is a spectacle which, in order to be deciphered, has to be referred to the sphere of economics (“if Marxism had any analytical value for political theory, was it not in the insistence that the problem of freedom was contained in the social relations implicitly declared ‘unpolitical’ — that is, naturalized — in liberal discourse”41). No wonder that the Lenin Badiou and Lazarus prefer is the Lenin ofWhat Is to Be Done?, the Lenin who (in his thesis that the socialist-revolutionary consciousness has to be brought from without to the working class) breaks with Marx’s alleged “economism” and asserts the autonomy of the Political, NOT the Lenin of The State and Revolution, fascinated by the modern centralized industry, imagining the (depoliticized) ways to reorganize economy and the state apparatus.

What all the new French (or French oriented) theories of the political, from Balibar through Ranciere and Badiou to Laclau and Mouffe, aim at is — to put it in the traditional philosophical terms — the reduction of the sphere of economy (of the material production) to an “ontic” sphere deprived of the “ontological” dignity. Within this horizon, there is simply no place for the Marxian “critique of political economy”: the structure of the universe of commodities and capital in Marx’sCapital is NOT just that of a limited empirical sphere, but a kind of socio-transcendental a priori, the matrix which generates the totality of social and political relations. The relationship between economy and politics is ultimately that of the well-known visual paradox of the “two faces or a vase”: one either sees the two faces or a vase, never both of them — one has to make a choice.42 In the same way, one either focuses on the political, and the domain of economy is reduced to the empirical “servicing of goods,” or one focuses on economy, and politics is reduced to a theatre of appearances, to a passing phenomenon which will disappear with the arrival of the developed Communist (or technocratic) society, in which, as already Engels put it, the “administration of people” will vanish in the “administration of things.”43

The root of this notion of pure “politics,” radically autonomous with regard to history, society, economy, State, even Party, is Badiou’s opposition between Being and Event — it is here that Badiou remains “idealist.” From the materialist standpoint, an Event emerges “out of nowhere” within a specific constellation of Being — the space of an Event is the minimal “empty” distance between two beings, the “other” dimension which shines through this gap.44 So when Badiou and Lazarus insist on the strict frontier between the Political and the Social (the domain of State, historicism…), they concede too much — namely, that SOCIETY EXISTS. They do not get the lesson, articulated by Laclau, that “society doesn’t exist,” that society is not a positive field, since the gap of the Political is inscribed into its very foundations (Marx’s name for the political which traverses the entire social body is “class struggle”).

Consequently, Lenin the ultimate political strategist should in no way be separated from Lenin the “technocrat” dreaming about the scientific reorganization of production. The greatness of Lenin is that, although he lacked the proper conceptual apparatus to think these two levels together, he was aware of the urgency to do it — an impossible, yet necessary, task.45 What we are dealing with here is another version of the Lacanian “il n’y a pas de rapport…”: if, for Lacan, there is no sexual relationship, then, for Marxism proper, there is no relationship between economy and politics, no “meta-language” enabling us to grasp from the same neutral standpoint the two levels, although — or, rather, BECAUSE — these two levels are inextricably intertwined. The “political” class struggle takes place in the very midst of economy (recall that the very last paragraph of Capital III, where the texts abruptly stops, tackles the class struggle), while, at the same time, the domain of economy serves as the key enabling us to decode political struggles. No wonder that the structure of this impossible relationship is that of the Moebius band: first, we have to progress from the political spectacle to its economic infrastructure; then, in the second step, we have to confront the irreducible dimension of the political struggle in the very heart of the economy.

Here, Lenin’s stance against economism as well as against pure politics is crucial today, apropos of the split attitude towards economy in (what remains of) the radical circles: on the one hand, the above-mentioned pure “politicians” who abandon economy as the site of struggle and intervention; on the other hand, the economists, fascinated by the functioning of today’s global economy, who preclude any possibility of a political intervention proper. Today, more than ever, we should here return to Lenin: yes, economy is the key domain, the battle will be decided there, one has to break the spell of the global capitalism — BUT the intervention should be properly POLITICAL, not economic. The battle to be fought is thus a twofold one: first, yes, anti-capitalism. However, anti-capitalism without problematizing the capitalism’s POLITICAL form (liberal parliamentary democracy) is not sufficient, no matter how “radical” it is. Perhaps THE lure today is the belief that one can undermine capitalism without effectively problematizing the liberal-democratic legacy which — as some Leftists claim — although engendered by capitalism, acquired autonomy and can serve to criticize capitalism. This lure is strictly correlative to its apparent opposite, to the pseudo-Deleuzian love-hate fascinating/fascinated poetic depiction of Capital as a rhizomatic monstre/vampire which deterritorializes and swallows all, indomitable, dynamic, ever raising from the dead, each crisis making it stronger, Dionysos-Phoenix reborn… It is in this poetic (anti)capitalist reference to Marx that Marx is really dead: appropriated when deprived of his political sting.

Marx was fascinated by the revolutionary “deterritorializing” impact of capitalism which, in its inexorable dynamics, undermines all stable traditional forms of human interaction; what he repproached capitalism with is that its “deterritorialization” was not thorough enough, that it generated new “reterritorializations” — the ultimate obstacle to capitalism is capitalism itself, i.e. capitalism unleashes a dynamics it is no longer be able to contain. Far from being outdated, this claim seems to gain actuality with today’s growing deadlocks of globalization in which the inherently antagonistic nature of capitalism belies its worldwide triumph. However, the problem is: is it still possible to imagine Communism (or another form of post-capitalist society) as a formation which sets free the deterritorializing dynamics of capitalism, liberating it of its inherent constraints? Marx’s fundamental vision was that a new, higher social order (Communism) is possible, an order that would not only maintain, but even raise to a higher degree and effectively fully release the potential of the self-increasing spiral of productivity which, in capitalism, on account of its inherent obstacle/contradiction, is again and again thwarted by socially destructive economic crises. What Marx overlooked is that, to put it in the standard Derridean terms, this inherent obstacle/antagonism as the “condition of impossibility” of the full deployment of the productive forces is simultaneously its “condition of possibility”: if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, we do not get the fully unleashed drive to productivity finally delivered of its impediment, but we lose precisely this productivity that seemed to be generated and simultaneously thwarted by capitalism — if we take away the obstacle, the very potential thwarted by this obstacle dissipates… therein would reside a possible Lacanian critique of Marx, focusing on the ambiguous overlapping between surplus-value and surplus-enjoyment.46

While this constant self-propelling revolutionizing still holds for the high Stalinism with its total productive mobilization, the “stagnant” late Real Socialism legitimizes itself (between the lines, at least) as a society in which one can live peacefully, avoiding the capitalist competitive stress. This was the last line of defense when, from the late 60s onwards, after the fall of Khrushchev (the last enthusiast who, during his visit to the US, prophesied that “your grandchildren will be Communists”), it became clear that the Real Socialism was losing the competitive edge in its war with capitalism. So the stagnant late Real Socialism in a way already WAS “socialism with a human face”: silently abandoning great historical tasks, it provided the security of the everyday life going on in a benevolent boredom. Today’s nostalgia for the defunct Socialism mostly consists in such a conservative nostalgia for the self-satisfied constrained way of life; even the nostalgic anti-capitalist artists from Peter Handke to Joseph Beuys celebrate this aspect of Socialism: the absence of stressful mobilization and franticcommodification. Of course, this unexpected shift tells us something about the deficiency of the original Marxist project itself: it points towards the limitation of its goal of unleashed productive mobilization.

Capitalism is not just a historical epoch among others — in a way, the once fashionable and today forgotten Francis Fukuyama WAS right, global capitalism IS “the end of history.” A certain excess which was as it were kept under check in previous history, perceived as a localizable perversion, as an excess, a deviation, is in capitalism elevated into the very principle of social life, in the speculative movement of money begetting more money, of a system which can survive only by constantly revolutionizing its own conditions, that is to say, in which the thing can only survive as its own excess, constantly exceeding its own “normal” constraints. Let us take the case of consumption: before modernity, we were dealing with the direct opposition between moderate consumption and its excess (gluttony, etc.); with capitalism, the excess (the consumption of “useless things”) becomes THE RULE, i.e. the elementary form of buying is the act of buying things we “do NOT really need.” And, perhaps, it is only today, in the global capitalism in its “postindustrial” digitalized form, that, to put it in Hegelian terms, the really-existing capitalism is reaching the level of its notion: perhaps, one should follow again Marx’s old anti-evolutionist motto (incidentally, taken verbatim fromHegel) that the anatomy of man provides the key for the anatomy of a monkey, i.e. that, in order to deploy the inherent notional structure of a social formation, one must start with its most developed form. Marx located the elementary capitalist antagonism in the opposition between use- and exchange-value: in capitalism, the potentials of this opposition are fully realized, the domain of exchange-values is acquires autonomy, is transformed into the spectre of self-propelling speculative capital which needs the productive capacities and needs of actual people only as its dispensable temporal embodiment. Marx derived the very notion of economic crisis from this gap: a crisis occurs when reality catches up with the illusory self-generating mirage of money begetting more money — this speculative madness cannot go on indefinitely, it has to explode in ever stronger crises. The ultimate root of the crisis is for him the gap between use and exchange value: the logic of exchange value follows its own path, its own mad dance, irrespective of the real needs of real people. It may appear that this analysis is more than actual today, when the tension between the virtual universe and the real is reaching almost palpably unbearable proportions: on the one hand, we have crazy solipsistic speculations about futures, mergers, etc., following their own inherent logic; on the other hand, reality is catching up in the guise of ecological catastrophes, poverty, the Third World collapse of social life, the Mad Cow Disease. This is why cyber-capitalists can appear as the paradigmatic capitalists today, this is why Bill Gates can dream of the cyberspace as providing the frame for what he calls “frictionless capitalism.” What we have here is an ideological short-circuit between the two version of the gap between reality and virtuality: the gap between real production and virtual spectral domain of the Capital, and the gap between experiential reality and virtual reality of cyberspace. It effectively seems that the cyberspace gap between my fascinating screen persona and the miserable flesh which is “me” off the screen translates into the immediate experience the gap between the Real of the speculative circulation of the capital and the drab reality of impoverished masses… However, is this — this recourse to “reality” which will sooner or later catch up with the virtual game — really the only way to operationalize a critique of capitalism? What if the problem of capitalism is not this solipsistic mad dance, but precisely the opposite: that it continues to disavow its gap with “reality,” that it presents itself as serving real needs of real people? The originality of Marx is that he played on both cards simultaneously: the origin of capitalist crises is the gap between use- and exchange-value, AND capitalism constrains the free deployment of productivity.

What all this means is that the urgent task of the economic analysis today is, again, to REPEAT Marx’s “critique of political economy” without succumbing to the temptation of the multitude of the ideologies of “postindustrial” societies. The key change concerns the status of private property: the ultimate element of power and control is no longer the last link in the chain of investments, the firm or individual who “really owns” the means of production. The ideal capitalist today functions in a wholly different way: investing borrowed money, “really owning” nothing, even indebted, but nonetheless controlling things. A corporation is owned by another corporation, which is again borrowing money from banks, which may ultimately manipulate money owned by ordinary people like ourselves. With Bill Gates, the “private property of the means of production” becomes meaningless, at least in the standard meaning of the term. The paradox of this virtualization of capitalism is ultimately the same as that of the electron in the elementary particle physics. The mass of each element in our reality is composed of its mass at rest plus the surplus provided by the acceleration of its movement; however, an electron’s mass at rest is zero, its mass consists only of the surplus generated by the acceleration of its movement, as if we are dealing with a nothing which acquires some deceptive substance only by magically spinning itself into an excess of itself. Does today’s virtual capitalist not function in a homologous way — his “net value” is zero, he directly operates just with the surplus, borrowing from the future?47

So where is Lenin in all this? According to the predominant doxa, in the years after the October Revolution, Lenin’s decline of faith in the creative capacities of the masses led him to emphasize the role of science and the scientists, to rely on the authority of the expert: he hailed

“the beginning of that very happy time when politics will recede into the background, /…/ and engineers and agronomists will do most of the talking.”48

Technocratic post-politics? Lenin’s ideas about how the road to socialism runs through the terrain of monopoly capitalism may appear dangerously naive today:

“Capitalism has created an accounting apparatus in the shape of the banks, syndicates, postal service, consumers’ societies, and office employees unions. Without big banks socialism would be impossible. /…/ our task is here merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive. /…/ This will be country-wide book-keeping, country-wide accounting of the production and distribution of goods, this will be, so to speak, something in the nature of the skeleton of socialist society.”49

Is this not the most radical expression of Marx’s notion of the general intellect regulating all social life in a transparent way, of the post-political world in which“administration of people” is supplanted by the “administration of things”? It is, of course, easy to play against this quote the tune of the “critique on instrumental reason” and “administered world /verwaltete Welt/”: the “totalitarian” potentials are inscribed in this very form of total social control. It is easy to remark sarcastically how, in the Stalinist epoch, the apparatus of social administration effectively became “even bigger.” Furthermore, is this postpolitical vision not the very opposite of the Maoist notion of the eternity of the class struggle (“everything is political”)?

Are, however, things really so unambiguous? What if one replaces the (obviously dated) example of the central bank with the World Wide Web, today’s perfect candidate for the General Intellect? Dorothy Sayers claimed that Aristotele’s Poetics effectively is the theory of the detective novels avant la lettre — since the poor Aristotle didn’t yet know of the detective novel, he had to refer to the only examples at his disposal, the tragedies… Along the same lines, Lenin was effectively developing the theory of a role of World Wide Web, but, since WWW was unknown to him, he had to refer to the unfortunate central banks. Consequently, can one also say that “without the World Wide Web socialism would be impossible. /…/ our task is here merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive”? In these conditions, one is tempted to resuscitate the old, opprobrious and half-forgotten, Marxian dialectics of the productive forces and the relations of production: it is already a commonplace to claim that, ironically, it was this very dialectics which buried the Really Existing Socialism: Socialism was not able to sustain the passage from industrial to postindustrial economy. However, does capitalism really provide the “natural” frame of the relations of production for the digital universe? Is there not in the World Wide Web an explosive potential also for capitalism itself? Is not the lesson of the Microsoft monopoly precisely the Leninist one: instead of fighting its monopoly through the state apparatus (recall the court-ordered split of the Microsoft Corporation), would it not be more “logical” just to SOCIALIZE it, rendering it freely accessible?50

So what about the basic reproach according to which, Lenin is irrelevant for us today because he remained stuck within the horizon of the industrial mass production (recall his celebration of Fordism)? The first thing to do here is to ask the elementary question: what is a factory? Leslie Kaplan’s essay-poem L’exces-usine,51 with its description of the “Hell” of the factory life, renders palpable the dimension overlooked in the standard Marxist depictions of the workers’ “alienation.” Kaplan opposes the self-enclosed universe of the factory to the open environment of the previous work-process: the factory space is a timeless space in which fiction and reality ultimately coincide, i.e. the very reality of this space functions as the fantasmatic space cut off from its environs. What is lacking in this space is the full “background noise” which provides the life-world context to human individuals: in a factory, as Kaplan puts it, instead of the rich tapestry of the background-environment, there is only a whiteness — in short, it is as if, when we are in a factory, we enter an artificial universe which is deprived of the substantial wealth of the real-life texture. In this space, (historical-narrative) memory itself is threatened: workers are cut off their ancestral roots, and this also affects their utopian potentials themselves: reduced to robots endlessly repeating the same mechanical gestures, they lose the very capacity to dream, to devise projects of alternate reality. What they experience is no longer the nostalgia for a determinate past (say, of their previous more “organic” farmers’ lives), but, as Kaplan puts it perspicuously, the “absolute nostalgia” for an empty Otherness whose sole positive content is, again, the factory life itself — say, the empty corridors of a factory.

So, within these coordinates, what does the passage from the factory production to the “postindustrial” production in which workers are again isolated and can even work at home, behind their computer screen, mean? The disabling alternative of today’s Marxism is: what to do apropos of the growing importance of the “immaterial production” today (cyber-workers)? Do we insist that only those involved in “real” material production are the working class, or do we accomplish the fateful step of accepting that the “symbolic workers” are the (true) proletarians today? One should resist this step, because it obfuscates the DIVISION betweenimmaterial and material production, the SPLIT in the working class between (as a rule geographically separated) cyber-workers and material workers (programmers in the US or India, the sweat shops in China or Indonesia). Perhaps, it is the figure of the UNEMPLOYED (JOBLESS) who stands for the pure proletarian today: the unemployed substantial determination remains that of a worker, but they are prevented from actualizing it OR to renounce it, so they remain suspended in the potentiality of workers who cannot work. Perhaps, we are today in a sense “all jobless”: jobs tend to be more and more based on short term contracts, so that the jobless state is the rule, the zero-level, and the temporary job the exception.

The key antagonism of the so-called new (digital) industries is thus: how to maintain the form of (private) property, within which only the logic of profit can be maintained (see also the Napster problem, the free circulation of music). And do the legal complications in biogenetics not point in the same direction? The key element of the new international trade agreements is the “protection of intellectual property”: whenever, in a merger, a big First World company takes over a Third World company, the first thing they do is close down the research department. Phenomena emerge here which bring the notion of property to extraordinary dialectical paradoxes: in India, the local communities suddenly discover that medical practices and materials they are using for centuries are now owned by American companies, so they should be bought from them; with the biogenetic companies patenting genes, we are all discovering that parts of ourselves, our genetic components, are already copyrighted, owned by others…

However, the outcome of this crisis of the private property of the means of production is by no means guaranteed — it is HERE that one should take into account the ultimate paradox of the Stalinist society: against the capitalism which is the class society, but in principle egalitarian, without direct hierarchicaldivisions, the “mature” Stalinism is a classless society articulated in precisely defined hierarchical groups (top nomenklatura, technical intelligence, army…). What this means is that, already for Stalinism, the classic Marxist notion of the class struggle is no longer adequate to describe its hierarchy and domination: in the Soviet Union from the late 20s onwards, the key social division was not defined by property, but by the direct access to power mechanisms and to the privileged material and cultural conditions of life (food, accommodation, healthcare, freedom of travel, education). And, perhaps, the ultimate irony of history will be that, in the same way Lenin’s vision of the “central bank Socialism” can be properly read only retroactively, from today’s World Wide Web, the Soviet Union provided the first model of the developed “post-property” society, of the true “late capitalism” in which the ruling class will be defined by the direct access to the (informational, administrative) means of social power and control and to other material and social privileges: the point will no longer be to own companies, but directly to run them, to have the right to use a private jet, to have access to top health care, etc. — privileges which will be acquired not by property, but by other (educational, managerial, etc.) mechanisms.

Today, we already can discern the signs of a kind of general unease — recall the series of events usually listed under the name of “Seattle.” The 10 years honeymoon of the triumphant global capitalism is over, the long-overdue “seven years itch” is here — witness the panicky reactions of the big media, which — from the Time magazine to CNN — all of a sudden started to warn about the Marxists manipulating the crowd of the “honest” protesters. The problem is now the strictly Leninist one — how to ACTUALIZE the media’s accusations: how to invent the organizational structure which will confer on this unrest the FORM of the universal political demand. Otherwise, the momentum will be lost, and what will remain is the marginal disturbance, perhaps organized as a new Greenpeace, with certain efficiency, but also strictly limited goals, marketing strategy, etc. In other words, the key “Leninist” lesson today is: politics without the organizational FORM of the party is politics without politics, so the answer to those who want just the (quite adequately named) “New SOCIAL Movements” is the same as the answer of the Jacobins to the Girondin compromisers: “You want revolution without a revolution!” Today’s blockade is that there are two ways open for the socio-political engagement: either play the game of the system, engage in the “long march through the institutions,” or get active in new social movements, from feminism through ecology to anti-racism. And, again, the limit of these movements is that they are not POLITICAL in the sense of the Universal Singular: they are “one issue movements” which lack the dimension of the universality, i.e. they do not relate to the social TOTALITY.

Here, Lenin’s reproach to liberals is crucial: they only EXPLOIT the working classes’ discontent to strengthen their position vis-a-vis the conservatives, instead of identifying with it to the end.52 Is this also not the case with today’s Left liberals? They like to evoke racism, ecology, workers’ grievances, etc., to score points over the conservatives WITHOUT ENDANGERING THE SYSTEM. Recall how, in Seattle, Bill Clinton himself deftly referred to the protesters on the streets outside, reminding the gathered leaders inside the guarded palaces that they should listen to the message of the demonstrators (the message which, of course, Clinton interpreted, depriving it of its subversive sting attributed to the dangerous extremists introducing chaos and violence into the majority of peaceful protesters). It’s the same with all New Social Movements, up to the Zapatistas in Chiapas: the systemic politics is always ready to “listen to their demands,” depriving them of their proper political sting. The system is by definition ecumenical, open, tolerant, ready to “listen” to all — even if one insist on one’s demands, they are deprived of their universal political sting by the very form of negotiation. The true Third Way we have to look for is this third way between the institutionalized parliamentary politics and the new social movements.

The ultimate answer to the reproach that the radical Left proposals are utopian should thus be that, today, the true utopia is the belief that the present liberal-democratic capitalist consensus could go on indefinitely, without radical changes. We are thus back at the old ‘68 motto “Soyons realistes, demandons l’impossible!“: in order to be truly a “realist,” one must consider breaking out of the constraints of what appears “possible” (or, as we usually out it, “feasible”).

The Leninist Utopia

Which, then, is the criterion of the political act? Success as such clearly doesn’t count, even if we define it in the dialectical way of Merleau-Ponty, as the wager that future will retroactively redeem our present horrible acts (this is how, in his Humanism and Terror, Merleau-Ponty provided one of the more intelligent justifications of the Stalinist terror: retroactively, it will become justified if its final outcome will be true freedom)53; neither does the reference to some abstract-universal ethical norms. The only criteria is the absolutely INHERENT one: that of the ENACTED UTOPIA. In a proper revolutionary breakthrough, the utopian future is neither simply fully realized, present, nor simply evoked as a distant promise which justified present violence — it is rather as if, in a unique suspension of temporality, in the short-circuit between the present and the future, we are — as if by Grace — for a brief time allowed to act AS IF the utopian future is (not yet fully here, but) already at hand, just there to be grabbed. Revolution is not experienced as a present hardship we have to endure for the happiness and freedom of the future generations, but as the present hardship over which this future happiness and freedom already cast their shadow — in it, we ALREADY ARE FREE WHILE FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM, we ALREADY ARE HAPPY WHILE FIGHTING FOR HAPPINESS, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Revolution is not a Merleau-Pontyan wager, an act suspended in the futur anterieur, to be legitimized or delegitimized by the long term outcome of the present acts; it is as it were ITS OWN ONTOLOGICAL PROOF, an immediate index of its own truth.

Let us recall the staged performance of “Storming the Winter Palace” in Petrograd, on the third anniversary of the October Revolution, on 7 November 1920. Tens of thousands of workers, soldiers, students and artists worked round the clock, living on kasha (the tasteless wheat porridge), tea and frozen apples, and preparing the performance at the very place where the event “really took place” three years earlier; their work was coordinated by the Army officers, as well as by the avant-garde artists, musicians and directors, from Malevich to Meyerhold. Although this was acting and not “reality,” the soldiers and sailors were playing themselves — many of them not only actually participated in the event of 1917, but were also simultaneously involved in the real battles of the Civil War that were raging in the near vicinity of Petrograd, a city under siege and suffering from severe shortages of food. A contemporary commented on the performance: “The future historian will record how, throughout one of the bloodiest and most brutal revolutions, all of Russia was acting”54; and the formalist theoretician Viktor Shklovski noted that “some kind of elemental process is taking place where the living fabric of life is being transformed into the theatrical.”55 We all remember the infamous self-celebratory First of May parades that were one of the supreme signs of recognition of the Stalinist regimes — if one needs a proof of how Leninism functioned in an entirely different way, are such performances not the supreme proof that the October Revolution was definitely NOT a simple coup d’etat by the small group of Bolsheviks, but an event which unleashed a tremendous emancipatory potential?

The archetypal Eisensteinian cinematic scene rendering the exuberant orgy of revolutionary destructive violence (what Eisenstein himself called “a veritable bacchanalia of destruction”) belongs to the same series: when, in October, the victorious revolutionaries penetrate the wine cellars of the Winter Palace, they indulge there in the ecstatic orgy of smashing thousands of the expensive wine bottles; in Behzin Meadow, after the village Pioneers discovers the body of the young Pavlik, brutally murdered by his own father, they force their way into the local church and desecrate it, robbing it of its relics, squabbling over an icon, sacrilegiously trying on vestments, heretically laughing at the statuary… In this suspension of the goal-oriented instrumental activity, we effectively get a kind of Bataillean “unrestrained expenditure” — the pious desire to deprive the revolution of this excess is simply the desire to have a revolution without revolution. It is against this background that one should approach the delicate issue of revolutionary violence which is an authentic act of liberation, not just a blind passage à l’acte.56

And did we not get exactly the same scene in the Great Cultural Revolution in China, with the thousands of Red Guardists ecstatically destroying old historical monuments, smashing old vases, desecrating old paintings, chirping off old walls?57 In spite of (or, rather, because of) all its horrors, the Great Cultural Revolution undoubtedly did contain elements of such an enacted utopia. At its very end, before the agitation was blocked by Mao himself (since he already achieved his goal of re-establishing his full power and getting rid of the top nomenklatura competition), there was the “Shanghai Commune”: one million workers who simply took the official slogans seriously, demanding the abolition of the State and even the Party itself, and the direct communal organization of society. It is significant that it was at this very point that Mao ordered the restoration of order. The (often noted) parallel between Mao and Lacan is fully justified here: the dissolution of the École Freudienne de Paris in 1979 was Lacan’s “Great Cultural Revolution,” mobilizing his young followers (who, incidentally, mostly were ex-Maoists from 1968!) in order to get rid of the inner circle of his “mandarins.” In both cases, the paradox is that of a leader who triggers an uncontrolled upheaval, while trying to exert full personal power — the paradoxical overlapping of extreme dictatorship and extreme emancipation of the masses.

It is at this precise point concerning political terror that one can locate the gap that separates Leninism from Stalinism58: in Lenin’s times, terror was openly admitted (Trotsky sometimes even boasted in an almost cocky way about the non-democratic nature of the Bolshevik regime and the terror it used), while in Stalin’s times, the symbolic status of the terror thoroughly changed: terror turned into the publicly non-acknowledged obscene shadowy supplement of the public official discourse. It is significant that the climax of terror (1936/37) took place after the new constitution was accepted in 1935 — this constitution was supposed to end the state of emergency and to mark the return of the things to normal: the suspension of the civil rights of the whole strata of population (kulaks, ex-capitalists) was recalled, the right to vote was now universal, etc. etc. The key idea of this constitution was that now, after the stabilization of the Socialist order and the annihilation of the enemy classes, the Soviet Union is no longer a class society: the subject of the State is no longer the working class (workers and peasants), but the people. However, this does NOT mean that the Stalinist constitution was a simple hypocrisy concealing the social reality — the possibility of terror is inscribed into its very core: since the class war is now proclaimed over and the Soviet Union is conceived of as the classless country of the People, those who (are still presumed to) oppose the regime are no longer mere class enemies in a conflict that tears apart the social body, but enemies of the people, insects, worthless scum, which is to be excluded from humanity itself.

This repression of the regime’s own excess was strictly correlative to something homologous to the invention of the liberal psychological individual not take place in the Soviet Union in the late 20s and early 30s. The Russian avant-garde art of the early 20s (futurism, constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even endeavored to reinvent a new industrial man — no longer the old man of sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very “ultra-orthodoxy,” i.e. in its over-identification with the core of the official ideology: the image of man that we get in Eisenstein, Meyerhold, constructivist paintings, etc., emphasizes the beauty of his/her mechanical movements, his/her thorough depsychologization. What was perceived in the West as the ultimate nightmare of liberal individualism, as the ideological counterpoint to the “Taylorization,” to the Fordist ribbon-work, was in Russia hailed as the utopian prospect of liberation: recall how Meyerhold violently asserted the “behaviorist” approach to acting — no longer emphatic familiarization with the person the actor is playing, but the ruthless bodily training aimed at the cold bodily discipline, at the ability of the actor to perform the series of mechanized movements…59 THIS is what was unbearable to AND IN the official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist “socialist realism” effectively WAS an attempt to reassert a “Socialism with a human face,” i.e. to reinscribe the process of industrialization into the constraints of the traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts, paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the global Machine, but as warm passionate persons.

In a recent pamphlet against the “excesses” of May ’68 and, more generally, the “sexual liberation” of the 60s, The Independent brought back to memory what the radicals of ’68 thought about the child sex. A quarter of a century ago, Daniel Cohn-Bendit wrote about his experience in a kindergarten: “My constant flirt with all the children soon took on erotic characteristics. I could really feel how from the age of five the small girls had already learned to make passes at me. /…/ Several times a few children opened the flies of my trousers and started to stroke me. /…/ When they insisted, I then stroked them.” Shulamith Firestone went even further, expressing her hopes that, in a world “without the incest taboo /…/ relations with children would include as much genital sex as they were capable of — probably considerably more than we now believe.”60 When confronted with these statements, Cohn-Bendit played them down, claiming that “this did not really happen, I only wanted to provoke people. When one reads it today, it is unacceptable.”61 However, the question still hovers: how, at that time, was it possible to provoke people, presenting them sexual games with pre-school children as something appealing, while today, the same “provocation” would immediately give rise to an outburst of moral disgust? After all, child sexual harassment is one of THE notions of Evil today. Without directly taking sides in this debate, one should read it as a sign of the change in our mores from the utopian energies of the 60s and early 70s to the contemporary stale Political Correctness, in which every authentic encounter with another human being is denounced as a victimizing experience. What we are unable even to conjecture today is the idea of REVOLUTION, be it sexual or social. Perhaps, in today’s stale times of the proliferating pleas for tolerance, one should take the risk of recalling the liberating dimension of such “excesses.”

Perhaps the most succinct definition of ideology was produced by Christopher Hitchens, when he tackled the difficult question of what the North Koreans effectively think about their “Beloved Leader” Kim Yong Il: “mass delusion is the only thing that keeps a people sane.”62 This paradox points towards thefetishistic split in the very heart of an effectively functioning ideology: individuals transpose their belief onto the big Other (embodied in the collective), which thus believes in their place — individuals thus remain sane qua individuals, maintaining the distance towards the “big Other” of the official discourse. It is not only the direct identification with the ideological “delusion” which would render individuals insane, but also the suspension of their (disavowed, displaced) belief. In other words, if individuals were to be deprived of this belief (projected onto the “big Other”), they would have to jump in and themselves directly assume the belief. (Perhaps, this explains the paradox that many a cynic turns into a sincere believer at the very point of the disintegration of the “official” belief.) This is what Lacan aimed at in his claim that the true formula of materialism is not “God doesn’t exist,” but “God is unconscious” — suffice it to recall what, in a letter to Max Brod, Milena Jesenska wrote about Kafka:

“Above all, things like money, stock-exchange, the foreign currency administration, type-writer, are for him thoroughly mystical (what they effectively are, only not for us, the others).”63

One should read this statement against the background of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism: the fetishist illusion resides in our real social life, not in our perception of it — a bourgeois subject knows very well that there is nothing magic about money, that money is just an object which stands for a set of social relations, but he nevertheless ACTS in real life as if he were to believe that money is a magic thing. This, then, gives us a precise insight into Kafka’s universe: Kafka was able to experience directly these fantasmatic beliefs we, “normal” people, disavow — Kafka’s “magic” is what Marx liked to refer to as the “theological freakishness” of commodities.

This definition of ideology points out the way to answer the boring standard reproach against the application of psychoanalysis to social-ideological processes: is it “legitimate” to expand the use of the notions which were originally deployed for the treatment of individuals, to collective entities and to speak, say, of religion as a “collective compulsive neurosis”? The focus of psychoanalysis is entirely different: the Social, the field of social practices and socially held beliefs, is not simply at a different level from the individual experience, but something to which the individual him/herself has to relate, which the individual him/herself has to experience as an order which is minimally “reified,” externalized. The problem is therefore not “how to jump from the individual to the social level?”; the problem is: how should the decentered socio-symbolic order of institutionalized practices beliefs be structured, if the subject is to retain his/her “sanity,” his/her “normal” functioning? Which delusions should be deposited there so that individuals can remain sane? Recall the proverbial egotist, cynically dismissing the public system of moral norms: as a rule, such a subject can only function if this system is “out there,” publicly recognized, i.e. in order to be a private cynic, he has to presuppose the existence of naive other(s) who “really believe.” This is how a true “cultural revolution” should be conducted: not by directly targeting individuals, endeavouring to “re-educate” them, to “change their reactionary attitudes,” but by depriving individuals of the support in the “big Other,” in the institutional symbolic order.

When, on the weekend of March 6-7 2001, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan proceeded to destroy all “idols,” especially the two gigantic Buddha statues carved into the stone at Bamiyan, we got the usual spectacle of all the “civilized” nations unanimously condemning the “barbarism” of this act. All the known actors were here: from the UNICEF expressing concern about the desecration of an important part of the heritage of humanity, and the New York Metropolitan Museum offering to buy the statues, up to the Islamic states representatives and clerics eager to denounce the destruction as contrary to the spirit of Islam. This kind of protest means strictly NOTHING — it just contributes to the aseptic liberal (multi)cultural consensus. Instead of hypocritically bemoaning this destruction, one should rather ask the question: where do WE stand with regard to faith? Perhaps, therein resides the truly traumatic dimension of the destruction in Afghanistan: we have here people who REALLY BELIEVE. After the Taliban government made public its intention to destroy all statues, most of the Western media first thought that this is a bluff, part of the strategy to blackmail the Western powers into recognizing the Taliban regime and pouring the money into Afghanistan, if they do not execute the announced measure — now we know they meant it. And it is also not appropriate to compare this destruction with, say, the demolition of mosques by the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia a couple of years ago: this destruction was not a religious act, but a way to strike at the ethnic enemy. Even when, in European history, Catholics burned Protestant churches and books, they were trying to annihilate another religious sect. In today’s Afghanistan, on the contrary, there are no non-Muslims, no people to whom the Buddha statues are sacred objects, so their destruction is a pure act of annihilation with no roots in any actual ideologico-political struggles.

In the time of the Chinese Great Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard gangs were heinously destroying hundreds of monasteries with thousands of statues and other priceless historical artefacts, their frenetic activity displaying a desperate endeavor to cut off links with the reactionary ideological past. Recently, the Chinese strategy underwent a shift of accent: more than on sheer military coercion, they now rely on ethnic and economic colonization, rapidly transforming Lhasa into a Chinese version of the capitalist Wild West, where karaoke bars intermingle with the Disney-like “Buddhist theme parks” for the Western tourists. 64 What goes on beneath the media image of the brutal Chinese soldiers and policemen terrorizing the Buddhist monks conceals is thus the much more effective American-style socioeconomic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of the native Americans in the USA. Tibetan Buddhism survived the brutal Red Army onslaught — will it survive the much more artful economic colonization which, instead of directly attacking the material manifestations of a belief, undermines its very base, so that, even if Buddhism survives, it is deprived of its substance, turned into a simulacrum of itself? So when the Taliban minister of culture said “We are destroying just stones!”, he was in a way right: for a true Buddhist, the enlightenment/liberation of one single individual means more than all the statues! The true problem is that the Western economic-cultural colonization is doing more to undermine the life style within which Buddhism can thrive than all the Red Guards and Taliban militias combined: when Red Guards or the Taliban militias attack, it is still the direct violence and destruction and the struggle with one unconditional faith against another faith.

The problem with the Taliban regime is elsewhere. The Taliban state of Afghanistan is the prototypic postmodern state, an exemplary part of the contemporary global constellation, if there ever was one. First, its very emergence is the final result of the failure of the Soviet attempt, in the 70s and 80s, to imposemodernization on Afghanistan: the Taliban movement itself arose out of the religious groups financed by CIA through Pakistan to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Secondly, if one is to believe the media, the whole economy of Afghanistan relies on opium: more than two thirds of the world opium crop comes from Afghanistan, and the Taliban government simply takes the 20% tax on the farmers’ income. The third feature: the Taliban government does not properly administer social affairs, it just rules. It is more or less totally indifferent towards of the well-being of its subjects, relying on the foreign aid or simply ignoring their plight. “Servicing the goods,” guaranteeing the well-being of the population, is simply not on their agenda — their sole preoccupation is the imposition of the strict religious order: while economy is more or less left to itself, the government takes care that all men have beards, that there are no TV sets and VCRs, that women are fully covered in public…

Far from being a traditional Islamic regime, the Taliban rule is thus thoroughly mediated by the process of modernization: relying on the (paradigmatically modern) split between economy and life-world, it combines the inclusion into the global market (the opium sales) with the ideological autarchy. So, paradoxically, we have here a twisted version of the unconditional Moral Majority rule which turns around the Western liberal state: instead of a state which limits itself to guaranteeing the material and institutional conditions for the well-being, while allowing individuals to pursue their own private life-styles, the Taliban state is interested ONLY in the life-style, leaving economy to itself, either to persist at a meager self-subsistence level or to export opium. In short, the Taliban state is ultimately nothing but a more radical and brutal version of the Singapore model of capitalism-cum-Asiatic-values?

Return versus Repetition

The entire history of the Soviet Union can be comprehended as homologous to Freud’s famous image of Rome, a city whose history is deposited in its present in the guise of the different layers of the archaeological remainders, each new level covering up the preceding none, like (another model) the seven layers of Troy, so that history, in its regress towards ever older epoches, proceeds like the archaeologist, discovering new layers by probing deeper and deeper into the ground. Was the (official ideological) history of the Soviet Union not the same accumulation of exclusions, of turning persons into non-persons, of retroactive rewriting of history? Quite logically, the “destalinization” was signalled by the opposite process of “rehabilitation,” of admitting “errors” in the past politics of the Party. The gradual “rehabilitation” of the demonized ex-leaders of the Bolsheviks can thus serve as perhaps the most sensitive index of how far (and in what direction) the “destalinization” of the Soviet Union was going. The first to be rehabilitated were the high military leaders shot in 1937 (Tukhachevsky and others); the last to be rehabilitated, already in the Gorbachev era, just before the collapse of the Communist regime, was Bukharin — this last rehabilitation, of course, was a clear sign of the turn towards capitalism: the Bukharin which was rehabilitated was the one who, in the 20s, advocated the pact between workers and peasants (owners of their land), launching the famous slogan “Get rich!” and opposed forced collectivization. Significantly, however, one figure was NEVER rehabilitated, excluded by the Communists as well as by the anti-Communist Russian nationalists: Trotsky, the “wandering Jew” of the Revolution, the true anti-Stalin, the arch-enemy, opposing “permanent revolution” to the idea of “building socialism in one country.” One is tempted to risk here the parallel with Freud’s distinction between primordial (founding) and secondary repression in the Unconscious: Trotsky’s exclusion amounted to something like the “primordial repression” of the Soviet State, to something which cannot ever be readmitted through “rehabilitation,” since the entire Order relied on this negative gesture of exclusion. (It is fashionable to claim that the irony of Stalin’s politics from 1928 onwards was that it effectively WAS a kind of “permanent revolution,” a permanent state of emergency in which revolution repeatedly devoured its own children — however, this claim is misleading: the Stalinist terror is the paradoxical result of the attempt to STABILIZE the Soviet Union into a state like other, with firm boundaries and institutions, i.e. terror was a gesture of panic, a defense reaction against the threat to this State stability.) So Trotsky is the one for whom there is a place neither in the pre-1990 nor in the post-1990 capitalist universe in which even the Communist nostalgics don’t know what to do with Trotsky’s permanent revolution — perhaps, the signifier “Trotsky” is the most appropriate designation of that which is worth redeeming in the Leninist legacy.

The problem with those few remaining orthodox “Leninists” who behave as if one can simply recycle the old Leninism, continuing to speak on class struggle, on the betrayal by the corrupted leaders of the working masses revolutionary impulses, etc., is that it is not quite clear from which subjective position of enunciation they speak: they either engage themselves in passionate discussions about the past (demonstrating with admirable erudition how and where the anti-Communist “leninologists” falsify Lenin, etc.), in which case they avoid the question of why (apart from a purely historical interest) does this matter at all today, or, the closer they get to contemporary politics, the closer they are to adopting some purely jargonistic pose which threatens no one. When, in the last months of 2001, the Milosevic regime in Serbia was finally toppled, I was asked the same question from my radical friends from the West: “What about the coal miners whose strike led to the disruption of the electricity supply and thus effectively brought Milosevic down? Was that not a genuine workers’ movement, which was then manipulated by the politicians, who were nationalist or corrupted by the CIA?” The same symptomatic point emerges apropos of every new social upheaval (like the disintegration of the Real Socialism 10 years ago): in each of these cases, they identify some working class movement which allegedly displayed a true revolutionary or, at least, Socialist potential, but was first exploited and then betrayed by the procapitalist and/or nationalist forces. This way, one can continue to dream that Revolution is round the corner: all we need is the authentic leadership which would be able to organize the workers’ revolutionary potentials. If one is to believe them, Solidarnosc was originally a worker’s democratic-socialist movement, later “betrayed” by being its leadership which was corrupted by the Church and the CIA… This mysterious working class whose revolutionary thrust is repeatedly thwarted by the treacherous nationalist and/or liberal politicians is one of the two fetishes of most of the remaining Trotskyites — the singular point of disavowal which enables them to sustain their overall interpretation of the state of things. This fetishist fixation on the old Marxist-Leninist frame is the exact opposite of the fashionable talk about “new paradigms,” about how we should leave behind the old “zombie-concepts” like working class, etc. — the two complementary ways to avoid the effort to THINK the New which effectively is emerging today. The first thing to do here is to cancel this disavowal by fully admitting that this “authentic” working class simply does not exist. (The other fetish is their belief that things took a bad turn in the Soviet Union only because Lenin did not succeed in joining forced with Trotsky in his effort to depose Stalin.) And if we add to this position four further ones, we get a pretty full picture of the sad predicament of today’s Left: the acceptance of the Cultural Wars (feminist, gay, anti-racist, etc., multiculturalist struggles) as the dominant terrain of the emancipatory politics; the purely defensive stance of protecting the achievements of the Welfare State; the naive belief in cybercommunism (the idea that the new media are directly creating conditions for a new authentic community); and, finally, the Third Way, the capitulation itself. The reference to Lenin should serve as the signifier of the effort to break the vicious circle of these false options.

John Berger recently made a salient point apropos of a French publicity poster of the internet investment brokers’ company Selftrade: under the image of a hammer and sickle cast in solid gold and embedded with diamonds, the caption reads “And if the stock market profited everybody?” The strategy of this poster is obvious: today, the stock market fulfills the egalitarian Communist criteria, everybody can participate in it. Berger indulges in a simple mental experiment: “Imagine a communications campaign today using an image of a swastika cast in solid gold and embedded with diamonds! It would of course not work. Why? The Swastika addressed potential victors not the defeated. It invoked domination not justice.”65 In contrast to it, the Hammer and Sickle invoked the hope that “history would eventually be on the side of those struggling for fraternal justice.”66 The irony is thus that, at the very moment when this hope is officially proclaimed dead by the hegemonic ideology of the “end of ideologies,” a paradigmatically “postindustrial” enterprise (is there anything more “postindustrial” than dealing with stocks on the internet?) has to mobilize this dormant hope in order to get its message through.67 “Repeating Lenin” means giving new life to this hope which continues to still haunt us.

Consequently, to REPEAT Lenin does NOT mean a RETURN to Lenin — to repeat Lenin is to accept that “Lenin is dead,” that his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously, but that there was a utopian spark in it worth saving. 68 To repeat Lenin means that one has to distinguish between what Lenin effectively did and the field of possibilities that he opened up, the tension in Lenin between what he effectively did and another dimension, what was “in Lenin more than Lenin himself.” To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin DID, but what he FAILED TO DO, his MISSED opportunities. Today, Lenin appears as a figure from a different time-zone: it’s not that his notions of the centralized Party, etc., seem to pose a “totalitarian threat” — it’s rather that they seem to belong to a different epoch to which we can no longer properly relate. However, instead of reading this fact as the proof that Lenin is outdated, one should, perhaps, risk the opposite conjecture: what if this impenetrability of Lenin is a sign that there is something wrong with OUR epoch? What if the fact that we experience Lenin as irrelevant, “out of sync” with our postmodern times, impart the much more unsettling message that our time itself is “out of sync,” that a certain historical dimension is disappearing from it?69 If, to some people, such an assertion appears dangerously close to the infamous Hegel’s quip, when his deduction why there should be only eight planets circulating around the Sun was proven wrong by the discovery of the ninth planet (Pluto): “So much worse for the facts!”, then we should be ready to fully assume this paradox.

How did the ideology of Enlightenment evolve in the 18th century France? First, there was the epoch of salons, in which philosophers where trying to shock their benefactors, the generous Counts and Countesses, even Kings and Emperatrices (Holbach Frederick the Great, Diderot Catherine the Great), with their “radical” ideas on equality, the origin of power, the nature of men, etc. — all of this remaining a kind of intellectual game. At this stage, the idea that someone could take these ideas literally, as the blueprint for a radical socio-political transformation, would probably shock the ideologists themselves who were either part of the entourage of an enlightened nobleman or lone pathetic figures like Rousseau — their reaction would have been that of Ivan Karamazov, disgusted upon learning that his bastard half-brother and servant acted on his nihilistic ruminations, killing his father. This passage from intellectual game to an idea which effectively “seizes the masses” is the moment of truth — in it, the intellectual gets back his own message in its inverted/true form. In France, we pass from the gentle reflections of Rousseau to the Jacobin Terror; within the history of Marxism, it is only with Lenin that this passage occurs, that the games are REALLY over. And it is up to us to repeat this same passage and accomplish the fateful step from the ludic “postmodern” radicalism to the domain in which the games are over.

There is an old joke about socialism as the synthesis of the highest achievements of the entire hitherto human history: from the prehistoric societies, it took primitivism, from the Ancient world slavery, from medieval society brutal domination, from capitalism exploitation, and from socialism the name…70 Does something similar not hold about our attempt to repeat Lenin’s gesture? From the conservative cultural criticism, it takes the idea that today’s democracy is no longer the place where crucial decisions are made; from cyberspace ideologists the idea that the global digital network offers a new space of communal life; etc.etc., and from Lenin more or less just the name itself… However, this very fact could be turned in an argument FOR the “return to Lenin”: the extent to which the SIGNIFIER “Lenin” retains its subversive edge is easily demonstrated — say, when one makes the “Leninist” point that today’s democracy is exhausted, that the key decisions are not taken there, one is directly accused of “totalitarianism”; when a similar point is made by sociologists or even Vaclav Havel, they are praised for the depth of their insight… THIS resistance is the answer to the question “Why Lenin?”: it is the signifier “Lenin” which FORMALIZES this content found elsewhere, transforming a series of common notions into a truly subversive theoretical formation.


The greatness of Lenin is that he WASN’T AFRAID TO SUCCEED — in contrast to the negative pathos discernible from Rosa Luxembourg to Adorno, where the only authentic act is the true failure, the failure which brings to light the antagonism of the constellation (what, apropos of Beethoven, Adorno says about the two modes of the artistic failure — the unauthentic, due simply to the authors subjective deficiency, and the authentic, which brings to light the limitation of the very objective social constellation — bears also on his own politics71). In 1917, instead of waiting for the right moment of maturity, Lenin organized a preemptive strike; in 1920, finding himself in a position of the leader of the party of the working class with no working class (most of it being killed in the civil war), he went on organizing a state, i.e. he fully accepted the paradox of the party organizing-creating its base, its working class.

Nowhere is this greatness more palpable than in Lenin’s writings of 1917, which cover the span from his initial grasp of the unique revolutionary chance (first elaborated in the “Letters From Afar”) to the “Letter to Central Committee Members,” which finally convinced the Bolshevik majority that the moment to seize power has arrived. Everything is here, from “Lenin the ingenious revolutionary strategist” to “Lenin of the enacted utopia” (of the immediate abolishing of the state apparatuses). To refer to Kierkegaard, what we are allowed to perceive in these writings is Lenin-in-becoming: not yet “Lenin the Soviet institution,” but Lenin thrown into an OPEN situation. Are we, within our late capitalist closure of the “end of history,” still able to experience the shattering impact of such an authentic historical openness?


1. See Juergen Habermas, Die Neue Unuebersichtlichkeit, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag 1985.

2. As to this notion, see Chapter 3 of Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies, London: Verso Books 1997.

3. See Claude Lefort, La complication, Paris: Fayard 1999.

4. For an Althusserian attempt to save Lenin’s Empiriocriticism, see Dominique Lecourt, Une crise et ses enjeux, Paris: Maspero 1973.

5. First published in 1990, then reprinted in Colletti, Fine della filosofia, Roma: Ideazione 1996.

6. When, in a typical transferential pathos, Lenin repeats again and again how Marx and Engels always called their philosophy “dialectical materialism,” it is easy for an anti-Leninist Marxologue to draw attention to the fact that Marx and Engels NOT EVEN ONCE used this term (it was Georgi Plekhanov who introduced it). This situation presented a nice deadlock to the Soviet editors of the collected works of Marx and Engels: in the Index, there HAD to be the entry “dialectical materialism,” which they then filled in with references to the pages where Marx or Engels speak of dialectics, of the materialist concept of history… However, this is not the whole story: there is a truth-effect in this hallucinatory projection of a later concept back into Marx.

7. I owe this parallel to Eustache Kouvelakis, Paris (private conversation).

8. For a more detailed critique of Adorno’s “predominance of the objective,” see Chapter 2 of Slavoj Zizek, On Belief, London: Routledge 2001.

9. In a passage of his NoteBooks, Lenin comes to the edge of this insight when he notes how the very “abstraction” of thought, its “failure” to immediately grasp the object in its infinite complexity, its distance from the object, its stepping-back from it, brings us CLOSER to the “notion” of what the object effectively is: the very “one-sided” reduction the object to some of its abstract properties in the concept, this apparent “limitation” of our knowledge (sustaining the dream of a total intuitive knowledge) IS the very essence of knowledge… He comes to the edge of all this, and then again regresses to the predominant evolutionary notion of the infinite approaching to reality.

10. Quoted from V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, New York: International Publishers 1999, p. 40.

11. Lenin, op.cit., p. 40-41.

12. See Ernesto Laclau, “The Politics of Rhetoric,” intervention at the conference Culture and Materiality, University of California, Davis, 23-25 April 1998. When today’s postmodern political philosophers emphasize the paradox of democracy, how democracy is possible only against the background of its impossibility, do they not reproduce the paradoxes of the Kantian practical reason discerned long ago by Hegel?

13. See Eustache Kouvelakis’s commentary to L’Introduction a la Critique de la philosophie du droit de Hegel, Paris: Ellipses 2000.

14. I owe this distinction to Alain Badiou (private conversation).

15. This should be the answer to Veit Harlan, the Nazi director who, around 1950, despaired about the fact that Jews in the US did not show any understanding for his defense for making The Jew Suess, claimed that no American Jew can really understand what was his situation in the Nazi Germany: far from justifying him, this obscene (factual) truth is the ultimate lie. — At a different level, there are in Palestine today two opposite narratives (the Jewish and the Palestinian one) with absolutely no common horizon, no “synthesis” in a larger meta-narrative; the solution thus cannot be found in any all-encompassing narrative.

16. Quoted from Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2000, p. 237.

17. This difference between interpretation and formalization is also crucial to introduce some (theoretical) order into the recent debates on the holocaust: although it is true that the holocaust cannot be adequately interpreted or narrated, in short: rendered meaningful, that all the attempts to do it fail and have to end in silence, it can and should be “formalized,” situated in its structural conditions of possibility.

18. See Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989. — Along the similar lines, Habermas, Rorty’s great opponent, elevates the rise of “public space” of civil society, the space of free discussion that mediates between private lives and political/state apparatuses in the Enlightenment era. The problem is that this space of enlightened public debate was always redoubled by the fear of the irrational/passionate crowd which can, through the contamination (what Spinoza called imitatio affecti), explode into murderous violence based on superstitions manipulated by priests or other ideologists. So the enlightened space of rational debate was always based on certain exclusions: on the exclusion of those who were NOT considered “rational” enough (lower classes, women, children, savages, criminals…) — they needed the pressure of “irrational” authority to be kept in check, i.e. for them, Voltaire’s well-known motto “If there were no Gold, one would have to invent him” fully holds.

19. See Peter Singer, The Essential Singer: Writings on an Ethical Life, New York: Ecco Press 2000.

20. See Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook (New York: Chronicle Books 1999).

21. On account of its utter “realism,” The Worst-Case Scenario is a Western book par excellence; its Oriental counterpart is chindogu, arguably the finest spiritual achievement of Japan in the last decades, the art of inventing objects which are sublime in the strictest Kantian sense of the term — practically useless on account of their very excessive usefulness (say, glasses with electrically-run mini-windshields on them, so that your view will remain clear even if you have to walk in the rain without an umbrella; butter contained in a lipstick tube, so that you can carry it with you and spread it on the bread without a knife). That is to say, in order to be recognized, the chindogu objects have to meet two basic criteria: it should be possible to really construct them and they should work; simultaneously, they should not be “practical,” i.e. it should not be feasible to market them. The comparison between The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and chindogu offers us a unique insight into the difference between the Eastern and the Western sublime, an insight far superior to the New Age pseudo-philosophical treatises. In both cases, the effect of the Sublime resides in the way the uselessness of the product is the outcome of the extreme “realistic” and pragmatic approach itself. However, in the case of the West, we get simple, realistic advises for problems (situations) most of us will never encounter (who of us will really have to face alone a hungry lion?), while in the case of the East, we get unpractically complicated solutions for the problems all of us effectively encounter (who of us was not caught in the rain?). The Western sublime offers a practical solution for a problem which does not arise, while the Eastern sublime offers a useless solution for a real common problem. The underlying motto of the Eastern Sublime is “Why do it simply, when you can complicate it?” — is the principle of chindogu not discernible already in what appears to our Western eyes as the “impractical” clumsy form of the Japanese spoons? The underlying motto of the Western Sublime is, on the contrary, “If the problems do not fit our preferred way of solving them, let’s change problems, not the way we are used to solve them!” — is this principle not discernible in the sacred principle of Bureaucracy which has to invent problems in order to justify its existence which serves to solve them?

22. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, London: Verso Books 1996.

23. In an incident at the US academia, a couple of years ago, a lesbian feminist claimed that gays are today the privileged victims, so that the analysis of how the gays are underprivileged provides the key to understanding all other exclusions, repressions, violences, etc. (religious, ethnic, class…). What is problematic with this thesis is precisely its implicit (or, in this case, explicit even) UNIVERSAL claim: it is making exemplary victims of those who are NOT that, of those who can be much easier than religious or ethnic Others (not to mention the socially — “class” — excluded) fully integrated into the public space, enjoying full rights. Here, one should approach the ambiguity of the connection between gay and class struggle. There is a long tradition of the Leftist gay bashing, whose traces are discernible up to Adorno — suffice it to mention Maxim Gorky’s infamous remark from his essay “Proletarian Humanism” (sic! — 1934): “Exterminate (sic!) homosexuals, and Fascism will disappear.”(Quoted from Siegfried Tornow, “Maennliche Homosexualitaet und Politik in Sowjet-Russland,” in Homosexualitaet und Wissenschaft II, Berlin: Verlag Rosa Winkel 1992, p. 281.) All of this cannot be reduced to opportunistically flirting with the traditional patriarchal sexual morality of the working classes, or with the Stalinist reaction against the liberating aspects of the first years after the October Revolution; one should remember that the above-quoted Gorky’s inciting statement, as well as Adorno’s reservations towards homosexuality (his conviction about the libidinal link between homosexuality and the spirit of military male-bonding), are all based on the same historical experience: that of the SA, the “revolutionary” paramilitary Nazi organization of street-fighting thugs, in which homosexuality abounded up to its head (Roehm). The first thing to note here is that it was already Hitler himself who purged the SA in order to make the Nazi regime publicly acceptable by way of cleansing it of its obscene-violent excess, and that he justified the slaughter of the SA leadership precisely by evoking their “sexual depravity”… In order to function as the support of a “totalitarian” community, homosexuality has to remain a publicly disavowed “dirty secret,” shared by those who are “in.” Does this mean that, when gays are persecuted, they deserve only a qualified support, a kind of “Yes, we know we should support you, but nonetheless… (you are partially responsible for the Nazi violence)”? What one should only insist on is that the political overdetermination of homosexuality is far from simple, that the homosexual libidinal economy can be co-opted by different political orientations, and that it is HERE that one should avoid the “essentialist” mistake of dismissing the Rightist “militaristic” homosexuality as the secondary distortion of the “authentic” subversive homosexuality.

24. See G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1977, p. 178.

25. See Jacques-Alain Miller, Ce qui fait insigne (unpublished seminar 1984-85, the lecture on December 3 1984).

26. This also enables us to answer Dominick la Capra’s reproach according to which, the Lacanian notion of lack conflates two levels that have to be kept apart: the purely formal “ontological” lack constitutive of the symbolic order as such, and the particular traumatic experiences (exemplarily: holocaust) which could also NOT have occurred — particular historical catastrophes like the holocaust thus seem to be “legitimized” as directly grounded in the fundamental trauma that pertains to the very human existence. (See Dominick la Capra, “Trauma, Absence, Loss,” Critical Inquiry, Volume 25, Number 4 (Summer 1999), p. 696-727.) This distinction between structural and contingent-historical trauma, convincing as it may appear, is doubly inadequate in its reliance on the Kantian distinction between the formal/structural a priori and the contingent/empirical a posteriori. First, EVERY trauma, trauma “as such,” in its very concept, is experienced as something contingent, as an unexpected meaningless disturbance — trauma is by definition not “structural,” but something which disturbs the structural order. Secondly, the holocaust was NOT simply a historical contingency, but something which, in its unique combination of the mythical sacrifice with technological instrumental efficiency, realized a certain destructive potential inscribed into the very logic of the so-called Western civilization. We cannot adopt towards it the neutral position of a safe distance, from which we dismiss the holocaust as an unfortunate accident: the holocaust is in a way the “symptom” of our civilization, the singular point in which the universal repressed truth about it emerges. To put it in somewhat pathetic terms, any account of the Western civilization which does not account for the holocaust thereby invalidates itself.

27. One possible counter-argument is here that the category of the tragic is not appropriate to analyze Stalinism: the problem is not that the original Marxist vision got subverted by its unintended consequences, it is this vision itself. If Lenin’s and even Marx’s project of Communism were to be fully realized as to their true core, things would have been MUCH WORSE than Stalinism — we would have a version of what Adorno and Horkheimer called “die verwaltete Welt (the administered society),” a totally self-transparent society run by the reified “general intellect” in which the last remainders of the human autonomy and freedom would have been obliterated… The way to answer this reproach is to draw the distinction between Marx’s analysis of the capitalist dynamic and his positive vision of Communism, as well as between this vision and the actuality of the revolutionary turmoil: what if Marx’s analysis of the capitalist dynamic is not dependent on his positive determinations of the Communist societies? And what if his theoretical expectations themselves were shattered by the actual revolutionary experience? (It is clear that Marx himself was surprised by the new political form of the Paris Commune.)

28. Georgi Dimitroff, Tagebücher 1933-1943, Berlin: Aufbau Verlag 2000.

29. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1972, p. 112.

30. This passage is indebted to conversations with Sebastian Budgen (London) and Eustache Kouvelakis.

31. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow: Progress 1965, Volume 42, p. 67.

32. Quoted from Neil Harding, Leninism, Durham: Duke University Press 1996, p. 309.

33. Harding, op.cit., p. 152.

34. Quoted from Harding, op.cit., p. 87.

35. Ibid.

36. See Alain Badiou, Conditions, Paris: Editions du Seuil 1992.

37. William Craig, Enemy At the Gates, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 2000, p. 307-308.

38. Craig, op.cit., p. 153.

39. See Alain Badiou, “L’Un se divise en Deux,” intervention at the symposium The Retrieval of Lenin, Essen, February 2-4 2001.

40. See Sylvain Lazarus, “La forme Parti,” intervention at the symposium The Retrieval of Lenin.

41. Wendy Brown, States of Injury, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1995, p. 14.

42. See Fredric Jameson, “The Concept of Revisionism,” intervention at the symposium The Retrieval of Lenin, Essen, February 2-4 2001.

43. Is it not that the same “vase / two faces” paradox occurs in the case of the holocaust and gulag? We either elevate the holocaust into the ultimate crime, and the Stalinist terror is thereby half-redeemed, reduced to a minor role of an “ordinary” crime; or we focus on the gulag as the ultimate result of the logic of the modern revolutionary terror, and the holocaust is thereby at best reduced to another example of the same logic. Somehow, it doesn’t seem possible to deploy a truly “neutral” theory of totalitarianism, without giving a hidden preference either to the holocaust or to gulag.

44. For a more detailed elaboration of this point, see Chapter 2 of Slavoj Zizek, On Belief.

45. And the achievement of Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness is that it is one of the few works which succeed in bringing these two dimensions together: on the one hand, the topic of commodity fetishism and reification; on the other hand, the topic of the party and revolutionary strategy — the reason why this book is profoundly Leninist.

46. For a further development of this point, see Chapter 3 of Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, London: Verso Books 2000. — It is often said that the ultimate product of capitalism are piles of trash — useless computers, cars, TVs and VCRs …: places like the famous “resting place” of the hundreds of abandoned planes in the Mojave desert confront us with the obverse truth of the capitalist dynamics, its inert objectal remainder. And it is against this background that one should read the ecological dream-notion of the total recycling (in which every remainder is used again) as the ultimate capitalist dream, even if it is coated in the terms of retaining the natural balance on the Planet Earth: the dream of the self-propelling circulation of the capital which would succeed in leaving behind no material leftover — the proof of how capitalism can appropriate ideologies which seem to oppose it.

47. Another figure of this inexplicable excess occurs in many cinema comedies in which the hero, stranded alone in a small town, is forced to take his expensive car to the local mechanic who, to the hero’s horror, proceeds to take the whole car to pieces; when, a day or two later, the mechanic puts the car together again, to everyone’s surprise, it runs perfectly, although there are always a piece or two standing aside, the remainders that the mechanic did not find the place for when putting the car together…

48. Quoted from Harding, op.cit., p. 168.

49. Quoted from Harding, op.cit., p. 146.

50. In this context, the myth to be debunked is that of the diminishing role of the state. What we are witnessing today is the shift in its functions: while partially withdrawing from its welfare functions, the state is strengthening its apparatuses in other domains of social regulation. In order to start a business now, one has to rely on the state to guarantee not only law and order, but the entire infrastructure (access to water and energy, means of transportation, ecological criteria, international regulations, etc.), in an incomparably larger extent than 100 years ago. The recent electricity supply debacle in California makes this point palpable: for a couple of weeks in January and February 2001, the privatization (“deregulation”) of the electricity supply changed Southern California, one of the highly developed “postindustrial” landscapes in the entire world, into a Third World country with regular black-outs. Of course, the defenders of deregulation claimed that it was not thorough enough, thereby engaging in the old false syllogism of “my fiancee is never late for the appointment, because the moment she is late, she is no longer my fiancee”: deregulation by definition works, so if it doesn’t work, it wasn’t truly a deregulation… Does the recent Mad Cow Disease panic (which probably presages dozens of similar phenomena which await us in the near future) also not point towards the need for a strict state and global institutionalized control of the agriculture?

51. See Leslie Kaplan, L’exces-usine, Paris: Hachette 1984.

52. I owe this point to Alan Shandro’s intervention “Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony” at the symposium The Retrieval of Lenin.

53. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror: the Communist Problem, Oxford: Polity Press 2000.

54. Quoted from Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, p. 144.

55. Quoted from Susan Buck-Morss, op.cit., p. 144.

56. With regard to this point, the crucial figure of the Soviet cinema is not Eisenstein, but Alexander Medvedkin, appropriately named by Christ Marker “the last Bolshevik” (see Marker’s outstanding documentary The Last Bolshevik from 1993). While wholeheartedly supportive of the official politics, inclusive of the forced collectivization, Medvedkin made films which staged this support in a way which retained the initial ludic utopian-subversive revolutionary impulse; say, in his Happiness from 1935, in order to combat religion, he shows a priest who imagines seeing the breasts of a nun through her habit — un unheard-of scene for the Soviet film of the 30s. Medvedkin thus enjoys the unique privilege of an enthusiastically orthodox Communist film-maker whose films were ALL prohibited or at least heavily censored.

57. Although it is also possible to argue that this violence effectively WAS an impotent passage a l’acte: an outburst which displayed the inability to break with the weight of the past symbolic tradition. In order to effectively get rid of the past, one does not need to physically smash the monuments — changing them into a part of the tourist industry is much more effective. Is this not what Tibetans are painfully discovering today? The true destruction of their culture will not occur through the Chinese destroying their monuments, but through the proliferation of the Buddhist Theme Parks in the downtown Lhasa.

58. One is tempted to question the very term “Leninism”: is it not that it was invented under Stalin? And does the same not go for Marxism (as a teaching) which was basically a Leninist invention, so that Marxism is a Leninist notion and Leninism a Stalinist one?

59. See Chapters 2 and 3 of Susan Buck-Morss’s outstanding Dreamworld and Catastrophe.

60. Both quotes from Maureen Freely, “Polymorphous sexuality in the Sixties,” The Independent, 29 January 2001, The Monday Review, p. 4.

61. Quoted from Konkret, Heft 3 (March 2001), p. 9.

62. Christopher Hitchens, “Visit To a Small Planet,” Vanity Fair, January 2001, p. 24.

63. Quoted from Jana Cerna, Kafka’s Milena, Evanston: Northwestern University Press 1993, p. 174.

64. One of the ultimate obscenities of the modern stance towards belief was formulated by the Chinese Communist Party: in the mid 90s, when the Chinese authorities claimed that THEIR Panchen Lama was the right one, not the one chosen and recognized by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, they accused the Dalai Lama of not respecting the old Buddhist tradition, of giving preference to political considerations over the old religious rules. So we had a Communist Party claiming that the birth of the child they identified as the Panchen Lama (who, as if by an accident, was born into a family of Communist cadres!) was accompanied by miraculous appearances on the sky, that, already when one year old, he displayed supernatural capacities.

65. John Berger, “The hammer and sickle,” in Janus 5 (2000), p. 16.

66. Berger, op.cit., p. 17.

67. Or, to indulge in a similar mental experiment: in the last days of the Really Existing Socialism, the protesting crowds often sang the official songs, including national anthems, reminding the powers of their unfulfilled promises. What better thing for an East German crowd to do in 1989 than to simply sing the GDR national anthem? Because its words (“Deutschland einig Vaterland”) no longer fitted the emphasis on East Germans as a new Socialist nation, it was PROHIBITED to sing it in public from late 50s to 1989: at the official ceremonies, only the orchestral version was performed. (The GDR was thus a unique country in which singing the national anthem was a criminal act!). Can one imagine the same thing under Nazism?

68. One should, perhaps, rehabilitate Marx’s (implicit) distinction between the working class (an “objective” social category, the topic of sociological studies) and the proletariat (a certain SUBJECTIVE position — the class “for itself,” the embodiment of social negativity, to use the old rather unfortunate expression). Instead of searching for the disappearing working class, one should rather ask: who occupies, who is able to subjectivize, today its position as proletarian?

69. At a more general methodological level, one should also turn around the standard pseudo-Nietzschean view according to which, the past we construct in our historiography is a symptom, an articulation of our present problems: what if, on the contrary, we ourselves — our present — is a symptom of the unresolved deadlocks of the past?

70. For a detailed Lacanian reading of this joke, see Chapter 2 of Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying With the Negative, Durham: Duke University Press 1993.

71. See Theodor W. Adorno, Beethoven, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 1993, p. 32.




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