You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2003.
I would like to briefly talk in this forum about a Marxist and socialist tradition quite foreign to Trotskyism, and which has fallen into rather incredible straits as a result of what some call
the network society. For shorthand, I will call this the
Yellow tradition, on account of a term of oppobrium attached to the
Real IWW or Worker’s International Industrial Union, a union operating out of Detroit in the early part of the 20th century and which had close ties to the Socialist Labor Party. Divining the historical role of the latter is the desideratum; fixation on the leadership style of its most famous member, Daniel DeLeon, is not the intended result. However, that I need to say this says something both about my writerly composition and about the contemporary left; namely, that it is very often engaged in critique for critique’s sake, exercises in self-reflexivity which ultimately add little to serious social struggle.
And if this sounds moralistic, then we have the problem entire on the table. As far as I can tell the roots of Trotskyism, in Trotsky’s critique of the
degenerate worker’s state of the Soviet Union, are essentially moralistic: what is to be preserved is an ideal of revolutionary purity, which can be reapplied to social movements when they reach a certain level of enervation. This is no small task, and influential work, including work deriving from avowedly Trotskyist influences has done something more laudable than Diamat managed to do. But there is something of phenomenalism in Trotskyist critiques great and small, in fact a phenomenalism exceeding that of the immediate sensorium. Many philosophers of science have asked whether we need seriously consider social phenomena as socially constructed, and although the
double movement present in many social phenomena is thereby rather neatly excised from the realm of sense there is something of
gilding the lily, i.e. the laudable commonplace, in that criticism.
There are no wasted words in public discourse, only unserious intentions: and not caring a tuppence for a particular issue or style in the realm of the political, on grounds of its ungroundedness, is ultimately a matter for personal concern. But what is the alternative? Really, tarrying with the world of the immediate and intuitive in its negativity: and this has its risks as well, although irrationalism in politics need not be one of them. Elsewhere I have asked whether DeLeon’s
Third, the golden socialist age to come, corresponds to Hegel’s
third attitude to objectivity as an achievent of reason, rather than a torment (the
Night the young Hegel wrote about so powerfully):
friction-free communication concerning the commonweal, unimpeded by unavoidable social dynamics. And I have to say that, whatever its strengths in pointing out the rather massive failings of Stalinist communism, Trotsky’s theory of society represents a turning-away from a desire to reclaim past experiences of struggle as relevant and a turning toward what has come to be known in American social science as
the tragedy of the commons.
It is my feeling that still more could be done in this vein, rather than the self-congratulatory style of Stalinisms great and small; and that ultimately this represents a redemption of DeLeon and Lenin’s critiques of
dual power, one witnessed by the phenomenon of socialists we might call
communists by office in the style of Socinian (unitarian) theology —; wary of revolt, unconcerned with the seizing of power, but ultimately fusing concerns both from radical economics and working-class politics successfully (that is, earning their keep in terms of democratizing workplace and civic cultures). These are the
yellows I speak of, and this is no joke: to my mind the
Communist trade unions, such as have never existed in the United states precluded, represented a step back from the original Amsterdam International and other socialist-friendly unions in putting the union movement in tow of electoral politics.
Now, I think it must be said that Trotsky provided a very solid argument to the effect that all good things must end; but I really do wonder whether the spirit of critique is really enervating left politics in the US, rather than building new solidarities stepwise (the ideal represented by DeLeon’s Socialist Industrial Unions). All such efforts have their costs (and if the efforts are effective their real costs are hard to gauge), but critique has its cost as well and perhaps should be grounded by constant
re-examination of the realities of rank-and-file working life rather than
this year’s model in academic discourse; and I really wonder whether it would not be too much for left intellectuals to put themselves
in tow of some organization which needs constructive engagements with particular issues, rather than adopting an Adamsite stance concerning the distance of Winchesters from
Although Rosa Luxemburg is enjoying something of a new vogue in the US as a result of the affordable reprinting of a translation of The Accumulation of Capital, a figure rarely spoken of today in Western Europe and the US is Alexandra Kollontai, leader of the Worker’s Opposition and something like the feminist theorist of the Russian Revolution. As many know, Kollontai’s political role in the post-October period and early Stalinism was quite major; with the Left Opposition, the Workers’ Opposition represented the last line of defense against Stalin’s unquestioned supremacy. However, Kollontai continued to be a figure of critique in the Soviet Union long after any such thing should theoretically have been possible; and to my mind, this bears some thinking upon in connection with a recent
unpolitical vogue for considering questions of embodiment in theoretical philosophy.
To begin at the beginning: Kollontai was a strikingly beautiful woman and this is far from irrelevant both to her political and theoretical praxis, but perhaps in a thoroughly indirect fashion. Kollontai was responsible for some novels about young women’s lives following the revolution which would have been licentious by the standards of her contemporary West, but she has not been hereafter discovered to be a moralist — and this is something of a testament to the frank eroticism of her literary work. Did Kollontai have an ethical vision of the role of liberated women in a communist society? Most certainly, but kvetching about fine distinctions aside it is really one
beyond good and evil: and in considering Kollontai’s political work, one is struck by the resolute ambivalence of her
Left-wing formulations, much as one is struck by the thorough ambiguity of Luxemburg’s.
Now, ordinarily ambivalence is no friend of the working man in a rather determinate sense, but Kollontai considered herself to be very much among them and this is what is worth seizing upon in Kollontai’s style. The thought of the Workers’ Opposition is the thought of the naturally dominant element of the working class, that is, individuals with gifts that command immediate respect but which they will never be allowed the full use of. In places it is Rousseauist and in places Bakunist, but it never is very general; unlike Kronstadt, the bizarre auto-da-fe of those Russians most dedicated to and formed by the energies and concepts of the Revolution, the Workers’ Opposition represented an indelible particularity not susceptible to treatment as an object of calculation, the concept Kollontai absolutely insisted be excluded from the sphere of communist sexual morality.
In other words, they were thoroughly opposed to
Fordism, such as was later discovered to exact an incredible cost upon workers, but in a way they were opposed to it in the order of reality rather than in the order of thought. From its very inception Marxist socialism has relied upon a frank but detailed admission of certain unpleasant facts about society, such as utopian communists aimed to eliminate through judicious applications of elan vital; and this is not quite of those who make a gran rifuto — rather, in an age of patent and publically accepted mass standardization this is something even more perverse. Now, the feminist theorist Camille Paglia once suggested that William Blake, a hero of the English working class, be understood as the English Sade; and Blake’s visions of spiritual hell and sexual ecstasy permit of an understanding as mental cruelty in the order of thought. This is not quite what we can attribute to Kollontai, but perhaps we should understand the Workers’ Opposition (and I fear perhaps somewhat charitably) as Blake’s inverse: a immediate demand for recognition of an ineliminable and truly unthinkable element of violence, force, indeed terror implicit in the demand that one be as radical as reality itself.
But nobody asked me, and I suspect that’s quite to the point. The title of this message contains a quote from
Old Hickory, US President Andrew Jackson, at the battle of New Orleans. Jackson went on to win the presidency and institute a massive
popularization of the US government, symbolized by an inauguration party to which all were invited and which nearly resulted in the destruction of the White House and realized in the implementation of the
spoils system, a method for selecting government appointees as far from Max Weber’s ideal as is humanly possible. In his time, Jackson was a very popular figure, but he is not well-remembered: although he was educated, he was a very coarse man who hated Indians with a passion and who also kept slaves without any justification, such as was provided by Thomas Jefferson.
However, perhaps this is something of the point, that Jacksonian populism was a tremendous force which materially shook the US populace for many decades after his death) and left a non-negligible residue in the political thought of the US for nearly a century and a half (finally exorcised in the person of one David Duke) but which left no lasting rationalization for its existence. Jackson was a phenomenon of the American political body, such as the civilized Indian tribes currently of Oklahoma could tell you; and in Kollontai’s vision of the sexually emancipated communist woman there is much of a fusion between personal and political beyond general rationalization. That there has serious and principled objections to this is becoming less widely known, but perhaps
tarrying with the thought of a woman who was ultimately a figure of immense negativity is none too harmful for the serious theoretician of the worker’s movement.
Or, Bolt .45 Works Every Time
De duobis malis, minus et semper eligendum
Of two evils: lesser, and always uprootable
But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further, and amend the bill so as to commit to the governor and council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores. No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.
Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph C. Cabell, 1816 For a long time, we were to given to believe that the fortunes of the Democratic Party had been put in peril by the Bush administration’s popularity; and today many of us who are given to punching holes or pulling levers for that party find ourselves inclined to do little more due to the grandstanding of the Democratic Leadership Council — and some are even inclined to dream of some sort of social cataclysm. The DLC claims the mantle of the
moral high ground against the Republicans by drawing on the Democrats’ 20th-century record of expanding the federal government to better serve the interests of all Americans, a policy record made possible only by overwhelming popular support for such measures, but the problem is they’ve never done very much of this themselves.
They are inclined to
rightsizing, trial balloons, a slap and a kiss for the underclass rather than a solid safety net. They have done nothing to reverse the gains made by corporate America during the Reagan Revolution, and this is a serious problem because a corporation is, to use the Blakean phrase,
a cock would and due to the dynamics of the economy can do no other than exploit regulatory loopholes to the hilt (no matter how many environmental bumper-stickers get slapped on the back of Subarus). But if the choice is between the DLC and the Republican party, the former must be the better choice, right? Well, the expression above, usually translated
Choose the lesser of two evils, might be better rendered as
Pick on the littler jerk first (although I would point out that in Latin it is not in the imperative mood).
For every paranoid military excess the Republican Party stumbles into, there’s a JFK type egging them on with carefully edited stories of war
exploits; for every austerity program that undercuts the working class, there was an inept bureaucrat with visions of personal glory bigger than his reading-glasses. The Democratic Party has, for many, many years, been the home of the repulsive, grasping operator; but I, for one, want to restore the rightful meaning to those words. So, rather than accepting promises to trim the fat and keep the muscle as something desirable, I propose this: why not go way, way back to the Democratic party’s roots as a radical, anti-authoritarian expression of the will of the American proletariat? That’s right, Jefferson’s not talking in the above letter about the early-19th-century equivalent of
socially conscious people, but
the wretched of the Earth, poor farmers: this letter may be the first proposal to extend the franchise to all American men regardless of landholding status, and Jefferson wasn’t proposing this because he felt their pain.
He really didn’t — wealthy people usually don�t, because they really can’t — but he understood the necessity of a electoral base for the American government which was conclusive, rather than
inclusive, with respect to legitimating the sovereignty of the government by representing the entirety of the American populace. So, if I were asked to propose a slogan for the Democratic party, it would be
The Era Of Big Government Is Over — It’s Time For Councils Again. Councils (of various sorts) are eternally popular with Marxist socialists, but the German sociologist Werner Sombart once asked why there was no socialism in the United States: he answered that it was because the American working class was more conservative than the European, due to a higher standard of living. Although it’s generally accepted he didn’t really read the fine print on American economic cycles and wage trends, this is to a large extent true: the
Reagan Democrat was not a figment of Peggy Noonan’s none-too-febrile imagination.
But to my mind, the real answer to that question is that the question of a tradition more radical than that of mainstream socialism and Leninist communism, council communism, was already bruited by Jefferson and has never been fully resolved for reasons having quite a bit to do with the early history of the Republic. In other words, it is quite literally the case that the United States does not
understand itself, does not have a coherent narrative about the justification for its form of government. The Federalist was essentially an ad for the Constitution, and as such probably the most successful ad campaign in history — perhaps it ought to be redone (
Now with more amendments!). But it is not a measured appraisal of the realities of American government in the spirit of the discipline of Staatslehre, much less a politically unbiased theory of the rule of law in a republic.
Jefferson refers Cabell to another book for that purpose, but L’Esprit des Lois does not present a theory of purely republican government, where neither adhesive forces of nationalism nor the dictates of revealed religion are not invoked to legitimate the government, as they are not in the Constitution. Consequently, a number of figures with wildly divergent views (and who engaged in what are still probably the most rancorous polemics of world political history to date, as a result of the Bill of Rights) have been and will be venerated as members of an ill-defined but unitary group,
Founding Fathers. So, even if more tepid radicals feel left out of the Democratic party, there’s still really some room to move ideologically; and perhaps the question should be how the Democratic party lost its
Republican rider, rather than how radicals fouled up strategically with money they don’t have and connections they refuse to make.
And to reinforce this point for people hoping to capitalize on either the blood money of the Heinz fortune to engage in the common Latin rhetorical practice of pleonasm or the
necessary collaboration of certain elements in the AFL-CIO with dodgy Dems in crushing the dreams of workgroups great and small (the interests of the
defense of the labor movement require this, you see), I think it would be an excellent idea if a
Red Dog Democratic Caucus was formed to hold conservative Democrats’ to a different sort of
fire. As this name may suggest to some of you, lofty moral principle need not exhaust the spirit of such a group; and in fact I would suggest that avoiding talk of
man and god and law be the top priority for such a group.
The ground-floor reason for that is, although councilism has had waves of popularity among the intelligentsia throughout the 20th Century (Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil being two slightly surprising admirers of libertarian socialist positions; Arendt quotes the above Jefferson letter with approval as evidence of a
neglected revolutionary tradition), and as red and black has secretly always been the favorite color scheme of intelligent members of the underclass, it is suppression of widespread intellectual firepower that keeps a genuinely left-wing opposition
out of the running in American electoral politics. Nobody has any very clear idea about how a genuinely grassroots politics could come to successfully challenge the suffocating inertia of top-down bureaucracies, and this limits
left libertarians to gestures of opposition which are often as alienating for others as they are liberating for the
flag-burner, and sometimes hare-brained insurrectionary schemes (which, honestly speaking, seriously endanger the welfare of others and in the end reinforce precisely the objectionable elements of contemporary American life).
There is absolutely no contradiction in maintaining both a principled far-left stance and militating for popular representation
by any means ethical, and it is not illegal or conceited to have a healthy interest in understanding the current state of the Union and in preserving essential portions of it (much of the wind has been taken out of anarchism’s sails due to the discovery made by millions of people living in Mao’s China during the Great Leap Forward that the rule of law not only tastes great, it’s something your body needs anyway). So I would encourage those resentful of the Bush administration to engage in constructive and friendly dialogue with one another, rather than engaging in
Machiavellian intrigues. However, I would love to end this piece by saying
stop grinding those axes and start playing them, but I really can’t; the DLC won’t let the group of individuals I’m specifying here anywhere near the stage.
Having recently dropped my Democratic registration myself — without any intent of getting a more open mind about politics — I frankly would suggest that such an organization would have to be something like a
para-caucus, without any official ties to the party as it stands (apparently
for America in particular way). Such organizations have existed before, although you would actually have to go back to the 19th century to find ones which could serve as good models for a political organization with widespread appeal for the present day. Many groups and parties during that time did not run their own candidates; this was not strictly for reasons of protest, but because vote-splitting is something to be bruited or rued afterwards, never relied upon. But popular representation is not, and before anyone is taken to empyrean heights upon the simple decency and intelligence of Jefferson’s prose, let me say it could very well be the case — even if he did intend it so — that such visions of political loveliness could very well impede the progress of democratization, rather than speed it. Are there other models from American political history who would be better? I think so, but frankly they are either ugly in a somewhat vague sense, archaic in a fairly definite sense, or difficult in every sense; and making sense of their real contributions to the present would be hard and thankless work requiring many hands.
The work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte has recently come back into fashion among academic philosophers intrigued with the conceptual elegance of idealism, but immediately prior to that Fichte was seriously interrogated with respect to his seminal contributions to a German nationalist sentiment ultimately culminating in National Socialism. But in this short note, I would like to briefly trace another line of influence, the influence Fichte’s popular writings had on the communist movement at several derives. This language is not without its strange appropriateness, as it is little-known that the Third International is partially so-called because of the influence on Lenin, through Daniel DeLeon, of Hegel’s
Third or intuitive attitude to knowledge.
DeLeon proposed an ill-defined
Third as the culmination of socialist action, and Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks and political writings immediately prior to the October Revolution suggest that he intentionally introduced cultural elements (including perhaps from Orthodoxy, which is not to be snickered at) into the communist movement in the form of a call for a
pure international. Without debating the pure philosophical issues associated with this (a task I will partially return to later in the note), I would like to point out that Hegel did not view the third attitude as a culmination of human knowledge and used it as a platform from which to lambaste Jacobi and Schelling; not Fichte, and perhaps because there is an obvious resonance in Hegel’s Encylopedia passages to Fichte’s
Characteristics of the Present Age, a popular work in which Fichte outlined five ages of man, the then-current one being the third, the Neuzeit or modern era.
Now, the Third International was rather wholeheartedly devoted to modernity; pace Thomas Mann, Lukacs’ strategic attitude as expressed in
Tactics and Ethics is not that of a Jesuit but rather its inversion; absolutely nothing must be sacrificed to a god, lest it fail and the actions of a fallible and partially corrupted human being be sloughed off onto society (perhaps a better comparison would be to Opus Dei). But with the rather obvious failure of the Russian Revolution to ignite a world communist movement focused on creating democratic, uniform worker rule rather than addressing questions of immediate exigency whatever they might be, a new outlook on socialism came into being under the aegis of Trotsky: the Fourth International devoted itself to learning from the mistakes and creating a truly scientific revolutionary movement.
This also fits with Fichte, as the fourth age was to be the epoch of reason as knowledge rather than reason as enlightement, an age of science rather than liberation: and this meshes nicely with postmodernist views now rather faded, which had it that everything we involve ourselves has a constitutive element of domination. In other words, this would be an epoch wherein the sadomasochistic dynamics of human activity are revealed and accepted; and much of the present age suggests this is the case, except for elements which portend Fichte’s fifth age, the age of reason as art (which is outlined at length in his Vocation of Man). Now, the question has recently arisen whether there should be a Fifth International, dealing directly with global questions of oppression such as have arisen through non-governmental social movements and recent social theory; but I think this question needs to be clarified before it permits of even a feeling answer.
If such an International is to be promoted as an advance upon an already somewhat illusory Fourth International, I am opposed to it; for it is exactly this
perfectibilist strain in Fichte which influenced the Nazi movement in its initially random exclusion of certain groups, measured against arbitrary ideals. But if it is to be coupled to the understanding of social transformation which has been promoted by Marxist social scientists since Marx: namely, that an improvement in material conditions comes upon a
reduction in complexity in the economic system, to use contemporary language. This actually fits rather well with contemporary evaluations of the so-called
Second and a Half and
Third and a Half international groups, both of which served as both institutions of critique and active political organizations.
Elsewhere I have suggested that the Zapatistas represent political groups which would be eligible for membership in a
Fourth and a Half international, concerned with
ramping down the mediatization of everyday life into terms familiar from social critique heavily influenced by critical theory and other outgrowths of post-revolutionary communism; but I have seen groups forming which would be eligible for a
Fifth International worthy of the name — that is, a full-blown politics of delusion supported by privileges unique to a small fraction of those who live in the developed world (such as Marxist socialism never was, and the Third International less so than the Second). But is there some fragment of the ideas supported by these
pleromantics which must be accepted?
Yes, and that is an ultimate krinein or
boundary line which can be crossed over but not erased, and one delimiting the sphere of the social as opposed to that of the human. Social-constructionist views implicating large-scale social dynamics in every element of everyday life have considerable scientific strengths, in fact much more so than much of what passes for scientific social or psychological analysis these days; but there is an element which has always resisted such moves with an incredible tenacity, and that is the realm of the purely private or perceptual — which for nearly all people has some element surpassing rational explanation. Many people would not feel comfortable labeling this as
divine, but many people would: and a post-secular social theory with considerable appeal and potential for abuse has begun to appear in nooks and crannies of academia.
So for me, the point of a
Fifth International would be to realize that the ultimate iconoclastic dream of Western rationalism — the slaying of all idols and the proclamation of an era of true freedom bounded by nothing — is not only unrealistic, but also dangerously indulgent both in terms of self and other. There is really nothing funny about the sentiment attributed by Tin House magazine to John Ashcroft, surely rightly —
Something Greater Than Me; and for all we know, there may be truly unacceptable (that is, well-nigh theocratic) elements of Ashcroft’s worldview which are not present in those of even his close co-religionists. In other words, it seems to me that the precondition for and appeal of such an organization (surely quite minimal, and perhaps extremely so — counting no
proper subsets) would be to put any such fantasy of self-control and ultimate responsibility out of the hands of principled leftists: but I do not expect such a vision to hold a truly wide appeal for some time.
That the above
periodization of the world socialist movement resembles dispensationalist theology in the extreme, Fichte’s work having been one of its sources, is not to be counted as an advantage in the US particularly; but this is one of the ordering’s chief strengths, as the idea is to provide
transition paths to less-strenuous symbolic orders while preserving the
availability of more complex, more
perlocutionary ones, including holy orders. What would be excluded from such an International would be not only faith-based initiatives, but also intolerance for religious groups great and small; but this would have to come at the cost of recognizing
dual power as a kind of double-book accounting involving a material, economic level and one of
political theology — i.e., in the eyes of the noncommunist world and the noncommunist state communist initiatives would have to count as obeisance to the proverbial
god that failed. Thusly, in my opinion the question of the relationship between liberation movements and various theological positions should be reopened, but
thoroughly outside the ambit of any church.
Since the Soviet Union is a long time gone, but some brothers and sisters in Russia still remember something they never even quite knew, it seems to me that talk.politics.soviet should be used for what was rather obviously its original purpose — discussing communist politics as something other than laughable or Satanic. I personally have no admiration for
socialism in one country, particularly of the Stalinist variety; but in considering the vogue for
council communism which has been arising in George W. Bush’s America, it seems to me that the debt owed by the international worker�s movement to the Russian Revolution ought to be addressed seriously by workers themselves, rather than intellectuals of one or another fancy pant. To this end, I am reposting two short pieces written recently, one on the Industrial Workers of the World (an Anglophone syndicalist union predating the Soviet Bloc, founded by Daniel DeLeon and other Marxists) and one on the concept of
soviet as it has been most fully articulated, by Bordiga. Can they be read separately? They should be, and although the labor movement is obviously of supreme importance for socialist politics of any kind in my opinion those aspiring to Lenin’s ideal of a Communist party as exemplary in its political purity must view with great suspicion his exigent criticisms of
dual power; not all workers are socialists, such that anyone who aspires to effectively represent the political interests of
revolutionary workers must accept that the labor movement is a
superset of communist politics and not the other way around. At any rate, here they are for the first time.
Yours for realism, yours for freedom, Jeff Rubard
Democratic Carpentry: What Would A Soviet Be?
The ideals of utopian communism are well known, and the trials and tribulations of
actually existing socialism well-publicized, but is there more to say on the topic of communist political theory? Yes, and the recent vogue for the ideas for
libertarian communists outside the Third International fold (Negri, Pannekoek) does not cover all the ground which could be profitably considered with respect to the real politics of the present: the politics of representation as usual, but transposed into the objective genitive. The theoretical standard for hard-line Marxism in the United States is set by Gramsci, with some reason, and some of Gramsci’s early writings address concerns raised by the Turin factory councils the Ordine Nuovo group organized after the First World War. But I would like to suggest that the writings of Amadeo Bordiga, a much-loved figure on the European left (there are several organizations devoted to reviving his post-PCI International Communist Party) but one who has had precious little influence on American leftism, would be useful in this regard.
An excellent precis of Bordiga’s life and work by Loren Goldner,
Communism is the Material Human Community: Amadeo Bordiga Today, is available on the Web; I will here offer a few observations about Bordiga’s writing, and go on to consider only one part of his views. Bordiga lived well into the postwar flush of the PCI’s challenge to American hegemony exerted through the Christian Democrats, but his concerns remained left-of-center (directed towards the social totality) as they had been during the Third International; and although the epigrammatic acuity of his occasional writings, which almost entirely lack jargon, makes up for a lack of a mature theoretical statement on his part Bordiga’s views on soviets deserve serious consideration — in my opinion, they are more worthy of examination than the views of either the Bolsheviks or the Dutch council communists.
Why? Well, as I mentioned in an essay on Lenin the Bolsheviks used the soviets as a
carrot to power the fundamentally different structural changes of October; and councillists of the black and red and red stripes use the Soviets as a
stick, a standard of what to avoid in liberating society. By constrast Bordiga’s position within the Third International was tenuous from start to finish, but he did not leave the PCI until he felt Togliatti’s reformism became completely apologist in its stance towards a capitalist economic system clearly doing Italy no great favors. His influence was greatest at the very beginning, before Gramsci swung the PCI to the right as part of a purification of Third International, which reduced the influence of formerly quite popular
ultra-lefts across Europe; Bordiga was something like the major theorist of that faction, Lukacs being in truth a sympathizer with libertarian tendencies.
His writings of the Il Soviet period (which predated the Third International, with its Twenty-One Conditions which excluded
Lefts like the German Communist Worker’s Party from membership) provide the most detailed Left vision of communist tactics and strategy; the task of articulating their ethical viewpoint fell upon Luxemburg and Liebknecht. One short piece from 1919,
The System of Communist Representation, provides the clearest picture of what the left-wing communists intended by
soviet government: a picture clearer than the then-present reality in the Soviet Union, and worthy of consideration on that score alone. Bordiga considers the factory councils Gramsci’s Ordine Nuovo group worked with, and although he supports their economic aims he finds them lacking. The reason given by Bordiga is that the councils organize workers by trade rather than class status; but this position is belied by the description of soviets then given, which is a picture of something quite different than an industrial union of any kind. What did Bordiga have in mind?
Beyond Locke, Against De Tocqueville: The Soviet In The Republic, Not The Empire
To begin this discussion, I will quote liberally from the essay:
The network of Soviets undoubtedly has a dual nature: political and revolutionary on the one hand; economic and constructive on the other. The first aspect is dominant in the early stages, but as the expropriation of the bourgeoisie proceeds, it gradually cedes in importance to the second. Necessity will gradually refine the bodies which are technically competent to fulfil this second function: forms of representation of trade categories and production units will emerge and connect with one another, especially as regards technique and work discipline. But the fundamental political role of the network of workers’ councils is based on the historical concept of dictatorship: proletarian interests must be allowed free play in so far as they concern the whole class over and above sectional interests, and the whole of the historical development of the movement for its emancipation. The conditions needed to accomplish all these are basically: 1. the exclusion of the bourgeois from any participation in political activity; 2. the convenient distribution of electors into local constituencies which send delegates to the Congress of Soviets. This body then appoints the Central Executive Committee, and has the task of promulgating the decisions regarding the gradual socialization of the various sectors of the economy.
And to start my piece, I will say I think the consideration of conditions necessary to accomplish the task of
sovietization given is misleading, on account both of the conditions obtaining in post-World War I Europe and the Stalinist terror; but that the first part is a marvelous precis of the councillist ambition in general. If one looks at
Is This The Time To Form Soviets?, Bordiga indicates that he supports the division of proletarian organization (worker’s representation) into two divisions, economic and political. But if it appears that Bordiga requires a coup d’etat to occur before the political half of this can come into play, this is misleading as
The Democratic Principle indicates: Bordiga there says that democratic institutions may be essential for the people in liberal democracy, they simply cannot be friends of the proletariat — their tie to capitalism is simply too strong, since they are its condition of possibility.
So what Bordiga means by the soviet is something neither democratic in the sense of maintaining popular support for a government, nor republican in the sense of vouchsafing the integrity of a government’s representation of those who possess the franchise, but yet opposed to neither democracy nor republicanism. Since in the United States we have a plethora of voluntary organizations through which the people effect social change, and a functioning system of representative government, the thought of such institutions could easily seem sinister: but this is not so, and none of the experience of actually existing socialism save perhaps China’s Red Guards points to soviet institutions as a source of coercion. This is because, although Bordiga does not quite say this, the soviet is not a sovereign political body: it does not have a purchase on individuals over and above the consent of its members. But what Bordiga is quite explicit about is that it is not a
club such as the Orleanist apologist De Tocqueville sang the praises of: it is not intended to represent the private wishes of individuals, the use they make of
disposable income and free time.
That is because the soviets are intended to be the vehicle of proletarian political representation, and voluntary associations of private persons have their effect on politics indirectly, through purchasing power and other kinds of “clout” rather than direct intervention in political affairs: in the language of US politics, the range of
soft money extends much further than nearly anyone is willing to admit. And further objections to superfluity for such organizations may be tempered by the consideration of the logical connectives developed by Sheffer and Nicod, which allow one to develop the full range of Boolean operators from one single operation (
neither-nor) that is perfectly legitimate from the standpoint of thought, very perverse from one standpoint of usage, and limited in extent from every other standpoint.
Are the Nicod and Sheffer strokes
funk intellikeys? Not really, you have to work harder than with ordinary logic and you can�t generate quantificational logic (although you could add quantification to a propositional system based on one of them, at the price of having something exactly the same as first-order logic). And the soviet resembles this stroke of the pen in being a symbol of the unitary character of the working class, and that the emancipation of individual members can only be effected through democratic proletarian institutions (since they are clearly under-represented by existing democratic institutions).
Whether this is still an appealing prospect is still an open question. But to borrow an expression George Clinton of Parliament probably didn’t borrow from the revolutionary Detroit unionists of his acquaintaince, the idea of the soviets is a
funkentelechy; a thoroughly compound representation of a unitary whole comprised of the aspirations, tastes and free time of working people, almost like an art museum (or magazine) for people with
no money to buy, a mapping of class consciousness. In a more traditional turn of phrase, whatever its merits
sovietization of political life is necessary for Proletkult, cultural products which make more of the good things of life immediately available to all.
This is not all there is to life; I was being a little funny above in referencing a piece of Proletkult which is none too political but simpatico enough to certain proletarian sensibilities without mentioning that incisive critiques of American society are available from another organization composed of exactly the same people. George Clinton is not a communist, but he is a worker with a purchase on the communist sensibility exceeding his well-earned riches. Furthermore, the political lesson of the twentieth century should be nobody should be too sure of a particular representative body’s adequacy for the purposes of popular sovereignty, even one supposedly
isomorphic to the people itself; it seems to me what is needed is an attitude which is
constructive in the sense of being pointedly open-ended, rather than purely rhetorically effective. I should hope that these brief remarks indicate that the term
communism need not represent sky-high ideals or sordid realities; if the will is there, it can easily stand for a politics of liberation
practical both in the sense of aiming for concrete results and in awareness of the limitations, material and ethical, of each tactical step. But whether this sounds good to you might depend on what you would do with a hammer.