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Should Marxism have a privileged status?

Aug 29th, 2011 by John Steele. Print This

Following is a response to Steeles August 1 piece below. Vern Gray has written several essays appearing on khukuri. I think it is confusing, and leads in a wrong direction, to conclude that there were or are many Marxisms. I would argue that some ideologies and politics should be assigned a privileged positionnot that our conclusions should be limited by them (we have to see where our investigation and exploration go) but that they should be given emphasis in the palette we draw from in going forwardI am a Maoist but not an unreconstructed Maoist. I am not prepared (not yet, anyway) to uphold the idea of post-Maoism.

Two, Three, Many Marxisms?


Vern Gray Here I will make some comments on John Steeles article Marxism or Anarchism or ? and discuss at more length a few of the questions it addresses. I will go beyond what he has written but, I hope, maintain a focus on the logic of it so as to see where some of his arguments may lead. Steele is right, I think, that there is no clearly existing left, certainly on a world scale, either subjectively or objectively. The reason is not that the imperialist system does not create the urgent need for the formation of a left; the core reason is that there is nowhere near the clarity, coherence, or correctness of political and ideological line that needs to be at the core of it. Accordingly, forging that kind of line, and the practical/political experimentation that Steele speaks of, are of critical importance if there is to be a chance of revolution. I agree, completely, that circling the wagons and posing the question as Marxism vs. anarchism is not a fruitful way of approaching the need for a new understanding of a politics that can change the world. Rather, there is clearly a need to learn from both of these trends, to take the insights of both, critically sum up the history of revolutionary practice, and dig into the enormous problems facing us. So the pivotal thing is to begin to make progress on identifying key questions and finding the answers to them. Here, we need to draw on all possible sources of understanding in every sphere. To the extent that Marxism, as developed up to this point in history, is able to help us chart this course, it is of value; to the extent that it is not, it needs to be shed. And the same for anarchism. The point is not to declare an allegiance to either or an opposition to the other but to deeply investigate and analyze conditions, engage in political experimentation (Steele borrows from Badiou and I think its a phrase that conveys the right novelty and flexibility), and forge an ideology and politics that can guide and learn from revolutionary practice. This is a brief summary of my understanding of the basic points in Steeles article, and as far as this goes, I agree with it. That said, I think there are some problems in his approach. Here I will speak to three of them: (I) the question of many Marxisms; (II) the character of Marxism as a science (or not); (III) the role of practice in evaluating the history and current status of Marxism. I want to draw out some of what I consider to be potential implications of Steeles approach to these questions, even where he does not state them. I dont mean to say that all these implications necessarily follow from what he has written, any more than the historical development of Marxism consisted of a simple emergent process that was all coded in the fundamental DNA of Marxs viewsa position whose invalidity Steele points out. (That point leads to an interesting discussion that I will take up at another time.) But its important to get into the logic of some of Steeles arguments. In doing so, I may run the risk of putting some words into his mouth. But if I do so, Im sure hell point it out. I Steele is right to call attention to the fact that during his life Marxs thought underwent considerable development and change on many key issues. It would be wrong to look at only one or two aspects or periods in it and generalize to all the others. His views on the state changed, particularly as a result of the Paris Commune experience. In political economy, Capital went well beyond, and contradicted, some of his earlier writings. In philosophy, an earlier, more abstract view of dialectics increasingly gave way to an integration of dialectics and materialism into his writings on economics (and history). His views on the possibility of basing a communist politics on rural communes in Russia in the 1880s constituted a significant departure from his earlier and largely exclusive focus on the proletariats class struggle as a revolutionary instrument. These are all very important considerations, and it would be possible to multiply them. Anyone who latches on to only one or a few of the aspects of Marxs thought and declares them to be the whole of Marxism commits a grave error. Nevertheless, I think it is confusing, and leads in a wrong direction, to conclude that there were or are many Marxisms. Part of the reason I want to look at this is that Steele used the same formulation in his article Why Is Badiou of Political Value? I will digress briefly here to compare the situation in a few other fields. Darwins work showed major shifts in emphasis between his beginning, overwhelmingly empirical summations of his vast collection of specimens in the 1830s, to the theoretical structure he began to build in the late 1830s and early 1840s (which reflected a significant reliance on Malthusian economics), and on to the later refinement and further development of his views on a vast range of questions including selection, speciation, extinction, the pace of change, the relationship of biological and geological changes, sexual selection, the implications of evolutionary theory for human prehistory, and so forth. Yet summing up his work in terms of many Darwins,

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or the work of those who have followed in his wake as many Darwinisms, is very problematic. Similarly, Einsteins early writings do not contain in embryo or imply his most significant theoretical contribution, the general theory of relativity, formulated roughly a decade after the special theory and his work on the particle-like character of light. Bohr formulated his theory of the atom more than a decade before the discovery of quantum mechanics, which developed a new atomic theory that supplanted his, but he nevertheless became the leading exponent of the new theory. But were there many Einsteins? Many Bohrs? Would there be some advantage to seeing things in those terms? It seems to me that the theoretical understanding of these thinkers underwent development as they considered new problems, applied their best understanding of method, and came to new, sometimes contradictory conclusions. Further, it was the more developed, later views at which they eventually arrived that were most comprehensive and characteristic of their thought as a whole (even while they addressed new problems, and even though some of Einsteins later thinking about quantum mechanics was, I believe, incorrect). But wasnt this the case with Marx as well?a difference being that he was concerned with phenomena that were actually changing during his lifetime whereas the physicists, for example, studied parts of reality that had existed for a much longer period and did not undergo significant change during their lives. There is a systematic, comprehensive character to Marxism as it has developed since the 1840s, Marxs famous statement that he was not a Marxist notwithstanding. Althusser argues as much in the article that Steele linked to his own (I am grateful to Steele for making me aware of this article). While making many criticisms of the methodology and some of the conclusions of Capital, delving into Marxs and Lenins theories of the state, dissecting Lenins (and Kautskys) views on the relationship between the development of theory and the workers movement, and identifying many of the contradictions, gaps, and silences to which Steele refers, Althusser nevertheless says: Let us sum up. If we untangle all the theoretical, political, semantic and other difficulties in the texts of Marx and, especially, Lenindifficulties that all too often encumber these texts and turn them against the general line of a body of thought which has to be given its coherence if we are to think what it designateswe discover, precisely, a coherent body of thought. (Marx in His Limits, in Philosophy of the Encounter, p. 94.) A general line; a coherent body of thought; but one whose overall contours and substance is only arrived at through a rigorous process of untangling and synthesis (which, of necessity, continues). There is no ready-made Marxism in final form whether in the texts of Marx, Lenin, or Mao. I believe the emphasis on many Marxes points away from this understanding and tends to elevate some of the positions that Marx discarded for sound reasons to the level of others that he did not. It tends to flatten out a variety of Marxisms and in doing so to make Marxism a less sharpand, perhaps, less flexibleinstrument for understanding and changing the world. According to Steele, because any Marxism might hold something of value, no version of it, nor Marxism as a whole, holds a privileged position. My point here is not that various trends should not be critically studied, or that anything of value in them can be ignored and not critically assimilated. Rather, it is that the starting point cannot simply be lets look anywhere, lets not close any doors. Now there is, of course, an element of truth to that. But if we let things rest there, we will not be able to find our way through the maze and come out the other end with the new revolutionary ideology and politics that Steele wants to create. I would argue that some ideologies and politics should be assigned a privileged positionnot that our conclusions should be limited by them (we have to see where our investigation and exploration go) but that they should be given emphasis in the palette we draw from in going forward. Again, this does not mean that we will necessarily end up with Maoism, or post-Maoism, or even Marxism more generally, as the basis for revolutionary politics. Mao himself did not make this assumption. As he comments in his speeches, after Khrushchev came to power in the USSR, the Chinese Communist Party, striving to understand what had happened, considered the possibility that Marxism itself was wrong. Obviously very different from Steeles perspective: Lenins view of the three sources and three component parts of MarxismFrench socialism, German idealist philosophy, and English political economy. Marxism also drew on other sources, for example Greek philosophy, anthropological studies, environmental studies, and many others, and it developed beyond all those sources. But even though Lenins formulation is narrow, looking at Marxism as a whole, there is an overall body of work that adopted some basic positions and had a certain orientation toward them after Marx and Engels had died. The same is true of Lenins and Maos theoretical and practical work taken as a whole. They developed it on the shoulders of Marx and Engelss contributions even as they took up new, more complex problems and constructed new theories. I am not well versed in anarchist thought but I do not believe that it has this overall systematic character. If that is correct, it is fundamentally different from Marxism in this respect. This does not mean that anarchists have not had some penetrating insights about capitalismand about elements of Marxism. But there is a huge gap between the two in terms of historical impact, theoretical development, revolutionary advances to learn frombut also, Marxists must honestly admit, errors and disasters to learn from. II Regarding the scientific character of Marxism: There is a tendency now, and it is expressed in Steeles article, to deny or perhaps more precisely to marginalize the idea that there is any. This denial is often associated with certain other positions. One, which he explicitly suggests, is that the idea that there are scientific aspects to Marxism rests on the idea of a science of history, and further, that the idea of a science of history is bound up with the view that class society passes through a determined series of stages, from slavery to socialism and ultimately issuing forth with communism, whose eventual triumph is inevitable. It is true that this view is part of Marxs thinking, from the Communist Manifesto to his later work, but it is not true that it is essential to Marxism as such or that it is a necessary consequence of a view that aspects of Marxism constitute a science. This is one of the things that must be untangled.

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Marx of course did view his later work as a science. This is particularly evident regarding the science of political economy (or the scientific critique of political economy) in Capital, with its well-known statement at the beginning of the book about the need for science if one is to penetrate beyond surface appearance. But in twentieth-century Marxism there are numerous other areas that should be understood as science: for example, Maos military theory; his views on the class struggle in socialist society; Lenins (now outdated) analysis of imperialism, etc. The fact that these are theories that were forged in times and places where the terrain has changed significantly, but in only very partially understood ways, does not mean that the approach in those theories was not scientific. Even though errors were made, and there are new phenomena that require going beyond the old theories, that does not mean that those theories were not, or not principally, scientific. For example, that socialism and communism are not truly inevitable does not refute the scientific character of (parts of) Marxism but upholds it; dont we arrive at the postinevitablist conclusion, in part, by applying a scientific Marxism (as well as other sciences)? Likewise, Marxist political economy is scientific even though Marx made some unwarranted assumptions. If the criterion of true science were that it be perfect, then, never mind a science of historythere would be no history of science either. I am concerned about the tendency of some people nowadays to restrict the idea of science to natural science, or controlled laboratory experiments, or highly quantified science. These views restrict the idea of science and set up a gap between phenomena that can allegedly be understood scientifically, usually seen as those in the natural world, and those that cannot, whether those that are studied in politics, anthropology, or other fields (and some of these phenomena cannot be placed only in the natural or in the social world alone). This view not only rules out most of Marxs work, but Darwins as well. Now it must be said that in various ways, greater quantification does not always make these theories more scientific. But a one-sided focus on that fact does not mean the theories are not nevertheless scientific, unless, again, one holds the view that quantification is a defining characteristic of any science. To be clear, I am not on board with the notion that Marxism as a whole is a science. There are many components of it, including ethics, aesthetics, and some aspects of politics, that do not and need not meet the criteria of science; and while not denying that there is a dialectic between these aspects and the scientific aspects of Marxism, I think it is wrong to reduce everything to a science. It makes the idea of science lose all specificity, gives rise to scientistic errors, and contorts much of Marxism. I think that Marxism overall is a philosophy and at its core is Maos view that it is an orientation toward revolutionary practice. The idea that there is a scientific character to aspects of Marxism, such as political economy, actually goes against the dogmatic tendency that Steele identifiesto see it as a set of pat answers to already articulated questions that have been already thought through, leaving us only to apply the pat answers to arrive at an overall path to liberation that can deviate from what is expected only with regard to some secondary contingencies and relatively unimportant details. We have many new phenomena to analyze and come to grips with, and while Marxism offers a method and an example of how some perhaps similar problems have been solved in the past, a theoretical understanding of the new phenomena is yet to be forged. An orientation toward science is an essential part of this effort. This work largely remains ahead of us. At present the understanding of any number of areas is entirely inadequate to guide revolutionary practice, though there are seeds of understanding. I do not attempt here to analyze the statement by Badiou that Steele cites, concerning what Marxism is and is not (and in particular that it is not a science of history). I will note, though, that in some ways it is similar to Maos Its right to rebel! in its emphasis on creative human activity rather than some sort of deterministic view. (Mao not only boiled down Marxism to one Marxism but to one sentence!) But I hope Steele will write more about this. III On how to evaluate different political practices, ideologies, theories, etc.: I believe the principal criterion must be revolutionary practice in the broadest sense, historically and today. Steele makes no reference to this. As a result, a certain detachment from practice creeps in and affects some of his formulations. He does not pose the central question: which elements of Marxism (or often at the heart of his stated conception, which of Marxs writings, or which Marxism) have been associated with a revolutionary practice that has actually changed the world at various times and places, moving in the direction of classless society, even though the efforts that drew on and were guided by Marxism eventually failed or were defeated (that time around, and so forth)? He does not even raise this criterion when briefly referring to his own political history. He writes: I take up Marx and Marxism simply because this is the tradition out of which I come, and which I know well. (And Marx is a figureIll admit itdear to me.) That is all well and good, but it doesnt get down to bedrock. Why does he come out of the Marxist tradition? Why did he enter it in the first place? Why is it the tradition he knows well? Because he engaged in revolutionary practice and he studied Marxism, not to the exclusion of anything else but as what became for him a core set of ideas. I have known Steele for a long time, and I think he took up, and takes up, Marxism because, first, of what happened in the world in the 1960sand the role within the Chinese revolution, the Black liberation movement, or other movements that he came to understand Marxism, especially Maoism, to playand then further because he studied it and found that it helped give him a method with which to take up many questions, not only in politics but in philosophy, political economy, and the arts. In other words, because, at least in its revolutionary form, Marxism was a key part of changing the world: this is what drew him to it. Here again, the criterion of revolutionary practice emerges as dominant. That, at any rate, is roughly how I understand Steeles political history. None of this is negated by the more critical, questioning attitude toward Maoism that he has developed over the years following the defeat of the revolutionary forces in China, the smashing or petering out of revolutionary movements in nearly all the other countries where they existed in the 1960s and 1970s, and the fractionation, disorientation, paltriness of vision, and ultimate passing of the left today. Despite all these reversals and setbacks, there is much to learn from Maoism and the 1960s, and I think it is essential to differentiate between a Marxism that led a revolutionary struggle that came to victory and built a socialist society that advanced along the revolutionary road to a certain point, much further than any other; and the variety of Marxisms that have never succeeded in changing anything on anywhere near this level. This is not to dismiss the contributions of other Marxists (or semi-Marxists, etc.)how wrong (and Cominternist) that would be. But there is a huge difference on the scales of history, so to speak.

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This may be, or may seem to be, less ecumenical in its attitude toward anarchism, but it is accurate nonetheless. This is the criterion of revolutionary practice. Steele does not refer to it in his article. His basic point, that we need to reexamine and learn from what is best in different ideologies and political trends, within the context of and focus on identifying and solving new problems, is right. But again, he has defined a plane of resources so that, in a sense, everything is everything. Thats the wrong topology. If the orientation is not firmly based on looking at things from the angle of changing the world, and centering our study of history on how different theoretical and political approaches have related to that standard, then it is not possible to learn the appropriate lessons from history and really put them to the service of changing the world. It is on the basis of this criterion more than any other that I believe that in the history of hitherto existing Marxist or semi-Marxist trends, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist trend is distinguished. We can learn from all these trends but first and foremost from this one. The question of its efficacy in changing the world on a large scale, up to a certain point, in the twentieth century is closely related to its being the most systematic and, yes, scientific trend in Marxism. The only real Marxism? I do not think it is correct to say that but if I had to choose between saying that and saying that there are many Marxisms and not distinguishing among them on the basis of practice, theoretical cogency, and effect, then yes, I would say that the only real Marxism of the second half of the twentieth century was Maoism. But I would prefer not to be boxed into that position. While I do not think the position of many Marxisms is correct, I do think we should recognize a broad Marxist current that has mainly not been part of the Leninist tradition, akin to what Bill Martin calls the philosophical Marxists, that has maintained its radical integrity and not been co-opted into the social democratic or modern revisionist trends. I dont know that philosophical Marxists is the best way to refer to these thinkers, but I do not think Marxism should be defined so narrowly that they are not under its umbrella. Mapping out the political and ideological field within todays Marxism in this bipartite wayMaoism and philosophical Marxismis, I think, preferable to the many Marxisms formulation. (To be clear: these are not the only revolutionary trendsthere are revolutionary anarchism, revolutionary nationalism, and others.) It is possible that the reason why Steele assigns less emphasis to what have been the most world-changing events and how they bear on what ideology should get a preferential position today is that, either he does not think the advances, especially in the USSR and China, were so profound as they are thought to be by the Maoists (and perhaps some of the post-Maoists); or that he thinks that the world has changed so much that today, Maoism no longer has such great currency as I am saying; or maybe that, in a world that has changed quite a bit, he finds it unproductive and distracting to spend much time contemplating the history of previous socialist revolutions. Or perhaps its a combination of all of these, or something else. But then it would be interesting to know what Steele thinks about those questions, or whether they bear very much on his views about revolutionary ideology and politics in todays world. In conclusion So then where do things stand now? It is surely no good simply to stand on Maoism as though it were some sort of perfect, frozen system. I am a Maoist but not an unreconstructed Maoist. Yet I am not prepared (not yet, anyway) to uphold the idea of post-Maoism (though I respect the work of many who do, more or less, take this position, including Steele, Martin, and some of the other writers on this site). I think the question of Maoism or post-Maoism is related to the question of many Marxisms, so I will explore it a bit. It seems that to be a post-Maoist one would have to have a fairly clear notion of what parts of Maoism would need to be discarded or were saturated, of at least a few of the key problems it cannot solve, and why. And then I think even more is required: there should be not only an identification of some problems that elude the old paradigm, but some serious movement toward new solutions. Without this, I dont think the post- prefix is merited. (To draw on another analogy from physics: I would say that Einstein was not yet a post-Newtonian because he realized, sometime in the 1890s, that Newtonian physics contained certain contradictions and could not explain certain phenomena, such as the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887. But the designation post-Newtonian probably was appropriate, or at least partially appropriate, by the time he published the special theory of relativity in 1905.) By this argument, it would be right to see Maoism as it developed over several decades as a (form of) post-Leninism. But it would not be right to call it that (and it was not yet Maoism either) merely on the basis that, by the mid- to late 1920s, Mao had realized the disastrousness of the Leninist inheritance of urban insurrection as a military strategy for China. The fact that Maoism did not solve some of the old problemsand I think Badiou is right in identifying the party-state formation as one of the key onesor that it has not, and truly cannot on its own, come to a clear understanding of many of the new phenomena (such as todays global economy) does not yet, in my view, mean that we should see ourselves as being in the stage of post-Maoism. One of the most important questions is precisely: how do we understand todays global economy? The understanding of objective conditions in this overall sense is basic to any revolutionary undertaking, certainly on a world scale, which is the only possible and sustainable one in todays world. Pre-existing Marxism, even in its most advanced twentieth-century form, Maoism, has no ready answer to this. Neither does anarchism. Another example: how do we understand the type of political organization needed to lead and sustain a revolution; how is it similar to or different from previous forms of revolutionary (including Leninist) organization; and how does all of that relate to the construction of a peoples state (if there is such a thing) under socialism? Here, it seems to me, both Marxism and anarchism have some important things to say. With regard to these questions, and others, both Marxism and anarchism have to be learned from (though I am, clearly, far from saying to an equal extent). But in some sense they have to fall into position with regard to a number of big, challenging, urgent questions. It is particularly in this light that the formulation of Marxism vs. anarchism begs the question. We must focus on identifying and solving the problems. The value of Marxist, anarchist, or other understandings, including entirely new ones, will come to be appreciated in this process.

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Toward the end of his article, Steele writes: The question is: where does politics, and communist praxis, beginwhere does it start from? What I am saying: it does not start from Marxism (or any other basic philosophy or theory). Rather, Marxism is a resource for politics. Now there are all kinds of ways in which a theory can be a resource (in the case of Marxism, some of these might be: to help understand the dynamics of capitalism, to help understand human history, perhaps, to help understand the relation of emancipatory politics and communist praxis to history). In this sense of resource, though (as a help to understanding, for example), Marxism has no privileged status: its a rich resource, but not the only one. Its certainly not a complete theory that explains everything, as its sometimes been taken to be. My first observation is that most of this does not really go beyond Maoism. Yet more important, there is a straw-man argument running through it. Politics and communist praxis do not start from Marxism, philosophy, or theory: yes, Mao was very clear on that. He gave an argument, however, for where it does start from, and if we do not understand that so narrowly as just our own practice but as world-historic revolutionary (and communist) practice, which is then theorized, as in Marxismthen we have an answer to Steeles question, at least a good one to start from. But he does not venture any answer. Contrary to Steele, as Ive argued above, Marxism does have a privileged status. Of course this does not mean its the only resource; but Steele blurs these two questions. Of course it does not explain everything: again, Mao is quite clear, with his formulation about how Marxism embraces but does not replace scientific and artistic theories, and so forth. Why make these straw-man or question-begging arguments? What purpose do they serve? By no means are they necessary in order to oppose the dogmatic, fruitless dance of Marxism vs. anarchism that he rightly rejects, or to look at all ideologies from the standpoint of what needs to be understood and how to understand it, grounded in what needs to be transformed.

16 Comments
John Steele
September 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm Vern Gray centers a lot of his essay around the question of whether there are many Marxisms or just one Marxism undergoing development. I think this is mostly a red herring, at least with respect to the question I was essentially interested in pursuing in my original piece; Ill just make a couple of points on this issue. Does Marxism constitute a complete, consistent, and integrated theory? I think the answer is no on each of these points. But Marxism has been taken to be such a complete and over-arching theory, and therefore the arguments of those who have based themselves on different aspects and emphases in Marx have been framed as contending answers to the question of true Marxism. I believe that framing things in this way is both false with reference to Marx and very unfruitful politically, particularly today (and my impetus for raising this issue is very much with regard to todays political impasse). The fact is, in any case, that there is diversity within Marxism, historically as well as today, and each strand of this multiplicity can claim some basis in Marx. Whether we describe this as many Marxisms or not is immaterial. But Grays aim is not really to dispute this question. He wants to claim that one strand that which runs from Marx to Lenin to Mao is in fact a truer Marxism, or has a privileged status, as seen from the vantage point of the central question: which elements of Marxism or which Marxism) have been associated with a revolutionary practice that has actually changed the world at various times and places, moving in the direction of classless society Now Gray identifies the question he has just centered things on, as the criterion of revolutionary practice, and goes on to say that the fact that the Marxist-LeninistMaoist (MLM) trend stands out with regard to this criterion is closely related to its being the most systematic and, yes, scientific trend in Marxism. The claim, then (ignoring Grays undeveloped mention of what Bill Martin calls philosophical Marxists), is that Marxism, and the MLM historical trajectory, can claim a privileged or preferential position on the related criteria of scientificity and successful revolutionary practice. This is a very familiar line of thinking too familiar. Let me try to unpack what I see as mistaken in it. First, the relation between theory (here construed as science) and revolutionary practice which seems to underlie the conception and argument here. At one point Gray says, We have many new phenomena to analyze and come to grips with, and while Marxism offers a method and an example of how some perhaps similar problems have been solved in the past, a theoretical understanding of the new phenomena is yet to be forged. An orientation toward science is an essential part of this effort. So, it seems presupposed here, we move from analysis (based on science or more generally knowledge) to revolutionary practice, using the method which Marxism offers. Leaving aside the question of the Marxist method, I would say no, this is not the path to revolutionary practice. I am not a partisan if ignorance, certainly, and I believe that we should have as thorough and complete (and yes, scientific) an assessment of the world, present and past, as we can get. But no amount of knowledge and understanding, including on the part of dedicated revolutionaries, will by itself lead to revolutionary practice. (And no, it is not that what is needed in addition is moral norms or ideals. This is a view Ive argued against elsewhere.) What is needed, in order for a revolutionary political process to begin, is something like what Badiou calls an event: a break, a fissure in the structure and dynamics of

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things and then someone, or some people, jumping on that break, betting everything they have on it, and following out the glimpse of the possibility of something new which that break has given them. Politics doesnt follow from knowledge, no matter how scientific; politics punches a hole (Badious phrase) in knowledges. So thats one side of it. But I also want to contest the thesis that there is a tradition or trend of successful revolutionary practice upon which we can or should base ourselves in going forward. There are two or three points here. Gray says, I think it is essential to differentiate between a Marxism that led a revolutionary struggle that came to victory and built a socialist society that advanced along the revolutionary road to a certain point, much further than any other; and the variety of Marxisms that have never succeeded in changing anything on anywhere near this level. Advanced along the revolutionary road to a certain point There is, then, one revolutionary road, a constant, a measure and a scale, such that various societies can be measured, with reference to how far up the scale they have progressed? Certainly this is something I did believe at one time the grand march of history, with its goal and, despite the twists and turns, its progress. (And of course this Hegelian view can be found in Marx.) But its not a view that can really be upheld now, I believe, and (more significantly) its not the basis of a fruitful politics. But besides the question of progress along a predefined revolutionary road, Gray is also putting forward the idea that success in changing the world on a large scale should be the measure of revolutionary practice. Obviously this must be merged with Grays criterion of advancing up the revolutionary road (otherwise capitalism beats all comers in its successful changing of the world on the widest scale). But leaving that aside, should success be our criterion with reference to revolutionary practice? I dont believe so, and perhaps especially not now. To take an obvious historical example, how successful was the Paris Commune? It was not a successful revolution: it was defeated. But didnt it reveal possibilities, and serve as an inspiration for generations? On the other hand, we could also ask, how successful was the Russian Revolution? A victorious revolution; but does the history of the Soviet Union embody revolutionary success? The question, and the criterion, becomes very ambiguous at best: a sure sign that we need to rethink the question of revolutionary success. And especially now. Should our question be, How can we be successful in changing the world? Again, the ambiguity of the question is striking, but it seems clear to me that this guideline leads only to the right.

Reply

Nat W.
September 5, 2011 at 10:28 pm I would probably say first of all that I tend to agree with Vern Grays overall argument, that success in revolutionary practice should overall create a preferance or starting point if you will, for where reconception begins. In this sense, yes, I think starting out from where Mao left off and giving preference to his body of thought is actually necessary. Like Gray says, that doesnt mean solely starting out from Mao, but I do believe given the history of our last century of revolutionary praxis there is something unique in his work, particulalrly around the question of mass line, understanding of class struggle under socialism, and also his military theory. That being said, there are also solid points that Steele makes in his comments to Gray around the question, What is it that actually constitutes success?, that actually pose rather concretely, some important caveats to Grays overall arguments. In this light Hammerquists desire in his comments on Steeles article on Marxism or Anarchism or that there be an assessment within our project of the revolutionary years from 1918-1923 is a desire I very much share. I think going back to this period actually show the flaws in giving too much preferance to Mao, even while I would actually say that Maos body of work actually developed against the backdrop of what I would call the negative outcome of those particular years (1918-1923) which embodied the first for congresses of the 3rd international. Now Gray has said in his argument that one thing that Mao did not figure out was the party-state question. The thing with this problem and how it relates to 1918-1923 is that party-state question along with the Bolshevization of the international communist movement, I would argue started in these years. Reading accounts of this period from Alexander Rabinowitch to Helmut Grubers documentary histories, or even Victor Serge or Leon Trotsky, it is clear as we all should no that the paradigm of the party-state along with other things consolidated during this time were by no means a given. And I think it is also true that these policies were defeated through political struggle within the communist movement and not necessarily proved false through revolutionary praxis. Also through the particular way that things became consolidated, the ability for choice, for creativity and experimentation, and also for local intiative became stifled. In this sense alternative paths for building socialism and also revolutionary praxis in regard to seizing power also became stifled; stifled not through their defeat by capital but through the hegemony of 3rd International Bolshevization. Mao Tse-tung struggled through this suffocation of revolutionary praxis to lead a successful revolution and to analyze socialist society through its Soviet and Chinese experiences, however he never really gave up on the party-state idea and never really critiqued in a thourough way the lessons of the formative years of international communism (1918-1923). I am calling these years the formative years of international communism because it was during these years that a number of key demarcations and splits occurred that defined and differentiated this new communist movement both from 2nd International Social Democracy and also from Anarchism or Left Commmunism if you will. These were also years of intense revolutionary activity and there were several attempts at seizing power in a number of different countries, which ultimately all failed. Because of the failure of these movements and the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, Bolshevik hegemony over the Comintern became an established fact. As things developed, the de-facto ability of Bolshevik leaders to initiate splits within other parties, to direct actual insurrections from abroad, and to dictate to other parties how they should carry out tactics all became established by 1923. Those who questioned Soviet authority from within the international such as Herman Gorter, Paul Levi, or Amadeo Bordiga, were isolated or removed, or just plain left the Comintern. Because of Soviet hegemony and the resources at there disposal the ideas of other thinkers were shunned and never had a fair chance to really get off the ground. Within the Soviet Union itself, the consolidation of the one party state became a model for how socialism must be constituted everywhere. The ideas of a multi-party

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socialism, or of a socialism where the soviets were given more political authority that were argued for during the beginnings of Soviet power eventually became drowned out. Mao, broke with the Comintern in carrying out the Chinese revolution through leading the peasants as the main revolutionary force in the given circumstance of his country. And he saw the problems inherent in socialist society itself as constituted throught the paradigm of the one party state. The problem is that it cannot be considered a given that socialism must always be constituted in such a form and that Mao never thought through the possibility of dissolving that form as part of leading the GPCR and creating more substantive representation and leadership by the people themselves. It maybe the case then that the Marxism-Leninism-Maoism may be a preferential place to start for reconceiving political economy, the art and science of revolutionary overthrow. That Maoism gives us important starting points for communist military science and analysis of socialism. In this regard, yes, I would give MLM preference based on its actual achievements. I think it makes sense to do this. On the otherhand, there were visions of socialist society that were politically drowned out, more than they actually failed. In addition the Marxist trend of MLM was not as successful in building socialism as it was in analyzing capitalism and seizing power. It maybe necessary in that regard to look back at some of the debates and ideas that were defeated during the course of the years 1918-1923, about building socialism and even ideas about autonomy in international communist bodies and revolutionary strategy in more developed countries. It maybe that in this regard MLM does not deserve as much preference. The arguments from that period were very rich and much was at stake on an international level. There was dissension and difference of opinion expressed in a way we have not seen in the communist movement maybe up until now in Nepal. I agree with the notion that not all Marxisms are equal. I consider myself a Maoist. And I think that there is the need to give preference to certain ideas at times. On the other hand, there are areas where MLM did not do speak adequately enough. And there is the need to look at our whole history and possibly to reconsider some ideas (even some that today fall under some trend of anarchism) that we have not really not thought about in along time, in the name of upholding Leninism as part of our MLM or other type of Marxist Leninist identity.

Reply

John Steele
September 7, 2011 at 7:21 am Just a short note that I hope will clarify my meaning. I do not hold the view that everything is up for grabs, that we need to start from point zero, that history doesnt matter. Not at all. We all come out of traditions (Maoist or other), and we all, no matter who, stand in a present thats been shaped by the past, including the revolutionary tradition broadly conceived. I dont hold with disowning that or thinking that it doesnt matter, and theres so much that cries out to be studied deeply and critically, like the crucial 1918-23 period that Nat W. talks about above. So I have no thought of disregarding the past. But I think there are two ways of looking at this history in relation to going forward. One way is to see it as a basis for revolutionary work now and going forward as a series of accomplishments (with flaws to be taken account of, but accomplishments nonetheless), as a foundation (with cracks and defects which we need to repair, but foundational nonetheless). Or, in contrast, we can see the revolutionary past as presenting some basic problems which must be surmounted. These may not be problems that can be resolved in their own terms, but must be overcome or gone beyond (I am thinking particularly of that crucial party-state knot). This presents pretty starkly the contrast I wish to draw: Does the revolutionary past present us with a foundation, or with an impasse? I believe it is the latter. And we have to think in new ways and find a new praxis in order to get beyond this impasse.

Reply

Nat W.
September 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm Thanks for clarifying John. I think there are some times that we can look at aspects of our history, including our theoretical history, as foundational. At the same time that our history presents us with sets of problems (impasses), I think that the way we look to solve such impasses usually rests on a combination of foundational principles along with new thinking about problems not anticipated and critiques outside of our foundational framework. One example is Marxist political economy. It provides us with a foundation through which to look at developments regarding the structure of the world we are trying to transorm. While it is true that Marxist economists and communist theorists who apply Marxist political economy develop different outlooks and conceptions about how they percieve economic developments, they are still resting on a theoretical foundation. Further events will bear out which conceptions have more validity, for instance while Lenin, Luxembourg, and Hilferding all wrote about imperialism; and while it has been stated by some that the latter two were actually the greater political economists; it was Lenin who understood better the dialectic in the new economic situation of that time between destruction and construction and how crisis would be resolved through inter-imperialist war and the opportunities that presented for revolutionaries. So on the one hand, I guess you can say that there was both a foundation and an impasse in this example. There was the foundation of Marxian economics. This was the tool used to explain the given situation. And I would agree with Vern here again, it was not only one of many tools which included varying Marxian and non-Marxian ideas. While such ideas actually existed and were at times incoporporated, it was crucial that a consistently Marxist approach was applied. Would Lenin have drawn the same conclusions if he was giving equal weight to all theoretical conceptions of political economy or revolutionary praxis? But it is also true that the theoretical tools provided by Marx did present Lenin with an impasse as opposed to a ready made solution. And I agree with John that we should understand this as well for how we go about reconcpetion.

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In other words, you could not just read Marx to gain an understanding of the politcal devlopments leading up to WWI. Rosa Luxembourg used a Marxist approach to look at this same period and came up with a conception of imperialism which was quite deterministic, the idea that there was a finite capacity for capital to expand globally and that once this capacity was reached capitalism would implode. So yes the foundation was there, but the foundation also presented a set of problems (an impasse), as did the development of history itself, that would have to be solved in the concrete, through a deep understanding of the world around us. I wont give any more examples but I think in regard to many areas in which we must reconceive, rather it be organizational form, military strategy, contemporary class analysis and political economy, etc. there is a combination of both resting on some foundational theoritical concepts, along with the necessity to see the past as presenting certain problems through which our previous history did not provide strong enough answers or even that it did not anticipate. And while there is the absolute need to listen to new thinkers both Marxist and non-Marxist, and also to go back and revisit some of our previous verdicts; at the same time I would argue there are areas of our work in which there actually do exist foundations or starting points and that such foundations are equal to the notion of giving theoretical preference to certain conceptions of revolutionary praxis. I do not agree with the idea that Marxism or MLM is essentially one tool along with many others all of equal value. While toolboxes consist of many tools, a mechanic usually has a given preference for the tool that she/he will use. The mechanic will reach in the toolbox and pick out the tool that is best for solving the problem. I think we need to look at our theoretical and political toolboxes in the same way.

Reply

John Steele
September 8, 2011 at 7:48 am I need to clarify a bit more (or perhaps simply argue some more). Nat W. cites Marxist political economy as providing a foundation through which to look at developments regarding the structure of the world we are trying to transform. Lets accept that for the moment (although Id argue that the fact that Marx titled Capital a critique of political economy is crucial). But all the understanding in the world, including an understanding of the dynamics of capital, does not yield an emancipatory praxis. That is my point. Neither Marxism nor any other body of doctrine or method of analysis. I drew a contrast between the past (Marxism, or ) serving as a basis or foundation for revolutionary work now for praxis and the past as presenting basic impasses to which the revolutionary process had come. Nat W. in effect says its not a matter of either/or, but both/and. This becomes a little too much along the lines that if we take our Marxist (or Marxist-Leninist, or MLM) tradition and its conclusions, then apply that to our present situation, using creativity and perhaps the Marxist method to overcome the problems stemming from the fact that the world has changed, then weve got what we need to come up with a revolutionary synthesis which can serve as a foundation for a revolutionary praxis. This is the model that I am contesting. Such a process will not result in a revolutionary praxis today. Something like this model may have been sufficient in the past (and this is worth discussing much further), but its radically inadequate today. Why? Not simply because the world has changed. But because the basic Marxist template, in all its permutations, has become exhausted not Marxism as analysis, but Marxism as an unfolding nexus of social theory-and-practice. (In Badious terms, this truthprocess has become saturated.) As I said above, this doesnt mean that everything is up for grabs, that the slate is wiped clean and we start from nothing. Our relation to revolutionary tradition is complicated. I tried to express one aspect in speaking of Marxism as a resource, in the original post to which Grays post replies, but this isnt wholly adequate, and I cant do better at the moment. The essential point, however, is that the revolutionary past is not, in any straightforward way, the basis for a possible emancipatory process going forward.

Reply

Nat W.
September 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm Thanks John, I think we do have a disagreement. But to be clear, Im less concerned with upholding tradition and specific conclusions then I am with, yes, looking at MLM as method and a launching pad from which to start reconception. I view or interpret foundation as a starting point not a set of static laws to be applied in current practice. It maybe true that starting from any method of analysis (and certainly any body of doctrine) will not necessarily lead to a revolutionary praxis. That being said, I think that certain methods of analysis (particularly MLM) give us a better chance at arriving at such a praxis. This does not mean in my own thought that one stay grounded in a particular set framework once one has lift off. All the great revolutionary theorists (from Lenin to Mao to Althusser, etc.) implemented and incorporated the new thinking of their times to develop their theory. All of these thinkers certainly, even if their rhetoric was sometimes cloaked in orthodoxy, broke away with certain traditional thinking and logic to arrive at new conceptions and to develop new strains of thought. At the same time though, their thinking did originate from a paticular point and was then able to launch from that point. Cant it be said that Badious thinking started from his grounding in Maoism and developed from there incorporating all types of thinkers from Deleuze to Wittgenstein in the development of his theoretical searching. I think on this point we agree, we are not starting from nothing. I would venture to say that every theoretical breakthrough stands on the shoulders of some previous thought and is also very much connected to the context of the era in which the breakthrough occurs. Every breakthrough contains both strands of the past and strains of the radically new. And of course this is not only true for Marxist or MLM thought. Leaving aside the role of Marxism for a momet though, I would beg the question, Is it really true that there can ever be just a number of resources all equally adequate

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for a particular purpose? This is where I think your idea of Marxism as a resource becomes inadequate and needs further elaboration. If it is indeed true that Marxism has become saturated then that is one thing. That must be shown in its own right. I wont repeat Vern Grays crtieria for what must be done to say that we moved to something called post-Maoism, but I tend to think his points are valid. However, it is another thing to imply that every resource available to revolutionaries for developing a new praxis has equal value. I doubt you think that. However, Vern has sensed that implication in your article and I have brought it up and you have not elaborated on that particular point. I would love to hear your clarification on that point. In the mean time I am inclined to take the position that certainly all resources are not equal. Preference must thus be given to certain resources over others. Part of the method for determining these preferences must be based partly on some summation of our revolutionary past. I agree with you that our relationship to that past is complicated and not the basis in any straightforward way for a possible process going forward. On the other hand, I do think we are leaping off of the shoulders of our predecessors, learning from the problems they encountered (impasses presented); without necessarily knowing in what direction it will all lead.

Reply

Vern Gray
September 9, 2011 at 9:13 am I agree with most of what Nat has written about the privileged status of revolutionary Marxism and the fact that we are standing on its foundations. I also think he summarizes the historical development of Marxism in a largely correct way. There are some other issues Nat raises that I would like to discuss at another time. With regard to Steeles comments, in his first post on this thread, he asserts that whether there are many Marxisms or just one Marxism undergoing development . . . is mostly a red herring. . . . there is a diversity within Marxism, historically as well as today, and each strand of this multiplicity can claim some basis in Marx. Whether we describe this as many Marxisms or not is immaterial. How could this possibly be correctthat it makes no difference what the essential defining characteristics of Marxism are, even if we cannot define its boundaries with full precision (and probably are better off not to), and even though Marxism is not, as Steele stresses, a completely consistent system? On the contrary, whether the formulation of many Marxisms is correct is certainly relevant to the question of what Marxism might have to do with an understanding of our situation today. Steele writes of his many Marxisms that each strand of this multiplicity can claim some basis in Marx. Well, there is really nothing remarkable about that: as Lenin said shortly after the Russian Revolution, today everyone is a Marxist; and as Stalin remarked, paper will put up with whatever is written on it. Revisionism claims some basis in Marx, and indeed it has some; and the claim is central to the specificity and the very existence of revisionism. It is likewise with many forms of social democracy. How can the question of whether we accept that these trends are actually in accord with the overall content, thrust, and purpose of Marxism (and not merely certain particulars), and can thus legitimately be classified as forms of Marxism, be irrelevant to how we seek to understand the world today, and how we explore what is to be done? Steele also says, with regard to my comments about the part played by science in Marxism: So, it seems to be presupposed here, we move from analysis (based on science or more generally knowledge) to revolutionary practice, using the method which Marxism offers. This is not what I have written; I have specifically repudiated this view. Agreeing with Steele, I wrote: Politics and communist praxis do not start from Marxism, philosophy, or theory: yes. Mao was very clear on that. He gave an argument, however, for where it does start from, and if we do not understand that so narrowly as just our own practice but as world-historic . . . practice, which is then theorized, as in Marxismthen we have an answer to Steeles question, at least a good one to start from. (I have inserted the ellipses in place of my original words revolutionary [and communist], which define the sources of practice too narrowly.) Elsewhere, as Steele knows, I have criticized the view that, overall, theory is a starting point for a communist party (for example, in my article on class truth, where I refute Avakians so-called theory/practice/theory dynamic). Again, I do not know why Steele has found it necessary to criticize this viewpoint, since I do not hold it or put it forward. I also wrote, The point is not to declare an allegiance to either [i.e., Marxism or anarchism] or an opposition to the other but to deeply investigate and analyze conditions, engage in political experimentation (Steele borrows from Badiou and I think its a phrase that conveys the right novelty and flexibility), and forge an ideology and politics that can guide and learn from revolutionary practice. This formulation pertains specifically to our current situation, which is what Steele is concerned with here, not only the overall historical process, and is no more one-sided than his own. Now to what I consider the central point: Steele also takes issue with how I discuss the criterion of revolutionary practice. I wrote, I think it is essential to differentiate between a Marxism that led a revolutionary struggle that came to victory and built a socialist society that advanced along the revolutionary road to a certain point, much further than any other; and the variety of Marxisms that have never succeeded in changing anything on anywhere near this level. Steele challenges this view, writing that it implies that there is one revolutionary road, a constant, a measure and a scale, such that various societies can be measured, with reference to how far up the scale they have progressed, and he then likens this to the Hegelian concept of the grand march of history. My use of the term revolutionary road was not the best because, although I did not intend it to mean that there is the same road to revolution in all societies, it can perhaps be interpreted in that way. So let me put this a different way. In his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx makes his formulation about how the resolution of several major contradictions will be essential to the transition to communism. From the standpoint of these criteria, which all have to do with the elimination of classes, how would we compare, say, China in 1976 to the Soviet Union in 1936 (when Stalin claimed that antagonistic classes had been eliminated)? Leaving aside all the differences between the Soviet and Chinese revolutions, and the various particularities of each country, and the international situations they were situated in, can we not determine which society had progressed further toward communism? Must this determination call on any form of Hegelian idealism whatsoever?

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I might have thought it was obvious that I was referring to Maos China as being the country where society had gone the furthest in a communist direction in terms of economic, social, political, and cultural transformation, but for some reason, Steele chose to construct an argument in which he compared the USSR and the Paris Commune. He writes that the Commune revealed possibilities and served as an inspiration for generationstrue enough; whereas the Soviet Union embodied a revolutionary success that was very ambiguous at bestyes, in many ways it certainly was (and in some it was not even that good). Though I would not want to argue that the Soviet revolution somehow ranks beneath the Paris Commune, I wont pursue that here. Back to Maoist China: in an overall sense, were the possibilities and inspirations it engendered somehow outweighed by those of the Paris Commune? Of course, certain possibilities of the Commune were foreclosed in China, but that is part of the dialectical process in all revolutionary advances, in which some possibilities are opened up and others are forestalled (sometimes mistakenly, but not always permanently), and in particular, this greater development of openings and closings is inevitable when we are talking about a process that lasts on the order of fifty years (as from the start of the peoples war in China till the seizure of power by the revisionists) rather than two months (the Commune). Part of the question has to do with just how different Chinese socialism was from capitalism, about which Steele has many opinions, some of which I agree with. As we know, although there were very significant changes in many fields, Mao nevertheless believed that a mere change in the character of the party leadership could lead to the restoration of capitalism (which is just what happened); whereas he recognized that there was a long and tortuous road (a road!) on the way to communism (and one that can scarcely be accurately called predefined, a word Steele erroneously uses in describing my view). In other words, even though the masses and a communist party were in power, Chinese socialism was in many, even most, respects still closer to capitalism than to communism. Nevertheless, I would say, we not only have a great deal to learn from the Chinese experience, but we stand on the shoulders of it; it is a foundation. To a lesser degree, that is true of the Soviet Union, the Paris Commune, and revolutionary movements elsewhere. Finally, to the question of impasse: Steele sees the revolutionary past, and as part of that, Marxism, as principally presenting an impasse rather than serving as a foundation. With Nat, I think its right to say here: both. But in some ways, I see the impasse we are facing as being on a much larger scale than the impasse of Marxism. (We all seem to agree that the party-state formation is a big issue; actually I think the army has to be included as part of a triumvirate, a historical bridge between the party and the state.) I think the impasse principally does come, not from the internal limitations of Marxism, but from changes in the world (another view that Steele disagrees with in his remarks on Nats comments). Heres why I say this: We are faced with an acute and urgent global problem: the natural environment is severely out of balance. This is a problem of a kind and scale that Marxism has not adequately formulated and has never seriously surmounted. And we are faced with making huge steps toward a resolution within a highly compressed time period that is unprecedented for a problem of this magnitude. Further, there can be no sustainable solution to any of the other big problems we face unless we deal effectively with this one. Yet Marxism has overall said precious little on this subjecteven after allowances for some of the good work thats been done over the past thirty years, and even after we appropriate what can be appropriated from the history of Marxism and the socialist countrieslearning not only from the modest advances but from the errors. This is an enormous impasse; but it does not mean that Marxism is not foundational or that it cannot be extended to a comprehension of environmental issues (not to the exclusion, of course, of the necessary role of the sciences of climatology, ecology, etc.). Finally, in his third comment, Steele argues: I drew a contrast between the past (Marxism, or ) serving as a basis or foundation for revolutionary work nowfor praxisand the past as presenting basic impasses to which the revolutionary process had come. Nat W. in effect says its not a matter of either/or, but both/and. This becomes a little too much along the lines that if we take our Marxist (or Marxist-Leninist, or MLM) tradition and its conclusions, then apply that to our present situation, using creativity and perhaps the Marxist method to overcome the problems stemming from the fact that the world has changed, then weve got what we need to come up with a revolutionary synthesis which can serve as a foundation for a revolutionary praxis. This is the model that I am contesting. Such a process will not result in a revolutionary praxis today. Something like this model may have been sufficient in the past (and this is worth discussing much further), but its radically inadequate today. Why? Not simply because the world has changed. But because the basic Marxist template, in all its permutations, has become exhaustednot Marxism as analysis, but Marxism as an unfolding nexus of social theory-and-practice. (In Badious terms, this truth-process has become saturated.) I must admit that I do not understand how it could be that Marxism as analysis has not been exhausted, but that it has become exhausted as an unfolding nexus of social theory-and-practice. What sort of process of unfolding theory-and-practice is not informed by, and then more than that, integrated with, a good analysis? The questions I am raising here do not imply that nothing is needed but Marxism, with some creative touches or updates added. But then that is scarcely a new insight. Rather it is a familiar truth that something new and different has to change in the objective situation, triggering a change in the activity and consciousness of people, before there can be the possibility of significant and perhaps revolutionary change; and no amount of theoretical preparation can substitute for such a process or by itself produce a mass awakening. Whether we speak of Badious event or Maos single spark (these are not exactly synonymous but perhaps either will do for the moment), there must be something new in the world that people have the insight to recognize, seize on, and run with. It is true that often in history, doing this has gone up against the established norms of the international communist movement or the knowledges that blindly know that such new truths cant possibly come into existence. But it was overwhelmingly a caricature of Marxism, one which opposed Lenins or Maos innovations, that sought to suppress what was new and needed because it fell outside orthodoxy. Call that caricature Marxism if you must, but doing so cannot, I think, serve theoretical clarity.

Reply

John Steele
September 9, 2011 at 3:18 pm Well Theres a lot here,and I cant deal with much due to time constraints. On the other hand, much of it is, imo, beside the point in relation to what I am attempting to put forward. Probably Ive not articulated things as well as I should have. (But of course the process of back-and-forth, both clarification and contestation, is good and valuable.) If Ive misinterpreted points of Vern Grays, as apparently I have, or exaggerated for polemical purposes, apologies for that.

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On a couple of minor points (to my mind): I dont hold that all possible resources are on a level, or of equal value. I really dont think its an important question, whether there s an essence of Marxism interesting, yes, but not important or pressing with regard to the truly important question of emancipatory praxis today. But the essential point has to do with the relation, if you will, between theory and practice, and to try to again clarify my meaning, Im going to resort (with apologies!) to self-quotation. the following is from Part II of my essay Marxism, Politics, and Evil, where I begin by citing two things that Mao said. The first is his observation that First we were revolutionaries, and as a result we became Marxists, and the second is his much-quoted its right to rebel. Lets start from a fuller quotation of Maos famous statement in its original context: The immense complexity of Marxism can be summed up in one sentence: It is justifiable to rebel For centuries people have been saying: It is justifiable to oppress or to exploit people, but it is wrong to rebel. Marxism turned this thesis upside down. That is a great contribution, a thesis established by Marx from the struggle of the proletariat. Basing their action on this thesis, people have shown defiance, struggled, and worked for socialism. (From Mao Papers, ed. Jerome Chen.) In making an interpretation here, a lot turns on a question of priority. Should the Marxism put forward by Mao in this passage be understood as beginning from a primordial ethical judgment (rebellion is right, justified)? Or should rebellion be seen as the primary action, generating a for-or-against field, with Marxism beginning from affirmation of the rebellion, putting oneself on the side of those who rebel? In the latter case, which Id argue for, the justifiability is not an abstract (or an a priori) judgment, but a practical one which is simultaneous with ranging oneself with those who rebel. Putting this together with the first revolutionaries, then Marxists statement, we can see how (as I see it) the basic movement is from rebel or revolutionary practice to Marxism as the affirmation and comprehension of that practice within a larger, deeper context, and then movement forward from there. This primacy of practice is essential for Mao, as for Marx and a revolutionary Marxism. Ethics in this conception is formed upon and around a basic practical orientation. (The movement here is similar to Badious sequence of event, subject and truth-process, where it is the recognition of the event which founds both subject and truthprocess, with an ethics following out of this nexus.4) What is primary is the movement in the world, practice, and its this which generates the need which is not only what has led, historically, to taking up Marx, but which is also necessary in order to come at Marx in such a way as to see his theory as an understanding of the present which shows a different future as possible. At that point, in coming to grips with the revolutionary political vista thus opened up, there are many problems to be solved, including ethically. None of this movement from practice to theory guarantees anything, of course, and certainly not a good or fruitful understanding of Marx. The point is not a sure-fire method of getting everything right, but a conceptual relationship and construal of whats going on. I must run, but hope the above may clarify what I mean by the overall nexus of they and practice. But more later

Reply

Nat W.
September 11, 2011 at 2:27 am It seems to me that the orientation toward taking movement in the world and practice as primary is very combatible with the notion of looking at our revolutionary past as a combination of foundational grounding and the presentation of a set of problems to be resolved through our current practice. I dont see a problem because our revolutionary past does represent a vast wealth of actual practice in the first place. The summation of our past is seen as an important part of our reconception precisely because it can ground us in some things that we will almost certainly come across in our revolutionary endeavors. This grounding certainly wont provide us with exact replicates of how problems presented themselves in the past, and it certainly wont give us ready made answers. It will ultimately present us with a set of questions that we will face in beginning to build a new communist movement. And our past will also give us a sense of how those who came before us tried to answer these questions. And ultimately we can asume there will be new things that arise that have never been dealt with. This past practice serves as a foundation in the sense that it marks the history of our previous attempts at forging a path toward communism and is in fact responsible for developing the methods that have led us to our current impasse for better or for worse. MLM, I would say deserves a privileged position in how we look at forging a new path out of where our past has led us because I think it is correct to say that no other path has moved us closer to our goals then this Marxist trend. Again in this sense, I agree with Vern. Along with key insights on how to lead hundreds of millions of people in revolutionary struggle through the conception of mass line and communist military strategy, isnt it also the case that MLM has in fact been primarily responsible for pinpointing the contradictions under socialism and also making attempts in practice to move through the contradictions it discovered. At the same time it is true, in part, earlier in our history that because the 3rd International gained a strong ammount of hegemony within the international communist movement, other trends of revolutionary praxis both Marxist and non-Marxist were discredited, not pursued, or were otherwise unable to develop mass bases of support due to the resounding advantages in resources and the perceived legitmacy of the said 3rd International. There were exceptions where some other revolutionary left forces gained some traction, however never approaching anything close to the hegemony enjoyed by international communism. And then again it was the trend of MLM that was able to find its way through this obstacle and provide the most valuable insights on revolutionary praxis and building socialism, however, not without its own problems and unresolved contradictions (some of which have been pointed out by Badiou). This whole experience represents our revolutionary practice up to our current point. Using our understanding of this history as a foundation to reconceive revolutionary praxis, I think, is precisely a position that puts practice as primary. It is also a position that takes into consideration the way that the world and our revolutionary struggle for communism have actually moved. It in no way conflicts with the idea that first we are revolutionaries, and only then Marxists (Maoists). Practice, our wealth of human experience including our history of revolutionary movement in the 20th century including different trends of communism, anarchism, and nationalism can allow for us to make the arguement that Maoism deserves a privileged position in beginning our attempts at reconception and regroupment. Of course

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others can argue otherwise and I am by no means implying that Maoisms body of work should be all we need from our history or our present. I am merely stating that in my view Maoism, represents the strongest body of theory and historical practice (yes, based on its successes) from which to launch off and begin our new revolutionary mission.

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John Steele
September 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm A few quibbles aside, I would agree with this: This past practice serves as a foundation in the sense that it marks the history of our previous attempts at forging a path toward communism and is in fact responsible for developing the methods that have led us to our current impasse for better or for worse. I have tried to deal with this whole question more fully in my current post, To what extent is revolutionary theory detachable?

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Don Hamerquist
September 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm I want to say a few things about this discussion that are in general support of Johns arguments although he may not see it quite as I do. I have to confess I havent followed the discussion carefully and will probably both distort and oversimplify some positions and understate the agreements that I share with all of the participants. Possibly I should write a little less and read and think a little more. Back when I was wasting a decade in the CPUSA, one common theme of the recently post-Stalin Soviet officialdom was of the irreversible character of revolutionary progress in the USSR. Not only had the Russians moved beyond the stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat and become a state of the whole people a concept so wrongheaded on so many levels it still makes my teeth hurt but this transition was a conclusive one. Somehow behind our backs, the balance of global power had shifted in favor of socialism and the entire framework of revolutionary possibility and revolutionary responsibility had been decisively and permanently reworked. Its hard to believe now that this was all taken seriously, but it was, and by millions of people in the middle of the last century. The relevance to this particular discussion is that this was all presented as exemplary results from the scientific practice of Marxism Leninism by the vanguard detachment of a global revolutionary movement. Of course now the specifics of this argument are rejected as total crap by all variations of radicals except the most benighted, while the imbecilic self sufficiency that it supported in so many is subject matter for jokes. But considering this discussion, perhaps the problems with a political framework that could reach such absurd conclusions are still not fully understood. While those Soviet claims to have advanced the revolution past the socialist tipping point were fraudulent and no one in this discussion would consider them a foundational truth, that shouldnt obscure more general problems with the notion that a contemporary revolutionary movement should look to develop on the shoulders of past revolutionary practice. The fact is that there have been no revolutionary advances towards communism that are so distinctive, so enduring, and so self-evidently positive that they provide a stable set of shoulders for our clumsy feet. On the contrary, to continue with the naturalistic metaphors, the likelihood is that we will slip off such platforms into the crap that mired past generations of radicals including those that are presumed to offer the very best of the good shoulders. This holds equally, in my opinion, when the focus is on the victories of the Soviet revolutionary period and when it is on the advances of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In each case, the results, the motives, the explanations dont provide a solid foundation of knowledge and experience from which to move ahead. To the contrary, they provide a mess of contradictory estimates and interpretations, few of which have much claim to even a superficial surface truth. If there is a need to make an overall evaluation of these central revolutionary experiences, and I agree that one is necessary, it must be set in the context of their most evident impact: the discrediting of the idea of communism with the essential mass social base and constituency for liberatory politics and the maximizing of cynicism about the possibility of new possibilities among those sectors that are actually and potentially revolutionary. This impact, far exceeding what capitalist military power or ideological hegemony could have accomplished on its own legs or perhaps I should say shoulders is why Badiou is certainly guilty of understatement when he notes that; The word communism has contracted some mould, thats for sure. (cited in Bosteels, Badiou & Politics, p. 275) And, in fact, this mold on Communism can be traced back to the two central experiences with Marxism identified on the one hand with Lenin and the Russian Revolution, and on the other hand with Mao and the Cultural Revolution. That is, one major source of the mould (sic) is that very experience that Vern Gray argues was; a revolutionary struggle that came to victory and built a socialist society that advanced along the revolutionary road to a certain point, much further than any other We have all lived a history that raises serious questions about such perspectives and estimates. Each key concept in this one of Verns; victory, socialist society, revolutionary road; is contested among Marxists. How should we evaluate a notion of revolutionary road that doesnt consider the destination that was actually reachedand doesnt ask if the road actually taken might have been used to reach different destinations? To the extent that the views and political practice that were hegemonic in those revolutionary periods are those of Lenin and Mao and these were the banners that were flown why shouldnt they receive a large share of responsibility for actual outcomes; particularly in the absence of clear evidence that they either were politically defeated in a hostile split or were handcuffed by objective conditions? Just to be clear, those of us who see ourselves as Marxists, and I certainly include myself here, will always privilege Marxism in our approach to politics. Thats almost a truism, a matter of the definition. The real point at issue is whether we can assume our understandings of Marxism provide us with some significant foundational truths that dont need to be constantly reconfirmed and revalidated and that are not accessible to other, non-Marxist, revolutionaries. Both Vern and Nat W. appear to believe that the Marxist revolutionary tradition can be divided into positives and negatives and that we can build on the positive while discarding the negative. But, in the first place, it is always possible to debate what was and wasnt a victory; what is and isnt a foundation for further advances; what is and isnt an essential core of Marxism; or, in other words, what actually is a positive and what is a negative. Such debates do not come with easy and conclusive resolutions; and so long as it can be reasonably and rationally asked about the most disparate revolutionary strategies; is that Marxism, and, if so, which Marxism, or whose Marxism, we will continually have to retest and revalidate the most basic premises and the most concrete programmatic steps. This is the practical reason why this talk about the need to privilege Marxism is so wrongheaded and off the point. How can it be concluded a priori that it will provide the best tools when it isnt even apparent if these tools are hammers, tape measures, or something completely different and we cant decide whether they have functioned to destroy or resurrect

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capital. I suspect that some of my initial disagreements with Vern and Nat W. will reduce to issues of terminology and definition and I dont mean to exaggerate them. However there is a real problem revealed by the very language of building on the shoulders. It projects a linear incrementalist revolutionary road that is not conducive to the centrality of the leaps and breaks which many of us believe are of primary importance to the emergence and the cognition of the possibility of new possibilities. The problems with this linear view become apparent with the essential dilemma of the Soviet Revolution where the revolutionary seizure of state power in Russia, a signal working class victory against capital, was transformed into a new basis for working class subordination and eventually morphed into a new manifestation of the hegemony of capital. In my opinion, a parallel dilemma is evident in the Chinese experience, including the Cultural Revolution. Our beginning point of reference for these experiences should be that the radical visions that animated them led to social formations with an increasingly rotten core. These formations and the political experiences around them provide real limits and obstacles to the struggle. They were and are not a magnet for communism and a platform from which to move forward. Any avoidance of these historical lessons and their full range of implications contributes to intellectual atrophy among advocates of anti-capitalist revolution. I think it is more accurate, and far more useful, to see how the positive in these struggles became its oppositehow revolutionary initiatives and successes were transformed into the barriers to the revolution moving forward. Thats why I think posing the choice as one between foundation and impasse is a misstatement of the problem. In life, one becomes the other in a dialectical process quite central to the thinking of whats his name, the author of the Philosophical Notebooks. Dialectics is the doctrine of the identity of opposites how they can be and how the become under what conditions they become identical, transforming one into the other, why the human mind must not take these opposites for dead, but for living, conditioned, mobile, transforming one into the other. Listen to Badiou who says: From Spartacus to Mao (not the Mao of the state, who also exists, but the rebellious extreme complicated Mao) it isa question of communism(cited in Bosteel, p. 273) We should ask, does the question of communism, From Spartacus to Mao, a framework which includes Badious communist invariants that predate the struggle between the defining capitalist classes, award Marxism some sort of higher status in the hierarchy (probably not the best word to use here) of revolutionary analyses? I would say no, or at least we cannot say this while there is controversy among Marxists about how the Mao of the state relates to the rebellious Mao; while there is no agreement on what is the mature Marx and what is not and why it matters; while the relative validity and strategic priority of the Lenin of Left Wing Communism and What Is To Be Done, and the Lenin of State and Revolution and the Philosophical Notebooks is a matter of mystery. As soon as Marxism is considered the essential content of the idea of communism, disagreements about what is essential to Marxism will throw a wrench into the works. No argument that Marxism (or some variant of it) should be privileged- can be sustained without much deeper agreement on what Marxism is or at least what its core principles are. For those of us who are Marxists, the issue becomes whose Marxism, which Leninism, what Maoism? If arguments on this terrain clarify some real questions, they may not be a waste of time, but they are certain to be frustratingly inconclusive until real alternatives can be clarified and tested through revolutionary practice. Since this is true, suggesting that Marxism has some privileged revolutionary is either a mistake or an empty notion that only says the obvious: communists who are also Marxists will probably attempt to apply their Marxism politicallyif they are moved to do anything politically, which is far from a given. The very notion of communist invariants points to the conclusion that there is more to revolution and human liberation than Marxism. Marxists should reemphasize the fact that these questions of revolutionary strategy must be regularly revisited in the light of the new manifestations of the issues new manifestations that are partly created by the old types of answers some of which came from Marxists. Of course, it is possible and probably necessary to rule out certain levels and forms of disagreement on these subjects but only to structure and concretize a legitimate broadly collective discussion that will not presume that important parts of the debate are already finished and that we Marxists have the answers in hand or at least the keys to the answers. Johns initial piece introduced another point from Badiou: Science of history? Marxism is the discourse with which the proletariat sustains itself as subject. We must never let go of this idea.Marxism is the practical discourse for sustaining the subjective advent of a politics. Marxism as a practical discourse, reflecting and sustaining the emergence of a revolutionary proletarian subjectivity now this seems much better to me, although I can never be completely sure I understand Badiou. When it comes to deciphering Badiou, I would defer to Bosteels (Badiou and Politics) and probably a lot of others as well. However, I think that that Bosteels extends this and similar positions of Badiou in a manner that does give Marxism a certain privileged status that I believe is not warranted. Unless of course it is to remain an ideal that will be always yet to come, communism (for Badiou, d.h.) names the real movement that abolishes the present state of injustice only when it is historically tied to the various stages of Marxism. (Bosteel, p. 280) Bosteels apparently assumes a real existence of a practical discourse with which the proletariat sustains itself as subject that either can or will be found somewhere within the various stages of Marxism. I dont see this in what Badiou says, either in Johns selection above or in my limited understanding of the body of his work. Badiou presents a political objective with major ethical overtones. It is what Marxism should be if it is to be useful but definitely not what it was in past revolutionary sequences. And this persistent lack in the content of Marxism has been a heavy contributor to the eclipse of the idea of communism. A casual reading of Bosteels concluding argument makes it fairly clear that he locates this necessary Marxism in an interpretation of the Mao of the Cultural Revolution period. But Badious Communist Hypothesis seems quite different to me. He deals with ways this episode didnt escape the Marxism of the party/state variety, and how this obstruction, although it was hardly the only one, prevented the emergence of just such a practical proletarian discourse, leaving a painfully evident void and a heavy coating of new mould on the idea of communism for all to see who chose to look. Bosteels is an academic Marxist, and undoubtedly a very competent one. He is also a Maoist of some variety. So I think it not surprising that he would find the prospects for communism most closely linked to the stage of Marxism exemplified in the Maoist Cultural Revolution period. In this he would agrees with Vern Gray although perhaps not so much with Nat W. I see Nat acknowledging important problems in what he raises about the Bolshevik pre-emption and narrowing of matters that should have been more generally discussed and implemented in broader more collective framework. I wont go into details but many examples of this are close at hand in essentially every decision and every topic of discussion at the Bolshevik 10th Congress. My position is that we should see the content of any practical discourse in which the masses (proletariat) emerge as a revolutionary subject as communism, recognizing

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that far more people will be revolutionaries before they are Marxists than the reverse, and appreciating those revolutionary impulses, tendencies, and ideas that deserve to be called communist although they may not choose to be that have not and may not ever embrace any specifically Marxist approach to communism and revolution. In other words, this practical discourse of the proletariat as subject is what Marxist praxis should be, but there is quite a distance to travel before it is what it actually is. I hope the point is clear, but? I have a number of additional points concerning the issue of revolutionary practice which, I agree, is central to this discussion. However, this is becoming self indulgently long and I will wait for another opportunity. Don Hamerquist 9/14

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John Steele
September 16, 2011 at 7:00 am A short comment and a sidelight. First the latter. The following are from or relate to two pamphlets by the UCFML (Groupe pour la Fondation de lUnion des Communistes de France Marxistes Lninists), the group in France of which Badiou was a leader until its dissolution in the early 1980s, as translated in Bosteels new book on Badiou (p. 153). Their relevance to our discussion here will be obvious. The first is Bosteels summation of of UCFML thinking, in a pamphlet circulated by the group after the death of Mao in 1976: Marxism is not a body of doctrine, whether economical or philosophical, but it is also not simply an ideology and even less a worldview; instead, it is a politics, the politics of communism, the different stages of which form an internal history that can at most be concentrated in the theories of Marx and Engels, Lenin, and Mao. The second is a UCFML statement from 1981, with reference to the Cultural Revolution and May 68: These referents are today without power of their own. We carry their questions rather than their outcomes. I would like to associate my thinking with whats sketched in these two quotes, especially the second. I would qualify the first in certain ways, but the second is exactly on the mark, extended to all the great events and furthest reaches of revolutionary practice, and to a qualitatively greater degree than when it was written: The great leaps and stretches of past emancipatory practice do not present us with achievements on which we can build, but above all with their questions rather than their outcomes. Id also note that this is a very Maoist attitude referencing here, in Badious very apt phrase, quoted above by Don, not the Mao of the state, who also exists, but the rebellious extreme complicated Mao. Finally, in terms of an approach that is of particular relevance today, Id like to draw attention to the following from Dons comment above: My position is that we should see the content of any practical discourse in which the masses (proletariat) emerge as a revolutionary subject as communism, recognizing that far more people will be revolutionaries before they are Marxists than the reverse, and appreciating those revolutionary impulses, tendencies, and ideas that deserve to be called communist although they may not choose to be that have not and may not ever embrace any specifically Marxist approach to communism and revolution. In other words, this practical discourse of the proletariat as subject is what Marxist praxis should be, but there is quite a distance to travel before it is what it actually is.

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Nat W.
September 16, 2011 at 9:07 am I dont necessarily feel what I am arguing for is standing on achievements or keeping the positive and discarding the negative of our past revolutionary practice and theory (praxis). Rather, what Im saying is that are strains of thinking in the thought of Mao, Lenin, and Marx (but certainly not only them) that should be developed from where they left off. For instance understanding Maos military theories postulating people as principle over technolgy (I dont feel the need to layout details) and all that means for waging revolutionary war can serve as a base for developing strategies of defeating todays current rulers on the battlefield even while understanding that the terrain we fight on and particular circumstances have very much changed. While there are specifics of this theory that may have become outdated, there is a particular orientation and method as well as particular strategic and even tactical points that still carry weight and can generally be adopted in our times. And this body of theory can serve as revolutionary reference point better than can say, beginning from an orientation based around focoism. (I am have yet to study the work of Abraham Guillen which have been brought to my attention throught the comments in previous discussion by D. Hamerquist.) Also while, I think that D.H. and I may judge the GPCR differently, I think that there was a real attempt there, and not only by Mao but also those forces grouped around the Gang of Four to analyze socialist society and to look at the basis within the structure of socialist society itself that mark the nature of class anatagonism and struggle within that said society. While one may argue that the GPCR (particularly Mao himself and those forces most closley associated with him) did not go far enough, and Badious writings to this regard have influenced my thinking on this, I think this class analysis of socialism and the orientation of continuing the class struggle (revolution) under the dictatorship of

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the proletariat (or whatever you might want to call the transitional stage/s between capitalism and communism have merit and that thinking along this strain in the future can yield important results and new breakthroughs in the future. Not to reduce Maoism or any other strain of Marxist thought down to a science but I will state the example in physics, which I have been trying to understand with greater clarity; that new breakthroughs and ruptures in science are usually based on the problems posed by previous theories or on questions posed that the dominant thinking of a particular period of could not effectivley answer. For instance, quantum field theory had advanced to a certain point, proving many of its assertions through experiment over many several decades. At a certain point its explanatory power had become exhausted. Further. it could only unite its theory around three of the four forces of nature. It could not incorporate the laws effecting gravity into its theoretical framework. In this sense it seems as a theory, that yes it had become as exhausted as a theory that was able to further our understanding of the forces of nature and the universe. This laid the ground for a new theory or theories to take root and capture the focus and attention of the new generations of physicists. This happened with string theory for instance even though the insights developed by this theory could not be verified through experiment. But quantum field theory had runs it course. It proved what it could through its own practice and could not go further. So theory was allowed, due to that exhaustion of practical effect to run ahead of practice, to run ahead of experimentation. But this theory was not divorced from what came before it. Precisely it had to develop potential answers to the questions that had been posed by the development of physics through the course of the twentieth century. It had to speak to questions posed by the contradictions posed by quantum theory and relativity theory, the ideas around super symmetry and all those questions that arose from the discoveries and practice that proceeded it. That is what I am trying to argue. That rupture or discontinuity develops or emergers out of continuity. This is what I mean when I say that we stand on the shoulders of those who became for us. The theory and overall praxis that emerges cannot take shape, period, outside of the problems posed by our past history. In that sense, yes, I continue to maintain that the most advanced experiences, both theoretical and political, with all its flaws and limitations; will ultimately serve as the basis, the foundation, through which our new theory will develop. From this reasoning, I can unite with the quotes from Bosteels in Steeles comments. In regard to Don Hs comment quoted by Steele, I would agrue that all revolutionaries Marxist or not, will not adequately be able to develop a viable revolutionary praxis without reference to or understanding of the questions thrown up by the development of the revolutionary process (our revolutionary history) up to this point. Again, discontinuity develops out of continuity. Our ruptures are ruptures from something which previously existed, even if what the rupture produces is radically new and cannot really be considered a definable part of the structure that was ruptured from.

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Don Hamerquist
September 16, 2011 at 10:15 pm Nat, I agree with the last two paragraphs and particularly the final one, but I cant see how they follow from your earlier statement: In that sense, yes, I continue to maintain that the most advanced experience, both theoretical and political, with all its flaws and limitations; will ultimately serve as the basis, the foundation, through which our new theory will develop. What do you mean by the most advanced experiences, and how do you determine which experiences they are? Perhaps you use Verns furthest along the road to socialism criterion that raises serious logical and historical questions. For example, where does the Spanish revolutionary anti/fascist experience of the 30s fit on the list of advanced experiences? I would regard it as one of the most important and see it raising issues and problems that are closer to those we currently confront than the critical episodes in Russian and Chinese revolutionary history. You might disagree, but then we would have to specify some criteria and would have to be careful to avoid assuming the very principles that we look to discover and validate. What is the import of your distinction between theoretical and political experiences? I ask in part because you seem to view Althusser as providing a most advanced reference, but Althussers politics clearly fell on the wrong side of the political questions that were central during his political life. In my opinion his theoretical contributions belong there as well, but I recognize that is more debatable. I disagree with you that its the most advanced experiences that will provide the basis, the foundation, through which our new theory will develop despite flaws and limitations. On the contrary it is understanding those, flaws and limitations that will prove more useful for revolutionary politics. Our ruptures are ruptures from something which previously existed Right, but the important thing is that they are ruptures. Don H.

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John Steele
September 18, 2011 at 9:37 am Im thinking that discussion of some of these questions concerning change, continuity, and breaks, could be more fruitfully pursued in relation to my more recent post on

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the detachability of revolutionary theory, and which represents an attempt to make a more clear and comprehensive statement around these issues.

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Nat W.
September 18, 2011 at 1:27 pm My repsonse to Don H. is in John Steeles recent post.

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