Ideology and Practices

One of the basic mistakes that intellectuals specifically tend to make about ideology — a mistake against which Marx took pains to warn us — is to imagine that ideology is a matter of what people think. Marx insisted, on the contrary, that it is “their social being [gesellschaftliches Sein] that determines their consciousness.”sexist-books-in-harrods-toy-kingdom

This is easily demonstrated. After all, to adopt an opinion, to assert a propositional content, one has to rely on one’s acquired competence or facility in navigating meaningful contexts, in the manner of pre-cognitive engagement. But that is precisely a matter of practice. In participating in a practice, one “knows” (in the practical sense of “know-how”) what one is doing, without having to think about it. Indeed, we may be quite unable to (readily) state what we are doing, precisely because our mastery of the practice is so thorough. How does one swing on a swing-set, exactly? It’s a little complicated, but we could explain it, if we thought about it for a while and developed — for the first time — an explicit account of what we do. But in no way does this count against us having known how to do it from our earliest days.

If one were to ask a child who speaks her mother tongue effortlessly to state three or four of the grammatical rules of the language, the child would likely stumble in the attempt. And yet everyday she deploys these ‘rules’ (which are better called ‘practices’) with impressive proficiency.

Since ideology is often misconstrued as a matter of “opinions” that people come to have, it is important to insist that practical competence of the sort considered above is more basic and “originary” than opinion formation. After all, it is that background of competent ease which furnishes both (1) the kind of inferential know-how (e.g., being able to recognize and keep track of the implications of affirming or denying a claim) upon which meaningful opinion formation depends, and (2) the countless non-discursive forms of life that lend determinacy, at the level of practices, to the concepts and descriptions that we deploy in our opinions.

For instance, suppose I say, “There’s a wooden sculpture on the desk.” At the risk of crudeness, we can say in a simplified way that, first, this act of assertion relies on our prior competence in handling the practices that determine proper usage for terms like, “wooden,” e.g., to cite trivial instances, that this rules out liquidity and gaseousness. As a practical matter, when we say that the sculpture is wooden, we’re committing ourselves to denying that it is liquid or gaseous. If we lack the competence to navigate the thick and inexhaustible terrain of commitments and entitlements that give content to the claim in question, then we cannot subscribe to the claim via the act of assertion. Second, language (in the narrow and primary sense) aside, we can only form opinions about works of art, e.g., sculpture, if we are competent in the practices associated with understanding things as art objects. A wooden object of a certain shape can only be recognized as a sculpture if we are competent participants in the social practice of conferring aesthetic import on objects that are created (in the central types of case) by one or more persons whose aim was to present a work for just that type of (aesthetic) engagement or appreciation. (Note: I’m not trying to define art, but to draw attention to the fact that there is a practice, in which artists and audiences share a differentiated — artist/spectator — competence, within which specially prepared objects are presented by artists for aesthetic appreciation by spectators; on the margins of this practice, attempts to complicate or subvert these categories are also part of the practice, just as constitutional amendment processes are part of the practice of constitutional law, as a deviation allowed for by the practice itself. Such “reflexivity” is a hallmark of specifically “modern” practices.) If one has no competence to navigate the practicalities, the “social being,” that constitutes the wooden object as a work of art, then one cannot make assertions about it being a sculpture. That is, one cannot form the opinion that it is a sculpture. It is in this sense that the form of life, the social practice, lends determinacy to the terms deployed in the asserted claim, not in an inferential sense, but in the sense that a whole domain of connected practices (aesthetic judgment, artistic creativity, critical appreciation, insulation of the object from the demands of certain standards of utility, etc.) has to be part of one’s cultural know-how or competence-repertoire before the very idea of “sculpture” can seem pertinent to talking about wooden objects.

But what does this idea, that “gesellschaftliches Sein,” social being, determines consciousness, tell us about ideology?

It tells us that, by the time we get around to engaging in political discourse (opinion-formation), there is a whole domain of pre-discursive, pre-cognitive (pre-opinion) know-how through which we glide effortlessly as a taken-for-granted field of obviousness. And that is where ideology resides.

In short, ideology is not what we think; it is that which is so obvious (in the sense of “obvious,” i.e., deeply questionable) that we don’t have to think it. Almost all of our thinking already presupposes it and takes it for granted. Ideology is what needs no special mention.

Some examples?  Let’s start with something — an opinion or claim — that is not ideology, even though it might seem to be. Here’s one:  “Canada is a democratic society that treats its citizens fairly.”

It may be bullshit, but it’s not ideology. The ideology is this: that one barely notices the fact that there are “borders” instituted around “nation states,” and that one of these is “Canada”; that this “Canada” is “a society,” in the singular, rather than multiple societies, or multiple systems and structures some of which cross borders, etc.; that “countries” can be labelled “democratic,” rather than institutions or practices or specific decisions, so that the question of whether it is or isn’t democratic is a sort of total judgment, appealing to some unspoken but supposedly obvious criterion; that many of the people in the supposed “country” are “citizens,” while some are “non-citizens”; that the standard for treating “citizens” “fairly” will differ from the standard for treating “non-citizens” fairly. And so on. Ideology lies here, in this stew of unexamined obviousness. None of it is stated in the claim under consideration (“Canada is a democratic society that treats its citizens fairly”). But all of it is presupposed by that claim. (Note: I state these “obvious” points as a series of opinion-like propositions for explanatory clarity; but my claim here is that we “learn” all this not by the formation of opinions, but by socialization into practices in which all of this is embedded in competences, like being able to differentiate between ‘countries,’ to recognize ourselves as implicated in citizenship practices, like having a social insurance number or a passport, etc. It all consists, in the first instance, of practical know-how, skill in navigating practices, and only at the level of higher order discursive competence does it show up in the things we say or believe.)

If we need a definition (to be unpacked along the lines laid out above), it could be this: Ideology is the zone of forgetfulness or the oblivion-structure that sustains the obviousness of practices presupposed by opinion-formation processes. Or just this: Ideology is the way “social being…determines consciousness.”

Some Concise Research Notes on Two Concepts in Early Marxism: The “Volksmasse” and “Antagonismus”

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.”
(Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)

“In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.”
(Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 32, 1867)

  • Although early marxism (1848-83) obviously attached great importance to class struggle, it is important to see that it attached even greater importance to communism or, as Marx sometimes puts it, “communality” — a more flexible term that acknowledges intra-capitalist collectivisms. After all, in the early-marxist schema, class relations are not basic, but derived, that is, constructed by means of active, and often violent processes of enclosure, dispossession, and expropriation, in which the dominance (Herrschaft) of a social class is imposed on a wider social order, so that (as Marx puts it) “the labour of the many becomes the wealth of the few” (Civil War and France). This few — “a few usurpers,” as Marx puts it in Capital — constitutes the group within a social order that Marx calls its “ruling class” (herrschenden Klasse). They assume the position of pre-eminence that Marx calls domination (Herrschaft), in contrast to the “mass of the people” (Volksmasse) whose members are subjected to the position of “servitude” (Knechtschaft). The terms “domination” and “servitude,” which I cite from Capital, are borrowed by Marx himself from Hegel, whose discussion of Herrschaft and Knechtschaft is one of the centrepieces of his Phenomenology of Spirit.
  • Today, class domination is pervasive, across the globe. But it has never been total or uncontested. Marx believed that some survivals, continuations, or resurgences of what he and Engels called “Urkommunismus,” i.e., originary communism, persisted at least well into the 19th century, when they wrote, and they regarded these enduring collectivisms as very important. (Marx attempted to study several of these, notably in India, Ireland, Russia and the Americas, and Engels used Marx’s research as the basis for a book he later wrote, on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.) In particular, Marx and Engels highlighted the importance of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the Eastern Great Lakes Region, as having attained a degree of political equality and democracy that far exceeded the attainments of any other modern political systems, a fact that they attributed to the persistence of elements of pre-class collectivism within their social relations. The inclusive and consensus-building aspects of Haudenosaunee political processes, Marx and Engels thought, could serve as a model for a form of post-capitalist democracy in which “supreme authority” would be vested in a “Council” functioning as “a democratic assembly, [where] every adult male [and] female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it” (Marx, Ethnological Notebooks, p. 150; the fact that this was deemed by early marxism to be a model for emulation by anti-capitalists in Europe and beyond is made particularly explicit by Engels, in The Origin of the Family, chapter 3, whereas in Marx’s ethnological notes it is more implied than stated).
  • Nevertheless, even in social orders that have undergone a more thoroughgoing and comprehensive “usurpation” by a ruling class (i.e., a more nearly total liquidation of traditional practices of collectivist egalitarianism or “commoning”), the primary communality of human production and reproduction – that is, collaborative, coordinated social labour, drawing on the integrated cooperation of everyone who labours and the transmitted heritage of “all the dead generations” – remains operative, as a “spectre” that “haunts” systems of exploitation, as the permanent possibility of an “expropriation of the expropriators”: the spectre of a communal re-appropriation. This looming prospect of a “negation of the negation” brings forth in the ruling class “the foreboding…that present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change,” i.e., that their privileges are vulnerable to subversion and revolt. This is a roundabout way of saying that the Achilles heel of any system of class Herrschaft is its dependence on the continued willingness to work, and to submit to the orderly coordination of social action, on the part of people who have both the capacity to rebel against their exploitation and an interest in doing so.
  • For this reason, the basic and ineliminable political challenge for any ruling class (herrschenden Klasse), certainly including the capitalist ruling class of today (“in view of the threatening upheaval of the proletariat,” as Marx said), is to keep this spectre of communal re-appropriation at bay: to encourage “the isolation of the labourers, due to competition,” and correlatively to discourage their “revolutionary combination, due to association” (Marx, Capital, I). In short, the most indispensable activity of ruling is that of fostering the atomization and decomposition, while discouraging the convergence and recomposition, of what Marx called “the independent self-conscious movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” In short, the ruling class must “constitute itself as the nation” — or as Marx elsewhere puts the point, it must “acquire” the “faculty of ruling the nation” — precisely so that the proletariat does not do so by composing itself, in the mode of “revolutionary combination through association,” as the Volksmasse, bearers of the public interest, or – again, quoting Marx – “raising itself to be the national class” (nationalen Klasse). (In The German Ideology, Marx pointed to this under the label, “die herrschende geistige Macht,” i.e., the ruling spiritual power.)
  • In the first volume of Capital, Marx sums up much of the above by means of a decisive contrast between the “Volksmasse” or the “mass of the people,” on the one hand, and “a few usurpers” (wenige Usurpatoren), on the other. This aspect of Marx’s mature (1867-83) thought is too little appreciated. Most people assume that marxism will treat class as primary, and regard communality, the Volksmasse, or as Engels says, “Gemeinwesen,” or community, as dimensions of a distant, post-revolutionary, and post-“transition” future. By contrast, Marx locates the self-defense of the Volkmasse against the class-imposition of the few usurpers at the very heart of class society generally, and capitalism in particular.
  • Related to this idea of community, as the spectre of communal re-appropriation that haunts class society, Marx makes substantial use in multiple key works of a distinction (which, symptomatically, never caught on subsequently, except in the anti-colonial marxism of James Connolly) between (1) “the nation,” in “the bourgeois sense of the word,” which is what we today would call, “the nation,” full stop; and (2) “the nation,” in the proletarian or oppositional sense. The proletariat, Marx said, “must constitute itself [as] the nation,” and the struggle against the ruling class is “at first national in form,” although it is internationalist and counter-nationalist in content. What do these formulations mean? They mean that the “spectral” communality of the social order, its pre-enclosure, pre-expropriation basis in human cooperation and collaboration (and indeed, the persistence of intra-capitalist collectivisms, pointed out by James Connolly and others, and indeed by Marx in his last decade, in reference to Russian rural communalism, the Irish “Rundale” system of collective tenant-farming, and other cases of modern, intra-capitalist collectivisms), implies a common interest of the people, namely, “the mass of the people” (die Volksmasse). The working class is itself the bearer of the common interest in resisting and overturning the expropriation of the commonwealth of the labouring many, and in this sense it can, and indeed must, claim its place as collective defender of the mass of the people against the few usurpers.
  • Ultimately, according to the conception proposed in Capital, the class struggle is an “antagonism” (Gegensatz or Antagonismus) between “the mass of the people” and the “few usurpers.” The spectral communality of the mass of the people, interrupted and undermined by the ruling class’s stratagems of decomposition, implies a notion of the public interest or common good: “the interest of the immense majority” (Interesse der ungeheuren Mehrzahl), the interest of the Volksmasse. (The same idea reappeared in early-1970s marxism, when Black Panther Party intellectual George Jackson proposed a fateful distinction between “the 99%” and “the 1%,” a formula greeted with an uncompromisingly rigorous silence within official marxism at the time, but strikingly consistent with the impulses of early marxism.)
  • But the counterpoint to the early-marxist idea of the “interest of the immense majority” is another crucial early-marxist idea: the idea of antagonisms within the Volksmasse. “Antagonisms” (i.e., “Gegensätze” or “Antagonismen”) is Marx’s most general concept for describing social conflicts between collectivities with adverse interests, founded upon structures of asymmetrical (dis)advantage. Among these, Marx pays particular (but not exclusive) attention to four antagonisms: (1) “the antagonism between capital and wage labour”; (2) “the antagonism between man and woman”; (3) “the … antagonisms of peoples” (die…Gegensätze der Völker), notably, “the antagonism between Englishman and Irishman,” i.e., colonizer and colonized; and (4) the “antagonism” between ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ people in the context of what Marx called “racial relations” (Racenverhältnisse).
  • The ruling class rules in that its position is one of Herrschaft (domination), but to rule it must ward off the consolidation of an oppositional Volksmasse. It must dissolve or decompose the Volksmasse; it must dis-integrate or dis-aggregate the “interest of the immense majority.” The basic formula for ruling by decomposition, according to early marxism, is to order difference as antagonism. Decomposition is the undoing or dissolution of the oppositional class(es) “constituted” as “the nation,” in the non-bourgeois sense, the Volksmasse. To produce conflicts of interest, in place of a common or “national” (in the non-bourgeois sense) interest, is the work of decomposition as a ruling stratagem. But, in a context when the most salient interest “of the immense majority,” is to “expropriate the expropriators,” to throw off the Herrschaft of “the few usurpers,” antagonisms have to be seized upon and intensified, when they already exist, or actively constructed, where they don’t exist already. This process, described in some detail by Marx (in his Letter to Meyer and Vogt on the Irish question), may be called the deployment of antagonisms.
  • The deployment of antagonisms does not mean inventing differentiation within the Volksmasse. It means ordering differences as antagonisms, that is, crafting social structures that distribute benefits and burdens asymmetrically, so as to function as what Engels called “machines for holding down the oppressed,” or what Marx called “engines of class despotism.” An example of such a machine would be white supremacy, i.e., racism. By systematically deploying “racial” differentiation as a basis for asymmetries of benefit and burden, new interests are introduced, which decompose the (non-bourgeois-sense) “national” or “Volksmasse,” setting up an antagonism between members of the Volksmasse, the Gemeinwesen or community, in which some are systematically privileged by the asymmetry, and others are systematically disadvantaged by it.
  • Typically these “machines” or “engines” deploy asymmetries of legal standing, social status, income and wealth, representation in ‘mainstream’ culture, health care access and health outcomes, vulnerability to police or domestic violence, and so on, on a systematic basis. As Marx says, antagonisms of this sort are “antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence,” i.e., from the operation of pervasive and enduring (albeit by no means uncontested) social structures.
  • Although these engines are indeed structures, nevertheless they are deliberately deployed structures, and in that sense they are both structures (social engines, social machines) and stratagems: “This [kind of] antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the…working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”
  • Engels describes this sort of deployed asymmetry as “a relative regression, in which the well-being and development of the one group are attained by the misery and repression of the other.” It is a “relative regression,” in that every advance for the privileged group is purchased by a relative or comparative deprivation by the disadvantaged group.
  • In this way, this sort of social machine — where “machine” means any social structure that relentlessly generates the intended outcome, on a systematic basis — functions in such a way as to “cleave” [spalten] (as Marx puts it) the Volksmasse into “two hostile camps.” The privileged camp “sees itself as part of the dominant” group, and enjoys certain benefits. The disadvantaged group regards its privileged counterpart as both duped by the ruling elite and unjustly benefitting from its tacit, de facto alliance with the enemy. (On these points, see Marx’s Letter Vogt and Meyer on the Irish Question, 9 April 1870.)
  • The effect of these deployments of antagonisms is to increase what Marx calls “Isolierung” or isolation of differentiated sections of the labouring “many” from the wider Volksmasse, and to diminish what he calls “Vereinigung” or combination of the labouring many in opposition to the “few usurpers.” But crucially, it is also to decompose or dissolve the very existence, as a practical matter, of a Volksmasse (“national” or “public” or “general”) interest.
  • It is in this sense that the proletariat “must constitute itself as the nation,” rather than simply being the nation in advance. (Here Marx is perhaps more nuanced than Connolly on the “non-bourgeois” sense of “nation.”) It has to forge the commonality of the Volksmasse. But, in forging this commonality, the proletariat does not invent “the people” or “the public,” in short, “the community” (Volk). Rather, it becomes “for itself” what it already is “in itself” (as the spectral communality of social labour upon which private appropriation is always already parasitic).

The System that Hides Behind the Flag, Even as it Burns

Now that several leading figures in the Republican Party, like Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Nikki Haley, and Mike Huckabee, have joined so many leading corporate retailers, like Walmart, eBay, Sears and Amazon, in coming out against the Confederate ‘battle flag,’ how should anti-racists react?

Should this development be regarded as a victory, an indicator of how powerful the anti-racist movement has become, in the wake of important mobilizing and organizing in the context of Black Lives Matter and related struggles? Or is it, on the contrary, a sign that anti-racists have set their sights far too low, falling into a kind of trap door that protects the operations of the large-scale and longstanding system of racial oppression by sacrificing mere symbols of it?burning-confed-flag

First, it is worth underlining that the anti-racist struggles of recent years, against police violence, against stop-and-frisk and racial profiling, against the criminalization and industrial incarceration of (especially) young black men, have indeed had powerful and transformative effects. These movements have raised the consciousness of millions of people. They have deepened the analysis of social movements about the links between corporate power, the security state, the racist legal system and the aggressive policing of African American communities. They have ushered in a new generation of skilled and experienced political organizers. And they have built up new networks and community organizations in dozens of cities and towns, devoted to challenging racism and organizing African Americans for self-liberation struggle. The importance and value of this work cannot be overstated.

On the other hand, however, it would be going too far to suggest that racism is on the run, or that social structures of subordination, super-exploitation and domination of black men and women are disappearing or fading into the annals of history. Not at all. There are still, as we all know, the occasional outbreaks of brazen white supremacist terror, as there have been for hundreds of years, of which the Charleston massacre is only the most recent example. But more pervasively, if less sensationally, there are the large-scale institutionally produced effects of the racism system that impact the lives of millions of people in the USA (but not only there) every single day.

I won’t stop to give an exhaustive accounting of these impacts, but it’s worth recalling a few of the most notable statistics.

The Guardian reports: “According to the 2012 US census, African Americans represent 14.2% of the population nationwide, but 28.1% of this group lives in poverty – compared to 11.1% of the total population. Of families with children, that number jumps to a third, compared to 18.8% of families of all races. Unemployment, whether short or long-term, runs at double the rate that white workers experience. If you’re black, you’re significantly more likely to have to spend more than 30% of your monthly income on either rent or monthly occupancy costs. What all this adds up to, in the long run, is a crippling disadvantage – a yawning wealth gap between the races. One study shows that while a white family turns every $1 of income into $5 of wealth, for the typical African American family that $1 translates into a mere 69 cents of wealth. White Americans make up 64% of the country’s population, but own 88% of its wealth; today’s typical white household is likely to be 20 times more affluent than its black counterpart.”

The Center for American Progress adds: “According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Individuals of color have a disproportionate number of encounters with law enforcement, indicating that racial profiling continues to be a problem. A report by the Department of Justice found that blacks and Hispanics were approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.”

Reflecting on these numbers, it is sobering to notice how little the power elite has had to sacrifice in the wake of the new upsurge of fully justified outrage about the fact that the Confederate battle flag still flies over government buildings in the contemporary USA..Walmart doesn’t have to worry about addressing the concentration of black workers in low wage retail and service jobs by (for example) complying with legislative changes to facilitate unionization in retail workplaces, or to substantially raise the minimum wage. None of that is happening. Instead, the retail mega-corporation has only to stop selling the Confederate flag in its stores.

And then there’s those Republican (and Democrat) politicians: no reporters are lining up to ask them whether they would support new legislation to protect black young people from police harassment and violence, or whether they accept that the “war on drugs” is racist and unjust. Instead, they are being asked only about the racist flag, and when they say (belatedly, in most cases) that they would be happy to see the flag taken down from public buildings, it is reported as if they were in some sense taking an anti-racist position.

But saying that Walmart’s or Nikki Haley’s rejection of the Confederate flag is an “anti-racist” stance is a little like saying that a public figure’s endorsement of Bernie Madoff’s arrest and imprisonment amounted to taking an anti-capitalist position. In fact, the displacement of anti-systemic grievances onto symbolic singular cases, which can then be repudiated as sacrificial lambs, rejected as the proverbial “bad apples,” is a kind of defense mechanisms for institutional structures and systems of power and exploitation. The flag can go, as long as nothing else has to change.

Don’t get me wrong. The issue of the Confederate flag’s display on public buildings does indeed matter. It matters, however, not because the system of racist domination will come tumbling down when the flag is lowered and, one hopes, set alight. Rather, it matters because of what the flag’s longstanding acceptance reveals about the wider social order: that the system of racial domination and subordination does not persist because it is so hard for legal and political remedies to weaken the grip of “ancient hatreds” and mysteriously lingering “prejudices.” No, that system persists because it is protected by the power centres that dominate our society, the governments, police forces, corporations, political parties, and other leading institutions that thrive on the basis of a stratified, inegalitarian society which sacrifices the dignity and welfare of entire communities for the sake of the enrichment of the wealthy and the protection of the powerful.

But what is troubling is that we sometimes, in spite of ourselves, succumb to the system’s ruse: we fall into the trap of frantically targeting the singular “bad apple,” or the specific symbolic outrage, allowing the oppressive systems and structures to continue operating, unexposed and uncontested, unobtrusively in the background. We neglect to insist that firing a single “bad cop” is not enough, when there is an entire police force and policing and prison regime behind that individual, only too happy to sacrifice an individual for the sake of that system’s continuation  We forget to foreground the campaigns to raise the minimum wage or to promote unionization in service and retail sectors, or the movement for prison abolition, contenting ourselves with denouncing a racist statement by an individual public figure on social media.

When we burn the Confederate flag, as we should, we mustn’t fail to notice the cruel irony that — even now, as the power elite makes such a fuss of repudiating it — the flag continues to perform the function for which it was originally intended, defending white supremacy. It serves now, not to rally troops in battle, but as what (in psychoanalytic terms) one can call a “screen discourse,” that is, something we talk about only too verbosely, in order that something we’re not supposed to mention can remain safely insulated from critical attention.

Was Karl Marx White? And Is He?

By S. D’Arcy

There are those who think of Karl Marx as a classic example of the kind of “dead white males” that universities in the West lavish with such rapt attention. But is this quite true? He was male, to be sure. And he’s fully dead. But was he white? Or — in what appears on the surface to be the same question — is Karl Marx white?

For some, the question is to be answered by fixing one’s gaze on the colour of Karl Marx’s skin. One is invited to pour over old sepia photographs, looking for clues. I think there’s good reason to doubt the soundness of this approach, as I will note below. But, for the sake of scrupulous comprehensiveness, let’s look briefly at the matter of Marx’s skin. In his first year as a student at the University of Bonn, according to Jonathan Sperber’s recent biography, Marx’s classmates dubbed him “the Moor,” because of “his swarthy complexion,” i.e., his dark skin. Another biographer, Franz Mehring, says that the nickname was “given to him on account of his jet-black hair and dark complexion.” The label stuck with him until his death almost five decades later. He was judged by his contemporaries, apparently, to have physical features associated (in their minds, at least) with the Maghreb region of North Africa. On the other hand, another biographer, Jerrold Seigel, makes a convincing case that the nickname was — at least in part — a reference to the hero of Friedrich Schiller’s famous Romantic novel, The Robbers [Die Räuber], whose name was Karl von Moor and who denounced the corruption of the rich and powerful. (Note that, as Seigel points out, Marx’s nickname was spelled Mohr, in German, not Moor, so the match is inexact.)karl-marx-ageing

In any case, Seigel makes another point which, as I see things, is more relevant to the matter at hand: the nickname served within his milieu to highlight Marx’s Jewish heritage, hinting that he wasn’t fully recognized as German. Seigel notes that, in spite of his father’s conversion at the age of 35 to Lutheran Christianity (and his corresponding name change from Heschel to Heinrich), which was necessary because a post-Napoleanic Prussian legal reform made it illegal for Jews to practice law, Marx was regarded by his peers as a Jew. Indeed his daughter Eleanor Marx Aveling, who was as secular as Marx albeit less estranged than him from their common Jewish roots, continually referred to herself proudly as “a Jewess.” (Eduard Bernstein, in an obituary for her, wrote that, “At every opportunity she declared her [Jewish] descent with a certain defiance.”)

I will put my cards on the table, at this point: If we come to judge that Marx wasn’t white, it should not be because we think his skin was too dark to count (or “pass”) as white. It should be because we decide that Jews in Germany (and Europe more broadly) in the 19th century were racialized as exterior to the “white race.” In other words, if Marx wasn’t white, it’s because other Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Rosa Luxemburg or Leon Trotsky, were also not white.

The question of whether or not Marx was white holds considerable interest, I think, for two reasons. First, it raises some interesting and important questions in social ontology; and second, it raises the possibility that although Marxism arose in Europe, obviously, it may never have been a political tradition dominated by white people, since it has been crucially shaped by and centrally associated with racialized (that is, racially subordinated) people from its inception. Anyone can observe that in our own time, and indeed since no later than the mid-20th century, marxism has been a political tradition whose adherents have been overwhelmingly confined to the Global South. That applies both to intellectuals and to workers’ movements and leftist political parties. There are far more marxists in India today than in Europe, the USA and Canada combined. But it isn’t as well known or well-understood that even many of marxism’s earliest and most influential adherents within Europe were also non-white, including its main founder.

To make the point fully clear, two things have to be established: that European Jews in the 19th century weren’t white; and that Marx and many other leading early marxists were also Jewish, in the relevant sense, even if they were secular and/or atheist, as most were. These two issues are in fact closely related, because in order to make the case that European Jews in the 19th century were not white, one has to establish that Jews were regarded, not simply as a religious group, which one could exit by means of conversion to another religion or adoption of atheism, but a racial one, from which no escape was possible.

Certainly, anyone would agree that Jews in Europe in general, and in Marx’s Germany specifically, were subjected to systematic subordination, often being persecuted mercilessly. The mechanisms of this subordination ranged from the pogroms (violent anti-Semitic rioting) of the Russian empire, to longstanding denial to Jews of civil rights across Europe, to the spread of (sometimes biologically and sometimes culturally framed) ideologies of Jewish inferiority, typified by Immanuel Kant’s depiction of Jews as “a nation of cheaters,” who were “bound by an ancient superstition” which encouraged them to “seek no civil dignity and [to] try to make up for this loss by the advantage of duping the people among whom they find refuge, and even one another” (Kant, 1798, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View). As recently as the late 1920s, the most important logician since Aristotle, Gottlob Frege, could insist that the Jews should not “be considered as Germans,” expressing support for the project of expelling them from Germany outright, if possible, and in the meantime advocating the denial to them of equal civil rights.

So, yes, there was a system of wide-ranging persecution and subordination of Jewish people, certainly. But the question is, was this a matter of “religious persecution” or “racial subordination”? This matters here particularly, because Marx’s family converted to Christianity, with the result that he grew up in a secular family that was officially or formally affiliated to Lutheranism, not Judaism.

Interestingly, according to George M. Fredrickson, author of Racism: A Short History, “The word ‘racism’ first came into common usage in the 1930s when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews” (Racism: A Short History, p. 5). But was the anti-Semitism of the Nazis racist, specifically, and why? How, if at all, was it fundamentally different from the more longstanding anti-Jewish religious persecution of earlier times?

The racist version of anti-Semitism differed from the religious version in that it was linked to an essentialist interpretation of what was viewed as disreputable about Jewishness. In religious persecution, it is one’s religious affiliation that is discrediting, but that can be changed by means of conversion; in the racist version, the view is not that Jews are bad because their religion has disreputable features, but rather that their prior, more fundamental Jewishness explains the supposed defects of the religion that most of them practice, and no mere change of religious affiliation can make that go away. Thus, in religious persecution, one is a Jew because one adheres to the Jewish religion; in racist anti-semitism, if one adheres to the Jewish religion, it is just one of many possible expressions of one’s more basic Jewishness. To the Nazis, it didn’t matter if one practiced Judaism; either way, a Jew was a Jew.

But was this type of racial anti-Semitism a specifically Nazi invention? No, certainly not. Although the details are better left to historians, the overall picture is clear enough: the rise of modern nationalism, beginning at the end of the 18th century, in combination with the rise of modern imperialism, encouraged the development — nowhere more forcefully than in Germany — of the idea of a people bonded by ethnic commonality, distinguished from and superior to foreigners. “Previously, their Christian neighbours had thought of Jews as members of an alien and false religion, adherents to a broken covenant. Now secularized antisemites would hate them as members of an alien and inferior race, unassimilable by those among whom they lived, a dangerous source of pollution for the cultural and racial purity of their neighbors” (Nicholls, Christian Anti-Semitism, p. 313). “Jews were now to be regarded as a race….This was especially true in Germany, where the Romantic movement spoke of the Volk, the ancient Aryan race in its pure German form.” In this form of anti-Semitism, the Jews “were aliens, unassimilable even when they did their utmost to assimilate” (Ibid., p. 289).

It is for this reason that Marx’s nickname, the Moor, is significant: its hint that Marx, in spite of his atheism and his parents’ conversion to Christianity, was nevertheless regarded by his peers as a foreigner, a Jew, whose roots were to be found in the Middle East, not Germany.

Marx, in short, was regarded as a Jew, not a white person, not a German or even a proper European. Of course, it might seem like a leap to go from saying (1) Marx was regarded by anti-Semites as a Jew, not white, to saying (2) Marx wasn’t white. Shouldn’t the critical distance we rightly take from the racist view of Jews lead us to ignore ascriptions of racial categories by racist Europeans in the 19th century?

Well, that would hold if we believed there there were such a thing as mind-independent races. But surely we should not think that. Here, we touch on one of the ontological points that I want to make. Race is “socio-genic,” that is to say, it is the outcome of a social process of differential status-assignment that institutes hierarchically ordered social positions and consigns people to these positions, not because of what they already are (as if racial assignments reflected natural differences), nor because of how they look (as if racial difference were something we that social orders simply registered by noticing pre-existing diversity), but instead by actively establishing as authoritative and thereby instituting socio-political criteria for sorting people into groups using diversity, sometimes phenotypic (physical appearance) and sometimes non-phenotypic, as a pretext. In short, racial categories are a socio-political invention. Racial positions are instituted, socially. (A view that is, in broad outlines, consistent with this view is applied to the case of American Jews in the book, How Jews Became White Folks, and What That Says About Race in America, by Karen Brodkin.)

Of course, it is an invention that is taken very seriously, both by its inventors and by those who take their cue from them. Employers, landlords, judges, police officers, teachers, and many, many others routinely decide how to talk about someone, how to treat someone, and more generally how to relate to someone, based in some large part on the racial category into which they class that person. We all know that. But what’s less clear is why they do that. Or, more to the point, how is the practice of racialization functional for powerful institutions and systems? I won’t stop to try to answer that question, except to say that my own view is heavily informed by Martin Luther King’s view, according to which white supremacy was “engineered” by elites as a form of social control. (For more on that, see “Some Concise Research Notes on Two Concepts in Early Marxism: The ‘Volksmasse’ and ‘Antagonismus.’”)

But it is crucial to see that races exist in much the same way that 20 dollar bills exist: they exist in a way that depends crucially on the fact that people think that one thing (a piece of rectangular paper with certain markings on it) counts as another thing (a unit of currency). Once that social condition is met, however, 20 dollar bills produce very real effects. The idea that they are only imaginary (just because they are, among other things, imaginary) is gravely mistaken. No, they are not mere figments of imagination, but institutions, constituted in part by socially shared imaginings. The key to understanding races, including counterfeit cases of racial ‘passing,’ is to understand that, like universities and 20 dollar bills, races are institutions.

I want to close these comments by returning to my starting-point. Was Marx a “dead white male,” in the sense that people use that term to criticize the narrowness of “canonically” “important” intellectual work? Although Marx was not white, his inclusion in a so-called “Canon” of so-called “Great Philosophers” could still be seen, today, as a maneuver enabled by his acceptance, long after his death, as white (an acceptance made possible by virtue of the very “background” that once precluded him from being recognized as white: his German Jewish heritage).

He wasn’t white, but he is white. He switched races many years after his death. (Of course, this seems like a less remarkable feat when compared to Socrates, who took thousands of years to become, posthumously, a “homosexual.”)

As for Marxism, it should be accepted, I think, that Marxism did not emerge mainly from white society, or rather, from white people. Many of its most important early promoters and innovators were not white (until they were made so, well after their deaths): people like Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Julius Martov, Otto Bauer, and György Lukacs, to name only a few. For the most part, marxism emerged from racialized, non-white intellectuals and activists in Europe, just as racialized non-white intellectuals and activists outside of Europe are today its leading exponents and innovators. Of course, it did emerge from European society and European culture, so the implications of its origins in Europe would have to be discussed separately. There are important works that address this issue, and I will mention four: Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism (which isn’t specifically about marxism, but deploys and addresses it); Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins; Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital; and Robert Biel’s Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement.

A Path to Victory against Austerity in Ontario?

A Strategy of Broad-Based, Escalating Disruption, Supported by Multi-Issue Mass Mobilization

By Steve D’Arcy

It won’t be easy to turn the tide against austerity in Ontario. Big business would never allow an elected government, of whatever party, to reverse the policy trajectory of recent years — the “austerity” agenda — simply because that agenda is unpopular and lots of people are protesting it. No, only a massive campaign of serious disruption could force the hand of elites and raise the political cost of austerity to the point where proceeding with austerity would be judged by big business to be too dangerous to their interests.

Size Matters: The Importance of Scale in Anti-Austerity Resistance

But how can we, in the emerging anti-austerity movement in Ontario, develop the kind of social power needed to produce this sort of large-scale, sustained disruption?

It’s worth noting that we haven’t seen disruption on this kind of scale in Ontario since the mid-1990s, during the “Ontario Days of Action” (DoA) campaign. The DoA campaign was a series of single-city, two-day protests, in which the first day (a Friday) would see a general strike by unionized workers, and the second day (a Saturday) would see a mass demonstration, in which unions would be joined by community organizations, including feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous rights, disability rights, environmental and anti-poverty organizations that shared organized labour’s interest in resisting and reversing the profits-first, anti-justice policy agenda of the then Mike Harris (Conservative) government in Ontario.

Workers shut down hundreds of workplaces  in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1996.

Workers shut down hundreds of workplaces in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1996.

In the years since the end of the DoA campaign, the sort of disruptions we have seen by protesters in Ontario have paled in comparison, with the sole exception of impressive outbreaks of Indigenous protest and disruption (a point to which I return below). Otherwise, however, post-DoA disruptive protests in Ontario have typically involved a few dozen people, sometimes fewer, blocking traffic or occupying a construction site or a government office, etc. In rare cases, the numbers participating in disruptions have numbered in the low hundreds. But during the DoA, disruption operated on a vastly more potent and threatening scale. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of workers participated in strike action. During each of the eleven Day of Action strikes in 1995-98, workers brought public transportation systems grinding to a complete stop for the day. They shut down Public and Catholic school systems. Federal, provincial and local government offices were in most cases completely closed. Hundreds of private sector employers were shut down by striking workers. Universities and Colleges were shut down in each DoA city, with students joining campus workers to picket the campuses. It was a dramatic — and now, nearly forgotten — demonstration of just how disruptive protesters can be, if the necessary scale, organizational capacity, and determination can be mustered.

Don’t get me wrong. It is genuinely important and valuable today when a few dozen or a few hundred people are able to block traffic or stage other disruptive protests. But to turn the tide against austerity, scale will certainly matter. The anti-austerity movement simply must break out of activist enclaves and draw in the kind of mass social power that the DoA movement was able to generate and deploy.

Why the DoA Campaign Failed to Defeat Harris in the mid-90s

Of course, in the end, most of that disruptive power was squandered, when the divided and irresolute Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) leadership decided to cut the movement short, refusing to escalate, as most movement activists had advocated, to a 1-day or 2-day province-wide general strike, and ultimately to an unlimited province-wide general strike. When the movement was demobilized, the Harris government had weathered the storm, and regained its footing, with most of its agenda still in place.

We should learn from that disappointing outcome. The next time we pursue a DoA strategy, grassroots activists should work hard to build structures of popular deliberation and decision-making from below — a system of assemblies or councils — as a counter-weight to the formal structures (and the “backroom” informal decision-making) that dominate the institutional level of the labour movement. This would allow grassroots organizers in the unions and community organizations to play a role in trying to shape the strategic direction of the movement, and to ensure that the rightward pressures on the OFL from the most conservative union officials are countered by the leftward pressures of an activated, organized, emboldened grassroots.

However sobering the outcome of the 1990s DoA campaign was, it seems clear that a revival of something resembling the DoA strategic framework is the best hope for a revitalized anti-austerity movement in Ontario. The disruptiveness we need can never be generated from within marginal activist enclaves, mobilizing a few dozen people here, a few hundred there. No, we need tens of thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands of people, coordinated across the public and private sectors, drawing in unionized and non-unionized workers, taking inspiration and in many cases leadership from Indigenous communities, and committing to serious, large-scale economic disruption: shutting down highways, schools, universities, public transportation systems, private and public sector workplaces, and inflicting real costs on the employer class and its underlings (regardless of party affiliation) in government.

Ramping Up: Putting in Place the Conditions for Resurgent Mass Fightback

Such a campaign seems a long way off. It’s unlikely to emerge directly from the OFL, certainly. But it is worth remembering how it became possible the last time. After all, initially, the response of union officials to the Harris government’s election was passive and ineffectual. Leah Casselman, for instance, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said that she would try to “work with” the Harris government “to improve services.” She refused to endorse a June 26 anti-Harris demonstration (see Paul Kellogg, ‘Workers Versus Austerity: The Origins of Ontario’s 1995-1998 Days of Action,” p. 127). Even the most left-wing high-level union official in the province at the time, Sid Ryan of CUPE Ontario Division, said that “to be going into an all-out war now with a government that clearly has a mandate, before they even take office, I think is the wrong strategy for labour.” These comments were made only a few months before the Days of Action, with their one-day general strikes and mass protests, began. Obviously, some sort of sea-change had occurred in the interim.

How did the movement change course so rapidly? This is exactly the kind of shift that today’s anti-austerity movement needs to replicate.

Clearly, the OFL was not the initial springboard. Instead, grassroots activists launched campaigns from below: the “Embarrass Harris” campaign, for instance, which was initiated by a small group of anti-racist feminists within the National Action Committee (NAC), and organized mostly out of mass meetings held at the 519 community centre in Toronto. They launched a “June 26 demonstration against the Conservatives’ swearing-in,” which drew 2,500 protesters (Kellogg, p. 126), setting an important precedent of determined opposition. A few weeks later, in July, they “rallied several hundred people outside government offices in downtown Toronto to denounce the attacks on the poor and on social programs” (Kellogg, p. 125). At the same time, a series of potent and inspiring mass marches and disruptive protests were held by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), including the first March on Rosedale, on August 22, 1995. “The message, from the left-wing OCAP, couldn’t have been clearer: Harris was ruling for the rich, and [attacking] the poor” (Kellogg, p. 126).

These grassroots initiatives had the effect of stimulating a demand from within the unions for a more robust response from organized labour, and eventually the OFL found itself pressured to seriously step up its response, especially after it became clear that the future of collective bargaining hung in the balance.

The Ipperwash Example: Disruption on Display

Above all, however, the DoA disruption campaign received a massive jolt of inspiration when an Anishinaabe community in Southwestern Ontario, at the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, launched a bold and determined reclamation of stolen land at Ipperwash “Provincial Park,” at the beginning of September 1995, i.e., two months before the first Day of Action was announced and three months before it took place. Tragically, one of the land defenders, Dudley George, was shot to death by the OPP. A judge later found the shooter guilty of criminal negligence causing death, and pointed out that “the accused [OPP officer] Kenneth Deane knew that…Dudley George did not have any firearms on his person when he shot him,” and “concocted” a false story about a rifle “in an ill-fated attempt to disguise the fact that an unarmed man had been shot” by police. Beyond the tragedy of Dudley George’s killing, however, the land reclamation set a powerful example of the power of disruption and determined defiance, even by poor and socially marginalized people, to throw the Harris government into crisis and panic. Crucially, the vulnerability of Harris to resistance in the form of organized disruption was splashed across the front pages of newspapers in every city and town in Ontario. It was the first sign of chinks in the government’s armour.

The social costs imposed by the Ipperwash protesters on business and governments was very, very real. According to the Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry, “the Municipality of Lambton Shores” reported that “the occupation of the park had a ‘devastating’ financial impact. The municipality cited loss of property values, loss of business revenues (including tourism), loss of municipal tax revenues, loss of…jobs, and difficulties for residents in obtaining mortgages and property insurance” (Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry, Volume 2, p. 36). One of the main findings of the Ipperwash Inquiry, in fact, was that “occupations and protests and/or the continuing uncertainty over land, treaty claims, and burial sites have a considerable economic effect. Occupations, protests, and continuing uncertainty over the ownership, control, or use of land and other resources have delayed or impaired economic opportunities in resource development, land development, fishing, forestry, and tourism” (Report, p. 37). The capacity of determined protesters to disrupt ‘business as usual’ and impose serious costs on their adversaries did not go unnoticed by union and social justice activists in the province that fall. Within three months, tens of thousands of unionized workers and other social justice activists had begun to follow suit.

Bringing Organized Labour on Board

In fact, it was only about three weeks after the Ipperwash disruption that the labour movement first began to join the anti-Harris fight with disruptive workplace walkouts, initially at the local level, in Toronto. When the legislature reconvened on 27 September, Embarrass Harris, Toronto’s Labour Council, the Building Trades Council, OCAP, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), three buses put on by the Guelph and District Labour Council, and other labour and community groups converged on Queen’s Park for a mass demonstration with between seven and ten thousand people. As Kellogg pointed out (p. 129), “it was the biggest protest yet against the Harris cuts, the first where the majority were organized workers, and the first which gave a sign of the mass movement which was building in the province.” According to one participant and organizer, “workers streamed out of the hospitals on University Avenue, they came by the thousands out of government offices at Queen’s Park, clerical and administrative workers crossed the road from the University….The result…put a lie to earlier pronouncements by union leaders who declared that demonstrations were premature and wouldn’t work” (Carolyn Egan, quoted in Kellogg, p. 129).

Remarkably, the 27 September demonstration at Queen’s Park had not been endorsed by the OFL (see Kellogg, p. 129). It was not until a full two months later, during the late November 1995 OFL Convention that finally the OFL got fully (although not without divisions) on board, and — to make a long story short (for details, see Kellogg, pp. 130-134) — the Days of Action campaign was launched, with the first 2-day protest to be held on 11-12 December in London, Ontario.

The inspiration of the Ipperwash protest, which illustrated the power of economic disruption, and the energy and determination of anti-austerity protest organizers in the feminist and anti-poverty movements, as well as in local unions, were able to spark a movement that no one saw coming a few months earlier. And that movement showed how potent and threatening a campaign of broad-based, escalating disruption, supported by cross-sectoral mass mobilizations could be.

How can we replicate this achievement? Needless to say, there is no magical formula. But it is possible to sketch a realistic scenario of how we might be able to move, in stages, in that direction.

A Five-Step Escalation Scenario

Basing ourselves on some of the effective anti-austerity movement building that is being done already in the province, like the remarkable campaign to reverse the planned end of door-to-door mail delivery and the emerging campaign against hydro privatization, and building on the rising levels of cross-movement solidarity backing local campaigns against carding and police violence, against the Line 9 and Energy East pipeline projects, and supporting calls for action to address the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women, among other struggles, but aspiring to massively ramp up the levels of solidarity and the scale of popular mobilization and community organization, we could work toward a five-stage escalation process, like the one outlined below.

STEP ONE: Establish a Grassroots Coordinating Network. Establish a province-wide grassroots Coordinated Resistance Network (with majority-voting assemblies in cities and towns sending delegates to the provincial body) that can set dates and themes for large-scale mobilizations, at either the single-city, regional, or province-wide level.

STEP TWO: Launch a Series of Single-Issue Days of Resistance. Hold a series of rolling single-city themed days of solidarity and resistance, starting with an Indigenous Solidarity Day of Resistance in the fall of 2015, followed by Days of Resistance on other themes, like fair wages, accessible education, and so on. Use these to build up two kinds of pressure: first, within the labour movement, build pressure initially at the labour council level and then at the OFL level, to put more energy and resources into escalating and broadening the anti-austerity fight already underway both inside and outside of the OFL, both to defend collective bargaining and union jobs, and to defend the wider working class, especially poor, unemployed, and Indigenous people, who experience the most brutal impacts of austerity; second, within the wider social movements, build pressure on organizations to commit to a strategic alliance with organized labour in order to escalate toward broad-based, large-scale, escalating economic disruption, which would be near impossible to mount without a strategic alliance with unions.

STEP THREE: Winning a Commitment from Labour to Friday Work-Stoppages. Campaign within union locals, labour councils, provincial divisions and the OFL itself for resolutions committing the unions to active participation and real monetary/organizing support for the grassroots Days of Resistance, and — crucially — for single-day work stoppages on the Friday before each Day of Resistance.

STEP FOUR: Launch a Series of 2-Day, Multi-Issue Days of Resistance. Following the basic model of the anti-Harris days of action in the 1990s, but now empowering the assembly-based grassroots coordinating network to shape the strategy, hold a series of single-city, two-day Days of Resistance protests, with Friday general strikes followed by Saturday cross-sectoral (not single-themed) mobilizations, all the while drawing in more people into their local assemblies. Mobilize on the basis of widely accepted, broad movement demands, like honour the treaties, people before profits, and human need, not corporate greed, but encouraging unions and community groups to advance more specific demands on their own.

STEP FIVE: Escalate Toward Province-Wide, and Eventually Unlimited Work-Stoppages, with Daily Nocturnal Marches. After several single-city Days, escalate first to a province-wide Day of Resistance, and then to a week-long, and ultimately to an unlimited province-wide general strike, with broad, multi-issue nocturnal marches in several major cities every evening on the model of the Quebec student strike.

Conclusion

Is this realistic? If a process of this general type — moving from relatively small-scale attempts to kick-start a movement and ramping up in stages toward a coordinated, province-wide campaign of economic disruption through mass mobilization — could be successfully carried out, would it really turn the tide against austerity? I would say this: nothing less than something like this could possibly work. So, it seems like a sound starting point for the project of reversing the austerity agenda and putting in place a people before profits alternative trajectory of social development, ultimately challenging the systems in the service of which austerity now works: capitalism, colonialism, racism and sexism. An anti-systemic politics of this kind won’t emerge out of the gradual expansion of activist enclaves, recruiting like-minded individuals to their ranks. It can only emerge from broad popular struggles, where hundreds of thousands of people fill the streets, in relentless and broad-based campaigns of escalating resistance, of the sort proposed here.

On Crisis Learning: A Marxist View of Political Learning

One of the most important insights of modern philosophy is that “knowing that,” or “propositional knowledge,” is a “founded” or derivative mode of engagement with the world. More specifically, it is founded upon knowing-how, or practical competence. For instance, to cite a simple and obvious example, our propositional knowledge of grammatical rules is founded on something that is more “originary” [ursprünglich], to use Heidegger’s term, which is our practical competence to speak and understand our mother tongue. Children learn to speak much earlier and much more readily than they learn to state or recognize any of the rules of grammar, or even the definitions of words (for instance, any small child knows how to use the word, “time,” but very few people, even as adults, can say what the word “time” means).

A famous resistance practice-form: women banging garbage bin lids in the occupied counties, Ireland.

A famous resistance practice-form: women banging garbage bin lids in the occupied counties, Ireland. 

Probably, you can produce a set of verbal instructions detailing the steps to go through in order to tie your shoes. But this is not because you carry around with you a set of beliefs about these steps. Instead, it is because you are able to reconstruct the steps by reflecting on something more basic: your pre-cognitive facility/aptitude or know-how, by virtue of which you can readily perform the task with competence and ease, without any need to think of the steps, or to have any beliefs or opinions about how it’s done. This was a key theme in Heidegger’s Being and Time, but also Mao Zedong’s On Practice, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, to name only a few examples of important philosophical works in the early 20th century that touched on this theme. 

There are many ways in which this matters. But here I want to focus on one particular way: how people learn about politics. 

There are, I think, at least three ways that people learn about politics: first, and least importantly, there is learning through political discourse. In political discourse, people develop opinions by considering arguments that they hear or read. So much energy is devoted to the activity of making arguments (even arguments against arguments, the paradoxical apex of political discourse) that one might suppose that it was the main way in which political learning takes place. In fact, however, hardly any political learning happens this way. Part of the reason is that most people, most of the time, only bother to listen or pay attention to political arguments that they find agreeable in advance. Seldom does a socialist read something written by a conservative, or whatever other examples you can think of, in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, i.e., finding out what’s true without assuming it in advance. On the contrary, one knows in advance that one’s adversary’s main claims will be false, but perhaps one wants to find some opinions to attack, or to construct some counter-arguments to discourage others from taking the writer seriously. Actual inquiry is confined largely to exploring the nuances that divide oneself from one’s co-thinkers, on small details or narrow points of disagreement. To the extent that learning takes place via political discourse, it is mostly elaboration and clarification of what one already takes oneself to know (which is itself mainly a function what one habitually does). 

A second type of political learning, which is far more important than political discourse, is political socialization. This is the process by which one develops practical competence in forms of political activity. This can take the form of learning how to identify people and positions as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘feminist,’ etc., based on various signals, such as vocabulary, priorities, paradigmatic ‘tropes,’ and so on. One learns that use of terms like ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression’ is often an indicator that someone is a leftist of some sort, while use of terms like ‘taxpayers’ and ‘law and order’ is an indicator that someone is a conservative. Another type of political socialization or competence acquisition is learning how to perform certain types of political act, for instance, complaining to a public official, or signing a petition, or attending or organizing a protest, and so on. The number and variety of forms of this kind of political competence acquisition are far too many and varied to try to enumerate all or most of them. For now, it is enough to notice that this is not a matter of thinking and reasoning, but a matter of acquiring facility or competence and know-how. There are beliefs involved, of course, but this type of learning is not mainly about belief or opinion formation. It is mainly about learning how to carry out certain performances competently. In this sense, it is more like learning to speak a language with pre-cognitive (that is, non-propositional, non-opinion-based) competence, than it is like learning a set of explicit grammatical rules. It is learning how to perform in certain ways, not what to believe about certain things.

Before turning to the third type — referenced in my title, ‘crisis learning’ — I want to make a couple of concise observations about political socialization (competence acquisition), in contrast to political discourse (opinion-formation). The acquisition of competence is less influenced by debate and discussion. For the most part, it is influenced by leading, i.e., drawing people into a practice, which invites them to internalize standards of skillful performance that may be hard to state, but which are (as it were) internalized by people who learn how to perform in the practice. For instance, people might be invited to attend a town hall public meeting. They might see others stand up and make demands on a politician. Over time, they might develop the competence to stand up and try the activity out. Gradually, they may develop skill and facility or competent ease in the performance. They come to know how it’s done. But it would mostly be pointless to tell them what to do. Instead, it is a matter of drawing them into a practice, where exemplary performances can be witnessed, appreciated, and replicated. 

Two things follow from this practical character of political socialization. First, it tends to be only very weakly influenced by what people say or argue. Second, when people have learned to perform (behave) in a certain way, it is very hard, not to say impossible, to argue them out of it. In other words, once I learn how to tie my shoes in one way, I am unlikely to be easily won over by someone talking to me about some great new style of shoe-tying, which is much better than the way I have learned to do it. No matter how passionately they argue with me, no matter how comprehensive and rationally compelling the arguments are, I am liable to be unmoved. This isn’t because I’m irrational or a victim of ‘brainwashing.’ It is simply because how I act is not a function of opinions so much as it is a function of habits and competences that are more “originary,” to return to Heidegger’s word, than opinions. Know-how has a much firmer grip on me and how I act than knowing-that. 

This brings me to the third type of political learning: crisis learning. Suppose I find myself in the middle of a general strike. Perhaps I am one of those rare individuals who has all sorts of opinions about general strikes and how they should be conducted. (Indeed, I certainly am such a person.) In that case, my learning will be atypical: mostly a matter of figuring out how to “apply” my opinions. If so, it would be a grave error if I were to imagine that my form of learning, as applying opinions, is typical of how most others will learn during the unfolding strike process. On the contrary, most of the learning, by most of the people involved, will have little to do with the formation of opinions based on political discourse. 

For most of my neighbours and co-workers, who (1) have no opinions about general strikes and how to organize or conduct them, and (2) also have very few habits or competences that are particularly relevant to the challenges at hand, their learning will be of a very different sort: not a matter of applying opinions, but a matter of groping around for new habits. That is, they will have to cultivate new kinds of competence, in a hastily contrived way, in the absence of clear exemplars to appreciate and emulate. They may have known for years how to tell the difference between the way conservatives talk and the way feminists talk, or whatever. But now they will have to learn how to react to police officers threatening to beat them if they don’t “move back” or disperse from an area. Or they might have to learn to notice, and finds ways to push back against, certain “cooptation” dynamics in struggle-settings (which is something everyone saw happening during the Black Lives Matter organizing), or how to handle the jailing of dozens of comrades, or whatever. Depending on the background of the persons in question, this might be the first time they have had to cope with situations like this. And so, they have lots of things to learn. 

But clearly, new opinions are not what the situation demands. What they need is a kind of competence reconfiguration. And crisis learning is the kind of semi-improvisational competence re-configuration that people engage in when circumstances demand of them performances for which their existing repertoire of competences offer no guidance. 

It’s a bit like someone who was an only child (hence no younger siblings) and never did any babysitting (hence lacking any childcare skills) suddenly being charged with the care of a baby. The person in this predicament will have to very quickly find makeshift coping routines, and develop new competences, without having the luxury of comfortable socialization into an up-and-running practice with readily visible exemplars of skillful performance to emulate. This is what I want to call crisis learning. 

Politically, crisis learning is far less common than political socialization. And yet, for people with a keen interest in those rare moments of opening, in which upsurges of struggle impart an atypical dynamism and fluidity to political life, crisis learning is one of the most important aspects of politics. 

One could say a great deal about crisis learning, of course. But I only want to underline one simple point: that political discourse is a less helpful or ‘generative’ framework for intervention into this kind of dynamic situation than something else that can be done to facilitate crisis learning: the popularization of portable practice exemplars.

What I’m calling ‘portable practice exemplars,’ Michel Foucault called ‘political technologies.’ It simply means designs for the configuration of activity that can be transported and adapted to multiple contexts and situations, and can serve as a basis for coordination and mobilization in pursuit of certain ends. This is something we saw in the Assemblies Movement. Initially, in Egypt, a simple practice-form was established in Tahrir Square: camp out in a public square, set up assemblies that facilitate public discussion and at least rudimentary decision-making, and use self-organized infrastructure to both address the practicalities of the convergence and to prefigure forms of egalitarian and horizontal cooperation that inspire hopes for a more far-reaching social transformation. This basic practice form was then transported and activated in other places, including Greece and Spain, and later at Occupy Wall Street and eventually in hundreds of cities and towns around the world. 

What makes portable practice exemplars so important is that they can be transported and activated, and used as a framework for rapid crisis learning, without the need for experienced exemplary persons, whose skill at navigating a social practice can be observed, appreciated and replicated. A portable practice exemplar, like the General Assembly, can be set up in a town where no one has any experience in its workings, and everyone can learn together, quickly, in a structured and manageable manner. In crisis learning situations, political discourse is largely irrelevant to the tasks at hand, while political socialization of the usual sort (which draws people into up-and-running practices where they can learn by following the examples of those who already have the practical competences needed) is a luxury that isn’t available, for reasons of time and reasons of fundamental novelty, due the sudden dynamism and instability of the context. 

The final point that I want to make is suggested by my example. It is clear that the General Assembly in a Public Square proved to be a very infectious and fast-moving portable practice exemplar. It worked, in that sense. But did it work, in the more important sense, by moving struggles forward, and helping to open up new opportunities for far-reaching social change? It’s less clear, anyway. Other portable practice exemplars from the past have had similarly mixed results: the consciousness-raising group, the urban guerrilla cell, the ‘party of a new type,’ the commune, the pluralist anti-capitalist network, the women’s caucus, the ‘proletarian guard,’ the spokescouncil with affinity groups, the workers’ council, and so on. None of these has proved decisive, in the manner of a quick fix or secret recipe.

Still, what can be said for them, in contrast to political discourse, is that they answered (either well or poorly) to the needs of the moment in contexts of political crisis: they served as vehicles for crisis learning. And, if nothing else, that made them important and influential in shaping the political learning process of many thousands or in some cases millions of people. It’s a form of learning that ought not to escape our attention.

GWF Hegel and Ralph Chaplin

Leftist intellectuals — Marx, Luxemburg, Mao, Senghor, and many others — have been insisting for generations (going back at least to the 1830s, in some places) that Hegel, if approached in a suitably critical and selective way, can be an important resource and reference point for anti-systemic theorizing.

Ralph Chaplin and GWF Hegel

Ralph Chaplin and GWF Hegel

But given the relatively inaccessible writing style in which Hegel expresses himself, which creates a daunting barrier to engagement with his ideas, the point might need reinforcing. This is especially so in a time when Hegel is often dismissed as racist (which indeed he was, although racist themes co-exist in his work with anti- or counter-racist themes) and obscurantist, among other things. No doubt, some people interested in leftist theory are tempted to skip over Hegel, in spite of his formidable reputation among many generations of radical intellectuals.

To see why reading Hegel is important (for those interested in reading leftist theory), we first have to grasp the gist of Hegel’s “big idea.”

Hegel took as his point of departure Immanuel Kant’s pioneering insight that the mind does not simply register facts by means of observation, as empiricism had long held, but instead actively constructs facts by pre-organizing and shaping in advance the forms in which our experience could be made intelligible. Hegel and his co-thinkers, the post-Kantian “German Idealists,” thought that Kant had drawn back from acknowledging the radical implications of his own conclusions. They insisted that objectivity had to be understood as an achievement of subjective activity, a world of human constructs. But this quasi-Fichtean theme was well and truly radicalized by Hegel, who extended it well beyond the intellectual horizons of the so-called “philosophy of consciousness.”

As Hegel saw it, the world that we inhabit — with its intellectual, natural, and social dimensions — is not a discovered but a constructed world, which human activity continually produces and reproduces. This applies, he suggests, to the ideal objectivity explored in logic and mathematics (“the science of logic”), the epistemic objectivity explored in the natural sciences (“the philosophy of nature”), and the social objectivity of institutions and cultural systems like language and the arts (“the philosophy of spirit”). We do not discover them; we make them, although certainly we do “discover” the contours of our constructs as we engage with them in the form of various practical and intellectual learning processes, unfolding both within the life-histories of individuals and in the world-history of the species.

Moreover, Hegel insisted that this productivity is not accomplished individually, by solitary persons, but collectively, by the common action of communities: “the I that is we and the we that is I,” as he put it. In some cases, as he well understood, there are those who participate in these community learning processes only in the manner of barriers to be overcome, or antagonists to be resisted; but even this is a way of being drawn into a “dialectical” learning process that is ultimately and in the long run an expansively human one — a complicated and conflict-ridden journey of the human Geist or spirit, as he would say, toward more comprehensive forms of insight into the universal scope of its own achievements.

The understanding, so indispensable to Left politics, that all of the wonders of human society and culture, including science, technology, and the arts, are the product of the coordinated creativity and effort of working people — whose achievement is continually misappropriated and misdirected by parasitic elites who fetter human development — is derived in large part from this Hegelian conception of human society. Perhaps the most concise summary of Hegel’s big idea can be found in the song, “Solidarity Forever”:

“It is we who ploughed the prairies;
Built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops,
Endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving
Amid the wonders we have made…

“All the world that’s owned by idle drones
Is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations;
Built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in,
But to master and to own.

“They have taken untold millions
That they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power,
Gain our freedom when we learn…

“In our hands is placed a power
Greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies,
Multiplied a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world
From the ashes of the old….”

The politics of this “syndicalist” song, written by Ralph Chaplin in 915, have deep roots in the intellectual tradition (most famously including Marx) that tried to work out a “materialist” counterpart to Hegel’s learning-fixated account of human self-production. The materialist post-Hegelian tradition tried reinterpreted human social development in terms of human work and the social relations of production. Whether the influence of Hegel on Chaplin was direct or indirect (via Marx and others), I do not know. (It should be said, too, that Marx was influenced not only by Hegel but also by the 19th century workers’ movement, with its “productivist” critique of parasitism, and his materialist reinterpretation of Hegel was in part mediated by the self-understanding of organized leftist workers.) But there can be no denying that Chaplin’s analysis is informed by some of the leading ideas of Hegel’s philosophy.

Chaplin’s song touches on a second theme in Hegel’s work, beyond the point about culture, science and technology as achievements of the creativity, coordination and cooperation of working people (continually expropriated by a class whose parasitism serves as a fetter on human development). Chaplin also underlines the fact — central to Hegel’s thought — that we tend systematically to be oblivious to our own achievements. “In our hands is placed a power” — yes, but why then our do we “stand outcast and starving”? According to Hegel, it is because we do not yet know — we have yet to “learn,” as Chaplin puts it — that the power of the structures and institutions that we inhabit is rooted wholly in our ongoing activity to produce and reproduce those institutions and structures. 

The rich and powerful have “hoarded gold,” sure, but “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn.” This liberating insight could “break their haughty power,” a process of simultaneous learning and empowerment that Hegel calls (oddly enough) “philosophy.” Philosophy, in the long run, gravitates toward ideology-critique: the learning process of discovering that the root of all the structures and institutions that oppress us as human beings is our own coordinated activity: “it is we who ploughed the prairies, built the cities where they trade, dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railway laid.” As we gradually work our way through the learning process of “de-reification” (tracing the structures of the world back to their basis in our own collective activity), we unmask the false appearance of exteriority that makes our own achievement appear to us as an alien power that we cannot control. Its estrangement from us, the producers who produce and reproduce it, can be dissolved by exposing its basis in our own collective action.

Of course, Hegel, being an idealist, believed that the mere insight into our capacities generated, in a quasi-automatic way, a dawning of universal freedom. Hegel seemed to assert in a literal sense what Chaplin affirms in a poetic mode: we can “gain our freedom when we learn….” Modern philosophy, Hegel thought, increasingly grasped that “alle Menschen an sich, das heißt der Mensch als Mensch sei frei….” — “Every human being, as such, that is to say, the human being as human being, is free….” And this insight at the level of intellectual activity was bound to be expressed in events like the French Revolution and other political upheavals which he saw as symptoms of the learning process of de-reification. 

Today, we are perhaps less convinced that ideology-critique of the type that Chaplin and Hegel undertook to encourage yields any automatic political victories. Even seeing the point, that “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn,” we still have to find ways to organize ourselves with enough potency and coordination that the systems and structures that dominate us can be overturned. On this point, Chaplin takes an important step beyond Hegel: “The union makes us strong,” he insists. That is, our capacity for combative self-organization within resilient structures of coordinated struggle can turn the insight in to our potential power into the reality of de facto empowerment. On that basis, “we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” 

Still, what needs to be acknowledged is not that Hegel (or indeed those, like Chaplin, who draw directly or indirectly on Hegel’s insights) has somehow already said everything that needs saying. Obviously not. The point, rather, is to recognize that the intellectual achievement of Hegel is important, that there are insights in his thought that retain their luminous and penetrating character even today — in an age when people still delude themselves that “Steve Jobs,” that semi-fictional character, somehow “created the ipad and the ipod,” and so forth. Readers of Hegel will, of course, scoff at such fantasies. Thus, we can still today learn from engaging with him, and also from pushing past his mistakes and failings: treating Hegel neither as a “genius” nor a fool, but instead as someone who, like all of us, tried at times to think hard about important things.

Self-righteousness and Left-Activism

By Stephen D’Arcy

Self-righteousness is a special case of being self-satisfied, complacent, smug. But here, the smug complacency refers specifically to a person’s belief that he or she complies, to a higher than normal degree, with the demands of some strict moral standard. This claimed moral superiority in turn is supposed to justify an attitude of scorn or disdain toward others, who supposedly fail to respect this high standard and in this way discredit themselves.halo

Importantly, self-righteousness differs from simple “righteousness” — the insistence on doing the right thing, simply because it is the right thing — in being a vice rather than a virtue. Why, though, is self-righteousness a vice, not a virtue?

It is a vice for at least three reasons:

1. First, because the self-righteous person helps himself or herself to a higher standing than his or her peers, and so claims to be superior, almost in the manner of a “saint,” whereas we only accept the standing of moral superior as an honorific status to be conferred on rare individuals by others, not a self-appointed status to be claimed presumptuously and unilaterally for oneself;

2. Second, because the smug complacency implies a confidence that one has little or no work to do to improve one’s own conduct and character, and thereby reveals a lack of concern for self-improvement, a confidence placed in doubt by the very behaviour that embodies it, since that behaviour itself is open to criticism and calls for correction; and

3. Third, because the most common marker or indicator of self-righteousness is the ostentatious stance of self-appointed judge, issuing explicit or implicit decrees of condemnation toward others, for their supposed failings, and this ‘judgmental’ stance reveals a lack of insight about or awareness of the universality of failings and shortcomings that motivate one’s finger-pointing, but on the contrary presumes that such failings are unique to the judged, and have no parallel in the words and deeds of the judge.

Now, it is sometimes said that social-justice-oriented political activists are particularly prone to self-righteousness. I’m not sure whether or not they are unusually quick to indulge in this sort of thing. But I do believe that it is widespread, and certainly no less typical of activists than of others. And that’s a problem, because it obviously undermines what they are trying to achieve, if (as I hope) they are trying to draw in wider circles of people, and to break out of activist subcultures to engage with the larger world. Clearly, a self-righteous attitude will deter engagement, on one’s own part, since one looks down on others and therefore won’t see them as potential comrades and partners in a common struggle; and it will also deter engagement on the part of others, because they will find one’s self-righteousness to be offensive and indicative of some activists’ contempt for ordinary people. Self-righteousness, in short, undermines both the interest of activists in engaging with the wider world, and the willingness of the wider world to be engaged by activists.

I believe that this problem came up, as a practical matter, during the Occupy movement, when many long-time activists found themselves, consciously or unconsciously, unwilling or unable to engage with wider circles of people flooding into oppositional movement politics, because some of those people had (arguably) mistaken ideas about a range of issues, from the role of ‘the Fed’ to the nature of colonialism and much else. No one would suggest that these ideas, where they existed, didn’t need to be challenged in various ways, by means of a process of popular education. But having mistaken opinions is not actually a flaw or a defect or sign of inferiority, clearly. It is actually the normal state of everyone. We just have different zones of knowledge and ignorance. So, a stance of condescension in such situations is clearly uncalled for. But in fact, at the time, I believe that some activists retreated from the Occupy movement because they were particularly judgmental about the political opinions of some of the participants. (My evidence for this is limited, but it is a perception I had at the time.) Obviously, there were in some cases perfectly sound reasons that people may have had to shift their attention elsewhere. No one would doubt that; certainly, I don’t doubt it. However, I’m quite sure that at least in a few cases, self-righteousness was an issue.

If self-righteousness is a barrier to strategically effective movement organizing, what can be done about it? I don’t pretend to know. But possibly counting it as one of the threats to left-activism — along with other threats that we express concern about, like state repression, activist burnout, or sexist behaviour, etc. — will help us resist any impulse to revel in self-righteous feelings, which seem to have some narcissistic appeal due to their ego-elevating character. If we count self-righteousness as a danger, a threat to our organizing projects, we might better be able to notice its appearance, and to motivate ourselves to walk away from it.