Some Early 20th Century Marxist Views on Anti-Racist Strategy in the USA

There’s a tendency to assume, perhaps unconsciously, that radical political analysis gets better and more sophisticated over time. Sometimes it really does. But certainly not always. Often, when we think we’re discovering something new, what’s actually happening is that we’re groping towards a rediscovery of the long-forgotten but hard-won insights of earlier generations. Too often, the collective intelligence and accumulated wisdom of the powerful and transformative social struggles of yesteryear have been carelessly consigned to oblivion by what one famous historian of poor people’s movements has called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”

In light of the recent intensification of the struggle against police killings of working-class Black people, it is worth taking a look back at how radicals of early generations, especially (in this case) some US-based Black revolutionaries, thought about the strategic questions posed by struggles of this kind.

When we do look at what they had to say, the superficial campus cliché according to which early 20th century marxists were “class reductionists” who ignored anti-racism altogether, or at best “subordinated anti-racism to class struggle,” begins to unravel in the face of a reality that bears little relation to the old liberal talking points.

Back in the 1940s, CLR James tried to sum up the early-20th century marxist view of anti-racist strategy for the USA in three points:

“We say, number 1, that the [Black] struggle, the independent [Black] struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.BlackPowerMatters2

“We say, number 2, that this independent [Black people’s] movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.

“We say, number 3, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the [wider] revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a real contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.

“In this way we challenge directly any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent [Black people’s] struggle for democratic rights. That is our position.” (From CLR James, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the US,” 1948).

[[Note: in the passage above, in order to focus the reader’s attention on the meaning, rather than the obsolete terminology, I replaced the word “Negro” with “Black,” but in the quoted passages below, I leave the wording as it appeared originally.]]

These three points — which James equated with “the position of Lenin thirty years ago” (see below) — have their roots in Karl Marx’s view of the relation between anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism, according to which “the most important object[ive]” for European workers hoping “to hasten the social revolution” against capitalism should be to help secure “the national emancipation” of colonized peoples, which workers in the colonizing nations should recognize as “the first condition of their own social emancipation.” In his main work, Capital (1867), he famously applied this same logic to racism in the US: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

Since I do not think the development of anti-racist politics in the US has been entirely for the better in the years since James underlined his three points (in spite of some hugely important advances, like thisthis, this, this, and this, to name a few), I want to encourage anyone who hasn’t studied early marxist views of anti-racist strategy in the US to look into a few of the classic contributions to the marxist tradition in this area. Below, I provide links to several key texts, including one by Marx himself in 1870, and then seven others published in the first half of the last century. For each of the links, I have included a brief excerpt, hoping to whet the appetite of possible readers. Apart from Marx and Lenin, all of the others — George Padmore, CLR James, Harry Haywood, WEB DuBois, and Claudia Jones — wrote the relevant pieces while living in the United States, as far as I can tell. (On the other hand, it’s striking that three of them — Padmore, James, and Jones — were born and initially educated in Trinidad.)

I should point out that — unsurprisingly — the opinions elaborated in following works do not all neatly comply with James’ formulation of what he depicts as “the” marxist view. In many cases they diverge from one another very directly, and in important ways. But the divergences are also instructive and important, and repay careful study.

1. Karl Marx, On the relation between anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism (“Letter to Meyer and Vogt”) (1870)

“And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life….He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards [Irish workers] is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A…..This 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.”

2. V.I. Lenin, “Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions” (1920)

“The Communist International’s national policy…cannot be restricted to the bare, formal, purely declaratory and actually non-committal recognition of the equality of nations to which the bourgeois democrats confine themselves….In all their propaganda and agitation—both within parliament and outside it—the Communist parties must consistently expose that constant violation of the equality of nations and of the guaranteed rights of national minorities which is to be seen in all capitalist countries, despite their ‘democratic’ constitutions….[A]ll Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies. Without the latter condition, which is particularly important, the struggle against the oppression of dependent nations and colonies, as well as recognition of their right to secede, are but a false signboard….”

3. George Padmore, “Black Slaves in the New World” (Chapter 2 of The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers) (1931)

“Even in the United States, which the apologists for bourgeois democracy consider the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave,’ we find 15 million Negroes brutally enslaved. The story of the oppression of Negroes in the United States forms one of the darkest pages in the history of capitalism. In no other so-called civilised country in the world are human beings treated as badly as these 15 million Negroes. They live under a perpetual regime of white terror, which expresses itself in lynchings, peonage, racial segregation and other pronounced forms of white chauvinism….Race prejudice or white chauvinism is one of the chief weapons in the hands of the capitalist class in order to oppress and enslave the black workers. In the United States the working class is made up of different nationalities and races which are grouped into white and black. In order to prevent these workers from uniting together in militant struggle against the bourgeoisie who rob them all alike, the employers and their agents in the Labour movement…encourage the workers to hate each other by playing up racial and national differences….Even in the North, where Negroes are supposed to be better off than in the South, they are still the victims of varied forms of social oppression. First of all they are isolated from the rest of the working class by traditional social codes imposed upon the workers by the bourgeoisie, in order to maintain an ideological influence over the white workers, who are taught to hate and despise their black comrades. Therefore, we find that the less class-conscious white workers, like the capitalists, have the tendency to consider the Negro workers as social outcasts – members of a pariah race.”

4. Harry Haywood, “The Struggle for the Leninist Position on the Negro Question in the United States” (1933)

“The emphasis upon the development of economic struggles among the Negro toilers does not mean to slacken but on the contrary to increase in every way the struggle around general issues of Negro liberation, such as Scottsboro and the fight against lynching. It is necessary to broaden out and deepen these struggles, bringing forward our full program of social equality and right of self-determination and building the broadest united front on these issues. Our chief task, however, is to bring this struggle into the shops and factories and on the land, linking it up with the more immediate demands of the Negro toilers, making the factories the main base in the struggle of Negro liberation and our trade unions the main lever for the organization of the Negro working class. At the same time the revolutionary mass organizations and particularly the trade unions must come forward more energetically in the struggle on behalf of the political demands of the Negro toilers. This must go hand in hand with the ruthless combating of all forms of chauvinist and Jim Crow practices and the patient, systematic but persistent struggle against the ideology and influences of petty-bourgeois nationalists among the Negro toilers.”

5. WEB DuBois, Black Reconstruction (1935)

“That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States — that great majority of [hu]mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry — shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name…–how shall we end the list and where?…Here is the real modern labor problem….Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts….The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.”

6. CLR James, “The Right of Self-Determination and the Negro in the United States of North Americas” (1939)

“Up to 1935, organized labor, as represented by the AFL, discriminated against the Negro as sharply as the capitalist class; today the poor whites of the South are the most savage of lynchers and the most rabid upholders of the theory of white superiority….[N]ot even a socialist revolution can immediately destroy the accumulated memories, mistrust, and suspicions of centuries; and today, in this period of capitalistic decline in America, the racial prejudices are more than ever based on economic privileges, possessed by one group of workers at the obvious and immediate expense of the other….Three centuries of property and privilege have used their wealth and power to make the Negroes feel that they are and must continue to be outcasts from all sections of American society, rich and poor; and the political backwardness of the American working-class movement has made it an easy victim to this propaganda, fortified by tangible if slight economic advantages….The desire to wipe out the humiliating political subservience and social degradation of centuries might find expression in an overpowering demand for the establishment and administration of a Negro state….Should the masses of Negroes raise this slogan, the [marxists], in accordance with the Leninist doctrine on the question of self-determination and the imperative circumstances of the particular situation, will welcome this awakening and pledge itself to support the demand to the fullest extent of its power.”

7. Harry Haywood, “The Negro Nation” (Chapter 7 of Negro Liberation) (1948)

“The ‘white supremacists’ insist on presenting the Negro question as one of race. This makes it possible for them to ‘justify’ the notorious color-caste system in the name of spurious race dogmas which depict the Negro’s servile status in American life, not as the result of man-imposed prescription, but as a condition fixed by nature. Negro inequality is supposedly due to natural inherent differences. In this credo, Negroes presumably are a lower form of organism, mentally primitive and emotionally undeveloped. ‘Keeping the Negro in his place’ is thus allegedly prescribed by nature and fixed by Holy Writ. Color of skin is made an index to social position. Race…[is] used as an instrument for perpetuating and intensifying Negro subjugation. The Negro problem is explained in terms of natural conflict between races, the result of inborn peculiarities. This hideous distortion, whose roots go back into ante-bellum times and beyond, permeates the entire cultural pattern of the South; this vile calumny is fixed in the South’s folkways, mores and customs, sanctioned in its laws, and, in the last analysis buttressed by violence and lynch terror. The lie of natural, innate and eternal backwardness of the Negro and other dark-skinned peoples is the theoretical foundation upon which rests the whole noxious system of Negro segregation and its corollary, ‘white supremacy.’ Formerly a rationalization of chattel slavery, it is used to justify the Negros present-day vassalage….From its taproot in the semi-feudal plantation system, anti-Negro racism has spread throughout the country, shaping the pattern of Negro-white relationships in the North as well. With the clandestine encouragement of Yankee financial power and its controlled agencies of public opinion, art literature, education, press, and radio, the dogma of the Negroes ‘inherent inferiority’ has been cunningly infiltrated into the national consciousness of the American people. Woven into the national fabric, it has become an integral part of the ‘American way of life,’ despite repeated refutation by authoritative science.

8. Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Woman” (1949)

“The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman, and for good reason. The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women undertake action, the militancy of the whole Negro people…is greatly enhanced. Historically, the Negro woman has been the guardian, the protector, of the Negro family. From the days of the slave traders down to the present, the Negro woman has had the responsibility of caring for the needs of the family, of militantly shielding it from the blows of Jim-Crow insults, of rearing children in an atmosphere of lynch terror, segregation, and police brutality, and of fighting for an education for the children. The intensified oppression of the Negro people, which has been the hallmark of the post-war reactionary offensive, cannot therefore but lead to an acceleration of the militancy of the Negro woman. As mother, as Negro, and as worker, the Negro woman fights against the wiping out of the Negro family, against the Jim-Crow ghetto existence which destroys the health, morale, and very life of millions of her sisters, brothers, and children.”BlackPowerMatters

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.


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.

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.”

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.