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Day June 15, 2010

Presenting Insurgent Notes

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.)

Marx/Engels, The German Ideology

We take our Marx and Engels seriously. Recent history, beginning perhaps (in the US) with the UPS strike of 1997 and the “battle of Seattle” in 1999, now quickened by the abject financial and ideological meltdown (Fall 2008) of the three decades of the stifling “neo-liberal” era, has favored a certain revival of the radical critique of capitalism, by which we understand first and foremost the work of Karl Marx. Conferences of rock concert dimensions, attracting thousands of young people in Europe, the US and East Asia, gatherings that only a few years ago would have featured some (now happily passé) hip literary theorist, are today devoted to the work of Marx . The premature rumors of Marx’s demise–almost a cyclical indicator in their own right–have recurred often enough in the past 120 years, but Marx’s books, in the wake of the fall 2008 world financial meltdown, were cleaned out of the bookstores of the U.K. and Germany.

“Theory must seek its practice,” Marx wrote long ago, but “practice must also seek its theory”, and such theoretical ferment expresses the rising tide, in fits and starts reaching back to the 1990’s, of an accelerating global reaction to the ravages of the “neo-liberal”, “Washington consensus” phase of capitalism, after the rollback of what we might consider he last (l968-1977) offensive of the world working class.

We, less than a dozen intellectuals and militants, limited for now to the U.S. but with networks of association reaching into Europe and Asia, are launching Insurgent Notes as a contribution to this ferment.

Our minimal program of agreement is:

  1. commitment to social revolution for the abolition of the wage-labor system, i.e. the capitalist mode of production, and an orientation to the wage-labor proletariat (i.e.the working class) and its potential allies as the main force for such an abolition;
  2. an affirmation of the great experiences in direct democratic management of production and society (soviets, workers’ councils) that came to the fore in the failed revolutions of the 20th century (Russia, Germany, Spain, Hungary) or, closer to U.S. experience, the self-managed Seattle general strike of 1919 as important antecedents, but hardly the last word, in our project;
  3. a commitment to “activity as all-sided in its production as in its consumption” (Marx, Grundrisse), and the “development of human powers as its own end” (Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations) within the expanded reproduction of humanity as the true content of communism ;
  4. a deep-seated skepticism about vanguardist notions of revolution; while we at the same time affirm the need for some of kind of organization that emerges practically and concretely from real social struggle–not “sprung full-blown from the head of some world reformer” (Communist Manifesto)–and which conceives of itself not as “seizing power” but as a future tendency or current in a future self-managed society;
  5. a rejection of nationalism of any kind as an obstacle to such a revolution;
  6. a rejection of existing Socialist, Communist or Labour (let alone Democratic) parties in the advanced capitalist sector as alien to our project, and as parties whose (well-proven) role is nothing but the management of capitalism in one or another form, as well as rejection of the “extreme left” groupings (Trotskyists, Maoists) who see such parties as “reformist” “workers’ parties”;
  7. a rejection of the few remaining “real existing socialist states” (Cuba,Vietnam, China, etc.) and their Stalinist predecessors (the defunct Soviet bloc) as any kind of model, degenerated or not, for the kind of society we wish to help build;
  8. a rejection of the renascent “anti-imperialism” of recent years, associated with the loose alliance of Chavez and his Latin American allies, China, Hezbollah, Hamas, Amadinejad’s Iran, etc., as an anti-working class ideology serving emergent elites in different parts of the developing world;
  9. a rejection of any strategy of “capturing the unions” for such a project, as practiced since the 1970s by various “boring from within” Trotskyists, etc.;
  10. a rejection of post-modern “identity politics” as the ideological articulation of the very real problems of race, gender, and alternative sexuality, but which must be relocated in class politics.

These basic points do not particularly distinguish us from a number of existing currents, broadly associated (in the US and Europe) with the “libertarian communist” or “left communist” scenes. We do not feel the need, at this early point in our activity, to noisily affirm any distinguishing trademark, except to say that we are launching Insurgent Notes because we have found no place for ourselves in any existing grouping. We look forward to comradely dialogue with such groups and individuals who may feel some attachment to them and also look forward to larger regroupments forged in the kind of practical struggles that can cut the knot of theoretical and practical disagreement. We well remember Marx and Engels, in their London exile in the early 1850s, turning their backs on the petty wars of the sects in the ebb that followed the 1848 revolutions. While we do not see the contemporary period as one of ebb, but rather as one of a rising curve of struggle, our perspective for now is nonetheless Dante’s “segui il tuo corso elascia dir le genti” (go your own way, and let people talk).

The past 35-40 years since the 1968-1977 working-class offensive, however difficult and trying for would-be revolutionary Marxists, have hardly been without practical import for our perspectives. The collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union and its bloc, and the devolution toward full-blown integration into the capitalist world market by China (and, more recently,Vietnam) have largely cleared away the “Russian question” over which so much polemical ink was (perhaps necessarily) spilled over so many decades. It is clearer today than it was 40 years ago that the Soviet “model,” once its brief internationalist and worker-based phase up to 1921 hardened into Stalinism and then was, as such, exported to rule one-third of the world’s population by the mid-1950s, was about the eradication of pre-capitalist social relations in agriculture, and about the “reinvention of the wheel” of primitive accumulation and the extensive phase of capital accumulation the West had experienced in the 19th century. Its nationalized property, state planning and state monopoly of foreign trade—those features which even today various Trotskyists call features of a “workers’ state”—were developed by closed mercantilist states from Renaissance Italy via 17th century Prussia to Meiji Japan. Well into the 1970s, such states were conceived by most theories on the left as being something “after” private capitalism, whereas in 2010 it is clear as day that they precede a more privatized capitalism. As their own ideologues unwittingly said, they “lay the foundations of socialism,” which is exactly the historical task—developmentof the productive forces—of capitalism. We know today, far better than 40 years ago, that “developing the productive forces” is not the task of socialism or communism. We know that the centralist and statist dimensions of Jacobinism and Bolshevism, not to mention Stalinism and Maoism, arising as they did in overwhelmingly agrarian societies, express the weakness and not the strength of the revolutions that carried them to power.

The legacy of Bolshevism in particular (which we neither embrace nor despise) has among other things greatly obscured the fundamental problem identified by Marx as the alienation of universal from cooperative labor. This problematic has been reified for over a century by variations around the themes of a (mainly intellectual) vanguard “leading” the working class and a libertarian counter-point glorifying workers as the point of production to the exclusion of all else. The much deeper reality of the problem is built into the nature of capitalist society itself, based as it is on the separation of mental and manual labor. Universal labor is science, art, and intellectual work, understood in the broadest sense, which will one day be fused, with aspects of contemporary “hands-on” material labor, into the “all-sided activity” which Marx in the Grundrisse identified as the overcoming of the antagonism of work and leisure by the abolition of commodity production. Capitalism in the past 50 years has increasingly required universal labor quite as much as cooperative labor, first in scientific research in its “ceaseless striving” to develop the productive forces and, in parallel, has enlisted artists and intellectuals to perform its increasingly threadbare ideological unification. Since most of us are, in this embryonic stage of our activity, intellectuals, we align ourselves with the tradition of Marx, as that small minority of intellectuals who refuse their assigned role in the production of ideology and turn their theoretical weapons against the wage-labor system.[1] The unification of universal and cooperative labor is another way to express what we mean by “all-sided activity” (again, the Grundrisse).

We do not wish to start our existence by picking up the 1960s/1970s debates about “forms of organization”: party, soviet, workers’ council, union. All such questions are important but they are subordinate to the larger question of content. Content in this case means a program for radical social reconstruction once the world is dominated by “soviet-type” power. But in our view such a revolution will not take place if there is not prepared in advance a substantial stratum of workers with a clear programmatic idea of what we wish to do with the world when we take it away from the capitalist class. That is the true “vanguard of the working class,” not some self-appointed vanguard party intent on “seizing power.” Such an advanced stratum of workers and their allies may very well at some point form a political party, or even several, but our perspective must always be as a current in the future multi-tendency “world soviet.”

Too often in the past, in Russia (1917), Germany (1918) or Spain (1936), workers have established something resembling soviet power as we mean it (in the latter two cases really only as dual power) rooted in workers’ councils, but since such formations were lacking precisely that “programmatic imagination”—what to do next–they quickly handed real control over to the specialists of power in the state or were in short order dispersed and savagely repressed. In our view, the question of revolution is not first of all about forms of organization, but about the social-reproductive programmatic content required to abolish wage labor, commodity production, the capitalist law of value and thereby class society. And that means, for example, having clear ideas of what to do about the environment, energy, the work day, the organization of human living space, education, health care and many other issues that all but dominate the world.

These issues demand attention far beyond the individual workplace. We make this point because many of our political ancestors cut their proverbial teeth in the defense of the practical and political wisdom of workers on the job. We retain a great deal of appreciation for that perspective. But capital has moved on and the point of production is no longer quite what it once was. Profoundly radical actions and demands from the past are no longer sufficient. More jobs and workplaces in the advanced capitalist world will be abolished by the transformation than will be placed under “workers’ control.” We need to define what we want far beyond the limits imposed by what we are faced with.

Let’s take a recent example. The Argentine piqueteros developed in the late 1990s as a resistanceto the drastic attack on workers there through neo-liberal “reform.” As hundreds of factories closed and workers were thrown into unemployment and in some cases ultimately into lumpenization, the piqueteros abandoned the old factory-based strategies of the left and took the struggle to the supermarket, the hospital and the freeway blockage. They fought back against repression by attacking police stations and publicly outing the torturers of the 1976-1983 “dirty war.” In December 2001, the Argentine neo-liberal “miracle,” based on impoverishment of the once-militant working class, collapsed and the state with it. Even the middle classes were fed up with the Peronist state. The piqueteros, mainly recruited from the youth of the downsized and casualized working class, took over the center of Buenos Aires, and power lay in the streets. But no force was prepared to take the crucial next step and reorganize production on a working-class basis, and to thereby nullify the frantic efforts to cobble together a new bourgeois government. The moment was lost; thePeronists regrouped, and the piqueteros were swept aside or even co-opted into the new Peronist patronage machine.

Insurgent Notes might perhaps be distinguished by our emphasis on what Marx in vol. II of Capital called expanded social reproduction. In our future discussions of what a victorious revolution must do about the many social and biosphere problems mentioned above, above all those located outside the “immediate process of production,” we hope to begin a generalized discussion, but one which, in contrast to a sect, we hardly claim to “own.”

In contemporary “advanced capitalism” (advanced mainly in decay—as assessed by the increasing disparity between what could be and what is) an enormous number of people, the great majority of them wage-laborers (including wage-labor professionals) consume surplus-value and do not produce it. Some of what such workers do is all but essential to a human society–they educate the young, care for the sick, and attend to the elderly. However, much else that such individuals do is simply and straightforwardly a waste of their and our time on this earth. A primary focus of Insurgent Notes, in our attempt to spark a discussion of expanded social reproduction, will be the potential of how the expenditure of so much socially-unnecessary labor power, redirected to socially-useful activity and to facilitating “the radical shortening of the working day” which is the sine qua non of the full human self-development for which we fight. And such a redirection requires, it goes without saying, the abolition of the capitalist mode of production.

Insurgent Notes addresses itself initially to those sympathetic to our assessment of the overall situation and notions of what to do about it. We recognize that, for the moment, this in all likelihood means those intellectuals like ourselves and possibly some working people with a certain political and theoretical formation, or those looking for itand not finding it in the broader (self-styled) anti-capitalist milieu. We seek collaborators, initially, among those who share our interest in making the critique of political economy, the focus on social reproduction, and a program for social reconstruction central to our activity and initial intervention. We do not intend to build a network of unformed activists around ourselves as a general staff but rather, to the extent possible, within current conditions, a network fusing “universal labor” (critical intellectual work) with “cooperative labor” (practical intervention). That will mean, initially, the work of writing, editing and publicizing this journal. We intend to organize internal and external study groups on Marxian theory and revolutionary history. As our capacity to do so grows, we intend to establish ongoing investigative work on the global political economy, in order to arrive at ever-clearer understanding of what a revolutionary program and global reconstruction can mean. When we have the numbers and resources to do so, we intend to move to more popular and accessible forms of expression.

We intend to follow and, where possible, participate in ongoing struggles, large and small (an immediate example today would be in Greece), developing strategic and tactical, understanding of the necessities and possibilities of the present. We wish to reconnect with and update the Marxian tradition of strategy as developed by such figures as Engels and Trotsky, but also (more broadly) of the Clausewitzes, Makhnos, Villas, Durrutis and Sun Tzus of world history. We want to study and make accessible an understanding of the strategic and tactical strengths and weaknesses of such moments as the Argentine piqueteros (or the remarkable earlier Argentine cordobazo of 1969), the Chilean cordones comunales of 1973, the Bolivian revolt of 2003, the Oaxaca uprising of 2006, or the Kwangju uprising in South Korea in 1980. Closer to home and to our present, we would include the Seattles and Genoas of the past decade .

We wish to make this kind of knowledge available to the “real movement,” and not as the “property” of ourselves as a sect. Our organizational loyalty is precisely to that “real movement,” not to any artificial, abstract and separate self-definition apart from it. We believe that the more theoretically and practically armed the real movement is, the less it will need “leaders” and “vanguards” of any kind. In contrast to the centrality of key leaders (one thinks e.g., of Lenin) in most revolutions of the past, we feel that the deeper and more substantial the revolutionary leadership is, the stronger it will be, and the broader the base of the movement, the less violent its victory will have to be.

Cultural activities and the arts are not our strong suit, but we recognize their importance for our broader project. Consider the centrality of song for the IWW. Consider the dozens of songs created on the spot during the Oaxaca uprising. Consider the broad activities in song, dance, and movement art work of the Korean minjung movement of the 1970s, taken over into the broader Korean workers’ movement to this day. We know there is a long and noble tradition of artistic involvement in revolutionary movements reaching back more than 200 years, and since the early 20th century, avant-garde attempts of various quality to build a bridge between the arts and life. The great majority of those early 20th century efforts (German Expressionism and the Bauhaus, Russian Futurism, the artists produced by the Mexican Revolution), Dada, or surrealism) after the defeats of the 1917-1921 insurrectionary wave, were simply re-appropriated by the bourgeois cultural museum and presented under glass as “art,” stripped of their broader radical intent. After World War II, groups such as the Situationists attempted to use the method of “diversion”(detournement), first developed in poetry from Lautreamont onward, in broader subversion, but after having a certain impact on the May 1968 general strike in France, “Situationism” in turn was made respectable almost to the point of the creation of “Situationist Studies” and “Situationism scholars” in universities. These currents all represented attempts to use methods first developed in the arts to the communication of radical ideas. We recall the Polish workers of Poznan who, in 1956, briefly captured the state radio network to present their own perspectives or, again, in Oaxaca where the movement captured and controlled radio and TVstations for weeks.

Something takes place in revolutionary moments that have been studied and captured in writing—to the extent that it can be captured in retrospect at all–only rarely, where the Marxian concept of the “class-for-itself” steps out of textbook exegesis and “seizes the masses,” something akin to amaterialist version of Hegel’s idea that “the truth is a Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk.” Or again to paraphrase Hegel’s notion that the “real is rational” when the real is understood as exactly such moments, those which occur when the “inverted world” of the everyday is turned upside down, when the isolated individual realizes his/her true reality in a collective surge that few, if any, suspect could slumber under such passive appearances. One suspects that something of this kind took place in Barcelona in July 1936 when the unarmed crowds charged the military and police and won the day or in Budapest in November 1956 when the country was placed under a national system of workers’ councils in a few days. In such moments, we suspect, Marxian theory, strategy, and aesthetic expression all fuse into some ephemeral collective sense of being capable of everything, whatever the odds.

We should not exaggerate their importance, because history has shown quite clearly that they were, in fact, not capable of everything. But we of Insurgent Notes wish to keep clearly in mind that such qualitative moments in history are a fundamental part of what we call reality, and we hope to locate all other aspects of our activity in that future maturing in the present.

If these ideas converge with your own, contact us.

  1. [1] “a portion of bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole,” Communist Manifesto, London 1979, p. 91.