Whose revolution? Neil Faulker on the centenary of the October 1917 revolution

In this new essay, Neil Faulkner, author of the newly published, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, embarks on a myth-busting mission, to right the wrongs that history teaching and writing has accorded to our historical understanding of the Russian Revolution.

Team Stalin? Team Trotsky ? Who does the Russian Revolution belong to?

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The gap between the organised Left and street protest grows ever wider. This is manifest in the failure to connect the discourse around the centenary of the Russian Revolution – an icon and bastion of the Old Left – with the recent Women’s March and Stomp Trump Protests – a lure for young newcomers, fresh to the struggle.faulkner-t03173

One of the main reasons this failure to connect one popular struggle with another is the way in which the Russian Revolution – the most misunderstood event in modern history – has long been caricatured. Essentially, it is conceived as the work of a brilliant leader (Lenin), an underground party (the Bolsheviks), and a carefully managed, military-style coup (the October Insurrection). In my book, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, I seek to disprove this: arguing that the Russian Revolution was, above all, an explosion of mass democracy and self-activity from below.

Returning to the caricature, it has been the central thread that runs through a variety of historiographies on the Russian Revolution. Most recently, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, writing in that veritable quarry of political insight, the London Evening Standard, provides an example of the right-wing, ‘bourgeois’ version, largely dominant in mainstream academic and popular writing these days:

‘It is naïve (or maybe too early) to compare the disaffection of the Brexit or Trump elections with the violence, class war, and secret-police terror of the great revolutions, French, Russian, or Iranian. The real parallels today lie in methods and style – the cold powerbroking and political culture of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors: on the one hand, the cult of ruthless power; on the other, the culture of disinformation to delegitimise democracy, truth, and other liberal hypocricies.’

Poor old Lenin! He’s clearly going to have to weather a tough centenary year, he is even to blame for Trump.

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Why we need Marxist-Humanism now by Robert Spencer

Today, anti-humanism is a dominant, even definitive, feature of contemporary theory, whereas humanism is dismissed as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘old-fashioned’, even a precept of Right-Libertarianism. For Humanism demands a reappraisal of humanist humanism2thought, establishing the historical context that resulted in humanism’s eclipse, critiquing anti-humanism, and conceptualising humanism in light of post-structuralism, queer theory, feminism and postcolonialism.

Whilst narrativising his humanist awakening,  editor and contributor, Robert Spencer, encapsulates the aims of For Humanism. He defends humanism against its outright rejection by certain strands of anti-foundationalist thought (namely postcolonialism and queer theory), and, in rebuking anti-humanism’s chief proponents, Foucault and Heidegger, proposes a humanist methodology of resistance, whilst demonstrating that Marxism has a place in humanist thought.

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When I first went to university to study English Literature I was interested to discover that words didn’t always mean what I thought they meant. It was a useful lesson, not least because among the many benefits of a literary education is the realisation that language, the main means by which humans encounter, experience and shape their world, is changeable as well as contestable. There are struggles taking place all the time over the meanings and uses of words. There were words that I liked that I learned to be suspicious of. In conversations with Marxists, I learned that it was not a good thing to be an ‘idealist’, the word did not mean what it appeared to mean to the eighteen-year old me. As I discovered that struggles over social, economic and political power played an equally prominent part in human history as the battle of ideas did, I realised that an idealist, was somebody who exaggerated the latter and downplayed the former. I was happy to accept that claim and I still am. However, I had much greater difficulty when one of my seminar tutors responded to a comment I made in class about David Copperfield with the disapproving remark that “that, Rob, was a very humanist thing to say”.

Puzzled by her disapproval, my interest in humanism began. This ongoing struggle over humanism’s meanings resulted in For Humanism, the book that my friend David Alderson and I have put together. To be a humanist or, still worse, a liberal humanist was evidently a bad thing; the belief in the distinctive value of the human individual was irretrievably bourgeois, akin to the Right’s belief in the inviolable private self. Now I had little truck with this objection. Anybody who has spent time in the company of Trotskyists will have seen the force of Oscar Wilde’s famous remark that the problem of socialism is that it takes up too many evenings, and for me the point of socialism was not to sacrifice the self to the collective but to fashion a society in which everybody had the time and the resources required to do their own thing. Collective struggle was required in the short term, granted, but only in order to make collective struggle unnecessary in the long term.

To be fair to the folk in SWSS, a few of them, it seemed, were quite happy to describe themselves as humanist, thus I was introduced to a bone of contention on the Left that has interested me ever since. I wanted to know how to be a Marxist and a humanist. The anti-humanist Marxists thought that humanism was bourgeois. Humanists preferred privacy to the collective, the individual to the working class, beauty to struggle, and so on. Anti-humanist Marxists distrusted humanism because it extolled the whole rights-based ideology of capitalism and therefore had a whiff of revisionism and political compromise about it. The Marxists I hung about with saw themselves as revolutionaries not as conciliators or coalitionists; one of them confessed to me that he had suspicions about a comrade who, he suspected, would have moral reservations about stringing somebody up from a lamppost! Not a predicament – I reflected to myself in a pub just off Norwich’s Dereham Road – any of us were likely to face any time soon.

Lenin notoriously told Maxim Gorky that he daren’t listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata too often because it ‘makes you want to say stupid nice things and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty… And now you mustn’t stroke anyone’s head – you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without mercy.’ I haven’t hit anybody on the head since I was about ten years old, and I’ve always had a suspicion about insurrectionary rhetoric of this kind. For me, the socialist revolution should not, in societies like ours at least, be an insurrection, but the concerted entrenchment and expansion of forms of democratic empowerment that will confront and supplant the overweening regime of capital and authoritarian state power. Let’s call that a ‘long revolution’, to borrow Raymond Williams’s term, provided that as much emphasis is placed on ‘revolution’ as on ‘long’, as Williams once added.

David Alderson and I, in For Humanism, wanted to remind readers of the value and strength of a specifically Marxist humanism that sees its’ social, political and economic goals as extensions and not blanket rejections of the liberal or bourgeois tradition of democracy, rights and freedoms. In other words, Marxism is a humanism. Granted, talk about democracy, rights and freedoms is usually employed as an ideological smokescreen to conceal the oppressions and exploitations of rapaciously capitalist dispensations such as ours. Most of us are free every five years or so to put a cross on a ballot paper, but the rest of the time our representatives take their orders from big business. Every human being on the planet has an inalienable right to things like a decent pension and free healthcare, but the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is hardly worth the paper it’s written on. When these rights confront the right of capital to travel, suborn and exploit, force decides. But, as Adorno says somewhere, it’s not ideology that’s at fault here, but rather ideology’s pretension to correspond to reality. The ideals of freedom, democracy and rights are not wrong. What is wrong is the naïve liberal faith that they can be realized under present conditions.

We wanted to think about the reasons why anti-humanism had become such a dominant, even definitive, feature of cultural theory. What has made those who teach literary criticism and cultural theory grimace or recoil when they thought somebody was doing or saying something humanist? The answer is that they have relied on humanism’s enemies to tell them what the term means. The humanist tradition, with all its richness and complexity, its secularity, its commitment to democratic socialism, feminism and anti-imperialist struggle, its restlessly critical sensibility, its militant repudiation of every political and philosophical effort to define or control human beings, was simply written off on the basis of hatchet jobs done by dubious figures like Martin Heidegger and self-serving half-truths peddled by Michel Foucault.

In his lamentable ‘Letter on Humanism’ of 1947 Heidegger dismissed the human as just the latest impertinent effort to harass or constrain ‘Being’, the mystical invocation of ‘Being’ leading Heidegger’s work variously to Zennish otherworldliness, reactionary anti-modernism or the blood-and-soil mysticism of German fascism. Foucault, who was politically a very changeable figure, dismissed humanism as an antiquated and reactionary faith in the inviolable human subject. Humanism’s most influential post-war exponent, Jean-Paul Sartre, was described by Foucault as ‘a man of the nineteenth century trying to think through the problems of the twentieth century’. Foucault was similarly dismissive (and wrong) about Herbert Marcuse’. Undeterred by the fact that none of Sartre’s work makes any such claim about human subjectivity being static or exceptional or normative (indeed, it painstakingly makes the opposite claim), Foucault and his epigones presented all humanism as a sterile faith in the normative nature of subjectivity.

It’s my view that Foucault’s critique of humanism has been most influential and most damaging. For cultural theorists inspired by Foucault’s work, which is a large proportion of those working in the sub-disciplines of postcolonial theory, queer theory, feminism, ‘the human’ is just another reprehensible norm to be queered and subverted. For postcolonialists, for example, ‘the human’ is synonymous with European colonial power and its legacies. The aim of postcolonial criticism is then to ‘resist’ that power and to show how texts ‘hybridise’ the normative identities of nation, empire, sexuality, race, subjectivity and so on. The problem with this way of proceeding is that cultural theory and cultural criticism are thus locked into a repetitive pas-de-deux, the power of the human or of race becoming a formative principle that we are called upon to resist but not finally to overthrow. ‘Wherever there is power there is resistance’, says Foucault, which sounds comforting enough until one realizes that this little maxim works the other way too: where there is resistance there is power and always will be. It has always struck me that the notion of hybridizing identity or subverting the normal isn’t analogous with the purpose of the radical project: to become the dominant in its own right, take power and seek the political, cultural and institutional change that would make it impossible for prescriptive identities and norms to be imposed. The ubiquitous Foucauldian rhetoric of resistance is too imprecise. It says nothing about strategy and goals. It connotes the fending off of an adversary not the triumph over that adversary. Anti-humanism rose to prominence in the era of the ‘class war conservatism’ of neoliberalism. It represents a parasitic dependency on a system of ‘power’ that it despairs of being overturned. Anti-humanism is a pragmatic adjustment to a period of history that saw the organized forgetting of the revolutionary horizons of the Marxist or socialist humanism that we wish to rehabilitate.

So the purpose of our book was to show that the Marxist humanist tradition shows a way out of these dead ends. Humanism names a principle, the rights and capacities of human beings, that is being suppressed by systems of power and in the name of which transformative (rather than merely local or defensive) political projects might be launched. Humanism’s detractors have misrepresented it. It does indeed identify specifically human attributes and needs: for shelter, nourishment and any number of other physical provisions and for creative self-expression. But it does not identify the human as a ‘kingdom of values’, to use Sartre’s phrase, separate from or superior to the animal world and to nature. It does not impugn but esteems diversity, the infinitely varied creative capacities of human communities and individuals. It rejects the self-defeating notion that some sort of ‘will to power’ is an inviolable element of our political life. Its political principles are anchored in the vision of a society that conforms more exactly to the kind of beings that humans unalterably are: multifarious, creative, somatic creatures that feel pain and seek pleasure, dependent mammals capable of transforming that fact of mutual dependency into the value of solidarity. For Humanism ransacks the resources of a half-forgotten tradition. But it has no sterile reverence for the past, for bourgeois or colonial or patriarchal humanisms. Nor is it satisfied with cultural theory’s pragmatic rapprochement with the neoliberal present. It seeks a radically different kind of future. The plutocrats, mobsters and little Hitlers don’t scare us. We’re not here to ‘resist’ them, to organise in the margins or absorb power’s blows. We know what we’re fighting for.

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For Humanism: Explorations in Theory and Politics is edited by David Alderson, Robert Spencer.

It includes essays by the editors, in addition to, Timothy BrennanKevin Anderson and Barbara Epstein.

‘Manarchism’ and ‘brocialism’ – Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour in the New Statesman

Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour have written an article in the New Statesman this week, in response to the televised Newsnight Interview between Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman, and Brand’s one-issue tenure as editor of the New Statesman.

Whilst Brand’s eloquent intervention in favour of revolution (however it might manifest itself) was welcome, his ‘casual and occasionally vicious’ sexism, as says Penny, belies a deeper rot within the gender politics of the Left – specifically among male leftists; the brocialists and manarchists we all know too well…

We’ve reproduced some of the exchange between Penny and Seymour below. Both are Pluto authors. Click on the cover images below for more information on their books. Check out the article in full on the New Statesman website.

 

Richard Seymour: My experience is that ‘brocialists’ don’t openly embrace patriarchy; they deny it’s a problem. Or they minimise it. They direct your attention elsewhere: you should be focusing on class. You’re being divisive. You’re just middle class (quelle horreur!). Or they attack a straw ‘feminism’ that is supposedly ‘bourgeois’ and has nothing to say about class or other axes of oppression. Or they just ignore it. To me that’s quite straightforward. Obviously it would be difficult, given their egalitarian commitments, to openly defend a gendered hierarchy; but their defensiveness about this issue suggests they associate a challenge to patriarchy with some sort of ‘loss’ for themselves. The question is, what do they have to lose? Continue reading

Urban Jacobinism and Outlaw Mathematicians – Andy Merrifield

Andy Merrifield, author of Magical Marxism (Pluto, 2011), has contributed another piece to the Cities@Manchester blog on the new urban question, and lessons that insurrectionary political movements can learn from the past.

We’ve reproduced his latest essay here, which considers the legacy of Blanqui, Robespierre and the sans-culottes.

“When the government violates people’s rights, insurrection is, for the people and each portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties?” – Robespierre

“The history of the revolutionary movement is, first of all, the history of the links that give it its consistency” – Agents of the Imaginary Party

One of the recurrent gripes about the movement we’ve  come to call “Occupy” — from the mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the eventual clearing out of Zuccotti Park — has been its failure to conceive a plan of action, a concerted strategy during its insurrection. There wasn’t and still isn’t any strategic campaign, critics says, no coordination between particular occupations, no sense of how to amalgamate and channel all that anger and dissatisfaction into a singular, unified oppositional force — one that can stick around over the long haul. (The most recent salvo is Thomas Frank’s in The Baffler magazine (#21): “With Occupy, the horizontal culture was everything. ‘The process is the message’… Beyond that there seems to have been virtually no strategy to speak of, no agenda to transmit to the world.”) The other, related quip is: What comes next after the insurrection, after the good guys have assumed power, or even when they’re still trying to wrestle against power? (Zizek has been vocal here: “carnivals are cheap,” he says. “What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?” Egypt, as a case in point, is still feeling the heat of a “successful” insurrection from a year or so ago.)

These two questions are intimately related and form part and parcel of the same revolutionary simultaneous equation: organizing an insurrection, consolidating it, moving through it, and, then, planning for its aftermath, putting in place something new, establishing a different set of social institutions and social relations in lieu of the old oppressive ones. (Simultaneous equations, we might remember, are equations between two unknowns, unknowns that must be solved at the same time.) This dual conundrum has preoccupied revolutionaries and revolutionary thought since time immemorial. Walter Benjamin, we know, plotted the revolution in his own head, even while — especially while? — he lurched toward his shadow figure, Blanqui, the man of action; Blanqui the arch-conspirator who spent thirty of his seventy-six years on earth in various French gaols.

Blanqui was everything Benjamin wasn’t: practical, fearless, ruthless. His very raison d’être was organization, plotting and propagandizing for the insurrection; Blanqui, Marx said, was the “head and soul” of the French workers’ movement. But Blanqui satisfies only the first part of that revolutionary simultaneous equation. “The activities of a professional conspirator like Blanqui,” Benjamin says, “certainly do not presuppose any belief in progress — they merely presuppose a determination to do away with present injustice. This firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn is characteristic of Blanqui — more so than any other revolutionary politician of the time. He always refused to develop plans for what comes ‘later’.”

Blanqui dreamed of a worldwide league of revolutionary communists. He also tried to put that dream into reality, countenancing conspiracy as one method for instigating insurrection. Blanqui’s communism was an eclectic mix of Marxism avant la lettre and heterodox anarchism, of trying to consummate the revolutionary hopes begun in 1789, yet which ended in Thermidorian backlash. Blanqui “couldn’t adjust himself to an organization of huge dimensions,” Samuel Bernstein says in Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection (1971). “It rendered absurd his strategy of insurrection; and it placed in the foreground the working class which he had never regarded as a key propeller of history.” Blanqui’s political organization was limited in size, Bernstein says, tightly pulled together, hierarchical in structure; made “like a seamless garment, programmatically homogeneous, disciplined, obedient, and ready to move.” Blanqui’s insurrection  was vertically organized yet spread itself out horizontally, immanently entering daily life, not so much a factory struggle as an urban war, a civil war rooted above all else — or below all else — in the street.

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Syria and the United States: Jadaliyya Co-Editor Bassam Haddad on Al-Jazeera’s “Empire”

The Al-Jazeera English show Empire looks at the history of the US relationship with Syria and the current state of the armed uprising. The host, Marwan Bishara, explores what is – or should be – the Obama policy towards Syria, with guests: Bassam Haddad, the director of the Middle East studies programme at George Mason University, who is also editor of the online magazine Jadaliyya, and co-editor of The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings (Pluto, 2012); David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, and author of several books including his most recent Engaging the Muslim World; and Stephen Starr, a journalist and author of Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising. The show was recorded on Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013.

The interview featuring Haddad begins at 9 mins 11 into the recording.

The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings

End of an Old Order?

Edited by Bassam Haddad, Rosie Bsheer and Ziad Abu-Rish. Foreword by Roger Owen

Leading Middle East analysts consider the causes and consequences of the Arab Spring.

“Jadaliyya has established itself as an indispensable source dealing with the contemporary Arab world. This collection of its pieces on the Arab uprisings is perhaps the best introduction to the political movements that have shaken that region since January 2011. It represents a set of intelligent commentaries on revolutionary events in almost every Arab country, and their repercussions in the area generally and beyond. Essential reading.” – Talal Asad

“The outburst of the Arab Revolutions demands imaginative and novel perspectives on the Arab world, and Jadaliyya has managed to provide a unique forum covering the region with a fresh approach to its issues and problems. Its talented contributors, from the Arab world and beyond, combine objectivity with a progressive, humanistic engagement, and never shy away from sometimes explosive topics. Necessary reading.” – Fawwaz Traboulsi, author of

£19.99 only £17.50 on the Pluto site

Weapon of the Strong

Conversations on US State Terrorism

Interviews by Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes

Chomsky, Butler, Finkelstein and other leading commentators discuss state terrorism.

“Terror exercised by states is infinitely more deadly than terrorism by non-state actors. This outstanding book is welcome precisely because it starts by challenging the hegemonic views of both terrorism and democratic power. Nuanced and uncompromising, the interviewers have posed some of the most penetrating and important questions of our time. The answers received will change forever the way we think about terror.” – Penny Green, Professor of Law at King’s College London and Director of the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI)

“A wide range of compelling topics are expertly explored by leading academics. Each is skilfully interviewed by Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes who also provide an excellent introduction. A job well done. “ – Michael Parenti

£14.99 only £13.00 on the Pluto site

When movements take up arms

Mike Gonzalez’s Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring is scheduled for release in December, but is already proving quietly compelling. With Tuesday’s article in the Socialist Worker, commenced the first rumblings of  interest in what promises to be a fascinating, and greatly-needed book for those contemplating, and those engaged in popular resistance around the world.

Obviously, as the publisher we would say that, but why not read the article below for a second opinion… (You can also access the original version by following this link.)


Mike Gonzalez argues that armed struggle is sometimes the only possible response to state repression.

For many, popular uprisings go wrong the moment those fighting back pick up a gun. Any sign of “militarisation” marks a turning point where a brilliant rebellion turns into a tragic civil war.

More in sorrow than in anger, it will be argued that the Continue reading

In politics money talks loudest: Part five

In the lead up to the general election we will be posting Ted Honderich’s talk from the debate at the Oxford Union on 29th January 2010, on the motion “This House believes that in politics, money talks loudest”.

In this fifth, and final, excerpt  Ted Honderich discusses the pros of mass civil disobedience and the cons of revolution, before inviting us to imagine a scenario in which an act of the former ‘would make our wretched politicians think, as by God they should, to the best of their ability’.

Mass civil disobedience is an answer. Maybe the real stuff, not a march against a war where the marchers go home for tea after the marching rather than stay there in the street. Mass civil disobedience, even when not so persistent, has been working well in quite a few places in the last couple of decades. It was part of what brought down a wall, ended an empire. It has changed governments.

Revolution doesn’t seem to be an answer. The epoch of revolution seems to be past — because according to the best information and judgement it isn’t a rational means to the end of the Principle of Humanity. That revolution isn’t rational and so is wrong, of course, is the work not only of the revolutionaries but also of those who defeat it. Indeed they are more at fault.

But here is some imagining for you. The British army has some tanks in London doesn’t it? Pimlico, I think. Some British army colonel might remember something in this day of the bankers and the profiteers as against the bottom tenth, this day of Blair being his own judge. The colonel might remember the greatest words in English politics and morals, spoken by another colonel of the British Army. Thomas Rainsborough, 17th Century, at the time of English civil war:

“For really I think the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he….”.

Our Pimlico colonel could take his tank to Parliament Square, when Parliament is sitting, and park it there for a while, holding up the traffic. Long enough for the telly to get on the scene, and ask him what he is doing. He could say, and then he could go back to the barracks in Pimlico to take his medicine for civil and other disobedience.

It would make our wretched politicians think, as by God they should, to the best of their ability. It might make them think that in our politics money talks too much, and has now dragged down England lower than ever before.

Conservatism

Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?

Ted Honderich

New edition of a classic philosophical text that critiques the conservative tradition in US and UK politics.

£18.99 only £14.99 on the Pluto site

Terrorism For Humanity

Inquiries in Political Philosophy

Ted Honderich

New edition of classic title on the morality of terrorism by renowned English radical philosopher.
‘A masterful argument.’ Times Literary Supplement

£17.99 only £13.99 on the Pluto site

Punishment

The Supposed Justifications Revisited

Ted Honderich

New edition of a classic work exploring the philosophical justifications for our penal system.
‘A pleasure to read.’ TLS

£18.99 only £14.99 on the Pluto site