Responses to Further Misrepresentations of Kliman’s Critique of Graeberism

Dola and Kliman reply to “El Pelón’s” charges and straw-man arguments

Editors’ Note: The following is a set of replies to “Kliman contra Graeber… et contra Kliman,” posted by the anonymous and pseudonymous “El Pelón” on his blog. The main topic discussed is Andrew Kliman’s “The Make-Believe World of David Graeber,” which was published in With Sober Senses in April. Dola’s initial comment, originally posted on that blog, is first. It is followed by a second comment that Dola posted in reply to El Pelón, and finally by Kliman’s heretofore unpublished response. Spelling errors have been corrected. Kliman explains why he has not posted his response on El Pelón’s blog as follows: “After reading his response to Dola, which was ad hominem and which ‘get[s] the record for not addressing a single point or question,’ as Dola put it, it became clear to me that the author is not discussing the issues in good faith and does not intend to do so.”

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Dola, August 15, 2012:

At the end of the second paragraph, am I mistaken in reading that you [El Pelón] are making a connection between the fact that “Graeber & co” are comprised of anarchists and that there were no explicit demands made by OWS as a whole? If so, and that does make sense to assume, I’d be curious to know of the history of anarchist-inspired struggles and whether or not demands have always been eschewed because otherwise you “legitimate the state.” I suspect disdain for the concept of demands has not necessarily always or ever flowed necessarily from the principles/philosophy of anarchism, but I could be wrong.

On to the more important points. I appreciate your writing on this blog, but I have to take issue with the fact that you are either willfully setting up a straw-man to fight here, or you just have not spent any time on the MHI website (except for reading the OWS related posts perhaps, and listening to the audio of “Is it true that people are not ready for socialism?) or read much of the Marxist-Humanist history of engagement with worker’s struggles prior to MHI’s founding, publishing exactly those accounts of people “in their own words.” Have you read that ConEd article from July, for example? Or Samah Selim on the Egyptian women’s march? Perhaps not, but if so, I can’t imagine why you would say that they do not project what “masses of people actually feel or think.” MHI is going to start republishing old pamphlets and materials from the 50s, 60s, etc. soon, perhaps you’ll take a look at one produced in the sixties: “Maryland Freedom Union: Black Working Women Doing & Thinking.” That’s the history that this “small group of leftists” come from. By the way, did you get the idea that MHI “know[s] exactly what to tell the masses regarding alternatives” from the front page on their website, wherein it says, “We are not a political party. Nor are we trying to lead the masses, who will form their own organizations, and whose emancipation must be their own act?” Or perhaps this part led to the notion that they have ‘exact’ answers: “MHI is dedicated to the task of proving theoretically that an alternative to capitalism is possible.” I’m afraid those are some ponderous conclusions for you to draw.

You wrote:

“There is something a little too formalistic in his thumping on the point that it is capitalism that is the problem, and all “prefigurative” politics constitutes a “make believe” world.”

Weren’t there distinctions made throughout the essays and comments about the different definitions and historical examples of what could be seen as “prefigurative”? I would like to see evidence that Kliman says “*all* ‘prefigurative politics constitutes a ‘make believe’ world.”

You wrote:

“But to think that such actions have no value whatsoever is sheer sectarianism.”

Again, evidence? Is Kliman saying there is *no* value to these myriad forms of struggle, or that these actions alone won’t get to socialism?

You wrote:

“Why not assume that, instead of thinking that they are trapped in a “make-believe” world and are being duped, these people are trying to hash the new order out like scientists who try many experiments over and over again until they get it right?”

One could, using your analogy, accuse these scientists of failing to understand or acknowledge a major variable in their experiment: the law of value governing social relations. That they initially saw more “controls” than they really had is evidenced by the first draft of the OWS declaration, as documented here (http://www.racialicious.com/2011/10/03/brown-power-at-occupy-wall-street-92911/). That’s not to say, as the writer her friends played a role in helping, certain analysis didn’t get more nuanced and sophisticated, but I’d argue that that initial assumption, of the clean break with history by just declaring so, is important to note. I wonder if someone had pointed out that focusing on corporate greed in the list of grievances is inaccurate and counterproductive, what direction the twinkle hands would go.

You wrote:

“All the workers had to do was throw off the capitalists who were parasites feeding on the actual living relations of society. As I have said, I share Dunayevskaya’s critique of the position in that the law of value is far too pervasive to make it that simple. However, I don’t think this critique should lead to any stark difference in tactics or strategy for class struggle. Otherwise, you would be opening a whole can of worms as to whether the working class would be capable of governing in the first place, and if that is the case, why bother with revolutionary politics at all?”

If one person subscribed to the idea that socialism already exists and we just have to throw off the capitalists, and another said that the law of value is too pervasive to make it that simple, wouldn’t that *by definition* lead to different strategies, since the goal is understood differently? The first would say that every strike against the parasites is a step toward socialism, which is being held back by the ruling class, but the other could say that there is another, more formidable obstacle awaiting the world: how to run an advanced economy that is based on “human power as its own end,” escaping once and for all the law of value, which is in danger of reasserting itself, independent of wherever the parasites are subjectivit.[1] The first might understandably feature direct action as a main tactic, while the second ALSO acknowledges: “The concretization of philosophy takes place in the realm of ideas; it is theoretical. Marxist-Humanist philosophy cannot continue to be significant if we treat it as a set of abstractions or simply attempt to translate its concepts into practice. Rather, ideas undergo their own self-development through rigorous theoretical labor. Theoretic preparation was a missing element in prior revolutions that we strive not to see repeated.”

http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/philosophyorganization/statement-of-principles

You wrote:

“if we think now that we have the definitive “scientific socialist” solution to put in front of the masses, we are kidding ourselves.”

Agreed. Who said that anyone did at the moment?

You wrote:

“The rub is what happens afterwards, and no one knows the answer as of yet.”

Indeed. As Dunayevskaya said in the last year of her life: “The burning question of the day remains: What happens the day after? How can we continue Marx’s unchaining of the dialectic organizationally, with the principles he outlines in his Critique of the Gotha Program? The question of ‘what happens after?’ gains crucial importance because of what it signals in self-development and self-flowering—’revolution in permanence.’ No one knows what it is, or can touch it, or can decide upon it before it appears. It is not the task that can be fulfilled in just one generation … It has the future written all over it. The fact that we cannot give a blueprint does not absolve us from the task. It only makes it more difficult”

You wrote:

“For the Marxist intellectual to play the part of the Hegelian “beautiful soul” with one’s charts and crypto-Bolshevism is not only not helpful, but downright reactionary.”

Uncharitable/really shitty to say, based on the points and questions raised above.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to people on the broad Left and around Occupy about the need to declare clearly the need for socialism by overcoming capitalism and hearing a variation of “but people aren’t ready for that yet.” This is not what is coming from the Marxist-Humanists.

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heydola [Dola], August 16, 2012:

Congrats. You get the record for not addressing a single point or question. I hope you don’t find the disappointment expressed by my tone objectionable. No one’s asking you to agree with the opinions expressed by the street team, just give a little explanation and substantiation to your comments.

What you find as provincial in Dunayevskaya’s writings? Exactly what you mean by the idea that relative to Dri’s writings, MH’ists seem “oblivious to the fact that we live in an empire? I respect your blog and am trying to engage with what you are actually writing. I’d hope you extend the same courtesy to your readers when they post comments. It would be better if that’s where you left it.

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Andrew Kliman:

“El Pelón’s” blog posting is only one of many misrepresentations of my critique of Graeberism. I find these responses very troubling. They characterize my critique is a way that bears little relation to the original. The critics are either uninterested in discussing my actual formulations or are unable to understand them. I welcome critiques rooted in a close reading and accurate reporting of what I wrote. Those who are unable to read closely and report accurately––or who don’t want to do so (see Harry Frankfurt’s masterpiece, On Bullshit [add link])––should remain silent, and claims about what I wrote that have been shown to be incorrect should be withdrawn. Anything short of this is bad faith.

EP: “Kliman’s contention is that Graeber and other anarchists don’t want to posit socialism and what happens after capitalism because they think that the masses aren’t ready for it.”

I never said any such thing. It probably applies to many anarchists as well as many non-anarchists, but I have no idea whether it applies to Graeber. My critique of his ideology is entirely different. I criticized his idea, which he and others put into practice in Zuccotti Park, of “acting as if you were already free.”

He did write to me, in response to my argument that the occupation of Zuccotti Park was a failure, “We managed to do more in a matter of months to bring issues of class power to popular consciousness than you have in a lifetime.” That’s about the issue of what he called “chang[ing] peoples’ consciousness, but not necessarily about whether the masses are ready for socialism. I don’t know whether he thinks in these terms.

EP: “As I said, I am not sure that this is their position, but I am uncomfortable with the idea that there is some small group of leftists in New York who supposedly know exactly what to tell the masses regarding alternatives to the current situation.”

If EP isn’t sure that this is their position, he should find out, not proceed as if it’s the case. As Dola points out, it’s not the case. For my own position, let me quote from my recent book, The Failure of Capitalist Production:

Finally, I take up the difficult question of whether a socialist alternative to capitalism is possible. Although I do not believe I have “the answer,” I address the question because I believe that the collapse of the USSR and the latest crisis have made the search for an answer our most important task.” “I am painfully aware that these reflections are not yet an answer to the “Like what, exactly?” [what, exactly, might be able to replace capitalism?] question. … Unless and until a credible answer is worked out, it seems to me that the most likely alternatives we face are either full-scale destruction of capital value, or persistent economic sluggishness, mounting debt burdens, and recurrent financial crises and downturns.

EP: “In other words, they want to have the conversation about the nature of capitalism and socialist alternatives without actual recourse to what masses of people actually feel or think.

Dola has pointed out the falsity of this. And I’ve talked to workers who run a taken-over factory in Argentina, and MST people in Brazil, including a member of a cooperative farm. I obviously didn’t do this because I want to have a conversation without knowing what they and others think and feel. Also please note the MHI’s response to FAQ 12: “we think that the power of corporations and income inequality are effects of the capitalist system, not root causes of our problems. Obviously, many people do not yet share this view, so a full and free discussion of causes and effects is needed.” That’s not the response of people who want to have a one-way “conversation.”

EP: “What makes any intellectual think that she can discuss socialism with anyone, when it is the people themselves who will determine what socialism will actually look like?”

I find it hard to respond to this, because I reject its picture-thinking (“look like”) approach. But the reasoning is faulty even apart from that. So let’s talk about a picture: “What makes any (art student, art teacher, art critic, art lover) think that she can discuss the painting with anyone, when it is the painter herself who will determine what the painting will actually look like?” I can’t make any sense of this.

And if you mean by socialism what I mean, it’s just not the case that people can determine the nature of socialism however they choose, any more than someone can draw a four-sided triangle. “Triangle” has a specific meaning, and as I use the term “socialism,” it does too. Certain things that might in principle be instituted would be contrary to socialism, or lead to outcomes contrary to it, just like a four-sided “triangle” is contrary to what a triangle is.

So there’s a role for theory here—working through what exactly it is about capitalism that needs to be changed in order to have an alternative to capitalism that’s emancipatory and viable, rather than capitalism in sheep’s clothing or something worse, etc. If it isn’t clear what I mean, take a look at Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program and his various critiques of Proudhonism. Again and again, he argued that certain supposed alternatives wouldn’t work or would revert to capitalism, because they were like trying to get rid of the Pope without getting rid of Catholicism. What made Marx think that he could discuss this with people, including workers, for whom he wrote Capital?

None of this implies that intellectuals should try to lead movements or society, or that anyone has all the answers, or even any correct answers. It does imply that there are theoretical questions that need answering, not in order to impose the answers on live people, but to help make us all aware of the likely consequences of various proposed alternatives to the existing situation. (This does not mean that intellectuals should be the only ones helping to answer these questions; far from it. I wish the Occupy movement, for instance, had devoted attention to this.) Most people prefer success to failure, especially when it’s a matter of life and death, and so they want to know what courses of action are likely to succeed and fail.

EP: “In other words, what makes the theorist think that she has all the answers when it is the masses themselves who make the answers, and the theorist is only successful insofar as she can distill what the masses think and feel into some sort of coherent, accessible form?”

Again, this “all the answers” stuff is a straw man, as Dola pointed it. If EP isn’t sure that this is what people say, he should find out, not proceed as if it’s the case. I disagree strongly with most of the rest of this. The “masses” can and do express their thoughts and feelings coherently and accessibly enough by themselves, thank you. And no one “makes” the answers to certain kinds of questions about socialism, any more than anyone “makes” a triangle have 3 sides. The problem with C.L.R. James, whose thinking is being repeated here, is that it fails to fully appreciate that a viable and emancipatory alternative society to capitalism doesn’t and can’t exist here and now inside it; such an alternative needs to be worked out in thought as well as in reality, and “masses” as well as intellectuals need to be involved in this.

EP: “Kliman [holds that] all “prefigurative” politics constitutes a “make believe” world.

As Dola suggested, this is simply false. I said that Graeber’s advocacy of “acting as if you were already free” is advocacy of making believe. Period. I was at pains to distinguish between this and what I called prefiguration in the proper sense.  Even those who participated in the Zuccotti Park occupation, but did so as prefiguration in the proper sense, or for any other reason besides “acting as if you were already free,” were not implicated in my critique.

EP: “There seems to be no real attempt to engage and understand why people have recourse to these things, not just at Occupy Wall Street, but elsewhere. Yes, it is appropriate to point out that factory take overs and worker cooperatives (like the ones that were documented in the movie, The Take) will probably face the opposition of capital and are perhaps not sustainable in the long run. But to think that such actions have no value whatsoever is sheer sectarianism.”

Who says they have no value whatsoever?! Neither I nor MHI. And I definitely know that there are workers in taken-over factories and in agricultural cooperatives on taken-over land who didn’t take them over in order to act as if they were already free, and who don’t think that they are creating the new society within the existing one here and now. I think I have a pretty good sense of why they’ve done what they’ve done, enhanced by talking with them. The member of the MST cooperative I spoke with said point blank, without prompting, “We don’t regard this [the cooperative] as a mode of development but as a mode of resistance.”

I know less about the range of ideas, aspirations, and motives within the Occupy movement, because a small segment of it focused on propagating their specific ideas, not recording the whole range. But I didn’t hear or read many people citing the goal of “rebuilding society as we’d like to see it” (Graeber) as their motive for participating in or supporting the movement, or even the occupation of Zuccotti Park.

EP: “Why not assume that, instead of thinking that they are trapped in a “make-believe” world and are being duped, these people are trying to hash the new order out like scientists who try many experiments over and over again until they get it right?

I don’t think they’re trapped in a make-believe world. I don’t even think that Graeber is. (I think his advocacy of “acting as if you were already free” is advocacy of making believe. There’s a big difference.) And I don’t think people have been duped. On the contrary, in the very first paragraph of my article, I said that although facets of Graeber’s ideology informed the politics of some of the movement, … “the greatest strength of the Occupy movement is the fact that tens of thousands of people have brought to parts of it their own hopes and aspirations, and a somewhat greater degree of realism.” I don’t know how much clearer I could have been.

But I think there was far less focus than there needs to be in the movement as a whole on working through what exactly it is about capitalism that needs to be changed in order to have an alternative to capitalism that’s emancipatory and viable, rather than capitalism in sheep’s clothing or something worse, etc.

EP: “Capitalism might ultimately be the problem, but people have to live day in and day out, and try to make some headway in a world that has all but abandoned them. To automatically think that the masses are being led like sheep by their leaders into a losing strategy from the get-go seems to me to be a much more elitist assumption by far.”

I agree with the first sentence, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough.  As I said in my book,

I am not advocating abstract revolutionism here. It would be disastrous merely to call for socialism while ignoring the problems of mass unemployment and foreclosed homes that may well persist for many years to come. Merely thinking about alternatives to capitalism while ignoring these problems is no solution either. Working people will have to fight tooth-and-nail just to prevent their living and working conditions from deteriorating further, in the face of efforts to restore profitability and economic growth through austerity measures.

Yet it is wrong to counterpose thought and activity in this manner. They are not opposites, but go hand-in-hand. In the absence of credible answers to the ‘Like what, exactly?’ question, practical struggles of the last couple of decades have quite reasonably been self-limiting. They have not even attempted to remake society totally. When questions about the future are bound up so intimately with day-to-day struggles, a new human society surely cannot emerge through spontaneous action alone. To transcend this impasse, people need to know not just what to be against, but what to be for, not just ‘what is to be done,’ but what is to be undone—what is it exactly that must be changed in order to have a viable and emancipatory socialism?

The second sentence is just another straw-man argument.

EP: “The idea that James had was that the working class didn’t need intellectuals to tell them about revolution, socialism already existed in capitalist society, and the Marxist’s job was just to tell people who didn’t realize it. All the workers had to do was throw off the capitalists who were parasites feeding on the actual living relations of society. As I have said, I share Dunayevskaya’s critique of the position in that the law of value is far too pervasive to make it that simple. However, I don’t think this critique should lead to any stark difference in tactics or strategy for class struggle. Otherwise, you would be opening a whole can of worms as to whether the working class would be capable of governing in the first place, and if that is the case, why bother with revolutionary politics at all?”

I have the same question as Dola: How can this fundamental difference not lead to stark differences in tactics or strategy?  James didn’t think we need to focus on problems involved in creating a new society (as distinct from getting rid of the existing one) precisely because he thought it already existed in capitalist society. Dunayevskaya did think we need to focus on this, and she spent decades of her life doing so, precisely because she thought that the new society does not already exist and that the answers to the problems involved in creating a new society will not emerge automatically through activity alone.

I simply don’t get what EP is driving at with the can of worms and the working class’s ability to govern. In any case, sticking with existing strategies and tactics because not doing so “open[s] up a whole can of worms” is just ducking difficult issues, and it’s not likely to lead to the best results in the end.


[1] In a follow-up comment, Dola wrote:  “Sorry, I meant to write “independent of wherever the parasites are subjectively,” meaning the prime mover is not notions in the heads of this or that capitalist 1%’er, but the very logic of what is being replaced, and the laws that govern that which is replacing.

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