Protest and accommodation: An interview with Andrew Kliman
Emilio Fogarty and Jason Roland
Andrew Kliman, professor emeritus of economics at Pace University, is the author of The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (2012) and Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital’: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2007). Many of his writings are available at his personal website akliman.squarespace.com and With Sober Senses, Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s publication.
On July 22nd, 2019 Emilio F. and Jason R. interviewed Prof. Kliman. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Jason Roland: When and how did you become interested in the Left generally? How did you come to identify with Marxist-Humanism? How do you understand the stakes of your intellectual output?
Andrew Kliman: I became interested in the Left at around twelve years old. It was 1968, a year of tremendous ferment and revolt. My parents were liberals; I was not a red diaper baby. I just automatically and naturally identified with the Left. I became a Marxist in my mid-twenties. This was the mid-1980s. I had been in the economics program, which was Marxist-tinged, at the New School for Social Research. Marxist-Humanism was substantially different from what I had come to know as Marxism, and I took it seriously. I eventually became convinced that this was the road to a new human society, and actually a return to Marx’s Marxism. The other stuff was, well, other stuff, but it was not the Marxism of Marx.
For a long time, most of my work focused on an interpretation of Marx’s value theory. It was almost universally accepted that his value theory was internally inconsistent and fatally flawed for logical reasons. I discovered this really is not true. There is a way to interpret it that is plausible and logically consistent. That is the thrust of so much of what I was working on. In the end, this became a battle to allow Marx’s thought (as originally articulated) to be one of the varieties of Marxism that are out there. Instead of only Duncan Foley’s Marxism or Rick Wolff’s Marxism or Moishe Postone’s, or whoever, let’s also have Marx’s Marxism! Let’s get his ideas, not through some interpretation, but directly. Obviously, that also involves interpretation, but I am arguing for first-hand interpretation rather than second-hand.
Then, when the Great Recession erupted, it became clear to me that there were flaws in the standard Left narrative about what had caused this crisis. One involved the very prominent claim that neoliberalism had been a great success from the early 1980s. But I started looking at the data. Basically, as I understand it, the rate of profit of corporations in the United States never recovered in this period of so-called neoliberal revival. This brings with it a whole set of issues involving how neoliberalism decimated the working class in this country, and I found out that is not really true either.
Most recently, in the middle of 2016, I became extremely concerned about the prospect of a Trump presidency. I’ve been fighting back in terms of both activity and theory. I’ve been trying to grapple with how Marx fought white nationalism in his day. He dealt with something very similar, which is the attitude of many English workers towards Irish immigrant workers. I’ve investigated how he fought that, and I’ve tried to reclaim that basic attitude and approach to fighting this monstrosity.
Emilio Fogarty: You mentioned recovering Marx from Marx’s perspective, getting the first-hand account of him. What about understanding Marx’s sources? What about Adam Smith and Rousseau, for example? How do they play into your understanding of Marx?
AK: I know less about this than I probably should. I think all that stuff is important, but one can overdo it. “Oh, I need to understand all of Hegel in order to understand Marx”. Lenin wrote something that has been taken to mean that, but I do not think he meant it quite literally. There is an infinite regress when you start down that road. What do you need to understand, all of Hegel? All of Kant? Plato and Aristotle, right? And to understand them, do you need the Pre-Socratics? You cannot do everything at once, and there is not some ultimate turtle at the end of this that lets you begin there and then move forward. The more you know of that stuff the better, but there are ways of grappling with writers while having something less than the complete background context.
EF: What is the crisis of capitalism as you view it today? How is it similar or different from the crisis that motivated you to become involved in the left?
AK: What motivated me to become involved in the left was not a crisis as such; certainly not an economic crisis. The year 1968 was the height of the postwar boom. What motivated me to become part of the left was the global upsurge of people striving for freedom. You had the black liberation movement, you had the anti-war movement, and you had all kinds of things going on. But I would not call it a crisis of capitalism necessarily. What do you mean here by crisis of capitalism?
JR: Specifically, we are talking about the main contradictions of capital. Does capitalism have a continuity with the crisis that Marx was examining, or are the circumstances different?
AK: When Marx used the term “crisis”, he was not making up a term or using it in a special sense. Crisis meant basically a rupture of exchange relations. All of a sudden stuff does not sell, debts are not being repaid, etc. That is what crisis meant to him, which might lead to an economic downturn or something like that. He would talk about capitalist crisis. In other words, this is how capitalism works. At moments there were ruptures and there were crises, but I do not think he ever necessarily thought of a crisis of capitalism. I want to shy away from talking about a crisis of capitalism, because as I would use the term there would be a crisis of capitalism only if the continued existence of the social formation “capitalism” is in some sort of immediate danger. I do not think it is in any way close to immediate danger right now. I think that within capitalist societies, the immediate crisis we have is the threat to liberal democracy; above all in the United States where we have a very serious threat of authoritarianism.
EF: You have argued that there is a “Soft on Trump” Left and that it should be driven out from the Left. Why do you think there is this accommodation, and how has the Left failed to address Trump?
AK: Definitely there is a soft-on-Trump Left. There are many manifestations of that. And when I say driven out of the Left, I have to clarify that. The point is that the Left traditionally, the Left that I am a part of, is in favor of human freedom. It is a Left that is fighting for human emancipation. And there is absolutely nothing about Trump that is at all compatible with that. What is at issue really is the Left turning into its opposite. Are we going to be able to claim (and in some cases, reclaim) the emancipatory essence of the Left? This is really a struggle for the meaning of what we call “Left”. Those of us who are concerned about human freedom have to stand firm on this question and not bow to anything that is diametrically opposed, just because Trump has some so-called white working-class support or because Hillary Clinton is also a bourgeois politician. The Left has to stand for the freedom and dignity of every human being without regard to race, gender, and so forth.
Why is there accommodation of Trump on the Left? First of all, there is a focus on opposing neoliberalism as the main enemy rather than capitalism. Trump’s presidential campaign themes, e.g. trade agreements and so forth, as well as his “outsider” status, were viewed as blows against neoliberalism and even welcomed by supposed Marxist theoreticians like Boris Kagarlitsky. Trump’s rise was seen as a revolt of the working class against neoliberalism. Second, many leftists are very interested in building their own organizations or in furthering what they call their counter-hegemonic projects, which is basically a fancy way of saying a drive for political power. So when one says that Trumpism is a real danger, not normal, what becomes of these counter-hegemonic projects? They become secondary to fighting the immediate and severe threat of Trumpism, and many of these leftist political organizations do not want that. Third, you have false equivalences –– a lot of people saying during the 2016 election that Trump is no good, but neither is Clinton. And then you have the accelerationist tendencies, who are like, “Yeah, bring it on, bring on the chaos. Just make things worse because that is somehow going to make things better in the long run.” And finally, you have some kind of warped version of anti-imperialism, which is actually reactionary –– welcoming any, even right-wing, challenges to the U.S. and its allies, like the Putin-run government in Russia. The people whose main goal is to weaken the power of the U.S. have been, at minimum, soft on Trump.
EF: What are the differences within the Left on their approaches to combating Trump, for example the #MeToo movement, Antifa, Women’s March, March for Science, etc.?
AK: What you are referencing are different movements. But what is common to these movements is that, while they are focused on their particular issue, they also see that Trumpism is an immediate threat to getting what they want. That unites all these particulars. I find worrisome the people who want to get rid of Trump while ignoring the broader ideology behind him. Let’s do what we can to get Trump out of office, but going down this electoral road and doing nothing else is putting all your eggs in one basket. It is incredibly risky. One can do what it takes in the voting booth to try to defeat Trumpism, but there is a lot more that needs to be done outside those three minutes when you vote.
Why is it that Trump’s base is allowed to spew its hatred at Trump rallies without any pushback? Why are we living in fear that our synagogues are going to be shot up? These people are walking around like kings of the universe. There are many ways in which we can fight Trumpism. The impetus in the battle against Trumpism is not coming from the Democrats, but from the Resistance that is putting pressure on them. That pressure has to continue. But we also have to keep working in other ways besides the electoral ways.
We cannot trust in the electoral route because Trump might win, and what do we do then? Or he could lose narrowly but still win by taking it to the Supreme Court. Or lose big but incite his followers to revolt. It is just incredibly risky to give up all of the resources and the mass appeal that the Resistance has, and the mass activity.
JR: Recently the Resistance efforts to oppose Trump have been funneled through both the discontented movements within the Democratic Party (the Green New Deal and “The Squad,” for example) and through Marxist or socialist organizations like the DSA, the Marxist Center, etc. who incorporate their opposition to Trump into their electoral or “base-building” campaigns like Medicare for All and Fight for $15. How would you relate your call to oppose Trump to the current attempts by socialists at dealing with capitalism more broadly?
AK: On relating calls to oppose Trump with the current attempts to overcome capitalism and move towards socialism, I have a very clear opinion: there will be no socialism in the U.S. as long as we have Trump and Trumpism, nor anywhere internationally where U.S. power is involved. Trumpism is a threat to the continued existence of socialist organizations and individuals, their ability to operate freely, and maybe even our lives. There will be no forward movement until we smash Trumpism. The first issue is to get rid of Trump and the broader Trumpist tendencies in society. You talk of opposition to Trump being funneled through other things, but I do not think that is actually the case. Things like the Green New Deal or Fight for $15 aren’t opposition to Trumpism, even if the people involved are opposed to Trump. It seems to me that you can only fight Trumpism directly. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has all these social-democratic ideas, but is still calling for impeachment because Trump is a threat to the rule of law and liberal democracy in our country. So she is not only speaking on her economic issues. She is also fighting the erosion of liberal democracy under Trumpism.
Most of the leftist organizations have not been adequately opposing Trump. Most have regarded Trumpism as a distraction and have been focused on building their movements and calling for socialism abstractly. The DSA has many different tendencies and factions, so I do not think it can speak with a single voice, but I think DSA’s written statement after the 2018 midterm elections was inadequate. It just focused on the fates of Left candidates, i.e. candidates to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party, even though the midterm elections were a resounding defeat of Trumpism. I do not recall that even being mentioned in the DSA statement. You could read it and think the main struggle was against the mainstream Democratic Party rather than against Trumpism. And that is the impression I got from the statements of many other organizations, too.
JR: A common argument is that Trump could have been avoided if the Democratic nominee were less centrist, offering Bernie as a substitute. So is the claim that “Bernie would have won” missing what Trumpism represents?
AK: The main thing this idea overlooks is that Trump has a real appeal to a lot of people in this country. This narrative views the great mass of American people as naturally social democratic, so that if you give them social-democratic goodies and programs, they are going to go for that. The 2016 election showed that there are tens of millions of people in this country who are white nationalists who rose up and embraced white nationalism, xenophobia, and misogyny –– because that is what they want. To overlook that is the most extraordinary naïveté on the part of those who think they are going to compete for Trump’s white-nationalist base. I do not think those people are social democratic. I think they are a proto-fascist formation in the making.
JR: On the eve of 2020, what possibility exists regarding the future of socialism?
AK: In some ways it is worse than it has ever been before in my lifetime and in some ways it is better. Owing to the threat of Trumpism, there has been incredible mobilization and on-going political activity from regular people. There is no parallel in my experience except maybe the Vietnam-era anti-war movement which involved a much smaller group of people. I did some number crunching on the basis of a poll on political participation. There are about 30 million people who have been involved in some sort of Resistance activity in this country, and that was before the youth began to rise up about gun violence. There is much more of a feeling of self-reliance, and I am hoping certain tendencies in the Democratic Party do not succeed in squashing that. Even some of the Democrats have been trying to push the party to the Left. They are not buying the line that we should be civil and forget impeachment so we can pull 1-2% away from Trump. So there is a lot of opportunity here, not because people say they favor socialism (because most of that nowadays means more regulations and social programs), but rather that we face this huge crisis of Trumpism. We can get rid of Trump without having socialism, but to really rid the U.S. and the world of Trumpism, the movement will have to move to socialism. Or to solve the climate crisis, we will have to move to socialism; it cannot be solved within capitalism. So the real question every movement has faced in my lifetime is: will we continue forward surmounting the contradictions? This is what Marxist-Humanism is all about. If the Resistance to Trumpism remains independent, remains active, and does not stop when people confront defeat, then we will have socialism. But that is a big if.
Is there going to be an electoral path to socialism by means of the 2020 election? No, that is clear. It does not matter whether the Democratic candidate is Biden or Sanders or Warren or Harris, or if Trump is reelected. It is a capitalist society, and you have to do more than put somebody different in power to have socialism. This does not mean that the election is unimportant, but we need Resistance outside of the party. The Democrats can be pressured. And it is important that the Democrats be pressured into fighting Trump and Trumpism even at a risk to their electoral chances. The investigations into Trump have to intensify and efforts to get him out of office have to happen.
I do not think that you are going to have socialism in this country just by electing some socialists. There have to be many different facets going on. Socialism is a different mode of production, so ultimately we are talking about changing the way things are produced, the purpose for which they are produced, who is in control of the production, and getting rid of what Marx called the “law of value” — the idea that what we produced is value and not just things for people’s needs. There is no simple path to genuine socialism, a new mode of production. There will not be socialism without independent activity from below. You cannot impose socialism from above — at least not the kind of socialism that Marx talked about, which is rooted in people’s self-emancipation. Nobody can free somebody else. Ultimately how we are going to get socialism is when tens of millions of people throughout the world not only have the will but the ability to govern themselves. They will stop alienating their powers when they feel that they themselves can run things. That must be the goal even though it is very far away.
EF: You have questioned the anti-neoliberal Left before. Are neoliberalism’s discontents relevant for understanding the politics of Trumpism?
AK: No. I began by thinking that maybe there was economic discontent from worsening conditions among the subset of the population that Trump managed to direct in a white-nationalist direction. I focused on the phenomenon of Obama-to-Trump voters, people who voted for Obama in 2012 and voted for Trump in 2016 — “white working-class” voters in the rust belt and so forth. But then I looked at the data, and there is nothing to this! They did not suffer any more economic distress than Obama voters who did not flip to Trump. They were not lower income. They were not more likely to be unemployed or have a family member or close friend who was unemployed. Basically, the entire motivation of the vast majority of this small section of Obama voters was Trumpist attitudes. They were people who had deplorable attitudes — racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-Obamacare, or people who wanted authoritarian leadership. Obama voters who thought like that voted for Trump; those who did not voted for Clinton overwhelmingly. That is the invariable answer coming from dozens of studies with different methodologies and different data sets: Trump’s victory has nothing to do with personally experienced economic hardship. It has everything to do with some combination of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and authoritarianism.
EF: Why has white nationalism under Trump been utilized now of all times?
AK: There was Trumpism before Trump, but the Republican Party did not articulate it. At most, they sent dog whistles to convey that they were ok with racism and sexism and so forth, but they were not all-in white nationalists and grabbing-by-the-pussy-types. But those things appealed to a lot of people and still do; we have to take that seriously. I think on the Left there is this view that people’s real interests are economic in some narrow sense and that they either vote on the basis of their economic interests or they are guilty of false consciousness and just do not understand what is going on. I think what a lot of people do not understand is that you cannot understand the U.S. electoral system by reference to the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, even though both are called politics. The American electorate does not understand politics the way the Left does. Most people do not have the political sophistication to link up their voting choices to their economic interests. They do not have the intellectual resources or the concepts that would enable them to do that, and so they base their voting choices on other factors.
EF: It is usually understood that both Bernie and Trump represent a populist movement. Do you think this is a fair assessment? What differentiates their base’s conception of populism? Would it be more worthwhile to recruit from Bernie’s base than Trump’s?
AK: In some sense they can both be called stylistically populist, but Bernie and Trump are completely different things. Trump has no economic ideology while Bernie is a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat. Bernie supports liberal democracy and the rule of law while Trump most decidedly does not. Would it be more worthwhile to recruit Bernie’s base to socialism? I do not really think of the goal as trying to recruit people to socialism. Obviously, I belong to an organization and it would help a lot of things if we were somewhat bigger. But I think what we need to transform societies is truly emancipatory thought that does not stop in the face of contradictions. And it does not matter to me whether these mass movements call themselves socialist or if people are recruited on that basis. The classic case is the building of the Social Democratic Party in Germany prior to World War I. They had a huge organization. They won electoral successes. And they had not only the party, but all kinds of publications, women’s groups, youth groups, unions, etc. Then World War I happens, and it all collapses. So this idea that you keep building the socialist movement, that it is the be-all and end-all to get bigger and bigger — that is no panacea. Dunayevskaya famously said they had organization, but what they did not have was the organization of Marxist thought. When we have that, we are going to move forward, and it really does not matter whether people explicitly identify as socialists, especially at the moment when they join the movement.
JR: To me this raises the question of Lenin’s building of the party as the union of workers and intellectuals, or farther back to Kautsky’s merger formula. Where do you stand in relation to this history with your criticisms?
AK: Well, there is a merger, but what is distinctive about Kautsky’s formulation that Lenin took over is the idea that the working class on its own is not revolutionary, that the revolutionary impulse has to come from outside, from the intellectuals. I think most people identify What is to be Done? with that idea. I totally disagree with that idea. This does not mean that we can just leave everything to spontaneity. The point is that great masses of people have the revolutionary impulse, but we need more than that because movements face setbacks, internal contradictions, defeats, etc. People need to develop themselves and their movements in the face of these obstacles. And for that, you need more than just a will to transform things. This is where Marxist-Humanism plays a role. It is not about making people revolutionary. You cannot really do that. But Marxist-Humanism tries to answer the questions that arise within the movements and to keep them on the road toward human freedom.
JR: Your point sounds organic. The workers face these obstacles, work through them, and develop by these means their ability to arrive at socialism.
AK: There is both the socialist thinking from the intellectuals and the impulse to transcend coming from below. They have to be in dialogue with one another. People working for a living and raising a family do not often have time to do theoretical work. That becomes too great a burden. Those of us that do have time can help; not to run their organizations, not to recruit them to ours, but to listen to what they are saying, to understand the theoretical problems that they are posing, to see what their drive to freedom is facing. We can offer perspectives by being in dialogue with the mass movements.
JR: You have argued that Trump’s election was an expression of long-standing white nationalism in U.S. politics. How should socialists relate to conservative elements of the body politic? How should socialists relate to white nationalists elements? Do you think that the working class played a role in putting Trump into office? And if not, then why? Why couldn’t there be recruitment from Trump’s base towards revolutionary socialism?
AK: I remember George Wallace, the racist authoritarian governor of Alabama, and his campaigns for president. He won the Democratic primary in many states in 1972, in the north as well as the south. That was white nationalism that had nothing to do with neoliberalism, since 1972 predates neoliberalism. Earlier than that you had the second Ku Klux Klan. I recently became aware of an unpublished Frankfurt school study in 1944 that found about 30% of the U.S. populace had authoritarian tendencies. This stuff goes way back. We have to take this very seriously and look at the fervor of these people. How should socialists relate to conservative elements of the body politic? Well, if you have got the time and energy to argue with actual conservatives, then more power to you. It is not the easiest thing to do. But when it comes to white nationalism, I do not think there is anything you can do. We are dealing with people living in fantasies. They are more or less immune to contrary evidence and to reasoning that challenges them. The only thing that seems to work, from what I’ve read, are essentially “conversion experiences”. I am not saying people should be entirely written off. If you want to take on those kinds of battles, then you are doing it one person at a time in a very concerted way. You are doing it with charity cases, so to speak. It is no longer doing politics at that point. You are doing social welfare with some very messed up people. And, no, there was no working-class upsurge for Trump. Were there workers who voted for Trump? Very clearly. Were working-class issues a reason? No. In the data I examined, 120 survey answers from Obama-to-Trump supporters explaining their vote, only 5 mentioned jobs and there was very little reference to other economic issues. In terms of support for a social-democratic wish list or opposition to neoliberalism, I did not see it. Why do not you ask about people from the upper class? Is it possible to win them over to socialism or revolution? Yeah, it is possible; it is just not likely. And it is not likely among Trump’s base, given where they are now, and given their past experience, the white-nationalist ideology, misogyny, xenophobia, etc. Those people are getting what they want from Trump. As long as white nationalism has a hold over tens of millions of people in this country, you are not going to win by trying to redirect people away from white nationalism. White nationalism has to be smashed. And not on the basis of a better economic program, because it is not rooted in economics.
And this is where my thinking has gone in terms of trying to reclaim what Marx did with respect to the white nationalism of his day. Marx concluded the workers movement is not going anywhere in the United States because of slavery and the identification of a sizable section of the poor white population with the interests of the slave owners against the blacks. Marx said the working class in England will never accomplish anything as long as there is the strife with the Irish, where the Irish workers are in job competition with the English workers, and English workers are nationalistic and identify with their ruling classes. This is the situation we are in with Trumpists. You get working people identifying with their ruling classes against each other. Marx understood just ignoring this is not going to do anything because of the attitudes of these folks. He also did not think that you are going to change their attitudes just by asking them to change. Those people are lost to history. Marx said the North needs to fight the Civil War on an anti-slavery basis and to defeat the slaveocracy in the South, and we have to to get rid England’s rule over the Irish. Ireland needs to win, and the International needs to support Ireland in its struggle for independence against England. And when the basis of this white nationalism is crushed, when working people who are identifying with the ruling class can no longer easily do so because they’ve suffered such a humiliating defeat, then you’ll get a change in attitudes. That was Marx’s perspective. Today, our watchword has to be “Victory for the Resistance.” The crushing, humiliating defeat of Trumpism is the thing that will do the most to free the minds of people. The Resistance needs to intensify until the point where the Trumpists are more afraid of us than we are them.
JR: I am confused at the analogy between our moment and Marx’s moment. There were political institutions like black slavery in the U.S. and English occupation of Ireland. But as I understand it, there is not a formal racism in America anymore, and there is not a formal English occupation of the whole of Ireland (of course, Northern Ireland is another point). I am finding that that comparison problematic. Would you explain it to me?
AK: All analogies are meant to compare one aspect of things that are otherwise unlike. An analogy does not fail because the things in the comparison are different in most respects. It only fails if the aspect up for debate is not in fact shared in common. This analogy has to do with how to deal with the deplorable attitudes that are prevalent among some of the working population. That is what Marx was trying to address and what I am trying to address. Are there differences between the two situations in other respects? Absolutely. Is there a material basis for Trumpism in this country? Absolutely, though the material basis is the great racial disparity and inequality in this country.
EF: You mentioned smashing white nationalism being the prerequisite to changing attitudes that are not amenable to socialism. I think this gets to the question of a socialist psychology i.e. preparing or developing a kind of psychology before you can develop socialism or unite people on the basis of class.
AK: I do not think that white nationalists are going to unite on the basis of class with immigrant workers or black workers. That is not going to happen. But also, I do not think that people need to unite on the basis of class. In other words, they can unite on other bases as well. Class identification is important, but there are other freedom movements that are independent of the working-class movement. There is the black freedom movement, women’s liberation, etc. As long as everybody recognizes their common humanity and that they are all struggling for freedom, they can have that universal as their common goal.
JR: In what ways do we live in a fascist moment? In what ways is Trump different from presidents before him who have also been accused of fascism by the Left (e.g. Nixon, Reagan, Bush Jr. etc)? Historically fascism was understood by Marxists to be the result of the failure of Marxism. How does this understanding play in the present day?
AK: I do not think we live in a fascist moment, in the sense that we are not living under fascism in the U.S. yet. (But ask me again in six months, if I am still here to be asked.) I think Trump is organically a fascist in the way he does politics, but not ideologically a fascist. Are things pushing him in a fascist direction? Yes, because his business interests and his personal freedoms are at stake. So the fascist threat is not only subjective but objective. In what way is Trump different from past presidents? I think what we are seeing is something that is really discontinuous with every preceding Democrat and Republican. Even Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Jr. adhered to the norms of liberal democracy. Trump has no allegiance to these norms except in the sense of getting around them, obeying only the letter of the law (or getting the courts to overlook the fact that he is not obeying even the letter of the law). The difference is also a matter of such degree that quantity becomes quality. Sure they did horrible things. Reagan, for example, gave a speech at a Nazi cemetery; Bush enacted the emergency security measures after 9/11. But tens of millions of people did not fear for themselves and others the way we have since the moment Trump was elected. Every day there is another threat. Regarding the question about fascism as a result of the failure of revolution, I would just point out that fascism has arisen in a wide variety of circumstances, like in Latin America. In a broad sense you could say that Marxists have not done their job or that we have not revolutionized society, and because of that Trumpism is allowed to arise. If the task of Marxists is to transform society and if we are responsible for everything that happens, then as long as revolutionary transformation has not happened, then yes, we have to accept responsibility for that. But are there examples of recent failures of Marxists that gave rise to Trumpism? No.
EF: When you take this approach of self-activity from below, do not you also risk organizing for unfreedom? How do you deal with the question of spontaneity in general? Are there any limits to this “from below” approach?
AK: Let me separate two things that I do not think are the same at all. One is “from below” and the other is “spontaneity”. Socialism has to be from below, if it is liberatory, emancipatory socialism. Marx said in the Manifesto, “We shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” And he stated in the rules of the International that the emancipation of the working class must be the workers’ own act. There is no alternative. Does that mean leadership is not needed? Absolutely not. In the history of Marxism there was a perversion of the concept of vanguard. Instead of a revolutionary vanguard that would lead the workers to power, what we had was a so-called vanguard to lead the workers. Assisting working people fighting for freedom by providing intellectual resources and ideas they have not come across, and helping them to develop themselves theoretically, intellectually — all of that is needed. But running their organizations or setting up your own organizations and trying to bring them under your control, that is an entirely different matter. Can mass movements go in a retrogressive direction? Absolutely. In every movement you have contradictions, and people who sell-out, or get disillusioned or demoralized. But there are people in the opposite camp. We have certain theories about how to combat retrogression, and we should assist those fighting to move forward instead of halting or moving backward. This is one of the reasons why we need thought in addition to spontaneous activity — thought from below and thought coming from intellectuals.
JR: In what ways does the experience of the 20th century factor into this approach? What lessons can we learn from the outcomes of the 20th century?
AK: Reflecting on the 20th century instead of the 19th century means to ask, “What is not there in Marx that we have learned since Marx?” My answer is counter-revolution emerging from within revolution. It is not something Marx ever had to deal with, and it was the experience throughout the 20th century, beginning with the transformation of the Russian revolution into Stalinist state-capitalist totalitarianism. Stalinism emerged from within a Marxist revolutionary movement. We have learned it is not the case that there are revolutionary forces on one side and counter-revolutionary forces on the other. There are internal contradictions and differentiation in every movement. Things can go forward or backward because of the dynamics within any movement. This is what Raya Dunayevskaya focused on, i.e. the counter-revolution emerging within the revolutionary movement. What she did, far more than anybody else, was to develop the thinking needed to fight the counter-revolution in the revolution in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, and in particular the concept of absolute negativity. There is the first moment of negativity that opposes what is, and then there is the second moment of negativity, the creative, positive moment where you transcend the contradiction to create something new. Karl Marx expressed somewhat the same idea when he asked, “What is wealth?” in the Grundrisse: “a situation in which the human being strives not to remain something he has become but is in the absolute movement of becoming.” This is the key, the absolute movement of becoming, not remaining where you are. You have to transform everything, including yourself. That is the only way we are going to get to freedom. All of us are affected by capitalism, and all the horrors of society, which is why we have to overcome everything, including where we ourselves are right now. It is especially important for masses of people to transform themselves into people who can and will govern themselves without the need for other people over them.
Transcribed by Ethan Linehan, Emilio Fogarty, and Jason Roland.