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March 11, 2006

Comments

Mark

Thanks so much for this article - it's an extraordinarily lucid piece.

Since you don't link to it, I think it's worth telling people that Ollman's work, including this article, is archived here:
http://www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/

fellow traveler

There is much here to discuss and analyze, and Ollman makes some good points and many shoddy ones. Let's kick this party off with what I think is Ollman's central, and most honest, caveat:

"The second qualification has to do with Aristotle's warning that in undertaking any study we should not expect more precision than the nature of our subject permits. The potential within capitalism for socialism is real enough, but it is often unclear and always imprecise, both as regards the exact forms that will develop and as regards timing or the moment at which the expected changes will occur. In short, in investigating the future within the present, we must be careful not to insist on a standard for knowledge that can never be met."

If then, we are talking about the "far future" or Hegel's "historical time", then what does this mean for the present? What does this mean for any form of contemporary praxis rooted in "science"? The future is coming, but we don't know when, how, or in what form. Profound.

At least this mode of analysis precludes the glib predictions of immanent revolution made by the ultra-left every decade since the sixties.

Christopher Day

I presume you mean the 1860s.

mega-ultra

Predictions of imminent revolution or immanent revolution?

These days we get a lot more of the latter, and that's downright depressing.

Christopher Day

I see a lot of good points in Ollman's piece. Care to elaborate on the "many shoddy ones"?

The propensity of so many on the left to regard the revolution as inevitable and imminent has been problematic to say the least. But this isn't a problem that can be laid at the feet of dialectics. Those who think of historical materialism as a predictive science will continue to be disappointed and will continue to embarrass themselves and the rest of the left. Looking for the future in the present is crucial for identifying potentialities and tendencies that can be nurtured through conscious collective activity. It is crucial for distinguishing our dreams from our plans (though of course our dreams are one form that the future in the present can take). The (mis)understanding of dialectics that characterized the Second International and that survived initial challenges (from folks like Lukacs) to dominate the Third, is closely related to the problem of popular agency that has come up in other threads. By treating the tendencies towards communism that exist under capitalism as iron laws of inevitable development the critical task of cultivating popular agency gets pushed ou of view. A whole world of political errors are encapsulated in this misunderstanding.

This makes me think of that badious piece which strikes me as a challenge notto reify the GPCR but to recognize it as a defeat and to grasp what it would take to go further.

leftclick

The problem with discussing an excerpt of a longer piece is that we can never tell if our objections are addressed by the author elsewhere.

That being said, I believe fellow traveller's objection to Ollman's lack of profundity regarding Marx and futuristic prediction is misplaced.

One prominent criticism of Marxism is that it DOES try to predict the future and therefore must stand or fall on this premise. This was famously argued by Karl Popper and has become a standard part of the anti-Marxist arsenal.

Ollman was stating that Marx's dialectic was a dialectic of possibility, not inevitability.

What Ollman does not address is that Marx's writings often had an undercurrent of historical progress which could lead to conclusions of the 'inevitability' of communism. That's why it did not occur to him [Marx] that socialism might be rolled back.

But Ollman's right, Marx took the first important steps and his work should be seen in that light, not as the final word on the question.

Third Time Charm

PotAto Potahto... Tomato!

Is socialism a possibility, inevitability... or a tendency?

Telos is misunderstood as inevitability.

leftclick

I think that the tendency for leftists to argue for the imminence of revolution is being overstated here. If anything the left since the late 80's, with a few exceptions, seems to have an aversion to the 'r'word.

Today, it is common to hear lefties talk about imperialism and that's a good thing. However, this was not the case pre-9/11, when only a few M-L parties and Monthly Review magazine insisted on using the term as an accurate description of the world system. Since 9/11, the New York Times and Business Week have had long articles about empire and imperialism, and much of the left took their cues from them. Pathetic.

The left in general is NOT talking about revolution, even in exaggerated tones, and that's what we should be concerned about. Maybe when the Wall Street Journal writes an article...

repeater

I disagree.

First, I took fellow traveller's comments at face value. I think the statement, "The future is coming, but we don't know when, how, or in what form" is a profound statement, if not entirely correct on its own.

And further, I see no grounds to suggest that Marxism tries to predict the future. Rather, as has been pointed out, Marxism synthesizes tendencies and tries to create the future. There are no predicitions as such.

repeater

Telos, or teleology is an ideological structure.

Material reality does not move progressively towards perfection on its own. Only human intervention can put this meaning onto material reality and move material reality based upon it.

leftclick

repeater:

Marx's notions on progress are scattered throughout his writings both in what he says and what he does not say- I gave one example above.

In one famous letter to Joseph Wedermeyer, Marx argued that his achievement was not in discovering classes or class struggle but to show that class struggle leads inevitably to socialism [I'll look for the citation but I'm sure the word 'inevitable' was used].

However, we must be able to distinguish the essential from the non-essential. Marxism does NOT require a utopian faith in progress - we should be clear about this. Let me make an analogy here:

When questioned about his views on the rate of evolutionary change, Darwin committed to a gradualist view. His colleague, and unsung con-founder of modern evolutionary theory, Alfred Russell Wallace, asked him not to take a position since there was insufficient evidence and besides, the rate of change was irrelevant to the theory. In the same way, inevitable progress is irrelevant to Marxism, besides being materially untenable.

Marx was attempting to work through the contradicitons himself. As Ollman pointed out, he did consider 'barbarism' as a possible outcome of history. As someone who was constantly and ruthlessly interrogating his own premises, Marx remains a model of social thinking.

scorchedEarth

hey leftclick even though i'm no longer an anarchist, i seem to remember a bunch of us talkin' revolution too

repeater

I very much agree with you that the larger synthesis of Marx far outweighs, in importance and value, his stand on inevitability, but that does not make it irrelavent.

Regardless of what Marx says, class struggle does not lead inevitably to socialism.

It's not a question of utopia or faith it is a question of what we can claim based upon what we can know. Inevitability doctrines are not irrelevant they are deeply imbedded in Marx's thinking and contributed to bad lines in the Communist Movement.

It is something that must be ruptured with and explicitly so. If it is true to say that Marxism does in fact predict, then we must practice not Marxism, but MLM.

My prior statement didn't make this distinction clear. In fact I conflated the two.

To clarify:

Inevitability is irrelevant to Marxist thought - historical materialism does not require it.


The EFFECTS of such thinking are important but that's not what I was addressing.

Looks like you've been conflating again..

leftclick

last post mine

Maz

While I agree that marxism doesn't have predictive power in the 'end of history' sense, I think it's clear that historical materialism does have some predictive powers. An HM analysis certainly predicted the overwhleming likelihood of the Iraq war no? It predicts that force will usually be used to protect the power of exploiting classes, that oppression gives rise to resistance, and so on.

fellow traveler

Maz: "An HM analysis certainly predicted the overwhleming likelihood of the Iraq war no?"

So did my eleven year old niece, and while eerily bright, I don't think she was using HM. Many commentators and pundits saw the Iraq war coming, even Usama bin-Laden called it as far back as '96. Near as I can tell he was using his own sort of "Clash of Civilizatons" style analysis in lieu of HM.

Can anyone point me to HM analyses that called the collapse of the USSR? Of the restoration of capitalism in China? If a Marxist economist did provide this sort of "evidence against interests" than she would really have been on to something.

Christopher Day: "I see a lot of good points in Ollman's piece. Care to elaborate on the "many shoddy ones"?"

I've not much time this noon, but let me run up one of Ollman's less cogent claims: "So—Why Dialectics? Because that's the only sensible way to study a world composed of mutually dependent processes in constant evolution, and also to interpret Marx, who is our leading investigator into this world."

Sure, for studying Marx, dialectics is sine qua non, but the world? What of economics, sociology, political science, environmental science and demographics? Are these not sensible means with many methodologies to study the world? Do they not also make scientific and predictive claims? Dialectics and HM, as a mode of historical inquiry and prediction still has its adherents, but rarely as a sole methodology. As a "pure" method its suffering from a decling market share, both in the American and European academies. HM and class struggle, for example, doesn't quite do justice to analyzing the English Civil War and the role and agency of the Puritans. Serious scholarship since the seventies has superseded the work of Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill on this subject. (In a related manner, I don't think BA really has much of a grasp on the whole "Christian Fascism" thing, either.)

Another of my concerns is adequately summed up by leftclick: "What Ollman does not address is that Marx's writings often had an undercurrent of historical progress which could lead to conclusions of the 'inevitability' of communism. That's why it did not occur to him [Marx] that socialism might be rolled back."

Let me concur also with Christopher: "Those who think of historical materialism as a predictive science will continue to be disappointed and will continue to embarrass themselves and the rest of the left." I see this tendency quite often, especially among the younger devotees of the RCP. It makes me wonder about the quality of the discourse within the Party.

Lastly, I'm a bit confused by a statement by repeater: "It is something that must be ruptured with and explicitly so. If it is true to say that Marxism does in fact predict, then we must practice not Marxism, but MLM." I agree about the need for a rupture, but does the LM in MLM really do so?

Christopher Day

I consider myself a historical materialist and believe that as a method of inquiry and analysis the materialist approach to history has proven quite illuminating if the fields of "economics, sociology, political science, environmental science and demographics" and several others. That said, methodology evolves with theory and the ossification of historical materialism as a method in the hands of socialist and communist parties has done much to discredit it. The equation of historical materialism with class/economic reductionism, with determinism and all of the associated baggage has been a brake on "the ruthless critique of everything existing." Accordingly many advances in social theory and research have been framed in terms of criticisms or repudiations of historical materialism (there are other reasons for this as well such as the simple ant-communism, but I think we should focus critically on OUR weaknesses here). We should not be afraid of or dismissive of those challenges, but rather should seize on them as a means for improving our own analysis and building up our own theoretical and methodological arsenal. Bringing historical materialism up to date requires a throrough engagement with this whole range of critical literature in order to sort out what is correct, what is not and what is in-between.

a comment

The measure of science is not simply prediction. The point is that you "know the world to change the world." I.e. that you understand the real dynamics of the world (and the society) around us well enough that you can consciously create ideas and plans that transform reality in (more or less) ways you want.

A lot of this discussion of "prediction" is similar to the earlier discussion "If it is a science, how could it have been wrong?" In other words, the scientific process (and the spiral from practice to theory back to practice) is not absolute, and is not some prophetic premonition. It is a material, scientific and conditional thing. It analyzes trends, potentials, contradictions and estimates of ways and degrees in which the realm in which the subjective factor can transform reality.

For example: Marx did not say (in his letter to Wedemeyer) that anything was inevitable. (Notice how "inevitability" is invented in that quote, in order to portray Marx as teleological, and his theory as fundamentally marked with that.)

He said "of necessity"...

this means more that within the dynamics of things, there are trends.

Did Marx think it was inevitable...
well he tended that way. Though the opening of the communist manifesto describes that class struggle leads to changes in society unless the mutual classes exhaust each other (i.e. his view is not mechanical, and certainly not as mechanical as some who followed him in the Second International).

for avakian on inevitability:
http://rwor.org/a/1266/avakian-martin-post-inevitablist-marxism.htm

one final point: talking about revolution among the masses does not mean you are arguing that revolution is immanent. In its almost forty years as a trend, the rCP has never said revolution was immanent -- and who ever claimed they had is mistaken. Why would somebody make this mistake? I imagine it is because some people only think you would TALK about revolution WHEN you thought it was immanent. And so (for such stone reformists and rightists) the very idea of conducting revolutionary politics in non-revolutoinary times reeks of ultra-leftism. This contrasts sharply with the approach of "preparing minds and organizing forces for revoltion" INCLUDING IN NON-REVOLUTIONARY TIMES. In fact, if you haven't done rev work in non-rev times, you cant do the dog when the opening emerges.

think of it as sports: if you train a team in hockey, it won't win a basketball game if that is the game that emerges. If you train and organize the masses (and especially the advanced) to win reforms, they will never risk everything for revolution in a deep crisis -- their training, the whole logic of what preceded the crisis will lead them to settle for better terms WITHIN the framework, not upsetting the whole table and making revolution.

Finally: there are powerful dynamics and contradictions within capitalism (the fundamental contradicitons, in fact, of this social order) that cause "communism to spring from every pore." The fundamental contradiction of capitalism is intense and intensifying. Humans can make themselves extinct, they can devastate their society in shattering ways, but absent huge disruptions in the very structure of global society, the contradictions producting revolution and socialism are real and intense. Even though, the objective press of ocntradictions still needs the subjective factor: the potential doesn't "make itself," real living humans have t o organize and do it.

Repeater

On the question of the RCP's position relative to inevitability; the RCP does not take an inevitabilist stand, though I have heard supporters of the RCP take that stand. At various times I myself have upheld both that line and the related "revolution around the corner" line.

The tendency to take what anyone says who relates to or supports the RCP as RCP line, is a mistake. There is alot of uneveness.

This is true of all political organizations and of politics in general.

Christopher Day

Imminent -- about to occur, impending.

Immanent -- 1. intrinsic to subjective reality. 2. dwelling at the inmost heart of nature and the human soul.

I'm not usually picky about these kinds of mistakes, but in this case I think it matters. I believe that revolution is immanent, but sadly not imminent.

On the question of the relationship between freedom and agency in the emergence of a revolutionary situation I strongly recommend that folks read "What is Orthodox Marxism?," "Class Consciousness" and "reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat" by Gerg Lukacs in "History and Class Consciousness, Studies in Marxist Dialectics." (Zizek has written a couple interesting pieces on Lukacs that are good for situating him at the intersection of Leninism and Western Marxism.)

As for the RCP, I'll take your word that they've never SAID that revolution was IMMINENT, but there is an apocalyptic style to some of the campaigns they have initiated that has strongly suggested that the possibility of an imminent revolutionary situation was high. I can see how such suggestions are useful in preparing people in the event that things DO move rapidly, but they also seem to be used to shut down some critical reflection on the adequacy of the underlying analysis (for instance I'd be interested in hearing some more back and forth on the question of Christian Fascism). There are some problematic aspects of the kind of "preparation" that occurs in such campaigns. After a frenzy of activity built around the urgency of preparing for world war or civil war (or ????), when things don't unfold as suggested its difficult to consolidate whatever gains have been made either among the masses or in terms of developing cadre, who have been trained intensely in upholding the line but not so well in navigating the uncertainties when the line proves wrong. At the risk of reopening the debate on the one who shall not be named, this is why I keep coming back to the importance of reading widely in order to develop ones own critical theoretical capacities, and the dangers in confining oneself to canonical writings of a handfull of great leaders.

That should read "freedom and necessity"

Faithless Red

Great thread, Burningman, 'cause this goes to my concern of what the foundations of revolutionary communism really are at this juncture. It seems to me that everything is on the table: democracy; Stalinism; the cult of personality; even the validity of dialectics as a means to inform action.

a comment sums up something I've been wrestling with for years now: "A lot of this discussion of "prediction" is similar to the earlier discussion "If it is a science, how could it have been wrong?" In other words, the scientific process (and the spiral from practice to theory back to practice) is not absolute, and is not some prophetic premonition. It is a material, scientific and conditional thing. It analyzes trends, potentials, contradictions and estimates of ways and degrees in which the realm in which the subjective factor can transform reality."

I'm sorry, I've heard this so long now that it all sounds so stale, teleological and tautological. The rationale goes something like: "the internal contradictions of capitalism make revolution immanent -- not imminent but close enough to prepare revolutionary minds and modes of action. The practice that undergirds our theory is proven in our practice." Yet, if this is the far future, as Ollman and fellow traveler wrote, say 20,000+ years . . . then why bother? That's nothing to build a movement on. Nothing to get the kids excited. You might as well move to Utah, have 20 kids and vote Republican to "increase the contradictions". Or, as Ollman notes, if "barbarism" is future potentiality, then how much of one, and what does that mean for contemporary action? There's a determinism there that doesn't wash.

No, of necessity a revolutionary movement or party needs to move Marxism from his more careful and cautious method into the realm of the IMMINENT, without which it has nothing to inspire the faithful. Some of the commentators have said we should just shuck or "rupture" from this deteriministic brand of dialectics, but what would that mean for revolutionary movements?

a comment hints of this difficulty when he writes: "In fact, if you haven't done rev work in non-rev times, you cant do the dog when the opening emerges."

Well, that would indicate that comment believes he'll live long enough for a chance to see the "opening emerge." What informs that belief -- dialectics? Marxism? I'd love to believe in the potential of revolution in this country, and I did for many years. But I'm in my mid-forties now and I've just seen too many movements, protests and projects, from anarchist to communist, collapse or peter out while still believing that revolution was just around the corner. I still do my work, but I can't muster much enthusiasm for what I've seen as a cyclical trend of groundless optimism. Me and my compadres are focused now on our community, building and strenghtening our values while maintaining a food collective, and I hope that's preparedness enough.


nick

the RCP has a saying: "Proletarian revolution: it is a long shot, but it is our best shot. We have made the first point, now lets throw ourselves into the second point."

It is true that the RCP has never said that a revolutionary situation is immanent (or even on the horizon).

And it is a bullshit method to say "Well, they may not have said that, but I always got the vibe that..." The RCP is always careful with its words and its analysis, and if you use the method "I judge what they believe by the feelings I get from the occasional youth activist in their trend..." well, this is a sloppy, non-scientific method that is just not worthy of a discussion like this.

So what DOES the RCP say?

First, they think that we live in an epoch of rapid changes and explosive contradictions. Where deep crisis can erupt for this system SEEMINGLY OUT OF NOWHERE.

This is a very important point, that requires dialectics (hence this thread!)

It means that the preparation of the subjective forces is a task for non-revolutionary times -- where the work done now, preparing minds and organizing forces FOR REVOLUTION, may make the difference between a deep constituional crisis that the system muddles through, and a genuine revolutionary crisis that has forces capable of successfully leading to "doing the dog in Babylon."

Now this goes against the grain in several ways. There are people with very linear (non-dialectical) thinking -- who have a long list of almost-arithmetic prerequisites for any aspirations of power. ("Let's see, we need the unions, we need a majority of the working class, we need to have patiently and pedagogically gotting the people to stage 1 then stage 2 of class concsiousness....")

And there are people who don't see that anything might suddenly shake this place to the core, and literally hurl millsions of people into desperation and struggle in ways that strain and threaten to rupture the constraints of old political loyalties and illusions.

Lenin called this "fear and disbelief of sudden turns." In fact his work "collapse of the second international" is a masterpiece of analysis -- both of the possibility of revolution, and of the dead hand of pessimism and mechanical thinking that leads people to capitulation. He wrote this when the world movement had betrayed the people, when hundreds of millions were thrown into WW1 (often in an early patriotic frenzy), and when his own forces had been broken, dispersed or exiled. And he affirms the possiblity of "sudden leaps" emerging out of this great war.

Think about it.

"Faithless red" is at least open about not seeing any chance for revolution -- however I believe that this is perhaps THE major theme fought out on this thread and this site.

And look: the options are not "pessimism or else believing revolution is just around the corner."

In fact, the possibility of revolution is real. And no one can say when or how the material forces for revolution are gathered BY THE SYSTEM ITSELF and thrown into motion.

Imagine if after escalating struggle over the rise of fascism, the Iraq war grinds on, and the whole housing pricing pyramid collapses bankrupting half the middle class and the retirement plans of millions.

Faithless red writes: "Me and my compadres are focused now on our community, building and strenghtening our values while maintaining a food collective, and I hope that's preparedness enough."

In all honesty, let me say: no. It is not. It is the politics of accomodation, built on a false and unjustified belief in the premanence of the system.

What does it prepare? It would leave the people unprepared FOR REVOLUTION, if the worm turned and this system found itself strained and rupturing in unprecendented ways.


The system is tying many contradictions of the world into a single knot in many says (analogous, but not similar to the World at war in Lenin's time).

Many things can erupt, objectively in ways we may not anticipate, and the system may not be able to contain. If you want a prediction, let me predict THAT.

We need dialectics and we need materialism.

Not to make facile "predictions" about "revoluton around the corner" but to see real life possibilities below the surface, in the sinews of real events and dynamics.

The RCP is not making simplistic predictions, but it is seeing that there are DIFFERENT possibilities hidden WITHIN this moment. And it sees that what we do (collectively) may make the difference in which of the outcomes becomes real.

Revolution? It is a long shot, but it IS our best shot.

We have made that sobering first point, but now lets work together, lets strain our every fiber and pour our very lives into the second point.

I'll be sharp here, without meaning to be personally accusatory of anyone:

Anything less than rising to our tasks as communists, anything less than "revolutionary work in non-revolutionary times" is (objectively, despite the intensions of anyone) betrayal of our responsibilities, and of the people of the world.

Another saying of the RCP:

"Revolution situations: no one but the vanguard can seize it, and no one but the vanguard can throw it away."

nick

At the risk of dragging this discussion and level down... let me say that the following is bullshit:

"At the risk of reopening the debate on the one who shall not be named, this is why I keep coming back to the importance of reading widely in order to develop ones own critical theoretical capacities, and the dangers in confining oneself to canonical writings of a handfull of great leaders."

I wrote and then rewrote the following words:

Bob Avakian is our leader not "the one who shall not be named."

Slipping in religious words like "canonal" to imply that it is all just slavish worship is an unprincipled way to make an charge (which in fact you CAN"T credibly make any other way).

Avakian is working day an night to bring a CRITICAL theoretical capability to the people and to the communists. If you dug into his method and approach, you might find your own critical capacity making leaps.

And the implication that he stands for UN-critical approachs is completely false -- and you can't justify this in any way.

If you want to engage, disagree and dig into all this, fine.
But, if you want me to engage here, leave your snide and superficial signifying someplace else. I'm sick of it.

You slip in snide religious language like "canonal" in order to imply what you cannot document.

In fact, having a leader of this stature is a good thing, not a kind of slavish religious worship in anyway.

It is one of the most positive things happening in this situation. Which is very complex, very loaded with gread dangers, and where snatching revolutionary advances from the mix will require truly visionary approaches.

Want to discuss it seriously from many sides, fine. You want to disagree and dig into those disagreements, fine.

But if you want to throw snide superficial signfiying bullshit at our chairman every fine minutes, then forget it. I just want to let you know that I'm sick of it.

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