During my conva…

During my convalescence I had bought and read for the first time “The King in Yellow.” I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the fire-light. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing from the hearth and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa, where black stars hang in the heavens, where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali, and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth — a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow. When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in “The King in Yellow,” all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterwards with more awful effect.

From The King in Yellow’s chief story, The Repairer of Reputations

Perhaps my bein…

Perhaps my being in love with Genevie had something to do with his affection for me. Not that it had ever been acknowledged between us. But after all was settled, and she had told me with tears in her eyes that it was Boris whom she loved, I went over to his house and congratulated him. The perfect cordiality of that interview did not deceive either of us, I always believed, although to one at least it was a great comfort. I do not think he and Genevie ever spoke of the matter together, but Boris knew.

From “The King in Yellow” collection, The Mask

A friendly reply to Saturn’s “Friendly rebuttal”

Haven’t gotten completely through it yet but I figure if someone takes the time to actually read and address my arguments, might as well get the light of day.

Red Atlanta

First of all, let me say that I enjoyed reading Saturn’s “Friendly rebuttal to ‘Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO’” for the simple fact that, after having been subjected to untold numbers of unfriendly critiques directed at the ISO opposition during the recent factional struggle, I found the article’s “spirit of comradeship” to be a refreshing change of pace. [1] Truly, this is the type of document that begs for someone to reply in kind.

For this reason, I wanted to take the time to respond to Saturn’s article. I’ll begin my reply by first outlining the content of the argument that Saturn’s piece seeks to critique. Following this, I’ll then detail Saturn’s own argument. Finally, I’ll conclude by expounding upon my own opinions on the matter.

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growing up, losing energy, staying rad

When I was younger my radical politics was truly an extension of my hyperactivity.  They would cart me to school where I was basically a caged animal for about six hours a day.  I didn’t work.  They made me sit in my seat quietly and I was always bursting with energy.  Any unleashing of this energy was a transgression against the rules of stillness and silence, and thus a rebellion of sorts, if not an effective one.

Those days are so gone.

It’s not so much that I was biologically more energetic when younger.  I’m only 25.  It’s not age.  It’s work, the work and responsibilities that are expected with age.  Work beats the shit out of me and robs me of the vitality which used to be the core of my identity.  Now I don’t know what I am.

My concern with having to work full time, make money and support myself, as most working adults do, has definitely disrupted the revolutionary monomania which I used to possess.  I was like a laser.  Somehow, an emotionless resolve remains dominant in what guides my actions.  Still, my past state of overflowing with energy could fuel a revolution.  I focused on it completely as long as I physically could.  I didn’t think about my personal, practical future until it was forced on me because I was too focused on changing the world.  I don’t regret my choices — I regret living in this situation.

Now, energy is a scarce thing that I must protect and manage like candle-flames in the rain.  I have to go to bed early, not blow time getting thoughtlessly lost in some deviant train of thought.  No time to take off work — no traveling to faraway conferences full of other manic agitators.

As the jaws of responsibility close in and my boy-to-man transition finalizes, I feel I’m nowhere near the man I used to be.

Some people say that in slow times, radicals need to find other hobbies.  I disagree.  In slow times, radicals need to figure out how to turn the slow times fast.

But this doesn’t help with the physical fact that as we grow up, the way we clenched our guts in absolute insistence is no longer sustainable.  We don’t have the energy.

If life was truly short, this would be easy.  We would fight, go out with a bang, die.  But that doesn’t work because we live too long.  And a few individuals going Thelma and Louise doesn’t work, either, because you have to work from the perspective of others, millions of others, and they live too long for courage as well.

Time makes cowards and hypocrites of us all.  A lot of the old-timers who have stayed radical aren’t much better off, because if they’d been doing things right, our situation would be far different by now.

More than ever we need a kind of socialist organizing which merges with 30-year olds, 40-year olds, and 50-year olds — a kind of activism compatible with people who have kids, who work completely apolitical jobs, people who don’t have time to obsess over pet debates.  It must be less demonstrative and confrontational, and more social, less intellectual, more human.  It must be a community — but not apolitical — a politicized community.  And not a community in the sense of the metal “community” which is mostly a socially disconnected fanbase.  A real community does all the things you would think of communities doing — being friends, hanging out, sharing food, finding each other jobs and other stuff, taking care of kids.

This is an approach that actually takes into account the material reality of human beings — their need for companionship, comfort, and occasional good times.  Acknowledging this would be the same act of “the fish discovering the ocean” as when I realized that an astute Marxist pays attention to their own material circumstances, too.

It’s tempting to think that the only true emotions are impulses, and that long dispassionate efforts are artificial, forced, and inauthentic.  Actually, this is true.  The key is to continually rekindle the flame by forgetting for a moment about the staircase, and obsessing all of your energies solely on this step, and fighting like hell for political success right here and right now, making everything out of this moment that can be made.

Perhaps the energetic, animating deathwish of my youth is different from the responsible long haul of real, grown-up revolutionary politics.  Or perhaps not.  Time to set up Fight Club for $15.

Friendly rebuttal to “Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO”

Response to this article.

This is not about how you are all traitors or anything, or about democracy.  Instead it is about idealism and ideological radicalization.

I 100% agree that Trotskyism has a deep, problematic element of thinking “the exact right ideas” will magically solve everything.  My disagreement is more about what is going on here-and-now today in the USA.  Some people in Renewal and other post-ISO formations have argued that the ISO is overconfident, expects too much, and overestimates class consciousness.  They mock the ISO’s perspective that society is undergoing an ideological radicalization.

This seems to be a big difference between me and a lot of the post-ISO scene.  Actually I think the ISO is dead-on accurate about that particular issue, and the things holding them up are other problems I’ve written about elsewhere.

To be blunt, if someone can’t see that society is going through a tremendously noticeable leftward ideological shift, they don’t have a very good nose for sensing the politics of the masses.  I recommend that people attempt to explain the ISO’s lack of growth in some other fashion than “the masses aren’t ready,” because they really are.

 

IDEAS ARE A MATERIAL FACTOR/WHEN THE SUPERSTRUCTURE DETERMINES THE BASE

A difference between deterministic materialism and dialectical materialism is a recognition that multiple factors and layers of reality exist in a continual state of mutually influencing each other.

Marx: “It’s not consciousness that determines life, but rather life determines consciousness.”

Here a theme is established: matter is the base, consciousness is the superstructure.  Agreed.

However, the mutually-influencing relationship between base and superstructure is left unexplored by this quote alone.  If we are truly materialists, isn’t consciousness part of matter (in this case “life”)?  Consciousness certainly exists.  We are not reductionists.  Actually many Marxists have a tough time at precisely this point — they are unconsciously reductionist, they believe that consciousness is not real, that it is just some kind of illusion.  But even an illusion is real, as an illusion.  Consciousness exists.

If life determines consciousness, but consciousness is a sub-category of life, doesn’t this mean that sometimes consciousness determines consciousness, or that consciousness determines consciousness in collusion with a number of other material factors?

This is really hard for many Marxists to swallow.  The idea of consciousness arising out of itself smacks of idealism.  The thing to remember is that if you are truly a dialectical materialist, consciousness is material.  This means that consciousness arising out of consciousness is merely a subcategory of matter arising out of a subcategory matter.  There’s nothing mystical about it, nothing idealist.

Try this Marx quote on:

“The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.”  (Introduction to Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

This means that the ideas in people’s heads matter, and they become all the more important as those ideas take on a mass character, or as they become an idea shared in common at a large scale.  Mass consciousness, like any other consciousness, is material.

We must be honest about what this means — the line between base and superstructure gets very blurry.  There is a chicken-and-egg causality.  This is part of why I have engaged with Maoism and the writings of Kasama Project, despite my being irreconcilably hostile to authoritarian regimes — Maoism is a form of Marxism which problematizes the base-superstructure relationship.

Indeed, this is not the only time Marx blurs the lines between base and superstructure!  In discussing how the state is used to found capitalism through the brutal violence of “primitive accumulation,” Marx writes in Capital,

These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g. the colonial system.  But they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to short then transition.  Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.  It is itself an economic power.

So it’s not just consciousness which acts as a superstructure which can turn around and transform the base.  Politics and the state are also superstructural, and yet can also qualitatively change the base.  Again, this is the dividing line between dialectical materialism and deterministic materialism.

 

LEARNING BY ACTION AND/OR EXPERIENCE

Some post-ISO folk have asserted that opinion polls are not a good indicator of class consciousness.  The article I’m responding to instead states that class consciousness is really only best measured by things that people do, like in belonging to unions, or striking.  In this model, opinion polls are thrown out while strike statistics are a big focus.

However, this fails to reflect that having a militant, combative working class is practically half the battle — truly, it is a revolution already half-won.  We need to figure out creative ways of getting to that halfway mark which may or may not rely on people’s ability to act in the workplace.  We may have to channel people’s radicalization through other outlets, such as solidarity networks or militant electoral campaigns.  These, too, are forms of class struggle.

To reduce the Marxist perspective on how people form ideas down to “people learn by doing” is an oversimplification.  What about what people experience?  If more people have money difficulties than they used to, does this not force a sharp consciousness of economics and inequality onto the population?  Isn’t a downwardly-mobile middle class actually class-conscious in the extreme?  Certain statistics have argued that this demographic is who formed the ranks of Occupy.

The article in question says, “people generally act beyond their consciousness and only begin to understand their actions later.”  That’s part of the equation of how learning happens in a materialist model, but it’s not the entirety.  It also quotes Gramsci (and it’s a good quote):

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless is an understanding of the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed (Prison Notebooks).

When discussing the “practical activity” which seems to have a more radical ideology “implicit” in it, Gramsci is not necessarily discussing open class conflict only, or even primarily.  In the Manifesto, Marx describe class struggle as “an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.”

What’s being discussed here is not anything related to something so explicit as strike statistics.  Actually, merely suffering the daily grind of capitalism, and experiencing its economic crises, is what causes the leftward drift in mass consciousness.  The “practical activity” of the “man-in-the-mass” includes going to work every day, getting laid off due to restructuring, hired later for the same job at a lower salary, or unemployment, or a crappy service job with total insecurity.  When I read it, the primary meaning of “practical activity” in Gramsci’s quote seems to be daily work, not open struggle.

People experience class struggle every day — but not on the picket line.  Unfortunately, class struggle includes the savage one-sided class war where we all get our asses handed to us by the rich.  This structures workers’ daily economic activity.  We learn through doing, not just in the sense of learning by fighting, but also learning through the struggle for survival.  And beyond merely learning by doing is learning from material experience, which may seem more passive, but is nonetheless a real material factor on consciousness, which often poses a radical alternative to capitalist mis-education.

——

The tragedy of a perspective focused on union density or strike statistics is that it can badly miss opportunities to tap into the class anger which is everywhere by more or less pretending it isn’t there, or disregarding it as some ephemeral wave not grounded in real practice.  Many people have low confidence in the workplace, but they are very willing to take political action in arenas where they believe they can win, or where they do not face the excruciating vulnerabilities of being at the mercy of a boss.

So yes, opinion polls matter, because ideas are a material force, and because people learn through experience too, not through action alone.  Repressed social tension mutates, and returns.  It’s like a hydra — cut off one head, another pops up somewhere else.  Don’t expect to predict its form.

Anyway, this is written in a spirit of comradeship.  I hope it’s been fun.