Intellectuals

18
Oct

What is there to celebrate?


By Eric Foner

C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian 
by James Cobb.
North Carolina Press,
504 pp., £39.50,



During the​ 1950s and 1960s, a generation of academics rose to prominence in the United States with books and essays that breached the wall separating the university and the broader public. Many of them were historians, including Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Invocations of history punctuated debates over the Cold War, civil rights and Vietnam. But none of these ‘public intellectuals’ reached a larger audience or had a greater social and political impact than C. Vann Woodward, whose books and essays concerned the nation’s most enduring problem, racial inequality. Historians are often warned about the dangers of ‘presentism’. But Woodward demonstrated that history can illuminate the world in which the scholar lives. Readers who sought to understand the civil rights revolution that dismantled the Southern racial system of Jim Crow turned to Woodward’s writings. By the time he died in 1999, many of his historical findings had been challenged by younger historians and Woodward himself had become disaffected with trends in both the writing of history and the struggle for racial justice. Yet he was widely considered, to borrow the subtitle of James Cobb’s new biography, America’s historian.

Most historians are not very introspective and lead uneventful lives, making things difficult for their biographers. So it’s understandable that Cobb, a historian at the University of Georgia, focuses almost entirely on Woodward’s intellectual and political career. Drawing on his subject’s writings and his voluminous papers at Yale, where Woodward taught from 1961 to 1977, Cobb portrays a scholar impatient with the mythologies, distortions and misguided hero worship that for most of the 20th century inhibited discussion of the South’s many problems.

Born in 1908 in Vanndale, a small town in Arkansas that serviced the area’s cotton economy, Comer Vann Woodward was a member of a prominent local family (Vanndale had been named after his mother’s family). Woodward understood early that the Jim Crow system, built on the disenfranchisement of Black voters, lynching, racial segregation and a biased criminal justice system, made a travesty of the country’s supposed commitment to equality and opportunity. Where did his rebellious outlook originate? Cobb credits the influence of his uncle and namesake, Comer, who wasn’t afraid to denounce the local Ku Klux Klan. There were other influences, too. While working on a master’s degree at Columbia in 1931-32, Woodward met Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and other African American writers and activists. In the summer of 1932, he travelled to Europe; his itinerary included a visit to the Soviet Union. On his return, he became involved in the defence of Angelo Herndon, a Black communist convicted of violating Georgia’s 19th-century ‘insurrection’ law, originally intended to discourage slave rebellions, by organising Black and white factory workers. The Herndon case became an international cause célèbre and led to a Supreme Court ruling invalidating the statute as a violation of freedom of speech. (Woodward’s experience working with communists did not escape the notice of the FBI. In 1951, he was denied security clearance for an appointment as historical adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) In the summer of 1935, Woodward came face to face with the dire poverty of tenant farmers while working for a New Deal agency surveying social conditions in rural Georgia.

Like any complex social system, Jim Crow required ideological legitimation. As Woodward later wrote, historians who were united in their ‘dedication to the present order’ helped to provide it. By the 1930s, a distinctive account of history had become an orthodoxy among white Southerners, endlessly reiterated in classrooms and on public monuments. It rested on a number of axioms: slavery had been a benign institution; the Confederacy was a glorious Lost Cause; Reconstruction – the experiment in biracial democracy that followed the Civil War – was a time of misgovernment and corruption; the self-styled Redeemers, who rescued the South from the supposed horrors of ‘Negro rule’ by overthrowing Reconstruction, were the inheritors of the values of the Old South; a New South was emerging and with it the promise of widespread prosperity. This dogma held sway even at the University of North Carolina, a centre of Southern liberalism, where Woodward earned his doctorate. In 1935, he wrote to a friend that he had ‘not gleaned a single scholarly idea from any professor’. Things changed later that year, however, with the arrival of Howard K. Beale.

Beale was a disciple of the historian Charles Beard, who taught that political ideology was a mask for economic self-interest. Beale had recently published The Critical Year, in which he followed Beard in viewing the Civil War not as a struggle over slavery but as a second American Revolution, which transferred political power from Southern planters to Northern industrialists. The Radical Republicans of the era were less interested in the rights of the former slaves than in using Black votes to help fasten Northern economic control on the defeated South. For the rest of his career, Woodward remained something of a Beardian. In the acknowledgments to one of his books, he paid tribute to Beard as the ‘dean of historians’.

Woodward received his doctorate in 1937. Over the next two decades he produced four books that established him as one of the most influential historical voices of his generation: Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938), a slightly revised version of his dissertation; Reunion and Reaction (1951), in which he argued in good Beardian fashion that railroad magnates were the key architects of the ‘bargain’ that resolved the disputed election of 1876 and ended Reconstruction; Origins of the New South (1951), an all-out critique of the political and social order created by the Redeemers; and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), an examination of the origins of segregation. These books demolished every important feature of the orthodox historical credo. The revered Redeemers were not the direct descendants of Old South planters but a new class of business-oriented merchants and industrialists, closely linked to the North. The state regimes they headed were as guilty of corruption as they claimed Southern governments had been during Reconstruction. Contrary to received wisdom, the New South was a ‘stunted neocolonial economy’, whose sharecropping and credit systems consigned Black and white tenant farmers alike to peonage. Even though some of Woodward’s arguments inspired spirited rebuttal, these books established the agenda for generations of historians of the 19th-century South.

This was presentism in the service of radical social change. Woodward hoped to discredit the existing Southern ruling class by exposing the ‘ethical bankruptcy’ of the Redeemers, from whom they claimed descent. Moreover, history, he insisted, offered home-grown alternatives to Jim Crow. In his biography of Tom Watson, Woodward traced the transformation of a leader of the People’s Party, or Populists, from an advocate of political and economic co-operation among Black and white small farmers into a vicious racist, the only possible route to electoral success once the region’s elite had eliminated Black voting. In the early 1890s, Watson had brought to mixed-race audiences the message that small farmers of both races shared the same economic interests and should unite in common cause. For decades, Woodward would defend the historical reputation of the People’s Party, especially against the criticism of his friend Richard Hofstadter, who argued that the insurgent farmers exemplified the way Americans suffering from economic decline turned to conspiracy theories and cultural hatreds to understand their plight. Woodward would later yield to critics who insisted that he had exaggerated the extent and sincerity of white populists’ appeal for Black support. ‘It was a book for the 1930s and of the 1930s,’ he explained. Today, when ‘populist’ is commonly used as a term of abuse, promiscuously applied to figures who share nothing in common, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, it remains striking how long Woodward insisted that far from representing what Hofstadter called the ‘paranoid style’ of American politics, the People’s Party had advanced ‘one of the most thoroughgoing critiques of corporate America and its culture we have had’.

A different road not taken was central to Woodward’s argument in The Strange Career of Jim Crow. The timing could not have been better for this brief, lucid book, which appeared not long after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Brown is now widely viewed as the court’s most important ruling of the 20th century, and it is easy to forget how quickly the South’s white leadership launched a campaign of ‘massive resistance’ in order to preserve Jim Crow, and that many national leaders, including Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, and President Eisenhower himself, bought into Southern arguments that segregation had existed from time immemorial and would prove impossible to uproot. Woodward presented a counter-history, a usable past for the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Segregation, Woodward insisted, was a recent invention, not a timeless feature of Southern life. It had not existed in the Old South (it would make little sense to try to separate the races under slavery) and was not immediately implemented after the Civil War. In fact, it wasn’t enshrined in law until the 1890s. Before then, indeterminacy defined Southern race relations. Black and white people mingled in railroad cars and sat next to one another in restaurants, theatres and other places of public accommodation. Why could they not do so again? The book’s influence, wrote the Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, stemmed from its contemporary significance: ‘The race problem was made and … men can unmake it.’ This optimistic historical lesson persisted even after other historians called into question important parts of Woodward’s account. In revised editions of the book that appeared in 1965 and 1974, he acknowledged that segregation had a longer history than he had allowed. It was already present in the pre-Civil War North and Woodward kept pushing the date of its emergence in the South back in time, admitting that segregation had existed as a social reality well before being codified in law.

Woodward did not rely solely on scholarship to ‘unmake’ the racism so deeply embedded in the academy and society at large. He also worked to eradicate it within the Southern Historical Association (SHA). Cobb’s account of Woodward’s campaign to desegregate the group’s annual meetings would be funny if it didn’t offer a reminder of the daily humiliations Blacks experienced under Jim Crow. State law and local custom forbade venues from allowing Black participants to eat with white attendees or lodge in the same hotel. The 1949 meeting was held at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Woodward arranged for John Hope Franklin, a Black historian who had just published From Slavery to Freedom, a pioneering survey of African American history, to deliver a paper. But where would Franklin sleep and eat? Woodward facetiously suggested that Franklin bring along a ‘pup tent and K-rations’. What if he needed the bathroom? Franklin could hardly be expected to use the primitive toilet facilities set aside for the college’s waiters, gardeners and other Black employees. In the end, the distinguished historian Carl Bridenbaugh offered to give Franklin a key to his own house for use when he needed to relieve himself. Franklin’s participation went off without incident. The SHA, however, quickly reverted to meeting in places where Blacks could not attend alongside whites. It comes as a shock to read that not until 1962 did the SHA’s executive committee resolve that the organisation would meet only in venues where Black and white participants were treated the same.

Woodward’s​ book on Jim Crow marked the end of his career as a research historian. His subsequent books consisted largely of previously published essays and book reviews. Some of his best-known pieces tackled the fraught question of Southern identity. He pointed to the irony that even as the Cold War intensified claims about American exceptionalism, the South in fact shared key historical experiences – military defeat, widespread poverty, colonial exploitation – with many other countries. The rest of the nation, he suggested, might learn something from historians of the South, not least humility.

In this later phase of his career, Woodward acted as a kind of gatekeeper, using his connections and reputation to promote the advancement, via jobs, fellowships and book reviews, of his former graduate students. Many of them, including Barbara Fields, James McPherson, Louis Harlan and Steven Hahn, would go on to celebrated careers of their own. Most studied the 19th-century South; as a result, the Festschrift they produced for Woodward in 1982 has a coherence such books usually lack. Like many other ‘star’ professors, Woodward was often on leave, seeking, Cobb writes, to minimise ‘time spent in the classroom’. But he devoted time to reading and evaluating manuscripts not only for friends and students but also for historians with whom he had no personal connection. He sometimes bent the rules, writing reviews of books that originated in dissertations he himself had supervised, and suggesting to editors the names of writers, including his students, to review his own works. Cobb’s account reminds us of the small size and homogeneity of the interconnected worlds of publishing, reviewing and teaching before the expansion of colleges and universities in the 1960s and the advent of significant numbers of women and members of minority groups. A few prestigious journals published the same writers over and over again. Cobb counts more than 250 book reviews written by Woodward himself during the course of his career, including fifty in the New York Review of Books and 21 in the New York Times.

All this extracurricular activity helps explain why Woodward never wrote his long-planned and eagerly awaited general history of Reconstruction. Judging from evidence in his papers, he seemed genuinely uncertain how such a book should be organised, whether he should directly engage with what he called ‘the century-old debate’ on the era, and if he should include comparison with other societies that experienced the end of slavery (an approach he pioneered). As Woodward mulled over such questions, the history of Reconstruction was being rewritten, in part by his students. The old image of the period, trotted out whenever the argument was made that Black people shouldn’t have the right to vote, was superseded. While hardly unaware of the era’s failings, younger scholars were broadly sympathetic to the impulse to remake the South after the Civil War. Abolitionists and Radical Republicans, whose professions of concern for the rights of freed people Woodward had long viewed sceptically, were now being lionised as principled crusaders for justice, forerunners of the civil rights movement. Woodward was put off by Northerners who, wielding ‘legends of emancipation’, lectured the South about its failings. In a letter to the historian William J. Carleton in 1945, he wrote that Charles Sumner, among the most principled of the Radical egalitarians, ‘nauseates me’. Woodward believed the post-Civil War Northern commitment to racial equality had been weak and short-lived and that Reconstruction failed as much because of persistent Northern racism as rampant Southern violence.

Beginning in the 1960s, new scholarship was placing the former slaves – their aspirations, activism and understanding of freedom – at the centre of the Reconstruction story. In previous works, Woodward had primarily portrayed Blacks as victims, not active historical agents, and he did not explore deeply the grassroots Black leadership, which would now be a necessary part of any general history of the era. He understood why Reconstruction appealed to a new generation, but cautioned against viewing it as ‘in some ways a sort of Golden Age’. He felt uncomfortable with the directions in which the field was moving. One suspects that he was not interested in engaging in a debate with the authors of the new historiography, many of whom he had taught.

As he approached retirement, Woodward entered what one former student called his ‘Tory period’. He took positions that surprised, even shocked, many of his admirers. While admitting that he was ‘embarrassed’ to say so, he opposed a plan to admit women as fellows to one of Yale’s colleges. ‘Tory’, however, may be an exaggeration. He did nothing to hide his distaste for the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, and – more in keeping with his earlier sentiments – lent his name to public statements protesting against the Vietnam War, and organised a group of historians who prepared a report for the House impeachment committee on abuses of presidential power in US history. Turning down an invitation to contribute to a book of essays celebrating the bicentennial of American independence in 1976, he replied, ‘I am, in fact, beginning to wonder what there is to celebrate.’

Perhaps the most controversial moment in this phase of his career came in the mid-1970s, when Woodward orchestrated a campaign to prevent Herbert Aptheker from teaching a seminar on the life of W.E.B. Du Bois at a Yale college. The university allowed colleges, with the approval of an academic department, to offer classes taught by persons without an academic position but with other kinds of expertise. Aptheker’s Documentary History of the Negro People was an indispensable work used in courses throughout the country. His American Negro Slave Revolts was the only scholarly book on that subject. He had written important journal articles on Black abolitionism and on Reconstruction and was editing a projected collection of Du Bois’s correspondence. He was also a leading member of the American Communist Party. As such he had been blacklisted for decades by the academy. Woodward was an ardent foe of McCarthyism. In 1966, he had taken part in a panel at the Socialist Scholars Conference along with Aptheker and the Marxist historian of slavery Eugene D. Genovese. At that time, when the shadow of McCarthyism still hung over the academic world, for an intellectual of Woodward’s standing to appear alongside Aptheker had been a powerful statement that the latter was part of the guild of historians. It wasn’t unlike when movie studios a few years earlier had given screen credit to Dalton Trumbo for writing the films Exodus and Spartacus, marking the beginning of the end of the Hollywood blacklist. But at Yale the Aptheker affair did not work out that way.

Woodward mobilised opposition to the proposed seminar. Aptheker’s work, he insisted, was not up to Yale’s standards. At his behest, the history department declined to sponsor the course. But the political science department agreed to do so. Woodward brought his case to the faculty committee that approved such classes (normally a formality), which at first rejected the course then subsequently approved it. The dispute dragged on for years; in the end Aptheker did teach his seminar on Du Bois, twice. The students suffered no known adverse consequences. But Woodward’s reputation for open-mindedness received a serious blow, especially among the rising generation of historians.

Aptheker was white, but Woodward’s crusade against the proposed course dovetailed with his growing distaste for the shift in focus of the civil rights struggle from integration to calls for Black Power and its corollary on campus, demands for the establishment of Black studies programmes. He spoke out against multiculturalism, as well as militant students’ insistence that Black professors teach the new courses on Black history. Often, as the Black historian Sterling Stuckey pointed out, Woodward seemed to conflate students’ rhetoric with the scholarship, often outstanding, being produced for these courses. Elected president of the Organisation of American Historians in 1969, Woodward devoted his presidential address to criticism of Black studies. Coming a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the title of his lecture, ‘Clio with Soul’, seemed condescending to Black historians. He warned white scholars against aligning with this ‘fashionable cause’ and advised the ‘brother in black’ not to embrace ‘a mystique of skin colour’ or to elevate ‘deservedly neglected figures’ such as African kings and ghetto hustlers to the status of heroes. His insinuation that universities were employing Black academics solely on the basis of their race cost him his long friendship with John Hope Franklin (who had been hired a few years earlier by the University of Chicago).

Woodward died in 1999, hailed inside and outside the academy for his pioneering scholarship and ‘moral leadership’ in a profession that for most of the 20th century sorely needed it. Historical interests, of course, change over time. Woodward’s books, even The Strange Career of Jim Crow, are no longer widely assigned in college classes. This is unfortunate not only because of the enduring quality of his writing, but because they offer an inspiring example of engaged scholarship. At its best, Woodward’s work demonstrated that history enables us to pass judgment on the world around us. He employed his historical imagination to help bring down the towering edifice of Jim Crow. That is an accomplishment of which any historian would be proud.

Category : Intellectuals | Racism | US History | Blog
6
Jan

China’s Loose Canon

 

china-old
Qing Dynasty painting depicting Confucius presenting Buddha to Laozi

By Shaun Tan

China-US Focus

Many people are familiar with the Western canon, those core works of literature, history, and philosophy that are considered essential to the study of the subject. In the West, students of literature read Shakespeare and Cervantes, students of history read Herodotus and Thucydides, and students of philosophy read Plato and Aristotle. This canon is considered an integral part of Western civilization, and has shaped thinkers, artists, and statesmen for generations.

Yet few outside China know much about the Chinese canon, a canon that is as rich and valuable as its Western counterpart, that has been revered and reviled at different points in Chinese history, and which may be the key to consolidating the Chinese Communist Party’s authority – or destroying it.

In the field of literature, it includes what’s known as “the four great books,” The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber.

The Water Margin features 108 heroes who, renouncing a corrupt and unjust Song Dynasty, form a band of outlaws and live, Robin Hood-style, in a marsh, righting wrongs and defending the weak in accordance with their own (extremely violent) code of honor. It explores the theme of a just insurgency, with the heroes choosing to serve “the will of heaven” over the Song rule of law.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a historical novel, and follows the breakup of the Han Dynasty into three warring kingdoms. It relates the battles and the intrigues as the three kingdoms vie for supremacy. Its characters show strategic brilliance, nobility, and valor, but also hubris, stupidity, and self-destructive envy, in short, the full spectrum of human nature amidst triumph and disaster.

The Journey to the West is a fantastical account of the monk Tripitaka’s journey to bring Buddhism from India to China, in the company of an anarchic fighting monkey, a lustful pig demon, and a fearsome sand demon, and the adventures they have on the way. The central theme of the comic novel is the tension between temptation and virtue, between passion and discipline, as the heroes strive (or fail) to live up to Buddhist ideals.

The greatest of the four is Dream of the Red Chamber. This novel follows the doomed romance of the protagonist Baoyu with his cousin Daiyu amidst the decline and revival of the illustrious Jia family. Its excellence lies in its execution, in its witty and spirited characters, in its colorful depiction of life inside a great house peopled by relatives and servants and the complex, shifting relations between them. It is a meditation on the meaning of life, as Baoyu is caught between his natural romanticism, the stern Confucianism of his father, and the Buddhist detachment born of suffering and enlightenment. Blurring the lines between reality and illusion, it is a bittersweet tribute to youth and youth’s end.

In the field of history, the Records of the Grand Historian are widely regarded as the greatest classical work of history. Written by Sima Qian, the Records cover over two thousand years of Chinese history. Depicting rulers with all their virtues and vices, it’s the primary means by which we know of many of them today.

The Chinese philosophical canon begins with Confucius. Far from the patron saint of Asian authoritarianism, as he is so often made out to be by opportunistic Asian dictators and clueless Western commentators, Confucius actually counseled balance, reciprocal obligations between ruler and ruled, and integrity in the face of unjust authority.

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Category : China | Intellectuals | Philosophy | Blog
27
Aug

When Cold War philosophy tied rational choice theory to scientific method, it embedded the free-market mindset in US society

By John McCumber

Aeon Magazine

McCumber is professor of Germanic Languages at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book is The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (2016).

The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was worried. It was May 1954, and UCLA had been independent of Berkeley for just two years. Now its Office of Public Information had learned that the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner was preparing one or more articles on communist infiltration at the university. The news was hardly surprising. UCLA, sometimes called the ‘little Red schoolhouse in Westwood’, was considered to be a prime example of communist infiltration of universities in the United States; an article in The Saturday Evening Post in October 1950 had identified it as providing ‘a case history of what has been done at many schools’.

The chancellor, Raymond B Allen, scheduled an interview with a ‘Mr Carrington’ – apparently Richard A Carrington, the paper’s publisher – and solicited some talking points from Andrew Hamilton of the Information Office. They included the following: ‘Through the cooperation of our police department, our faculty and our student body, we have always defeated such [subversive] attempts. We have done this quietly and without fanfare – but most effectively.’ Whether Allen actually used these words or not, his strategy worked. Scribbled on Hamilton’s talking points, in Allen’s handwriting, are the jubilant words ‘All is OK – will tell you.’

Allen’s victory ultimately did him little good. Unlike other UCLA administrators, he is nowhere commemorated on the Westwood campus, having suddenly left office in 1959, after seven years in his post, just ahead of a football scandal. The fact remains that he was UCLA’s first chancellor, the premier academic Red hunter of the Joseph McCarthy era – and one of the most important US philosophers of the mid-20th century.

This is hard to see today, when philosophy is considered one of academia’s more remote backwaters. But as the country emerged from the Second World War, things were different. John Dewey and other pragmatists were still central figures in US intellectual life, attempting to summon the better angels of American nature in the service, as one of Dewey’s most influential titles had it, of democracy and education’. In this they were continuing one of US philosophy’s oldest traditions, that of educating students and the general public to appreciate their place in a larger order of values. But they had reconceived the nature of that order: where previous generations of US philosophers had understood it as divinely ordained, the pragmatists had come to see it as a social order. This attracted suspicion from conservative religious groups, who kept sharp eyes on philosophy departments on the grounds that they were the only place in the universities where atheism might be taught (Dewey’s associate Max Otto resigned a visiting chair at UCLA after being outed as an atheist by the Examiner). As communism began its postwar spread across eastern Europe, this scrutiny intensified into a nationwide crusade against communism and, as the UCLA campus paper The Daily Bruin put it, ‘anything which might faintly resemble it’.

And that was not the only political pressure on philosophy at the time. Another, more intellectual, came from the philosophical attractiveness of Marxism, which was rapidly winning converts not only in Europe but in Africa and Asia as well. The view that class struggle in Western countries would inevitably lead, via the pseudoscientific ‘iron laws’ of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, to worldwide communist domination was foreign to Marx himself. But it provided a ‘scientific’ veneer for Soviet great-power interests, and people all over the world were accepting it as a coherent explanation for the Depression, the Second World War and ongoing poverty. As the political philosopher S M Amadae has shown in Rationalising Capitalist Democracy (2003), many Western intellectuals at the time did not think that capitalism had anything to compete with this. A new philosophy was needed, one that provided what the nuanced approaches of pragmatism could not: an uncompromising vindication of free markets and contested elections.

The McCarthyite pressure, at first, was the stronger. To fight the witch-hunters, universities needed to do exactly what Allen told the Examiner that UCLA was doing: quickly and quietly identify communists on campus and remove them from teaching positions. There was, however, a problem with this: wasn’t it censorship? And wasn’t censorship what we were supposed to be fighting against?

It was Allen himself who solved this problem when, as president of the University of Washington in 1948-49, he had to fire two communists who had done nothing wrong except join the Communist Party. Joseph Butterworth, whose field was medieval literature, was not considered particularly subversive. But Herbert Phillips was a philosophy professor. He not only taught the work of Karl Marx, but began every course by informing the students that he was a committed Marxist, and inviting them to judge his teaching in light of that fact. This meant that he could not be ‘subverting’ his students – they knew exactly what they were getting. Allen nevertheless came under heavy pressure to fire him.

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Category : Cold War | Intellectuals | Philosophy | US History | Blog
29
Dec

By Lauren Langman

Introduction

The progressive social movements of 2011, followed by the rise of Left parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, can be best understood as what Herbert Marcuse called the Great Refusal: rejections and contestations of domination reflecting a variety of grievances stemming from the multiple legitimation crises of contemporary capitalism. As Jürgen Habermas argued, the multiple legitimation crises of the capitalist system migrate to lifeworld, the realms of subjectivity and motivation that evoke strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, and indignation that dispose social mobilizations.[1] What is especially evident as a goal of these movements is the quest for dignity as rooted in an emancipatory, philosophical, anthropological critique of alienation, domination, and suffering pioneered by the Frankfurt School—quite cogently argued in Marcuse’s analysis of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.[2] But grievances and emotions do not lead to sustained social movements; there must be recruitment, organizing and organization building, leadership, strategy, tactics, and vision. The Frankfurt School’s critique of domination can be complemented by Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony in which “organic intellectuals” understand how the system operates (with due attention to the salience of the cultural barriers to change), while also proffering counterhegemonic narratives, organizing subalterns, and initiating “wars of position.” A critical perspective on contemporary social movements provides a politically informed critique with visions of utopian possibility in which membership in democratic, egalitarian, identity-granting/recognizing communities of meaning allows for, indeed fosters, community, agency, creative self-realization, and the dignity of all.

I. Ideology, Hegemony, and Domination

Why do the vast majority of people “willingly assent” to the domination by the few, despite vast economic inequalities, growing hardships, and the thwarting of the self? This has long been one of the central questions for the Frankfurt School’s critique of ideology and character structure in which authority becomes embedded within the self, making possible uncritical acceptance and conformity. These insights provide the rich understanding of the conditions of our age, especially of those that enable (or thwart) emancipatory social movements.

The grievances that result from the contradictions and adversities of neoliberal capitalism need to be articulated by intellectually informed, radical activists. Quite independently of the Frankfurt School, a parallel line of analysis and critique was developed by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist theoretician and organizer who conceptualized “hegemony” as the ideological control of culture, which produces the “willing assent” to the domination of the “historic bloc” (the capitalists) and through which the “naturalization” of the historically arbitrary is presented as normal, natural, and in the best interests of all.[3] For Gramsci, the critique of hegemony and the development of counterhegemonic ideologies and organizational practices are the tasks of “organic intellectuals” who understand the role of culture in sustaining domination. They understand the ways in which the dominant culture thwarts political and social change, which in turn necessitates a cultural rebellion, mediated through the “wars of position” in which counterhegemonic discourses would overcome cultural barriers and the “normality” of social existing arrangements in order to achieve social transformation. One of the major tactics for such organization is so-called “popular education,” which enables people to understand how ruling class privileges are based on the exploitation of the masses. Gramsci’s analysis complements the Frankfurt School’s critiques, while his experiences as an activist provide insights and tools to envision and, indeed, make possible an alternative kind of society.

A. Critical Theory

1. The Psychological Foundations of Politics

The Frankfurt School brought psychoanalysis into the critique of domination. From Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, they subsequently developed a political psychology in which authoritarianism, an aspect of character acquired in childhood, made possible the embrace of conservative, indeed reactionary politics.[4] The understanding of the superego as internalized authority, showed that people would passionately submit to “powerful,” authoritative leaders in order to gain their love and assuage feelings of anxiety, loneliness, powerlessness, and meaninglessness.[5] Thus, authoritarians are psychologically disposed to embrace the elite’s political agendas that stress toughness, determination, and power. Authoritarianism is typically coupled with a sadomasochistic need to dominate, denigrate, and feel contempt toward the weak and the helpless, and authoritarians typically project aggression toward the out-groups (paranoia).

The early Frankfurt School studies of authoritarianism showed how these authoritarian character structures resonated with fascist propaganda and ideology. In a number of books, papers and empirical studies of working-class Germans, and a large postwar study of Americans, authoritarianism was shown to be highly correlated with the conservative to reactionary political positions that glorified authority, denigrated subordinates, and projected anger and aggression toward the out-groups, especially racial minorities and Jews. Authoritarians are thus generally patriarchal, homophobic, and racist, in addition to being highly conventional, conformist, and maintaining a rigid, black–white, either–or, cognitive stance. The enduring significance of these studies can be seen in the contemporary work of Robert Altemeyer.[6] We might also note that, in many ways, these studies of authoritarianism anticipated some of the recent approaches in cognitive psychology and emotion research.

Nevertheless, while being a crucial aspect of political beliefs and actions, authoritarianism is only a part of the story of the internalization of various ideologies. Following what has been said, it is absolutely essential to underline the fact that people’s political beliefs are not shaped by rational considerations, logic, or evidence. Rather, the character structure and the patterning of various needs and desires shape the ways in which people perceive the world, evaluate events, and choose actions. For Gramsci, the ideological control of culture shaped the production of ideology to produce the “willing assent” to domination. But, without a theory of psychodynamics, he could not explain the motivation of people to assent to their own subordination. In 1930, Freud provides the first hint, claiming that the values, norms and laws of society that demand sexual repression and obedience to social dictates, are mediated through the identification with parents, and become sedimented within the superego.[7] People subsequently develop identities that have been ideologically crafted, but not under the circumstances of their own choosing. The identities of prior generations, shaped by earlier authority relationships, weigh down upon the individual to colonize his/her consciousness and desires in the way that the values of the ruling classes/hegemonic blocs become internalized as essential parts of the individual’s identity and values.[8] That this is not a rational process is also made evident by the studies of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism mentioned above.

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Category : Hegemony | Intellectuals | Organizing | Blog
31
Dec

Black Panther liberation school, a main instrument of counter-hegemony.

Section IV of Towards the War of Position:


Gramsci in Continuity and Rupture  with Marxism-Leninism

[Full document available as PDF download HERE]

By Amil K.
Revolutionary Initiative / Canada

Sept 10, 2013 – The main concern of the prison notebooks is the development of “the philosophy of praxis”1 with the aim of rejuvenating communist strategy in light of the failures and setbacks in Gramsci’s period. However fragmentary the passages of the notebooks are, they compose a totalizing system of thought in which a major focal point is the question of strategy. While there is so much more to the prison notebooks in terms of Gramsci’s intellectual contributions than questions of class war and strategy – hence, the Gramsci being a treasure trove for liberal academics – many of the notes point back to what Gramsci calls the war of position. But this concept can only be appreciated by unpacking some of the conceptual apparatus built up around it throughout the prison notebooks, which includes concepts such as the historical bloc; the ‘analysis of situations’; hegemony; Gramsci’s concept of philosophy and the organic intellectual; his distinct notion of the Party;and finally, his explanation of civil society.

Understanding the Historical Bloc

One of the core concepts of Gramsci’s prison notebooks is the ‘historical bloc’. While the term is only scarcely mentioned in the prison notebooks, given the concept’s role in framing much of Gramsci’s conceptual apparatus it can be argued that Gramsci’s prison notebooks are a long-running elaboration of the concept. There is no section dedicated to the historical bloc, only a couple short passages:

    Concept of ‘historical bloc’, i.e. unity between nature and spirit (structure and superstructure) unity of opposites and of distincts (137).

Structures and superstructures form an ‘historical bloc’. That is to say the complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the reflection of the ensemble of the social relations of production (366).

If I may take the liberty to flesh this out somewhat, in light of my reading of the prison notebooks, the historical bloc is the organic but contradictory unity between the dominant and subaltern social groups in a given historical period, the relations of which are historically emergent and need to be understood as such in order to understand the nature of the relations among these social groups in the present. Whereas ‘nature’ here is considered relatively fixed and generally changes only over much longer periods, the ‘Spirit’ is the contradictory unity between structural and super-structural elements in a bloc of time. On the one hand, the concept of the historical bloc is a rather orthodox reformulation of Marx’s historical materialism, a principle thesis of which Gramsci paraphrases at certain points throughout the prison notebooks: “1. That no social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which have developed within it still find room for further forward movement; that a society does not set itself tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated” (106).

On the other hand, Gramsci’s elaboration of the architecture of the historic bloc (without actually referencing the term) throughout the prison notebooks reveals an awareness of the incredibly dynamic and ever-shifting character of the relationships among the “discordant…ensemble of the social relations of production” (366). The acute awareness of the dynamism at play amongst various levels of relations of force is a feature of Gramsci’s thinking that makes his analyses of history so penetrating and his overall method of historical and political analysis such a force of rejuvenation for “the philosophy of praxis” and the communist movement. Of particular importance for Gramsci, and for any communist movement, is a comprehensive study of the oppressed and exploited classes within their own historical bloc.

In his note “History of the Subaltern Classes: Methodological Criteria”, Gramsci provides a schema for what such a historical reconnaissance actually consists of when it comes to the “subaltern classes.” Whereas the historical unity of the ruling classes is realized in the State (and therefore its historical development can be traced through the development of the State as well),

    The subaltern classes, by definition, are not unified and cannot unite until they are able to become a “State”: their history, therefore, is intertwined with that of civil society, and thereby with the history of States and groups of States. Hence it is necessary to study: 1. The objective formation of subaltern social groups, by developments and transformations occurring in the sphere of economic production; their quantitative diffusion and their origins in pre-existing social groups, whose mentality, ideology, and aims they conserve for a time; 2. their active or passive affiliation to the dominant social formation, their attempts to influence the programmes of these formations in order to press claims of their own… 3. the birth of new parties of the dominant groups, intended to conserve the assent of the subaltern groups and to maintain control over them; 4. the formations which the subaltern groups themselves produce, in order to press claims of a limited and partial character; 5. those new formations which assert the autonomy of the subaltern groups, but within the old framework; 6. those formations which assert the integral autonomy (52).

This schematic outline for studying the subaltern is a major component for understanding the historical bloc. This method of historical analysis is the means by which a communist formation ultimately determines whether or not a favourable situation exists for the subaltern social groups to accumulate revolutionary forces and whether the situation is favourable to them becoming the ruling class at a given conjuncture of history; in other words, the essence of this historiographical method reduces to the question of whether the situation is favourable for revolution in the present historical bloc.

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Category : Hegemony | Intellectuals | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
8
Jun

 

The Specter of Authoritarianism and the Future of the Left: An Interview With Henry A. Giroux

 

By CJ Polychroniou,

Truthout | Interview  – 08 June 2014

Henry A. GirouxHenry A. Giroux (Screengrab via Disposable Life / Vimeo)"The commanding institutions of society in many countries, including the United States, are now in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the financial elite and right-wing bigots whose strangulating control over politics renders democracy corrupt and dysfunctional," says Henry A. Giroux.

To read more articles by C. J. Polychroniou, Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

C. J. Polychroniou, for Truthout: It is widely believed that the advanced liberal societies are suffering a crisis of democracy, a view you share wholeheartedly, although the empirical research, with its positivist bias, tends to be more cautious. In what ways is there less democracy today in places like the United States than there was, say, 20 or 30 years ago?

Henry A. Giroux: What we have seen in the United States and a number of other countries since the 1970s is the emergence of a savage form of free market fundamentalism, often called neoliberalism, in which there is not only a deep distrust of public values, public goods and public institutions but the embrace of a market ideology that accelerates the power of the financial elite and big business while gutting those formative cultures and institutions necessary for a democracy to survive.

"Neoliberal societies, in general, are in a state of war – a war waged by the financial and political elite against youth, low-income groups, the elderly, poor minorities of color, the unemployed, immigrants and others now considered disposable."

The commanding institutions of society in many countries, including the United States, are now in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the financial elite and right-wing bigots whose strangulating control over politics renders democracy corrupt and dysfunctional. Of course, what is unique about the United States is that the social contract and social wage are subject to a powerful assault by the right-wing politicians and anti-public intellectuals from both political parties. Those public spheres and institutions that support social provisions, the public good and keep public value alive are under sustained attack. Such attacks have not only produced a range of policies that have expanded the misery, suffering and hardships of millions of people, but have also put into place a growing culture of cruelty in which those who suffer the misfortunes of poverty, unemployment, low skill jobs, homelessness and other social problems are the object of both humiliation and scorn.

Neoliberal societies, in general, are in a state of war – a war waged by the financial and political elite against youth, low-income groups, the elderly, poor minorities of color, the unemployed, immigrants and others now considered disposable. Liberty and freedom are now reduced to fodder for inane commercials or empty slogans used to equate capitalism with democracy. At the same time, liberty and civil rights are being dismantled while state violence and institutional racism is now spreading throughout the culture like wildfire, especially with regards to police harassment of young black and brown youth. A persistent racism can also be seen in the attack on voting rights laws, the mass incarceration of African-American males, and the overt racism that has become prominent among right-wing Republicans and Tea Party types, most of which is aimed at President Obama.

At the same time, women’s reproductive rights are under assault and there is an ongoing attack on immigrants. Education at all levels is being defunded and defined as a site of training rather than as a site of critical thought, dialogue and critical pedagogy. In addition, democracy has withered under the emergence of a national security and permanent warfare state. This is evident not only in endless wars abroad, but also in the passing of a series of laws such as the Patriot Act, the Military Commission Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and many others laws that shred due process and give the executive branch the right to hold prisoners indefinitely without charge or a trial, authorize a presidential kill list and conduct warrantless wiretaps. Of course, both [former President George W.] Bush and Obama claimed the right to kill any citizens considered to be a terrorist or who have come to the aid of terrorism. In addition, targeted assassinations are now carried out by drones that are more and more killing innocent children, adults and bystanders.

Another index of America’s slide into barbarism and authoritarianism is the rise of the racial punishing state with its school-to prison pipeline, criminalization of a range of social problems, a massive incarceration system, militarization of local police forces and its use of ongoing state violence against youthful dissenters. The prison has now become the model for a type of punishment creep that has impacted upon public schools where young children are arrested for violating something as trivial as doodling on a desk or violating a dress code. Under the dictates of the punishing state, incarceration has become the default solution for every social problem, regardless of how minor it may be. Discordant interactions between teacher and student, however petty, are not treated as a criminal offense. The long arm of punishment creep is also evident in a number of social services where poor people are put under constant surveillance and punished for minor infractions. It is also manifest in the militarization of everyday life with its endless celebration of military, police and religious institutions, all of which are held in high esteem by the American public, in spite of their undeniably authoritarian nature.

"The US has launched an attack not only on the practice of justice and democracy itself, but on the very idea of justice and democracy."

As Edward Snowden made clear, the hidden registers of authoritarianism have come to light in a trove of exposed NSA documents which affirm that the US has become a national security-surveillance state illegally gathering massive amounts of information from diverse sources on citizens who are not guilty of any crimes. To justify such lawlessness, the American public is told that the rendering moot of civil liberties is justified in the name of security and defense against potential terrorists and other threats. In reality, what is being defended is the security of the state and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the controlling political and corporate elites.

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Category : Capitalism | Democracy | Fascism | Hegemony | Intellectuals | Youth | Blog
4
Jun

(Photo: Arcady/Shutterstock)

By Kyle Chayka

Pacific Standard, May 28, 2014

“To the disappointment of my friends … I seem to have become a Marxist public intellectual,” begins the introduction of the novelist (and erstwhile Marxist public intellectual) Benjamin Kunkel’s new book, Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis. The short collection of essays introduces readers to a clutch of writers, economists, and philosophers who are pioneering what Kunkel sees as the next generation of Marxism, a rejuvenated wave of political thought focused on providing an alternative to the ideology of neoliberalism and the “going capitalist crisis,” which, to Kunkel’s eyes as well as those of a number of other observers, is a visible failure that will only fail harder in the future.

“Most of my youth went by during the end of history,” Kunkel continues, referencing Francis Fukuyama’s 1990s formulation that Western liberal democracy constituted a final step toward a peaceful, level world without conflict (spoiler: It didn’t). That end of history, Kunkel writes, “has itself now come to an end.” He structures his depiction of this post-non-apocalyptic purgatory around two decisive events: 9/11 and the financial crisis. The former knocked Western hegemony off the seemingly inexorable victory that Fukuyama prophesied while the latter underlined the global economy’s ballooning inequality, prompting new social movements like Occupy and disenfranchising the young generation, of which Kunkel is both a leader and a chronicler (see his gently mocking portrayal in New York magazine for a depiction of that role). “It will probably be decisive that capitalism has forfeited the allegiance of many people who are today under thirty,” he writes.

While unemployment remains in the double digits, corporations sit on trillions of dollars in cash, Kunkel explains. This run-up in both capital and labor is the “present crisis” of the book’s title—the problem is that while capitalism creates an ongoing expansion of the two, the world is increasingly unable to turn the capital factors and labor into profit at the same rate that it used to, like a factory with a broken-down assembly line. Income from capital is reproducing faster than income from profit, breeding inequality. So what should be done to solve this problem?

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Category : Intellectuals | Marxism | Blog
28
May

Robin Small

Karl Marx: The Revolutionary as Educator

Springer, New York, 2013. 85pp., £44.99

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley

This book meets a need illustrated by a recent poster advertising a meeting for students at the London University Institute of Education that asked ‘Who was Karl Marx?’

Such is the repetitive diet of Foucauldianism, augmented by the latest academic fashion for Deleuze and Guattari, that even postgraduate students of education are unaware that Marx was, as this book begins by asserting, ‘an important educational thinker’.

Although Marx wrote before the modern state school system was established, Small states ‘He is the greatest theorist of the society that gave rise to schools as we know them – and this is the society we still live in’ (1). As he adds, Marx wrote for people who needed to find out what was wrong with the society they lived in, and how to change it for the better, and so he was also an educator. More importantly, ‘Marx is an educator for us. He challenges us to develop our capacity to think critically about our own society’ (2). This is the seminal Marx presented in this book.

Robin Small, a philosopher of education at Auckland University who has previously written Marx and Education (Ashgate, 2005), is well qualified to introduce new readers to Marx’s revolutionary education in the concise form intended by Springer’s series on ‘Key Thinkers in Education’, edited by Paul Gibbs, in which each chapter is separately downloadable, although the overall price – in virtual form or hard covers – is exorbitant. Hopefully, however, the book will make its way into libraries, because it is an introduction to Marx’s life as well as to his thought. So Small begins with Marx’s own education at the Trier Gymnasium, quoting Marx’s prize-winning essay `Thoughts of a Youth on Choosing a Vocation’, which insists ‘worth can be assured only by a profession in which we are not servile tools, but in which we act independently in our own sphere’ (5). Then, in Bonn and Berlin Universities, Small introduces the ideas of Bauer, Feuerbach and Stirner, which influenced Dr Marx before ‘the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy’ (quoted 9) in the form of ‘Marx as Journalist’.

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Category : Education | Intellectuals | Marxism | Working Class | Blog
18
May

 

Can Frances Fox Piven’s theory of disruptive power create the next Occupy?

Frances Fox Piven at at a national teach-in at Judson Memorial Church in New York in 2011. (Flickr/Pat Arnow)

Frances Fox Piven at at a national teach-in at Judson Memorial Church in New York in 2011. (© Pat Arnow)

By Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Waging Nonviolence, May 7, 2014

Social movements can be fast, and they can be slow.

Mostly, the work of social change is a slow process. It involves patiently building movement institutions, cultivating leadership, organizing campaigns and leveraging power to secure small gains. If you want to see your efforts produce results, it helps to have a long-term commitment.

And yet, sometimes things move more quickly. Every once in a while we see outbreaks of mass protest, periods of peak activity when the accepted rules of political affairs seem to be suspended. As one sociologist writes, these are extraordinary moments when ordinary people “rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” The impact of these uprisings can be profound. “The drama of such events, combined with the disorder that results, propels new issues to the center of political debate” and drives forward reforms as panicked “political leaders try to restore order.”

These are the words of Frances Fox Piven, the 81-year-old Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. As co-author, with Richard Cloward, of the classic 1977 treatise, Poor People’s Movements, Piven has made landmark contributions to the study of how people who lack both financial resources and influence in conventional politics can nevertheless create momentous revolts. Few scholars have done as much to describe how widespread disruptive action can change history, and few have offered more provocative suggestions about the times when movements — instead of crawling forward with incremental demands — can break into full sprint.

In recent years, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring have created renewed interest in such moments of unusual activity. These uprisings have spawned discussion about how activists might provoke and guide other periods of intensive unrest, and also how these mobilizations can complement longer-term organizing. Those coming out of traditions of strategic nonviolence and “civil resistance,” in particular, can find striking parallels between their methods for sparking insurgency and Piven’s theory of disruptive power.

Zuccotti Park is now quiet. The small, sanitized plaza in lower Manhattan has long since returned to being a place where a few employees in the financial district take their lunch. But when it was the home of the founding Occupy encampment, Poor People’s Movements was one of the most fitting titles to be found on the shelves of its free library. And for those interested in refilling America’s public plazas with defiant citizens, the book continues to offer insights difficult to find elsewhere in the literature on social movements.

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Category : Intellectuals | Organizing | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
8
Apr

Youth rebellion in the ‘banlieues’ of Paris

Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative

Interview by Filippo Del Lucchese and Jason Smith

FILIPPO DEL LUCCHESE and JASON SMITH: We would like to begin by asking you to clarify the relation between philosophy and politics. What do you mean when you speak, for example, of a militant philosophy?

ALAIN BADIOU: Since its beginnings, philosophy’s relationship to the political has been fundamental. It’s not something invented by modernity. Plato’s central work is called The Republic, and it is entirely devoted to questions of the city or polis. This link has remained fundamental throughout the history of philosophy. But I think there are two basic ways of structuring this relationship.

The first way assigns philosophy the responsibility for finding a foundation for the political. Philosophy is called upon to reconstruct the political on the basis of this foundation. This current argues that it is possible to locate, for every politics, an ethical norm and that philosophy should first have the task of reconstructing or naming this norm and then of judging the relation between this norm and the multiplicity of political practices. In this sense, then, what opens the relation between philosophy and politics is the idea of a foundation as well as an ethical conception of the political. But there is a second orientation that is completely different. This current maintains that in a certain sense politics is primary and that the political exists without, before, and differently from philosophy. The political would be what I call a condition of philosophy. In this case, the relation between philosophy and politics would be, in a certain sense, retroactive. That is, it would be a relation in which philosophy would situate itself within political conflicts in order to clarify them. Today, in the extremely obscure situation that is the general system of contemporary politics, philosophy can attempt to clarify the situation without having any pretense to creating it. Philosophy has as its condition and horizon the concrete situation of different political practices, and it will try, within these conditions, to find instruments of clarification, legitimation, and so on. This current takes seriously the idea that politics is itself an autonomy of thought, that it is a collective practice with an intelligence all its own.

It is quite clear that today the question is particularly difficult because we are no longer in a situation in which there is a clear distinction between two opposed political orientations—as was the case in the twentieth century. Not everyone agreed on what the exact nature of these opposed politics was, but everyone agreed there was an opposition between a classical democratic bourgeois politics and another, revolutionary, option. Among the revolutionaries, we debated spiritedly and even violently what, exactly, the true way was but not the existence itself of this global opposition. Today there is no agreement concerning the existence of a fundamental opposition of this sort, and as a result the link between philosophy and politics has become more complex and more obscure. But, fundamentally, it’s the same task. Philosophy tries to clarify what I call the multiple situation of concrete politics and to legitimate the choices made in this space.

DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: So you see your own philosophical interventions as taking place within this new situation that you describe as “more complex and more obscure” than the classical confrontation between two opposed political orientations?

BADIOU: Definitely. As a result, I see my philosophy as an inheritor of the great contestatory movements of the sixties. In fact, my philosophy emerged out of these movements. It is a philosophy of commitment, of engagement, with a certain fidelity to Sartre, if you like, or to Marxism.

What counts is that the intellectual is engaged in politics and commits to or takes the side of the people and the workers. I move in that tradition. My philosophy tries to keep alive, as best it can (it is not always easy), the idea that there is a real alternative to the dominant politics and that we are not obliged to rally around the consensus that ultimately consists in the unity of global capitalism and the representative, democratic state. I would say, then, that I work under the condition of the situation of political actuality, with the goal of keeping alive, philosophically, the idea of the possibility or opening of a politics I would call a politics of emancipation—but that could also be called a radical or revolutionary politics, terms that today are debatable but that represent all the same a possibility other than the dominant one.

DEL LUCCHESE and SMITH: You mention Sartre in this context where the name Althusser might have been expected. What is your relation to the Althusserian tradition?

BADIOU: The Althusserian tradition is extremely important, and I’ve devoted several texts to Althusser. If I mention Sartre it is simply because my philosophical youth was Sartrean before my encounter with Althusser. I think the Althusserian current was a particularly important one because it gave a new life and force to the link between philosophy and politics and in a less idealist mode—that is, a relation that no longer passed through the form of consciousness. In Sartre, of course, we still find the classical model of the intellectual understood primarily in terms of consciousness—an intellectual must make contact with the struggle and the workers’ organizations, be they the unions or the communist parties. Althusser’s greatness is found in the fact that he proposed a new schema in which the relation between philosophy and politics no longer passed through the psychology of the form of consciousness as it still did with Sartre. Althusser begins with the conviction that philosophy intervenes in the intellectual space of politics. When he proposes the formula “philosophy is the organization of class struggle in theory,” what does he mean? That class struggle exists and that philosophy certainly didn’t invent it. It exists and cuts across intellectual choices. Within the struggle between these choices, philosophy has a special role. It is to intervene and therefore to name, norm, classify, and finally choose in the field of intellectual or theoretical class struggle. Sartre and Althusser are very different, even opposed. But you can reconcile them on one point, namely, that philosophy is nothing if it is not linked to political commitment.

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Category : Intellectuals | Marxism | Organizing | Philosophy | Blog