June 20, 2012

By: M-L-M Mayhem! (Marxist-Leninist-maoist reflections)

Frequent readers of this blog will be aware that I am generally annoyed by “movementism” and the tendency to ignore revolutionary history in pursuit of some new revolutionary theory that is neither new nor revolutionary. Indeed, my previous post was another (and admittedly ranty) screed about this tendency. If I’m not careful, I might end up coming across as a crotchety old leftist who is afraid of new ideas––like that old man who perpetually shakes his cane at children.

Thus, I think it is probably important to again point out that my annoyance with the above tendency is balanced by my equal annoyance with the tendency to fetishize the past. As I have argued before, revolutionary theory needs to be understood as the dialectical tension of continuity and rupture. The movementism that wants to see only rupture is no less erroneous than the dogmatism that focuses only on continuity––or, more accurately, sees a continuity up to the Bolshevik Revolution and then, rejecting any notion of theoretical rupture as properly revolutionary, seeks a return to this Eden of continuity that never existed.

In the past, I have complained about the dogmatism of this traditionalist approach to communism and why it is a practice in defiance of historical materialism––something that is more properly religious than scientific and, because of this, is often forced to ignore reality. Its practitioners end up becoming sad little sectarians who annoy the hell out of everyone else in the left because they’re self-righteous and do nothing to warrant their self-righteousness (like that annoying academic who thinks s/he’s more brilliant than everyone else even though s/he is still working on that fifteen year PhD), and in general just make the left seem like a joke to the non-left.

But now I want to write about what I find significantly troublesome about the ideology of those marxists who think that the left died somewhere around World War One, whether or not they have decided to commit themselves to some missionary marxist sect. For there is a rather problematic story that is sometimes told about communism: from Marx and Engels to Lenin there was an unbroken movement that was amazing and properly “marxist”––the First International was a gas, the Second International was a setback, but thank god that the Third International put some of the fun back into communism… And then Stalin came along and ruined everything and marxism has lost its way ever since. Oh and maybe the “Fourth International” could have been fun, but no one’s really sure what that tiny and insignificant (insignificant for world revolution, not for Trotskyists mind you) European “international” really meant anyhow because all of those Trotskyite sects who hate each other have a different interpretation of what happened.

This view of actually existing communism is a historical simplification primarily because it is virulently eurocentric. What it really breaks down to is this: the communist movement was good until it was no longer a movement centred in Europe and its colonies, and until the theory of these other movements no longer argued that the eurocentric world would lead the revolution. And maybe throw in some ahistorical analysis about how all of these other communist movements are somehow “Stalinist” just to hide your eurocentrism; sit back on your pure Marxism-up-until-1917 theory, never bother to study other revolutionary movements and the theory that actually emerged from these movements, and you can write books pining for the days when marxism was pure––meaning, of course, racially pure and properly focused on Europe.

Even the Bolshevik Revolution is white-washed according to this eurocentric traditionalism. Now we tend to forget that Russia was once considered “Asiatic”, that Nazi ideology even considered Russians to be a weaker race, because this discourse has somehow succeeded in bringing the Russian Revolution into the history of Europe. Isaac Deutscher, for example, promoted this way of seeing the Bolshevik Revolution in his biography of Stalin (although it must be admitted that this biography, despite its eurocentric flaws, is better than a lot of the current pseudo-history written today) in his claim that Trotsky was an enlightened and cultured European whereas Stalin was a boorish Asiatic. The former was the proper heir of Lenin’s “european” legacy, whereas the latter betrayed it with his orientalish ways, and thus the Soviet Union could have been saved if only it was properly European!

Deutscher, however, was influenced by the ideology of the so-called “Fourth International” where Trotskyism was born as a marxist theory. And it is important to note, regardless of the charges of sectarianism that might result from this insight, that the Fourth International and the theory it produced was a thoroughly eurocentric affair that succeeded in generating a discourse that would permit one to ignore any significant revolutionary developments outside of the European and European-colonized world. Pabloism, after all, was the great heresy of the Fourth International: not because it advocated that Trotskyists should work with “Stalinists” (shudder!), in my opinion, but because European marxists were horrified by the Pabloists support of anti-colonial movements in places like Algeria. We need to ask why the only Trotskyism that pushed an anti-colonial ideology was considered blasphemous by all of the other sects that splintered out of the Fourth International.

In any case, what is most interesting about the theory that emerged from the Fourth International was that it was a theory that recentered Europe as the global agent of revolution. In a combined and uneven global mode of production, the best that revolutions in the periphery could do was hold their revolution in permanence and wait for the “proper” proletariat of the imperialist centres to lead the revolution: the marxist equivalent of imperialist discourse about the peripheries “catching up” to the advanced and civilized centres. Thus, any revolutionary communist movement and its theory manifesting in the periphery would be treated, by necessity, as backwards, useless, and part of the theoretical fall from grace that happened after 1917. Most probably this theory was “Stalinist”… although Stalinism, regardless of it common pejorative usage, is really an empty concept that breaks down to little more than “they seem to like Stalin so they’re bad” or “this is ‘socialism in one country’ damnit”––complete nonsense, really.

This is why I have little patience for Trotskyism as a revolutionary theory. Not because I think Stalin was super awesome (and I have even less patience for the binary ideology, often promoted by some Trotskyists, that all Leninist theories that aren’t Trotskyist are somehow secretly “Stalinist”), but because I find the commitments of historical Trotskyism to be wholly eurocentric. None of this is to say, of course, that the Soviet Union under Stalin wasn’t also affected by eurocentrism: Stalin’s approach to anti-colonial movements was no more laudable than Trotsky’s would have been if he was in the same position, and there is an eerie similarity in Stalin and Trotsky’s approach to revolutionary theory. Nor am I trying to say that Trotsky was an uber counter-revolutionary who was taking money from the CIA––really, I could care less for these arguments. My point, here, is that Trotskyism is the prime example of that traditionalist marxism that, in seeking a paradise before the collapse of the Bolshevik Revolution, imagines that all of the communist movements since that point are worthless––primarily worthless because they are not properly “european”. What we call Trotskyism isn’t Trotsky anymore than Marxism is properly Marx, Leninism is properly Lenin, or Maoism is properly Mao.

But of course this fetishization of the “good old days” of marxism has become broader than the boundaries drawn by the Fourth International. It is now an entire industry of eurocentric marxism that, though at one point was influenced by Trotskyism (which became the prime marxist ideology at the centres of capitalism), has now morphed into a nebulous orthodox marxism. More importantly: the arguments made from the position of this orthodoxy have now succeeded in affecting heterodox marxisms who are unaware of the orthodox nature of some of their core commitments.

Those marxist theories that go further than Trotskyism in recentering marxism in Europe––that reject the theory of the labour aristocracy, downplay the importance of imperialism, de-emphasize the role colonialism played in the emergence of capitalism, fetishize a working class that is essentially white, continue to promote an historical ignorance when it comes to every revolutionary movement after the Russian Revolution… all of these theories result in the erasure of over two thirds of the world’s population.

So forgive me if I have little tolerance for those who are overly nostalgiac for a pure communism that existed up until 1917––or, even worse, those whose “pure communism” is only to be found in the works of Marx and Engels––because I feel that this is an attempt to write-off the majority of the world’s population, and primarily the most oppressed peoples in the world, because they are incapable of contributing to revolutionary science. Moreover, I feel it demonstrates ignorance to the actual unfolding of communism as a living science; those who claim that there has been no development in marxist theory since 1917 are those who refuse to study the Chinese Revolution and those who are unaware that maoism was asserted as a new development of revolutionary communism around 1993. And even if we forget these molar crystallizations of revolutionary communism (which we should not), then what about an entire constellation of revolutionary theory that has exploded, from 1917 until now, due to the struggles of the most oppressed? Here is where these revolutionary moments of the new triumph over the traditionalism of the old… and yet marxist traditionalists, because they are immersed in tradition and only tradition, are incapable of grasping the fact that communism needs to be a living science in order to be properly revolutionary.