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Monday, August 15, 2011

Revolutionary roads

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Below are my notes on Mike Ely's presentation at the Platypus Affiliated Society's 2011 convention, which occurred over the May Day weekend in Chicago. It is entitled, "Throw open windows: Begin a fresh communism".

I originally posted the talk on my blog, Marxist Update, back in the spring without any notes. Coming from a completely different tradition than Maoism and the RCP, I am always uncomfortable and more than a little dismissive about the momentous and sentimentally poetic language used in many formulations [radical, deep, new, counterintuitive, et cetera] of the US Maoists.

My political education contained no such vocabulary. In the U.S. Socialist Workers Party we were trained to check current political trends, events, openings for intervention against the summations and continuity of our revolutionary heritage. We checked ourselves against previous party decisions, conventions, and leaders; previous international leaders; then the Bolsheviks in Lenin's time; and finally against Marx and Engels. Of course every night was not library night, and the process was not as fustian as I have summarized. Party-wide and branch-wide educational classes went on regularly, and our party newspaper always had [and still has] articles about past struggles related to current events. The object was, in saying we stood on the shoulders on giants, to really embody that concept.

A communist education in a Leninist party is a thing of the past for most young people today. They read here and there on the web, but the web' s wealth of Marxist material makes it hard to maintain a focus. Still, the goal of communist study is not to win on Jeopardy or bore people who no longer wish to be your friends. It is not even to fill up space in the blogosphere. Rather, it is, by reading the classics, to learn to think like a communist: to evaluate reality and decide, at each new turning point or opportunity, what is to be done.

In his article, Mike Ely writes: "those under thirty perceive the world around them with eyes that can sharply see what is new, distinct and rising." That is the tremendous lever against which communists today can put their shoulders. Youth under 30 have not internalized 35 years of defeat, deflection, collapse, treason, surrender, and exhaustion. They are more clearly able to see what is new, and they certainly have "more bounce for the ounce."

There are some phrases and formulations in Mike Ely's talk that I would disagree with. But regardless of what shade of chinoiserie Mike chooses to clothe his thoughts, I agree with him that we need to present the "maximum" program in the most arresting way we can.

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reading notes:

by Mike Ely

the liberations of the bourgeois revolution are ground up into the makings of new horrors under this system.

for common abundance, radical equality and realization of countless human potentials.

wealth of modern capitalism has accreted and accumulated professional pigs, killers and corrupted agents at a unprecedented rate.

communist project is almost invisible. And what is visible is often not communist.
....Is that extreme weakness the end of communism, or is it a beginning?
.... we have a great occasion for a new accounting. And, we should take up our work through a new presentation.

.... there are ways in which we are on the ground floor, and thinking through (again) the forms of organization and approach that are appropriate for times when socialist revolution still lies over the horizon for most of us.

....retool our communist project, reinvent our modes of presentation, radically re-metabolize our experiences, and forge something new in a new century.

with a particular mix:

1. ....radiate a profound sense of the real: a profound and penetrating critique of capitalism in its current forms, and a materialist sense of what could replace it. Not a nostalgic clinging to this or that model. Not a pretense that things haven't changed.

2. ....radiate a culture of profound engagement, listening, and even humility – a democratic sensibility — without which no one will give communism a second hearing.

3. ....embody a militant, even shocking negation of everything that torments humanity – uncompromising, unafraid, righteous enough to topple and pursue the oppressors.


energetically treat many so-called settled questions as fresh problems for solution.

strip them back down – with great attention to our goals and our times.

restudy a verdict

We cannot and will not engage a new generation of radicals, if they don't come in at the ground floor of such a creative process, or if existing communist circles make uncritical acceptance of orthodoxies the price of admission.

"The final goal is everything, the movements for getting there remain to be charted."

we all have together before us a great creative work.

strategies in a country like this are unknown. Uncharted. We have lots of experience to sum up

inherent in revolutions that the major creative work can't be pre-done, and just imported (or applied) to "local" conditions.

where we stand (meaning in the U.S.) the key task is no longer creating a great human engine of economic development and modernization.
....Our goals are much more about radical community, a society of solidarity in the place of dog-eat-dog cannibalism and capitalist atomization. We are seeking a sustainable society out of a past of great waste and meaningless stuff. And we are seeking to end imperialism — by striking within the belly of the beast — for a global order that can end the domination of a few countries and the wars that they unleash….

Who can still believe that the world is divided into "two kinds of countries" — when those 1950s categories can't discuss a South Korea, or an Argentina, or a Bangalore, or the regional roles of Turkey, Israel, India, Brazil or China.

40 ago, in the high tide of Vietnam War and Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party said "revolution is the main trend in the world today." Is such an assessment a permanent verdict?

Our world society is not somehow inherently "ripe" – just waiting for a particular socialist turn. World capitalism is not "stuck" (in some generalized crisis of paralysis and decay). On the contrary it is quite dynamic

error here: in the assumptions that we can find all the basic answers we need by simply applying locally in this or that particular, existing and universalized form of Marxism.

revolutions will prove to have been like snowflakes – each one unique, not an archetype.


needs to draw from the communists of the past, from our elaborate experience with socialism in the last century, and also from those who have been working, in parallel, in some different row of grapes in these same vineyards.
....Badiou (and with him Zizek) have done important work bringing communist ideas to a new generation of students – who have otherwise been taught it is simply a dead letter....
....Leninism has led us to study the materiality of crisis – its roots in capitalist rivalry, economics, the manyness of capital, war, depression, and more....Badiou ....how contagious new truths erupt from a seeming void, in unexpected ways, and like hose sprays of antimatter corrode away the exhausted and compromised.
....Badiou ....he is operating unconstrained by the continuity with Hegel and Bebel, and I find the novelty exhilarating and thought-provoking – even when I don't agree. Because he is working on the problems we all need to be working on.

shocking new truths forge cadre and sweep the field.

....truths in the sense that they explode to reveal the old as dated and suddenly repulsive.

think through how to get out of this hole, and how to be part of the next waves of novelty that our intensely dynamic world will throw up.

Hasten and await is a discussion of preparing for revolutionary opportunities. Well, I think Badiou is raising important things about what hastening might mean, and what exactly we are awaiting.

reject the old sectarian strategies of forming tiny mini-parties, whose programs we fantasize will be picked up (in a telescoped way) by a grateful population in great crises. That is a grandiose and misleading fantasy which will just guarantee irrelevance in the actual conjunctures.

a century of communism and revolution have left us a great body of work, theory and experience to build upon. And in particular I think that the best of Maoism forms a key platform for our work –– specifically in its mass line and its radical reconception of the socialist transition period.

To reconceive we have to have a deep sense (and even appreciation) of the earlier communist conceptions (which many newer revolutionaries have not had much access to, and which we are trying to provide on Kasama).

....against the idea (that is both prevalent and marginalized) that there is an existing universal theory (as a kind of closed and complete system or orthodoxy) that merely needs to be "applied" to specific moments – i.e. tweaked for local conditions.

....much less interested in a discussion that asks "what is the real Marxism" than I am in a much more contemporary discussion of what do we believe, and what are we going to do?

do it in ways that at every stage draw in the new – new people, new discoveries, new realities, a new generation of radical youth the best of whom will not tolerate being spoonfed old truths.

those under thirty preceive the world around them with eyes that can sharply see what is new, distinct and rising.


mass line – popular agency


I'm a student not a follower these days. But I think these are questions worth engaging.

there is nothing agnostic going on here.


We need a shocking, counterintuitive proclamation of the communist project – classless society, overthrow of all existing conditions, the whole over the self, a literally planetary world view….

a new political culture of mutual respect and collaboration, of modesty and experimentation.

it is possible that the alienation, despair, energetic anger, and determination can arise a radical de-legitimization of what is – and then new ways of using human genius and productive power to emancipate.

That's the revolutionary road.

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