Some passages from Neither Right nor Left

June 14, 2012

Neither Right nor Left by Zeev Sternhell excavates the intellectual history of fascism from a counter-intuitive site: late 19th Century France. This is a long book about a very specific topic, and I didn’t go through it very carefully, but I found a lot of interesting passages in my reading. Here are a few I’ve transcribed.

According to Sternhell, the roots of fascist ideology travelled under many names, in dissident right-wing and left-wing circles, in which a variety of positions were expounded upon. This succeeded in incubating certain unifying beliefs that would find their historical opportunity after the first world war.

Thus different schools of thought all shared the same rejection of the liberal order, constituting a kind of outer circle around the hard core of fascist thought. This was the real importance of fascist ideology. Its widespread dissemination and influence were possible only because of the channels of transmission provided by the nonconformist milieu. In these groups, one may have hated the totalitarian state, but one could not avoid identifying oneself with the fascist criticism of bourgeois society, liberalism, and democracy and it was because it was not onlythe bourgeois world that was attacked but a number of universal principles readily associated with the bourgeoisie that the harsh criticisms of the regime brought their full weight to bear. These criticisms, in fact, were directed less against a system of government that, in a divided society, considerably weakened the executive authority than against democracy itself. The obsession with decadence and the sense of participating in the collapse of an individualistic and basely materialistic civilization were the common elements in this way of thinking.

One of the most important groups combined syndicalists and monarchists — the Cercle Proudhon, named after the famous anarchist and foil of Marx. You may remember Proudhon’s famous couplet deriving from the title of one of his books: “What is property? Property is theft!” A few months ago I tried (and failed) to read that book, but I did get through the translator’s introduction, which lamented the fact that Marx’s critique was so comprehensive that people didn’t think Proudhon worth reading any more, even though the translator also admitted Marx was right about everything. The appeal of Proudhon to the French proto-fascists were his anti-Marxism, his syndicalism, his dislike of democracy, his anti-Semitism, and his nationality (one critique of Marxism from these quarters was that it was too German for France). The Cercle

wished to create a new world — virile, heroic, pessimistic, and puritanical — based on a sense of duty and sacrifice: a world where a morality of warriors and monks would prevail. They wanted a society dominated by a powerful avant-garde, a proletarian elite, an aristocracy of producers, joined in alliance against the decadent bourgeoisie with an intellectual youth avid for action. When the time came, it would not be difficult for a synthesis of this kind to take on the name of fascism.

What is sometimes forgotten is that fascism envisioned itself as a kind of socialism, explicitly anti-Marxist. This socialism was “conceived of in ethical terms” (Marx famously avoided ethical prescriptions), promoting “universal values, independent of concrete historical circumstances, a conception of socialism in vitalist, intuitive, Nietzschean, and Bergsonian terms.” It was about the feelings and the energy of the moment, against a historical materialist understanding of context. Georges Sorel, one of the most important proto-fascist thinkers engaged in “a leftist, voluntarist, and vitalist form of revision” of Marxism. According to Sternhell, “In many respects, the history of fascism can be described as a continuous attempt to revise Marxism and create a national form of socialism,” nationalism having apparently proven itself “up to the task” of mobilizing the masses to fight and die in WWI more effectively than the Marxism of the Second International. These people desperately wanted a revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and were searching for the means to carry it out.

The apparent failures of Marxism meant that the proletariat was to blame as well — for the proto-fascists,  it was no longer the revolutionary class. “The socialism of these people required the proletariat only to a limited degree.” In its place came elitist strands of thought that opposed any democratic control over more adventurist segments:

Pouget declared that the methods of action of action of a confederal organization could not be based on the “vulgar democratic ideas; they do not express the consent of the majority arrived at through universal suffrage.” Pouget believed that if democratic procedures were adopted in labor circles, “the lack of will of the unconscious and nonsyndicalist majority would paralyze all action. But the minority is not willing to abandon its demands and aspirations before the inertia of a mass that the spirit of revolt has not yet animated and enlightened. Consequently, the conscious minority has an obligation to act, without reckoning with the refractory mass.” No one, he claimed, has the right “to recriminate against the disinterested initiative of the minority,” least of all “the unconscious” who, compared to militants, are no more than “human zeros.”

Sternhell extensively describes the idiosyncratic thought of a number of these figures, but he keeps coming back to what united them — and by implication, which beliefs are completely hostile to fascist appropriation: Marxism, democracy, and materialism.

The value of this book is, I hope, obvious. Here we have an extensive description of beliefs that, while not always explicitly fascist, or even right-wing, enabled fascist takeovers. Often enough this stuff came from authors who conceived of themselves as leftists. There’s probably more than enough accusations of “FASCIST” being hurled in lefty quarters, but as we reckon with all manner of idiosyncratic “left” philosophy and theory emerging today (non-Marxist or pseudo-Marxist “communism” is one weird one), and we need to know precisely which avenues of thought led to terrible consequences so we can isolate them quickly and critique them fully.

Excerpts from “Reading Capital Politically”

June 7, 2012

I’m reading Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically, available for free from the lovable scallawags at I’m only halfway through, but I wanted to post some useful excerpts.

On what “working class” means beyond wage labor:

When we study the commodity-form that is imposed on the working class, it is important not to equate that imposition with the imposition of the money wage. This is the error of those who read Marx too narrowly and define the working class only as wage labor. To say that the working class sells its labor-power to capital must be understood broadly: the working class includes those who work for capital in various ways in exchange for a portion of the total social wealth they produce. As Marx pointed out in his discussion of wages in Part VI of Capital, and as the Wages for Housework Movement has emphasized, the money wage represents payment only for a part of that work. In the factory the unpaid and unwaged part counts as surplus value; the development of the analysis of the social factory (see Introduction) has brought out how capital is able to force the working class to do unwaged work for it in many other ways. The most closely analyzed aspect of this is the work involved in the training and upkeep of labor-power itself — work performed by the wage worker but also by unwaged household workers — mainly wives and children. Other formally unwaged work includes such things as travel to and from the job, shopping, and those parts of schoolwork, community work, and church work that serve to reproduce labor-power for capital. Unwaged work is not unpaid; rather it is at least partially sold to capital in return for nonwage income. The important point here is that the analysis of the commodity-form in the class relation must include this kind of exchange as well as the direct exchange of wages for labor-power.

On machines, wages, the working day, and productivity – automation increases the power of capital, but in contradictory ways:

The success of the working class in reducing work historically created a profound crisis for capital and forced it to seek new strategies. One response to a decrease of unpaid work in the factory was to extend the unwaged workday outside the factory. The analysis of the social factory has brought out how the shortening of hours and the exclusion of women and children from factory labor — a tendency which began after Marx wrote Capital — was partly offset for capital by an increase in work done in the home and in the school to maintain or improve the quality of labor-power. But given that these increases could not completely offset the decline in factory hours, a different kind of shift was needed. The other major way that capital found to maintain, reproduce, and expand its control was, as we have just seen, to substitute machinery for labor, so that less human labor would still produce as much or more than before. It is important to see that the attempt to raise productivity was not simply another aspect of capitalist exploitation but was a shift in capital’s strategic plan forced on it by the growth of workers’ power. For Marx there was no doubt about this: “So soon as the gradually surging revolt of the working class compelled Parliament to shorten compulsorily the hours of labor, and to begin by imposing a normal working-day on factories proper, so soon consequently as an increased production of [absolute] surplus value by the prolongation of the working-day was once for all put a stop to, from that moment capital threw itself with all its might into the production of relative surplus value, by hastening on the further improvement of machinery.”

At that point the struggle passed over from being one primarily concerned with how much the commodity-form will be imposed to one primarily concerned with at what price it will be imposed. The working class puts up with the commodity-form but demands a larger share of social wealth, that is, a higher price for its commodity, labor-power. Unable to offset a secular increase in the price of labor-power by an increase in the working day, capital turns to increased productivity as the only means both to pay the higher price and to maintain and increase profits.

On “political demands” vs. “economic demands”: demands for increased pay and better working conditions are NOT some kind of “capitulation” to capitalism, but actually existing class struggle. Fighting capitalism means attacking its ability to extract surplus value.

This analysis of the dialectic of qualitative and quantitative in the class struggle helps clarify the political nature of the working-class attack on capital which produced the crisis. One way in which the old dichotomy between politics and economics has often been posed has been to label as “economism” struggles by workers which are deemed solely quantitative, for example, more wages, shorter workday, and so on. These struggles are said to be within capital, which is itself essentially quantitative. “Political” struggles are only those that challenge the “quality” of capital itself, that is, that threaten the “revolutionary” overthrow of capital via the seizure of state power. From what we have seen already, it should be apparent that struggles over the length and intensity of the workday (how much the commodity-form is imposed) are at once quantitative and qualitative: quantitative because they concern the amount of work that will be done for capital, qualitative because they put into question the realization of enough surplus value to maintain capital’s control. The “quantitative” struggle over income also raises the question of the realization of surplus value and capital’s survival.

On the materialist basis for divisions among the working class (for example, between men and women, whites and non-whites): it is not merely ideological but also reflects material benefits privileged groups within the working accrue from their position. Destroying these privileges in the interest of working class unity necessarily means leadership by those in dominated groups:

Because the divisions are hierarchical ones, there are always dominant and dominated sides. In these circumstances the divisions have worked where capital has been able to play on the dominant side’s profiting from the division. The divisions are not imaginary or simply ideological ones that can be overcome with “class consciousness.” Men do benefit from women’s work; whites do benefit from blacks’ lower status; local workers do benefit from immigrant workers’ taking the worst jobs. Therefore, the struggle to destroy the divisions generally finds its initiative in the dominated group, since the other side cannot be expected to always work to destroy its privileges. The efforts to overcome racism, sexism, imperialism, or the exploitation of students in the 1960s were led by the struggles of blacks not whites, women not men, peasants not Americans, students not professors or administrators. It was on the basis of these autonomous efforts that the struggles circulated to other sectors of the class, recomposing the structure of power. To subvert the autonomy of such sectors, as the Left and the unions generally try to do by dissolving them into their own hierarchical organizations, can only act to perpetuate the divisions useful to capital. The actuality of autonomy complicates the meaning of working-class homogeneity against capital. It suggests that working-class unity must be understood as being indirect like the homogeneity of capital (malleability through division). In other words, working-class unity is often achieved only indirectly through complementarity in the exercise of power against capital by different sectors of the class involved in the struggle, not in terms of the illusory kind of direct homogeneity of Leninist institutions.

Cleaver’s got a bee in his bonnet about “Leninists,” probably due to his experiences in the New Left in the 1960s. I’d add that Lenin’s success was based on his ability to incorporate the demands of many heterogeneous and autonomous groups, which aligns with Cleaver’s pertinent observations. But I am not the guy who wants to have That Lenin Debate, not right now anyway.

Among the book’s virtues is its excellent assortment of footnotes. If TELOS ever gets its subscriber access worked out, I’ll have a field day. Of course there are many useful references to old Karl himself, such as this letter in which he discusses how capitalists divide workers according to race and ethnicity:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

D.C. – Imperial Gateway to the Dirty Dirty

April 3, 2008

I finally made a pilgrimage to Our Nation’s Capital this past week, and yes, the air was thick with the ambitious scent of the ruling class. D.C. is an interesting place. Its architecture comes in three major flavors: Neoclassical imperial monumentality, reserved Cold War realpolitik constructions, and crumbling tract housing. Supreme Court BuildingU.S. State DepartmentD.C. homesWith all this WASPy workaholism in the air, it’s no surprise that there isn’t much local music going on. An exception, which oddly enough came to my attention through MTV Jams, is local hip hop artist Tabi Bonney, son of an afro-funk musician from Togo. Here’s what MTV (and myself) discovered about two years too late:It sounds like mid-90s headnodding, with scratching and everything, certainly something different from the current rap climate. Bonney holds TWO master’s degrees (Biology and Education), so this could be an example of the gentrification of hip hop, which, depending on how you count, started as early as 1979 with the first hip hop recordings. I’m thinking in these terms because I just plowed through Nik Cohn’s Tricksta, which I picked up at a shop in DC.  Inside, the aging diseased Irishman bemoans middle class blacks taking over his beloved New Orleans bounce sound while he participates in that very process of appropriation.


Cohn works as an quasi-A&R, scorning the suburban background and sloppy manners of Choppa (his first project), as well as attempting to jumpstart the careers of several other middle-aged work-a-day artists. Some of the most hilarious scenes consist of Cohn brandishing Algerian rai and Cambodian pop and Durrutti Column riffs in the faces of nonplussed N.O. producers happy to, you know, make the music they make. The savages never even recognize the gifts the white father brings to them, and Cohn’s book sounds not a little like old racist anthropological travelogues in these moments. Cohn fails to find success with Choppa (and his other prospects), although Choppa would eventually release a minor hit on No Limit:The book is strongest when Cohn describes the life and times of the late Soulja Slim while putting forth an analysis of New Orleans’ gangsta culture, but becomes exponentially less compelling as we follow Cohn on his abortive career as a rap impresario. And he never talks to anyone at Cash Money! I was reminded of my thesis work, in which I followed around long-aspiring local Detroit artists while the successful Databass label kept me at bay. Perhaps I should have written it as memoir instead of academic work. One useful tidbit was Cohn’s description of the rap industry mechanics in N.O., which no doubt plays out on rap labels across the country. Aspiring artists are wined and dined by wealthy label heads, sign with the label, record and perform, and never get paid. They get some spending cash and gifts of cars and jewelry, but never any royalties. If they quit and sue, the label settles out of court for a fraction of what they owe the artist. No wonder Lil Wayne just gives his music away these days — he can get paid cash up front for a mixtape, but he’ll never see the royalties from an actual album. His newest official single can’t quite match up to his refixes of “Top Down” or “Black Republicans,” though I like it — genuinely weird and garish. He’s supposedly working on an R&B album? Consider me excited.