The “Vulture Theory” of Socialism

BHASKAR SUNKARA

Žižek and Robespierre

I’m a fan of Slavoj Žižek.  I’m a bit embarrassed to say it publicly and I am not completely fond of the company that my adoration shares, but I can’t help but like the guy.  In an era of postmodernism and the “end of history” it is refreshing to hear an academic not only embrace Marx, but the idea of revolution itself.

Of course Žižek is wrong, often, but he’s a lot more entertaining than your favorite academic leftist (our fan club is also more “hip” and probably a lot better looking too). Delving into the contours (and dead-ends) of Žižek’s thought is a task I’m not up for, but I do find it interesting when he talks about politicization and crisis.  He is right in acknowledging that class society is characterized by inexorable contradictions that manifest themselves violently.  Rare for a 21st century intellectual, Žižek seems optimistic that these contradictions can be molded into revolutionary billows that can hurl humanity forward.  His fiery defenses of 1789, 1917 and most controversially, Robespierre, are emblematic of this conviction.

I might be quite an outlier among “anti-authoritarian” leftists, perhaps desensitized enough by the passage of centuries to ignore the butchered in Lyon, because its my inclination to somewhat agree with Robespierre who described the horrors of the French Revolution as “a noisy crime that destroyed another crime.”  The crimes of Jacobinism, which were largely a response to real threats to the nascent Republic, pale in comparison to the horrors of slavery, feudalism, clerical oppression and the societal retardation they brought along with them. Though modern liberals are quick to throw Rousseau’s disciples to the flame, they ignore the fact that the Bonapartist counterrevolution brought about far more disorder and death than the left-bourgeoisie’s excesses.  We must also not forget that the so-called “good” revolutionaries in the United States were so timid and unprincipled that they kept the institution of slavery completely intact.

So I do share common sympathies with Žižek and I have a tendency to laugh at liberals who proclaim how “dangerous” his ideas are. There are however fundamental problems with Žižek’s thought on politicization and revolution (and just about everything else), problems that remind me of one of Michael Harrington’s critiques of the far left.

Harrington’s vulture theory

At a debate in New York City just days before the the election of Jimmy Carter, Harrington squared off with the late, great Peter Camejo, who was the Socialist Workers Party’s candidate for President.  There is no transcript from the debate online and a web search only yielded some banter from aging leftists claiming that Camejo “won”.  Having heard some audio of Camejo in his prime, I don’t doubt that the younger, more radical Camejo carried the day with the audience, but I simply had to find a recording or at least a transcript of the debate.  20 minutes of half-sober Googling and a few emails to my favorite cranky ex-SWPers yielded nothing.  Eventually I stumbled upon an out of print book published by Pathfinder Press that included a transcript of the Harrington-Camejo debate.  I would scan and post this transcript online, but I have nightmares about getting sodomized by the legal arm of Jack Barnes.  (After all, living in a posh part of Manhattan is expensive, but why soil yourself talking to real workers when you can sit in West Village and call for continental guerrilla war in Latin America?)

With the gift of hindsight one can tear some holes in both Harrington’s and Camejo’s arguments, but there were a few lines in Harrington’s speech that struck me and that no one has really repeated since.  Responding to the ruminations of a radical left that saw in the next crisis an opportunity for revolution he said, “…there is a theory which I call the ‘vulture theory’ of socialism.  It says the worse things get, the more radical people will get.  Nonsense. What makes people radical is the feeling that [they are winning.]”

Right-wing politicization

Now, Žižek has an indomitable optimism that the contradictions of capitalism will lead to crisis and these crisis will lead to politicization, struggle and change.  He seems to embrace anything that will shake up the conservative, largely liberal “democratic” status quo in the world.  Žižek’s view is not unique among immature radical leftists.  There is this illusion that discontent with capitalism, fostered by the objective failures of the system, workers will radicalize and push the political scene to more favorable terrain.  Leftists and mainstream commentators alike who share this view were dumbfounded by the recent European elections.  Baring a few exceptions this present crisis of capitalism has opened the door to an isolationist and xenophobic Right.

This lesson should have been learned long ago.  The example that’s normally trotted out is the fact that the Great Depression brought to power not only social democracy but also fascism in Europe.  I would like to use a more contemporary example; the growth of reactionary forces within the Islamic world during the post-Fordist era.  Moishe Postone writes, “…per capita income in the Arab world has shrunk in the past twenty years to a level just above that of sub-Saharan Africa. Even in Saudi Arabia, for example, the per capita GDP fell from $24,000 in the late 1970s to $7,000 at the beginning of this century.”  What occurred in the Arab world was the failure of a model of state-interventionist capitalism.  The failures of monarchical and Arab nationalist regimes should have opened up space to the left, either in the form of liberal democracy or radical leftism.  Instead the void was filled by “…a populist antihegemonic movement that is profoundly reactionary and dangerous.”  The turmoil of existing capitalist states didn’t embolden the masses; it left them vulnerable and open to demagogy. It provided fertile ground for Islamism, anti-Semitism and crude anti-Americanism.  In particular in Iran after a revolutionary upheaval toppled the Shah, many members of the Western Left cheered on an Islamist counter-revolution that represented a historic defeat for the working class.

Now am I suggesting that radicals lend support to the status quo for fear of unleashing even worse monsters?  Absolutely not.  What I am stressing is that it takes the long-term building of organization and consciousness for any progressive force to take advantage of a “revolutionary moment.”  The decline of the state in Portugal in the 1970s pushed the nation radically to the left thanks in no small part to the organizing that the Communist Party was able to do among the industrial working-class during the waning days of the Salazar regime.  Even after decades of blunders, unabashed Stalinism and the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the Portuguese Communist Party still has a large foothold among the industrial proletariat.

Greek uprising

It is also important to note that even when popular discontent with the system does manifest itself in an ostensibly leftist manner, such as the recent Greek uprising with its rampant destruction of property and violence, it can be both anti-capitalist and reactionary. The riots in Greece were trumpeted by large segments of the international Left and they inspired a rash of activity across Europe and among our own university-occupying revolutionists (look ma–no scare quotes).

There were a few factors that led to the crisis in Greece.  The Greek state has been rapidly embarking on the transition to a post-Fordist economy and has been integrating into the EU’s framework.  This process requires the erosion of the Greek welfare state and the cutting of the inflated state employment rolls.  Huge numbers of young people have historically depended on stable,public sector employment for their livelihood.  This situation actually is not all that different than what’s going on in Egypt and in other countries having a tough time with the transition from state-developmentalism.

Commentators like Peter Bratsis have also noted that the riots were a response by the youth to the commodification of Greek society, not just the neoliberal revolution.  Finally, the riots were all triggered by the murder of a high school student by a police officer in Athens.  Stathis Gourgouris rightly acknowledges the fact that the uprising was characterized by the same corrosive fusion of nihilism and activistism that plagues our domestic ultra-left.

Post-political, anarchistic, violent and engaging in a politics of “personal liberation,” the Greek protests were not embraced by the parties of the Left.  The protest in Greece was a defensive reaction to capital.  Without a degree of organizational and theoretical coherency and a post-capitalist vision, the uprising in Greek was nothing more than a false hope for the international Left and was not progressive.

The long overdue conclusion

It is interesting on an academic level to hear articulate defenses of revolution.  It is inspiring in a way to hear the optimism of Žižek compared to the stiff, sobriety of Noam Chomsky, but history has shown us that more often than not it is the forces of reaction and not progress that naturally benefit from crisis.  Even if it was possible for a vanguard of leftists to take advantage of a revolutionary situation, it might not be desirable.  The march forward, if there is to a march forward, must be a slow, patient struggle where a progressive movement (engaging in the struggles of the day) builds up its forces over the long term and tries to amass majority support.  Harrington called it “visionary gradualism,” Kautskyists refer to it as a “strategy of patience,” and…must this undergraduate recite to his favorite academic Engels’ appraisal of Blanqui?  It’s a critique that applies to romanticized figures of the 20th century like Che Guevara and those in our movement today who over-emphasize direct action and have a soft spot for quasi-fascist political violence:

Blanqui is essentially a political revolutionist. He is a socialist only through sentiment, through his sympathy with the sufferings of the people, but he has neither a socialist theory nor any definite practical suggestions for social remedies. In his political activity he was mainly a "man of action", believing that a small and well organized minority, who would attempt a political stroke of force at the opportune moment, could carry the mass of the people with them by a few successes at the start and thus make a victorious revolution.

It’s in this spirit that I attempt to play the game whenever I’m tempted to yell “kill the umpire.”  I like to think that this ethos is the same reason why no one can say that Michael Harrington was a part of the discredited Sorel, Fanon and Guevara-inspired “psuedo-left” of his time.

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12 Comments

  1. what is said in so many words is that pain by itself does not make a revolution but for a party and people backing it. convoluted english expression and names-dropping does give a writing a shade of intellectualism but commoners like me get pissed off and leave it after a few lines.

  2. I definitely agree with the two practical conclusions of this piece which I take to be the following: 1) that reactionaries are just as likely to politically exploit a crisis as progressives 2) and that political coups are liable to be more trouble than they’re worth.

    The second point about putschism and the various Blanquisms of the 20th century is made throughout Harrington’s 1970 (?) book, ‘Socialism.’ In the chapter “Revolution from Above,” Harrington aimed his anti-Blanquist critique at the Bolsheviks, and described the degeneration of the Russian Revolution as a function of the Blanquization of the Bolshevik leadership. I think that Harrington, as a recovering Trotskyist, retained a soft spot for Lenin & Co. and dated the bad turn to around 1919 — rather late — and warned against demonizing Lenin lest “the tremendous pathos of the man” be forgotten. Whatever. Julius Martov called that shit in 1917.

    I do disagree with several of the side points made above and I’m philosophically troubled by the ease and swiftness with which the Greek anarchists, anti-globalists and other people Doug Henwood wouldn’t approve of are brushed away as being part of some “false left.”

    As I see it, the left is not some kind of theoretical entity that exists independently of actual-existing leftists. One of the reasons I cannot relate to the Platypi is their incurable Platonic idealism that allows them to scold and badger the real world while, at the same time, having nothing to do with it and escaping from it. I blame the teleological component of Marxism which promises us that history is moving in a particular direction, therefore it becomes easy dream up “objectively progressive” and “objectively reactionary” categories and apply them as necessary to those actors that hasten or retard the predetermined march of history and our final victory.

    The left is not an ideal, floating up there with the Platonic forms, the American left is, for better or worse, a bunch of diarists at Daily Kos, some overworked people at ACORN, some kooky sects, some anarcho-vegans and all your friends.

  3. I’m not involved with leftist politics, but I understand Harrington’s dislike of this vulture theory. I read one blog entry that said electing McCain would be better for leftists than Obama because the more the country decayed, the stronger the revolution would build! I personally think there are people already riled up about Obama short shifting promises. Just look at the comments at Chris Floyd’s place.

  4. I don’t like violence and I agree that young radicals in Athens or Berkeley are liable to pull any number of dumb and dangerous stunts, but “angst-filled petit-bourgeois brats”?? That is the kind of thing Michael Harrington would’ve said about the damn college kids in the late 1960s — when his politics were too-often informed by a hardhats vs. hippies view of social class that I consider very quaint. Barbara Ehrenreich has a famous little article called “Anarkids and Hypocrites” about Seattle 1999 that I like a lot.

  5. I also think the youth riots in Greece were somewhat understandable. You don’t have to agree and yes, it was a one off thing, but give them a break.

  6. I think when you say revolution what you really mean to say is revolt. A rebellion is inevitable when the masses are pushed farther than they are willing to go.

    When a mob of people riot against the local authorities after their brothers, and sisters have been brutalized and/or killed by the people that are supposed to protect them, is that reactionary?

    I suppose you could equate revolt with revolution, if you understand revolution to be a 360% rotation.

    I believe that a true revolution can only be achieved after a profound change in beliefs and understanding in all people.

  7. I don’t see why you need to single out the leftists, there are many opportunists abroad.

    I’ve always believed that the true point of politics was to distract people so the opportunist can take all the time he needs toward his goals while of course waiting for the opportunity, I cannot call some leftist a revolutionary because he just wants to become the very thing I loathe.

  8. Thanks so much for link to Engels’ critique of Blanqui. This is extremely relevant in terms of critiquing contemporary Leninist factions to whom Marx might probably say today, “Je ne suis pas une Marxiste.”

  9. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) is one of the last few significant “EuroStalinist” parties. I don’t think it matters much how it viewed the riots.

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