Sunday, January 21, 2007

Radicals and the State

Upping The Anti #3 features interviews with Aijaz Ahmad and William Robinson, each of whom discusses different questions, looking at different parts of the world, but nevertheless both touch on some common concerns. I’m not sure if this was the intention of the UTA crew or just happy happenstance, but the interviews work well side by side. (in this post i will be ignoring much of what each interview touches upon – not because the subject matter is not important, but simply in order to tease out one subject, that of State power, for closer examination.)

In discussion with Tom Keefer, Ahmad, a leading Marxist academic from the Indian subcontinent, defends the need for a revolutionary party, argues that communists should immerse themselves in practical work responding to the needs of the oppressed, and touches on the different factions within right-wing anti-imperialist Islam.

There’s a lot here, and i think this interview could have easily been twice as long. The questions Ahmad discusses are ones which are of great importance to us here in Canada. His claim that the masses make revolutions, but that it requires a separate body of revolutionaries to defend and consolidate these revolutions, is one that i am sympathetic to, at the same time as i remain pessimistic as to where such necessities will lead. Plus – though it may just be a question of semantics – i don’t see why revolutionaries have to be organized as a party per se in order to carry out this historic task.

While Ahmad does not reject the quest for State power, his vision is more nuanced and detailed than the cartoon commie vanguardism common in some marxist circles. He recognizes the importance of practical projects, which in white male North America most marxist parties keep well away from. For instance, tune into his discussion of early communist organizing in Pakistan:

When Pakistan came into being and this migrant proletariat came from the north, there were no trade unions in Karachi. One great fear the workers had was that they would die and be buried away from home. The first communist organization that arose in Karachi was a “coffins and burial committee.” This was the first communist organization. So it is out of these kinds of activities that you build your legitimacy. In any country that is what you have to do. Now, you have to have forms that are rooted in the realities of your lives. So a Canadian is not much concerned about where he will die and be buried. The issues will be different, but we have to do similar work. (53)

In a negative sense, i am reminded of the Ice Storm in Montreal back in 1998. Unseasonably warm temperatures (i.e. around zero) and heavy rain knocked out electricity to over a million households in the middle of winter. Water became unsafe to drink and people had no heating for days on end as temperatures dipped below zero again; in all over twenty people died, most due to hypothermia. After four days the army was called in, 15,000 military personnel impressing themselves on the minds of the people as “rescuers.”

And the radical left through all of this? Organizing to go door to door in working class neighbourhoods, checking on the sick and elderly who had nowhere to go? Collectively taking over spaces with electricity to provide warm food and shelter? Expropriating heating supplies, candles, blankets, stand-alone generators? Punishing merchants who had jacked up the prices of such items?

None of the above. It was the State that approximated each of these activities. The only left protest i remember during that time was an occupation of the Mexican consulate, in solidarity with the Zapatistas...

On the other hand, a positive example might be the Common Ground clinic, set up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina by a collection of radicals, working in solidarity with and under the leadership of Black activists from New Orleans. Or the various projects which were spearheaded by the AIDS activist movement in the 1980s – underground needle exchanges, condom distribution, support services. Or those established by the women’s movement – from health clinics to shelters to bad trick sheets.

To quote Ahmad again:

That is the kind of thing that most social movements are doing. I entirely support them because it’s very familiar kind of work. Where I part company with most of them is in their very narrow ideology of micro-politics, where one assumes that you will progress from these activities to yearly congresses and social forums where some coordination might happen and somehow society will change. That exclusive emphasis on micro-politics is populism of the highest order, and I don’t find it very convincing. (53)

Such projects have their half-life, and will probably always face an uphill battle under conditions of capitalism. Yet they remain essential to our path. Of course they also face a real tendency towards institutionalization, as the State establishes “support” for these efforts. This sets off a process whereby a culture of “professionalism” and “accountability” (to the State, not the oppressed!) sets in. It can be a very slow and subtle process, often turning on a few dramatic moments when the State intervenes, or the threat of a funding cut looms, and grassroots organizers are forced to either “shape up” or ship out.

Which is one reason why i agree with Ahmad, that it would be nice if these initiatives were tied to some kind of broader counter-force that would help them to operate effectively while staying outside of the State – though i suspect we would disagree as to what form such a broader counter-force should take...


The second interview in UTA3 is with William Robinson, a professor with the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who writes books about Latin America and global capitalism.

Robinson spoke to Honor Brabazon and Peter Brogan, discussing the Latin American turn to the left, a turn which many in North America know of only through the growing list of regimes described as “left-wing” and “anti-American” in the daily paper. (i should also mention that Robinson has some very interesting things to say about transnational capitalism and the decline of the nation-state – a very important discussion, but again, one which i will not be discussing here...)

Robinson explained that, even when socialists may come to power, under the best of conditions the degree to which a government will be able to resist the demands of international capital and “its own” bourgeoisie is directly dependent of the strength and militancy of the extra-parliamentary left wing:

What is the lesson from elsewhere, from Venezuela and Bolivia? It is this: the mass organizations, the indigenous organizations and other popular movements, should continue their mobilization – not pull back and not rest for one moment, but continue to pressure the Morales government or the Chavez government inside and outside the state.

A position more intelligent than simple cheerleading, one that neither applauds nor condemns the likes of Chavez and Morales, but which asserts that in and of themselves they are insufficient. “[Y]ou have to have permanent, independent pressure from mass movements from below against the state, but, at the same time, you can’t talk about any project of transformation without also taking state power.” (Robinson, 62)

Both Robinson and Ahmad see a need to fight for State power as a part of the revolutionary process, even under conditions of capitalism. Ahmad talks about the virtues of Indian “parliamentary communism,” and both he and Robinson are respectfully critical of the Zapatistas for not throwing their weight and credibility behind Obrador and the PRD. Both acknowledge that the PRD may have serious problems, but the moment it became clear that the far-right National Action Party had rigged the vote, they feel the place of all progressive forces in Mexico was on the side of Obrador.

Both men counterpose their positions to those of John Holloway (Changing the World Without Taking Power), and yet each is equally explicit in acknowledging the inadequacy of concentrating on gaining State power to the exclusion of all else. In fact, for both scholars it is the extra-parliamentary struggle which redeems participation in the State; “parliamentary work is seen as only one kind of work, and you’re constantly organizing for completely extra-parliamentary confrontations with the state” (Ahmad, 56).

While there is a lot more that both Robinson and Ahmad discuss, it is worth pausing a moment to think about this question of the State, because it is a question which sooner or later confronts us all.

Ahmad tells us that participation in bourgeois elections can itself become a way to challenge the bourgeois consciousness that is constantly being produced by the State. Counter-intuitively, participation in the State is a way to challenge the State’s hegemony: “Because bourgeois consciousness is constantly being created on a mass scale through the parliamentary form and the state comes back to it for its legitimation, you can and must represent yourself in this arena.” (Ahmad, 55)

Left unmentioned is the risk (a very great risk!) that by participating in government revolutionaries bestow a sense of legitimacy on the State itself, thus (regardless of their own subjective clearheadedness) fostering illusions and sowing confusion among their own supporters.

More serious still, at what point of working within the capitalist State, making deals and respecting bottom lines and such, does one’s own consciousness cease to be that of a communist revolutionary, regardless of one’s own subjective self-understanding?

Ahmad’s discussion of the State as a source of bourgeois hegemony seems oddly skewed in this regard, for while he is attentive to the consciousness of the masses (who may be exposed to radical ideas as a result of communist participation in elections) he seems completely uninterested in the consciousness of those communists who will end up finding their very lives enmeshed in the machinery of the State, as “radical” politicians or bureaucrats.

Returning to the conceptual tools provided in UTA3’s editorial, does not the very fact of being situated within the State make it very difficult – if not impossible – to do anything but oppose the “pedagogy of confrontation” whenever it breaks out? Unless of course it breaks out according to the timetable of the party, in the form predicted by the party, waving the banners and chanting the slogans of the party?

(In this regard, and without further comment, may i note the recent events which have seen peasants violently clashing with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government in West Bangal? One can read the CPI(M)’s excuses here...)

Indeed, the way i see things, one of the nice things about a “pedagogy of confrontation” is precisely this, that it helps maintain a hostile relationship between oneself and the State, even in situations where some State actors may prefer a strategy of co-optation.

This is not only a question of concern to communists, nor is it one that is limited to India or Venezuela. Here in Quebec, for instance, in the 1970s and 1980s many progressive activists joined the State, both via the Parti Québecois and also through non-party channels, in unofficial capacities as professional paid organizers with various “popular organizations” which were financially and politically tied to the PQ. (From what i understand, a similar phenomenon occurs at times in places in English Canada, though with the NDP.) Of course, at its “best” the PQ (like the NDP) was only ever social democratic, not communist or anti-imperialist, but my point is that some of these activists who fell under its sway were not soc-dems, were in fact socialists or self-styled “revolutionaries” who felt that there were making a mature strategic decision.

And then... when the PQ came to power in 1994... many of these activists – despite, or perhaps even because of their subjective good intentions – ended up sabotaging and hindering any resistance to the PQ’s cutbacks. People who had been outspoken in denouncing the previous Liberal government clammed up as they got jobs as anti-poverty “government consultants.” One of the first battles radical working class activists had to fight was actually against these false “allies,” who were doing more to sabotage the movement than the State could have ever managed had it relied on naked repression alone. Which is why anarchists, Maoists and some who would become left communists played a disproportional role in what resistance did occur… not because they had any kind of real base amongst the oppressed, but because they were the only ones who were not hindered by their own ties to the State. (in a movement with both eyes closed even a one-eyed comrade may end up a sharp-shooter, or something like that...)

We see here that in our context at least, the “mature decision” to engage with the State was in fact a class decision, though it was perhaps not understood as such at the time. That certain comrades were saying goodbye, mortgaging their own accomplishments, moving on.

Robinson argues that it is mass pressure “from below” which enables progressive factions within the State to resist the demands of global capitalism. A more critical interpretation might be that pressure “from below” is what pushes sections of the State to negotiate a better deal from the rest of global capitalism. Even in this limited and conservative sense, though, it seems to me that one must remain outside of the State in order to be able to maintain this pressure.

But in this case too – and conceding that such pressure can be used to force concessions from the State, even to gain what Ahmad calls a “technical advantage” (54) – there is a risk which can only increase by remaining unspoken, namely that an alliance with one faction or another of the State becomes a massive liability the moment that faction’s interests diverge from those of the masses.

All of which calls into question Robinson (and Ahmad’s) criticism of the Zapatistas, who both interviewees fault for not throwing their support behind Obrador and the PRD. Both men acknowledge that the PRD may have serious problems, but when the far-right National Action Party rigged the vote in July 2006, they feel that all progressive forces in Mexico should have united behind Obrador.

Not being in Mexico, and not knowing enough about Mexican politics, i am in no position to take a firm stand on this. But i can say that neither Ahmad not Robinson have convinced me that the Zapatistas’ “neutrality” on this question is an error. Sitting this out need not mean disengaging from the ongoing conflict between the oppressed and the Mexican State. Just as there were reasons to protest Bush stealing the 2000 elections, or to vote for Chirac instead of Le Pen in 2002, i am sure a persuasive argument can be made for supporting Obrador against Calderon. But what both Robinson and Ahmad fail to mention is the political risk in an organization like the Zapatistas, which enjoys a high level of credibility amongst oppressed people and radicals around the world, throwing their support behind a particular “progressive” candidate.

To deepen this Mexican example, remember that the Zapatistas did not abstain from supporting Obrador out of some purely abstract or dogmatic hostility to the State. They had very good practical reasons, as explained in John Gilber’s July 25th article The Orphans of July Third:

There is little that is leftist about Lopez Obrador or the PRD. They plan to follow the same macro-economic model as the previous right wing governments, promising only to “put the poor first” by flooding state money into infrastructure programs, many of which—such as the planned shipping corridor across the Isthmus of Tehuántepec, Oaxaca, a spin off project from the Fox administration's Plan Puebla Panama—face serious national and local opposition by indigenous groups, small farmers, and environmentalists.

During the past six-years the PRD has become something of a half-way house for disenchanted politicians defecting from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the dinosaur that ruled Mexico for over 70 years until its defeat by the PAN in 2000. Many of the politicians that aided PRI president Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) as he eviscerated the indigenous rights and land reform protections in the Mexican Constitution in order to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, have fled to the PRD, and found a home in Lopez Obrador's campaign team. Mexican historian Adolfo Gilly writes in a recent issue of Latin American Perspectives that former Salinas administration officials such as Manuel Camacho, Marcelo Ebrard, Ricardo Monreal, Federico Arreola, Socorro Diaz, and Leonel Cota, are now “the pillars of the presidential campaign of the PRD and its candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.”

Reading the above, it strikes me that had the Zapatistas thrown themselves behind Obrador, the result might have been similar to what Robinson describes happening in Ecuador in 2002: the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador “had to depend on an alliance with Lucio Gutierrez, an army colonel. When Gutierrez betrayed the popular movement, when he turned to neoliberalism and delivered the country to global capitalism, CONAIE got burned very badly for having backed him and having brought him into the presidency. That did a lot of damage to CONAIE’s credibility with their base and to the strategy of putting somebody in the state who would represent their interests.” (Robinson, 64-65)

Once again: When activists throw our weight behind a “progressive” faction of the State or capitalism we in fact gamble with our long-term effectiveness, and it is often the oppressed who have to pay the tab for the fools gold we get from such cross-class alliances. As the glue that binds such unions together invariably proves itself unable to actually resolve the fundamental differences between factions of capital and their victims, such alliances are only ever temporary. Rarely understood by outside supporters in the same way as by cadre, the “failure” or termination of such alliances are often confusing and disillusioning for the masses who have been told that they shared the same interests with their rulers. Indeed, such “pragmatic” alliances, while frequently indulging in the rhetoric of anti-fascism, often both foreshadow and feed a rise of the revolutionary right, as people rebelling against capitalist misery cease to see the revolutionary left as offering any true alternative.

All of which is quick and easy, if not a bit dirty, in its scope. To take a step back: i’m no expert on India or Latin America, so i’m not saying that there may not be situations where there is more to gain than to lose by participation in the State. But here in the metropoles, where at present no mass base has been won over to revolutionary left-wing politics, it is difficult to see any value in such a strategy.


  1. this is a great post. really thought provoking and good use of evidence for your arguments. This is my first time really reading your blog, but I'll definitely be back now. Keep up the good work!

  2. but it's so tempting .. the power!

    and what andrew said.