Monthly Archives: April 2014

Donald Gluckstein/The Paris Commune: A revolution in Democracy

It’s back-to-basics time. With May Day in the offing, it’s important to take a little time to reflect on one of the major historical roots of that big red flag that’s so popular with a number of people. Later this week, following the wave of feminist pieces, we’ll focus on the feminist side of the historiography of the period, but we’re going to need some essential features first.

The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy is one of a million histories of this canon, one that specifically and unapologetically is in favour of the Communards. What we have is a very strange narrative. One that begins with the achievements of the Commune, then moves on to the actions that made those achievements possible, continuing on to the last doomed days of the commune (it lasted for a grand total of two months, before being crushed by their fellow Frenchmen), and then analyzing the various left-wing interpretations of the Commune (Gluckstein doesn’t bother with the right wing analyses, as he feels that they’re uniformly negative and more than a little hysterical).

How did this crazy contraption come into existence? There were already long-simmering resentments amongst the working class towards Emperor Louis Napoleon (whose main claim to fame was that he was the grand nephew of the real Napoleon ). There was the utterly pointless adventure in Mexico, which ended in the beheading of the top man of the French troops. But what really got the masses going was the war against the Germans. Germany as such didn’t exist in the 1860s, but a gentleman from Prussia named Bismarck had a dream of a unified German state, and he knew that nothing would unite the disparate Germans better than a good old-fashioned war with the French.

So another senseless war against the Germans began. And to no one’s surprise, the French lost. The remainder of the French started going back home, but the Parisians were having none of it. They absolutely refused to back an incredibly punitive surrender (the terms of which were signed at Versailles, as a nice, petty “fuck you” to the French). Essentially the Paris Commune was therefore at war with both the Germans (who would have much preferred to have to the French sort out the French) and the “official”(and uniformly bourgeois) French Army, stationed at Versailles.

So why was the commune so important, especially for Marx and the rest of the International, to say nothing of virtually every left wing movement that followed in its wake?

To begin with, the commune was like an extremist democracy, a very Rousseau-esque democracy, that as Rousseau himself pointed out, that a) consisted of a small populace, and b) promoted total inclusion in the civic arena. This was as close to true communism as it gets, the early Bolshevik years notwithstanding.

To wit: There were no political parties. There were certainly factions, but no outright party machinery. Anybody of a certain age could vote (women included). Those who were voted in were given a workman’s pay, which was enough to live off, but not enough to encourage careerism. Those who were voted in were also subject to instant recall – if the person did something foolish, all it would take is a small group of citizens to sign a veto, and that person would no longer be in office.

Another key aspect was the existence of civil guard called the National Guard, which was strictly voluntary and established the commune in a physical sense. The guns and batteries which could have been used to level Paris were ferociously guarded by the Communard National Guard. This is where a crucial element of Marxist theory came into play: what is referred to as the “negation of the negation”. After overthrowing an oppressive state, and then using state apparatus to set up a communal society, the state itself will wither away on its own.

The logic is as follows: Since everybody is deeply involved the re-birth of society, particularly those functions operated by the state, a separated state will not be needed. The extraneous state  will be tossed off and replaced by new organizational bodies, sometimes called collectives, sometimes called soviets. A rudimentary version of this constituted the Paris Commune, for a short period.

This state of affairs has happened exactly two, perhaps three times in history. The Commune experienced it, as the National Guard stood its’ council down to make room for new organizational bodies. It could be argued that the early Bolshevik years, up to Lenin’s death, also experienced a version of this – soviet is Russian for collective, the first of which began in Petrograd in 1917. Finally, it can also be argued the Cultural Revolution in China attempted to negate the negation (even though Mao himself thought that the entire anti-state concept was bogus, and despite the fact that the Cultural Revolution was itself a snafu).

The Commune didn’t last long. Revoking command is a nice gesture towards democracy, but it utterly devastated the officer corps and military discipline. There have been some questions (that the author addresses) on whether or not the Commune would have been able to last, with or without Versailles. Was this is a realistic body, or just an inspired moment in French history? It depends on one’s level of cynicism regarding the human race. It should be noted that the basic apparatus of governing was operating more or less normally until the Versailles troops rolled in.

The author, Donald Gluckstein apparently wrote a book with SWP founder Tony Cliff, another left-wing UK citizen/ He’s not a fellow traveller either – Gluckstein is a member of the Scottish branch of the SWP and he teaches at Edinburgh.

It is honestly well written, even if it wears its’ politics on its’ sleeve (each chapter heading is followed by a few lyrics from the Internationale). The fact that this is recent work on this subject, standing on the shoulders of previous scholars, goes a long way to a recommendation.

Jon Stewart once said that “the eternal fate of the noble and enlightened is to be crushed by the armed and dumb”. He was talking about Athenian democracy, but it could just as easily applied to this situation.

Theory: Mother Right vs. Father Might

NB: This is as much an attempt to sort out certain ideas that have emerged upon reading Engels’ Origins of the Family as it is an invitation to debate.Think of this article as a process piece. It should also be noted that the text in question was written in the late 19th Century, and anthropological studies have advanced considerably since that time.

I am without question the last socialist on earth to read Engels thoroughly, particularly his work on materialism and its effects on the very reproduction of life itself. With the renewed interest in Marxist-feminism (as opposed to the great “personal is political” mainstay of the nineties), The Origins of the Family likewise needs re-reading. The following text is my own skewed interpretation of Engels’ historical materialism – the special emphasis is on the dialogue between male and female power relations, from antiquity onwards.

Thus spake Engels:

At the dawn of civilization, humanity was organized into loose tribes, with equally loose attitudes towards sexual freedom and parental duties towards offspring. During the tribal period, sexual relations were based on “pairing”, i.e. serial monogamy. Men and women would come together and break apart like the seasons. As paternity was difficult to trace, the children borne by these relations were considered a part of the female side of things, what Engels called the gens. Children were part of the gens, the female lineage, rather than the male line. Taboos against incest meant that no child or blood relation could get busy with each other – the males of the tribe would have sexual relations outside of their gens, children would be borne, and the original gens would continue.

Work was divided but equal between the genders. As this tribal period predated agriculture, the livelihood of the gens was tasked to the males, while females ran the household. Commodity relations did not exist during this period – possessions were commonly shared, and besides which the property of this or that form was fairly limited, and whatever products were passed on to the mother side.

Group decisions were made by the group, before the development of power relations and the false value placed upon individuals. Executive decisions were made by the tribal chief, who would be elected by consensus rather than by lineage. The gens and the greater tribe constituted a collection of equals – commodities had yet to differentiate individuals.

Then came technology.

With the advent of tools came the advent of agriculture, and the subsistence level of earning a livelihood in the great outdoors also shifted. Animals were domesticated, specifically but not limited to cattle, and the development of pasture lands for those cattle. Excess product began to appear which would then be exchanged for other commodities. It was the beginning of surplus labour, which would eventually lead to the beginning of commerce.

This process created a massive shift away from tribal, gens-based existence. The males were in charge of the livelihood brought in to the house, and excess labor was also in the hands of the male. Gradually, men began to shun the idea of female primogeniture; males decided to a)keep the new-found wealth in their own hands, and b) pass it along to whomever they designated as their children.

This marked a decisive blow against communal existence and the inception of the atomic, individual family. It also marked the beginning of locked down monogamy, and the assertion of paternal rather than maternal right. While women continued to produce and care for children, they became dependent on male resources and the external production of wealth which revolved around men and their abilities garner surplus labor and the attendant privilege of exchanging the fruits of that labor.

If women valued the their livelihood and that of their now paternalized children, the entrance into rock solid paternal monogamy replaced traditional gens-orientated “mother right”. The atomized, single unit paternal family replaced maternal tribal association. The tribe itself began to disintegrate with the increase in population, the migration of tribal members, and the dawn of the commercial towns which hosted a number of commodity traders.

Engels used the civilizations of antiquity (specifically the Mediterranean cultures) to break down this development, but one can discern its form in North American tribes and their subsequent demolition at the hands of European “settlers”. The move away from the communal existence and the enforced break-up of native bands had disastrous consequences, as tribes were rudely introduced to white commercial culture and the subsequent integration into the Euro culture. Residential schools in Canada are one example, as are the displacement of tribal members into the commercial hubs of the brave new world as established by commodity-obsessed Europeans.

To sum up: strapped down monogamous, atomic and individualized families (and all of the paternalism that that entails) is a direct correspondent with the advent of commodity exchange. It is not coincidental – it is the break up of the commune and the rise of the traditional family which is primarily concerned about its own livelihood, rather than the greater tribe.

What does this all mean for contemporary existence? We can already note the shift towards serial monogamy, with the easing of paternalist family relations, increased women’s rights, the introduction of birth control and paternity tests, and greater economic opportunities for women.

However, whomever is the breadwinner (i.e. he/she that brings in the means for commodity exchange) remains the primary decision maker for any given family unit, and that family unit is based inextricably on that original, paternalist atomization. The first division of labour, and the resulting class relations thereof, began with this breakdown and movement away from gens-oriented communalism. And it is that division that continues until today

That sums up an interpretation of whatever Engels was trying to say, 125 years ago. It may be hopelessly outdated, but the experience and horrors of aboriginal conquest in Canada seems to support at least part of what Engels was talking about. The breakup of communalism, particularly at the rate of “integration” into a commodity based culture, has had a death toll on the First Nations, one that they are only recently beginning to recover from.

Still, nagging questions remain. Does serial monogamy preclude genuinely romantic feelings? Is jealousy a materialist construct, leftover from the good ol’ days? Is polygamy true freedom?

Anyway, I’m going to shut up for the time being. There is a lot of room for argument here, ranging from the concept of monogamy and whether or not it’s materialist, the modern condition of anomie, non-traditional forms of pairing, etc. Let’s open the floor.



Marge Piercy/Woman on the edge of time

Try not to read this whilst staying in a hospital. It will make you want to assault a doctor.

The artificial intersection between women and mental health has been raging since the beginning of psychoanalysis, if not earlier. The idea that women who are a tad strident could be “cured” with a little help from an inevitably male doctor has roots in the Victorian era.  Female “hysteria” has been a mainstay of mental health orthodoxy since that period, even if it has assumed different names in the following years.

Woman on the edge of time follows the course of Connie, a woman who has been brutalized by a system which is engineered to destroy the lives of forceful women. The novel is a product of its’ time – the early seventies, and more importantly, second-wave feminism. It is an unapologetically angry book, and not without justification. The idea that an unstable person could be cured by being thrown into a jail-like environment where one could be dosed with Thorazine if one acted out is maddening; so-called treatment of this sort that follows gender lines has not completely perished in our rational era.

The novel ventures into the realm of speculative fiction as Connie, while incarcerated, begins to flip between time periods, occasionally flying forward to a world where the feminist revolution has taken place. This post-revolution world envisions a future society where paternalistic attitudes have all died out, where gender equality (real equality, not just the right to vote and earn equal pay) is the norm. Concepts such as motherhood, monogamy, and earning the means of living have been turned on their heads, and they lie in stark contrast to the wretched life of the jailed (and possibly genuinely insane) heroine.

This is a defiant book, and rightfully so. This goes beyond radical feminism, into a suicide bomber mentality. In the present moment in which Connie spends half of her time, there isn’t a single male who is not malevolent. The doctors at the mental institution view their subjects as bags of meat to be experimented upon, and they’re backed up by the brute force of the orderlies. Woman at the edge of time is not looking for answers – it’s looking for justice, if not revenge.

It’s also clearly the work of the heyday of women’s liberation, and the milieu of seventies-styled militant feminism. The dialectic between genders (in the way that gender identity is strapped down by binary paternalism) didn’t really enter the conversation in that decade. This was classic radicalism, with a very specific target – the male. Piercy draws from this context as much as she draws from the new wave of science fiction that had begun in earnest during that same decade.

All of that typically male discourse of sci-fi/fantasy, which had been fairly reactionary in previous decades, began to assume new shapes in the cultural battleground of the newly progressive culture. Stranger in a strange land may have been a terrible book, but it did open the floodgates for imaginative minds such as Piercy to begin using speculative fiction in a radical fashion.

It’s fitting that the classification charts in the epilogue of the novel write Connie off as a paranoid schizophrenic (which is probably the worst classification in mental health pathology, other than sociopathy). This reduction points towards ways in which the mental health systems break down and “analyze” the emotional turmoils of its supposed charges. It’s also a damning indictment of the sexism that women, particularly outspoken ones, face when they are written off as “crazy”. Lena Dunham’s travails come immediately to mind, to say nothing of virtually every feminist who’s ever walked the face of this earth.

There is ambiguity here – the reader is never certain whether Connie really is time-traveling or if this utopia exists only in her mind. That ambiguity is irrelevant however. The possibly fictitious world that Connie travels to is one that is worthy of aspiring to, and one that Connie and the reader ultimately strive to reach.

Nervous Gender

I could waste everyone’s time by being topical and of the moment. I could be discussing the Ukraine (aka Yugoslavia 2.0). Or missing airplanes. Or the current living hell that is Syria (and Israel/Palestine for that matter). Being topical simply dates oneself however, and I’d rather stick to more structural issues. Like the intersection between radical socialism and feminism, for instance.

It’s a tad difficult for a boring straight square such as myself to make a big deal about feminism, or make some condescending remarks about being a “male feminist” (meminist? feminale?). The equality between genders has always been hardwired for me, and at an early age I discovered radical feminism via riot grrl and the punk scene.

What draws me back to feminism, time and again, is that collision between radical feminism (which has thankfully begun to abandon self-centered identity politics, which was the hallmark of the nineties) and radical socialism. It is a basic recognition of the gendered nature of class relations, the manner in which gender roles are manipulated to further the cause of empty neo-liberal hegemony, or everyone’s favorite monster, the patriarchy. At its root, the patriarchal system is a hierarchal one, with any challenge to gender norms (or female equality, at a base level) stamped down in order to keep the superstructure running smoothly.

If you read this blog, none of this is particularly foreign or groundbreaking information. And naturally gender relations extend far beyond simplistic hetero norms between “men” and “women”. On the other hand, there remains some basic identifications even in this modernist First World hemisphere, roles that need re-assessment and challenges from the left hand of the dial.

To support this, I’ll be posting reviews of radical feminist/socialist works until Mother’s Day. If you don’t care or if you think that I’m a blathering idiot for even yammering my way through this intro post, don’t check back for a few weeks.

Genders of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our roles!


Thomas Paine/Common Sense

Imagine a group of strangers who find themselves in a strange land. There are natural resources, such as food, water, and the basic materials for housing. But they still feel very alienated, and they also feel that they need some kind of structure to make sure that resources aren’t wasted. So they decide to meet at the big oak tree once or twice a month, and they decide what has to happen to their little group, so that resources aren’t drained, to make sure that no one is acting out, and generally attempt to make sure that their little group can survive in the wilderness. This is a confederation.

Then, one of the ruffians who came along for the ride takes the biggest, longest tree branch he can find, and he proceeds to beat the ever-loving tar out of anyone he can find. He then informs the victims that he’s the chieftain now, and his word is the word of God. Not only that, but his descendants will also be chieftains whose words are the words of God. It doesn’t matter how incompetent these descendants are; the head ruffian may indulge in a little incest and produce a child with no left eye, an overbite, and an IQ of around 50. It doesn’t matter; as long as they share the same family genes, they’re chieftains. Then the original ruffian decides to retire to his house in the woods, but if he hears grumbling, well, out comes the stick again. This is monarchy.

This is the essential thrust of Common Sense. It articulates, in the most fundamental terms, why America not only should but needs to sever ties with Great Britain. It was the first international best-seller – it eventually sold half a million copies, which is pretty remarkable when you consider the literacy rates at that point in time.
One of the most interesting features is the vernacular. It is written in the plainest, common language, in order to reach as many people as possible. This isn’t academic navel-gazing, where one philosopher talks to another in the most obtuse manner, leaving the ordinary person perplexed. This is simply a denunciation of the ways things are, and what things people are capable of, should they need to get rid of a parasitic organism like a foreign government.

This is not jingoistic nationalism. This is not Sarah Palin using “common language” and acting like a hayseed when dealing with his poverty-stricken constituents. This is not Bill O’Reilly, this is not Toby Keith. This is arguably more patriotic than any of those idiots. But it’s a different sort of patriotism, based on a series of inarguable facts and basic logic. George Washington sounds like a hick mercenary compared to Paine.

Paine’s use of language is astounding. Every time he gets really worked up and begins to sound like a raving madman, he checks himself and proceeds to use cold logic to back up his occasional dip into purple prose. And the logic he uses is as clear and precise as a cut diamond – he is one of the most convincing revolutionaries that I’ve ever come across.

This is post-colonial or anti-colonial literature, and it ranks with the rest of the anti-colonial canon – Castro, Morales, Guevara, the entirety of the Zapatistas, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Wolfe Tone all owe a debt to this document, written by a failed businessman and adventurer. Not that Paine was some sort of proto-Marxist; if anything, he follows the economic ideology of mercantile classical liberalism. But as far as society at large is, he’s a bold revolutionary.

You can either buy this book from Verso, which has put Paine into their Revolution series. My copy however, is a tad strange. It’s almost like a textbook. It’s small enough to fit into your pocket, and key passages have been highlighted, which just means you can bring the volume to a party, and in the middle of a conversation, bust out the book and randomly quote Paine. Amusement!

In any event, this is a better introduction to what America once was, namely a radical entity which sought freedom from an unknown power. This is far removed from the world police that they’ve morphed into, where the mere utterance of socialism ensures you’ll never take public office. It’s the most inspiring relic that I’ve read in a long time.

Rick Perlstein/Nixonland

New Left Review hated it. New York Times loved it, as did a number of “liberal” American publications. It was published in the waning days of the Bush Administration, and I think that that’s the crux of the variety of reactions. This book, ostensibly about the formerly most hated president in American history, is really about the anarchic sociopolitical backdrop that was the late fifties to the early seventies.

Comparisons between the decade of total upheaval and the curiously complacent years of Bush autocracy are inevitable when reading this volume. It’s also worth noting the similarities between Obama’s foreign policy bungling and the King of foreign policy blunders, Dick Nixon. America hasn’t changed indelibly with the fall of Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush II; patterns can be seen occurring time and time again, even with media revolutions and the overturning of the Baby Boomers.

Essentially Nixonland deals with what academics call post-material politics. Formerly, in the thirties and forties, the working class of America could be depended upon to be at least a little left (unless they were protected from above by the Mafia – see the Teamster union), as collective action generally improved their lot in life. On the other side of the class divide, middle and upper class youngsters were expected to go to university, meet their future spouse, pump out a few kids, rinse, repeat.

Something began to go haywire in the late fifties and early sixties. The kids became increasingly radicalized, partially by dint of their newfound freedom from their parents, partially from the protest culture that began with civil rights and continued with Vietnam, and partially from the great Acid Wave as championed by Dr. Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson.

Meanwhile, the working class became alarmed by the behaviour of the younger generation, a generation that was increasingly viewed as anti American. Cultural concepts such as patriotism (if not outright jingoism), religion, “family values” (i.e. a disguised nostalgia for the fifties) and a simmering level of racism and homophobia lurked just under the covers of Middle America. For both of these oppositional generations material gain was placed to the sidelines; divergent cultural mores was the dominant paradigm.

In stepped Nixon, capitalizing on the frustrations of the “Silent Majority” who were duly horrified by the riots in LA, Detroit, Chicago, Newark, New York, and any other city that had clashing ethnicities or an organized radical base. Perlstein makes an argument that could be easily applied to Bush; Nixon would say something pandering and self-pitying, the liberal media would jump on him and castigate his language, to which the “Silent Majority” would get defensive, with the thought that those darned intellectuals at the New York Times were picking on their representative. It’s a canny move, and it heightens the meaning of those Bushisms that were the laughing stock of liberal America, or the overall stupidity of Sarah Palin. These people may not be geniuses (their scholastic records alone speak volumes), but they are cunning, and they know how to manipulate the emotions of your average Angry White Male. They also know that conservatives vote in higher numbers than their liberal counterparts.

The rest of the book correctly analyzes something that Oliver Stone has built a career around: namely, that something went horrifically wrong in the sixties, beginning with the JFK assassination and the end of Camelot. Nixonland is a mosaic of every turn that reflected in Nixon’s successes and failures, and its width and breadth of historical investigation is astonishing.

Again the comparisons with the turn of the century and the Bush years are confounding. Had Bush and Cheney learned from Nixon and simply applied these lessons in a neo-conservative manner, effectively rendering the American Left as a bunch of Neville Chamberlains and hippies? Or were the voices of dissent drowned out by the crash of towers, arguably the best thing to happen to the Bush administration and the raison d’etre for virtually every policy since 9/11?

Nixonland, while not offering a totalistic approach to conservative populism, nevertheless creates a grand narrative of the fractured sociopolitical backdrop that is America. Don’t be intimidated by its size; as engrossing as it is, you’ll finish it in days and want more.

Emile Zola/Germinal

Every time you get a little depressed about your given situation, you can take a little comfort in the fact that things can always get worse. Reading Germinal, you can rest assured that, at the very least, you’re not a coal miner in Northern France during the mid-1800s, pre-unions. My father’s side of the family originates from this area, and there are several good reasons why they left for the comparatively preferable wilds of North America. It’s grim, treeless, blackened territory, and Zola’s chief metaphor (namely workers germinating and gaining consciousness in the mine shafts underground) is apt here.

The plot is fairly straightforward; a young worker named Etienne gets swept up by language and ideas of the First International (the original Marxist group), and naively convinces his genuinely angry co-workers to go on strike for the first time. The results are disastrous; spoiler alert, it ends badly for nearly everyone.

This is a black book. It will leave soot and dirt on your hands, regardless of what edition you’re reading. Essentially this is a working-class Gothic novel: instead of focusing on the decay of the aristocracy, it focuses the abject misery and filth of the proletariat. Children are a commodity, either bringing money into the house or sucking resources away. Pregnancies and marriages are often brought into being by a couple of young workers going at it in the fields or behind a coal bin.

The most interesting character is the charismatic, menacing anarchist Souvarine, a member of the fearsome Socialist Revolutionaries – possibly the greatest misnomer or bad translation in Russo-English linguistic history. These were Russian anarchists, bordering on nihilists, and Souvarine embodies their mentality perfectly. He does not take part in the strike, referring to it as sentimental nonsense, and his chief solution to the problems of the world is to burn everything down and rebuild from the ground up. With such a hardline position, it’s difficult to find fault-lines in his arguments – in fact why bother? He’s not going to change his mind, and he doesn’t give a damn about converting people. Fun Fact: Boris Souvarine was the nom de plume of one of the Trotskyites who criticized Stalin back in the twenties.

An interesting trick of Zola’s is the layering effect. The workers are layered on top of each other in the mine, they are literally and physically layered on top of each other at home, and even the character-interplay is a layered one. I’m certain that there are dozens of French Lit. papers that analyze this interweaving process, but suffice to say that it creates a dense, even claustrophobic atmosphere. Not unlike working in a coal mine.

Germinal is as bleak as the countryside that produced it, with an overwhelming sense of doom and degradation that permeates every page. On the other hand, its lighter moments (and they do exist) are made all the brighter by their surroundings. It’s also powerful agitprop, a book that will get you off your behind and do something, anything. The endless cycle of union confrontation and the face-offs with management are echoed time and again with this piece, as well as countless other works in the “strikesploitation” genre. As Billy Bragg once sang, “There is strength in a union”, and while this doesn’t mean necessarily what the Labor Party think it means, there is strength in numbers.