Socialism and Democracy: A Conversation
Suren: I would like us to reflect on what Socialism and Democracy has achieved within the context of a broader left, and also on what the future may hold for us – especially at this moment where we seem to be in some sort of transition between political generations, with a still newer left that has strands of anti-fascism but that is also entering new space, or revisiting older themes, especially in terms of gender relations. How do we situate the journal (as a medium) and specifically Socialism and Democracy in building these currents? And, having said that, how should we look back at the founding of Socialism and Democracy in the political circumstances of the 1980s?
Victor: Socialism and Democracy was started by people in New York, around the City University, at a time when I was still in Indianapolis. But the general mood that they expressed in the journal was one that was fairly widespread at the time. This was a period when there was a lot of discussion about how the Soviet Union might be able to break out of the stereotype that had developed around it – as a bureaucratic regime that was not responsive to people’s needs. There was some hope that it could develop in a more democratic direction – not in the sense of imitating bourgeois party competition, but in the sense of facilitating openness and accountability. At the same time, there was a commitment, which I think is something we've retained, to, as they put it, own our history. We can be critical of previous attempts at socialism, but that doesn't mean that we disown them. It's part of a continuing struggle, and whatever detours, errors, even crimes may have been committed along the way, our job as Marxists is to analyze and understand it, so that we can build a movement that will have learned from it and avoid some of the same problems.
Suren: In that spirit, coming out of the Soviet experience, or say the process you just alluded to, there was a brief period in the late '70s of “proletarian internationalism” as self-described by the Brezhnev regime that encompassed important solidaristic efforts, especially in Africa, but also involving Latin America. At the same time, in the 1970s, there was also a strong Third Worldist tendency within the US left. How did Socialism and Democracy connect with those trends?
Victor: Well one thing that has been of continuing interest to Socialism and Democracy has been the Cuban Revolution. Cuba was really at the center of a lot of those things, because it was at the nodal point of revolution in Latin America, but then also related to Africa, and in fact, I would say, even took the lead over the Soviet Union, as it was more active on behalf of revolutionary movements in Africa. One of the things that we published in 1996 was the speech that Fidel Castro gave in Harlem, commemorating the role of Cuban forces in the victory of the Angolan liberation forces over the South African army that had intervened in that struggle – and whose defeat contributed to the collapse of the apartheid regime.1 Cuba, all along, has played a quite exceptional role. Unlike any “great power,” it sent its armed forces into another country without the remotest intention of establishing its control there, but strictly in support of the local movements. The ethic of service has been a continuous feature of Cuba’s role on the world stage, in terms of healthcare, literacy training, and disaster relief. So, yes, Cuba has been a constant theme of the journal.
Suren: Circling back again to the period of Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost: So there was this period called decompression in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s that provided hope for the journal, and to which it gave a variety of theoretical formulations. There is now a corresponding period in Cuba, but does it provide a similar moment of optimism, or is it more a sense of danger, given what happened in the Soviet Union?
Victor: Well it's a mixture. Our most recent issue that was devoted largely to Cuba (“The Future of Cuban Socialism,” March 2016) was all about whether Cuba was moving in a capitalist direction or was retaining socialism. The Cuban contributors to the issue, or most of them, seemed to be strongly of the opinion that it was staying on course, but making some adjustments in order to do so. One of the issues they raised that interested me was the polemic against egalitarianism, which may sound paradoxical, but I think they made a distinction that we often hear in the US, between equity and equality.
The general introductory article to that issue, by Al Campbell, leaves Cuba’s direction as an open question. It looks at the factors favoring and the factors impeding evolution further along a socialist path. The encouraging trend is the development of cooperatives. Again, as with the Soviet Union, the outcome depends heavily on what happens in the rest of the world. To the extent that Cuba remains isolated, the market pressures on it will remain very strong. On the other hand, with Venezuela, at least when Hugo Chávez was in office, they had a very strong relationship of mutual reinforcement, which again gave Cuba a lot of independence relative to the capitalist world. Whether that can continue now, I don't know. So there are some parallels, yes.
Suren: Thinking more parochially, about the journal itself and these big world developments, Cuba in particular, there's a fairly strong movement in solidarity with Cuba in the United States. It has also been a fairly coherent movement and very consistent. How did the journal contribute to that movement?
Victor: The journal’s two earlier special issues on Cuba (in 2001 and 2011) were quite unique in the sense that almost all the articles in them were written by Cuban social scientists or activists within Cuba, thus avoiding both the foreign academics and Cuban exiles. At least in the left, those issues got a fair amount of readership.
Suren: So Socialism and Democracy provided a link to diverse forms of Cuban thinking.
Suren: Do you think that this similarly helped satisfy a sense of diversity within the Cuba solidarity movement? The fact that if there can be Cubans with diverse perspectives on the revolution, there can be a similar diversity within the solidarity movement?
Victor: That's a bit hard to answer, because I think that in both cases, there are limits to the range of views. Within Cuba, they would define those limits by saying that we have to develop on our own, independently of the United States. That was indeed the argument of another piece we published, Philip Agee's article in 2003, after the imprisonment of 75 people in Cuba, where he explained that this was not because they criticized the government; it was because they were accepting money from the US for their activities.2 So, disagreement, yes, but being at the service of the imperial power, that's not acceptable. Parallel to that, within the solidarity movement, there has been a range of positions compatible with support for Cuba’s revolutionary process. These are contentious issues. We've had discussions about them among ourselves.
Suren: Within the Latin American solidarity movement, there have been quite a few fairly progressive outlets, apart from Socialism and Democracy. You have Latin American Perspectives, NACLA Report on the Americas, and similar publications. How did Socialism and Democracy fit into that ecosystem of publications of the left on Latin America?
Victor: There's quite a lot of overlap, including in terms of individual writers.
Suren: So, some continuity in personnel. In terms of intellectual developments, do you see the journal as having had a peculiar role in shaping the solidarity movement?
Victor: That's hard to assess. In terms of Latin America solidarity work generally, I wouldn't claim that we had as much influence as NACLA did, because NACLA had a wide distribution and a more popular style. I think our role was probably more to integrate our view on Latin America into general left thinking.
Suren: Okay. Playing with this idea a little bit more though, NACLA as a publication was written for a popular audience, by contrast, for whom would you say Socialism and Democracy is being written?
Victor: Well I always like to think that we can have a popular audience, and I would even say that it's not an altogether unreal ambition. What it does require of readers is a serious interest. But I've always been very much against arcane prose, especially the kind that sometimes flowed out of the post-modernist movement. So, writing as far as possible in fairly straightforward language.
I like to think of us, as we put it in our proposal to the US Social Forum in 2010, as a research journal for activists. So we have our documentation, and our theoretical pieces as well, but we try to present it in a form that's accessible. I would say one of the tests of this is that we're very popular among prisoners. We have free subscriptions for prisoners and some of the prisoners who receive them write for us. We've published four pieces by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson. Of course, he's a deep thinker, with a good knowledge of history, but I think that other prisoners can also appreciate and learn from our articles.3 They sometimes say that they have to study them. We've even occasionally published poetry. For a while we had a poetry editor (D. H. Melhem). Recently, since her death, we received a poem from a prisoner that everybody liked and which we published.4 So, not all our content is in an academic style. We have polemics, essays, and so on.
Suren: To circle back then to the Soviet and Cuban political evolution, how did the journal deal with the fact that there was this moment of hope with perestroika and glasnost, but slowly – or not so slowly – that disappeared. How was that reflected in the journal?
Victor: Well, those immediate years were before I was editorially involved, although I did contribute an article at that time, which was really my first contact with the journal, entitled “Marxism in the Age of Gorbachev.”5 And so I can speak for myself and say that my first reaction to the collapse was to say this is the collapse of one episode, or one epoch, as I put it, in the development of socialism; it is not the collapse of socialism as such. And it's true that in the left there were a number of moves in the US at that time to abandon even the term socialism, or Marxism. The New York Marxist School was thinking of giving up its name 'Marxist', and the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism was thinking of dropping its name that included the word 'socialism'. I was involved with both, and I argued against both.
Socialism and Democracy never contemplated such a step. But I thought, this is a moment that if the left starts abandoning the concept of socialism just because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it doesn't make any sense. In fact, one of the things I pointed out in my S&D article was that the critiques of the Soviet Union were already being made long before it collapsed; it wasn't just because it collapsed that these critiques had to come out.
Suren: I can understand why from a biographical point of view, you would see the Soviet Union as but one major experience of socialism: you saw socialism in development first-hand in Chile?
Victor: Well, I wouldn't say that they attained socialism. They had a president [1970-73] who was elected and who was from a whole coalition that was committed to developing socialism, but they never were able to introduce socialism, they were just beginning the process.6
Suren: But you've seen the process begin, and you were also in solidarity with the Cuban experience.
Victor: Yeah, right, right.
Suren: To take that point just a little bit further, at the same time that you're arguing for fidelity to socialism, in a 1997 article, "Keeping the Faith," you note that there'll necessarily be new movements with new language, new terms, and new vocabularies.7 Interestingly, that seems to be the situation today, where socialism is very popular as an idea, at least among young people and certainly within the African American community, but there are many new currents now that do not explicitly reference socialism. I am thinking about new currents especially around gender questions, or the Movement for Black Lives. How do you see socialism as relevant to these movements?
Victor: I see socialism as being the goal which enables them to come together, because all these groups represent constituencies that are oppressed by capitalism. I developed this point in a piece that I wrote for New Political Science, on intersectionality.8 I think that's a fairly clear point. To put it briefly, whatever criteria of oppression, or whatever line of oppression exists, it's something that developed, that has a connection or relationship to capitalism. It's different in different cases; obviously the gender dimension existed before capitalism, but it did become interwoven with it. But the race dimension was virtually created by capitalism, it's part of the history of capitalism, the deliberate introduction of race in a legal sense, in colonial Virginia, in the 17th century. So, as long as the movements around these various demands remain separate, they won't be able to challenge power over the society as a whole. The power over the society as a whole is held on a class basis, and the capitalist class, through its agents in government, makes policy in all those areas, covering all those areas, whether it's sexuality or gender or racial issues and so on.
Suren: A few days ago, I had the chance to interview one of the founders of the Combahee River Collective that developed the notion of interlocking oppressions, which later on become reformulated as intersectionality. One of the interesting things, especially evident in the book that Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor just published, is that they saw themselves as socialists; they were working-class people who saw themselves as socialists, who also saw themselves as black and as women.9 As such, they situated their sense of interlocking oppressions and the consequent need for coalition-building to challenge the system, including challenging capitalism, as being part of a socialist project. Very soon however, after they articulate this, you have the Reagan counterrevolution, and other defeats. Their intersectionality enters academia stripped of its socialism. Did you follow that process and consider how that came to be the case?
Victor: Well, I wasn't aware of it at the time, actually. As I discuss in my New Political Science article, the intersectionality term was introduced in a kind of academic context in the late '80s, and without an explicit reference to socialism; it was linking the issues of gender and racial oppression. So the debate around it continued mainly within feminist journals, and didn't initially go out to the broader left.
It's an issue that in a way I was thinking about all along, though, because I had a piece in Monthly Review in '91,10 where I had in mind the kind of approach that was being taken by the at-that-time new publication, Z Magazine, which placed a big emphasis on gender issues and race issues, and said that Marxists don't pay enough attention to that. So I was trying to make the point that all these issues were encompassed by the class struggle, and that class had a distinctive aspect, in that class is by definition associated with domination, whereas differences of ethnicity or gender may or may not involve domination, depending on how they're organized. If you don't have domination, you don't have class. And that's the fundamental point that I made back then in '91.
Suren: In this period—the 1980s—I was a student and read Liberating Theory published by Michael Albert and several other people, including Mel King, Leslie Cagan, and Noam Chomsky, in which they pick up on the notion of interlocking oppressions identifying several different but related, interlocked, oppressions.11 I deeply appreciate the work of Michael Albert, and have benefited from it, having published short articles on the "Z" website and that kind of thing, but I was always shocked by the very strident anti-Marxism. How are we to understand the stridency, even shrillness, of it?
Victor: I would rather put that question to him. I don't know that I can explain it. And it is certainly a point that I make in my New Political Science article: they seem to be against Marxism. Let me venture a hypothesis, without being able to ask them directly, that it's part of a process of liberating the left from the stigma of the Soviet experience. Because the Soviet experience is associated with Marxism, so we're gonna reject the Soviet experience and we're gonna reject everything that we see as having led up to it, along with it. Possibly that's the way they saw it, I don't know.
Suren: It would be wrong for me to suggest that this was a purely unilateral affair. On the other side you had people like Alexander Cockburn replying in kind and, unfortunately, I think it ended up polarizing currents that should really be working together.
Victor: Absolutely. Another example, in that connection: Chomsky’s very popular lectures would typically include, just incidentally at some point, a swipe at Bolshevism. Chomsky was coming out of an anarchist tradition, and I guess that's what Albert has more affinity with.
Suren: What role is there for Socialism and Democracy in conducting a sort of intellectual diplomacy between these kinds of currents, which seems especially necessary – well it's always been necessary in a way – now when you have people who should be allies of socialists, or be socialists themselves, as you would put it, in order to further their own goals, whether it be so-called race or gender.
Victor: What role can we play? That's a question that I suppose involves a bit of organizational activity like the type that we're carrying on in the Boston Socialist Unity Project.
Suren: How would you describe that activity?
Victor: The background to my point is that they're not going to come to us, as a journal, because our journal is quite explicitly Marxist. It's in our mission statement, and it comes through in our articles. So I think in terms of drawing in people who come from other directions within the left, it has to be more a matter of contacting them, engaging them in direct discussions. So the Boston Socialist Unity Project, which had its first annual conference in 2016, had the purpose of precisely bringing together people from all the different left organizations not only to put on a common educational event, but also hoping that in the process of working together on such a thing, they would establish a kind of communication, let's say at the base level.12
My feeling has always been that I have reservations about coalitions. In a sense, coalitions are great, but they involve interaction and negotiation among leaders of the various organizations, whereas what's ultimately going to be effective or required as a political force, is a membership organization that brings all these groups together, which can only come about if there's communication among people at the rank and file level of the different organizations. So I don't think we've achieved that yet in Boston Socialist Unity, but that's what we're trying to do, and that's what I would say would be necessary with Socialism and Democracy as well.
Suren: I completely agree with you; the problem is, it almost feels as if we're building a Gordian knot, as it were, which is, we do need to involve the grassroots of the different organizations and tendencies. At the same time, unless we have an agreement between the leaderships of these grassroots, or at least a certain critical mass of them, we won't get access to those people, and similarly then, those people won't really respond unless there's pressure from their base to make this happen. So I wonder about the actual concrete steps we need to be taking. Although I agree with you, that there needs to be this practical diplomacy, that kind of thing.
Victor: You've suggested that Socialism and Democracy put on conferences. That hasn't been done since the very earliest days of the journal. But, beyond that, I guess it involves trying to have a physical presence, selling copies of the journal at events that are put on by these different organizations whose people we want to have access to. I don't know, maybe also through social media there can be some way of expressing what we do.
For example, the issue we did three years ago on mass incarceration is potentially tremendously popular, just like an earlier issue on hip hop, because these attract audiences way outside the usual ideologically defined constituency that we might think of.13 There are a lot of popular pieces in both those issues. We did also have a special issue on gender questions;14 it's high time we did something like that again. And the issue that you're now working on around Du Bois [planned for November 2018] could have a very wide readership.
Suren: I would like to talk a little bit about a potential conference process in relation to the need for different groups to be working together and generating some sort of grassroots demand for more united or more expansive kinds of coalitions. One reason I think it's important is that, after the 1960s, there were at least four broad avenues that the left travelled and they tended to be somewhat divergent. Each however has now accumulated a half century’s worth of knowledge and experience, and a conference or gathering should be about bringing these different knowledges to engage one another.
I'm being a bit Cartesian about this and imposing some categories. One would be the academic left, that went into higher education in particular. A second would be those parts of the insurgent union formations including things like Teamsters for a Democratic Union – people who went into industry and joined trade unions. A third route was taken by those who went into the non-profit world, worked on very issue-specific kinds of areas. And then the fourth area, especially in the early 1970s, was the party-building left, the people that went into Marxist-Leninist formations, the experiences chronicled in Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air.15 Unfortunately that didn’t really address the equivalent Trotskyist and “mainstream” Communist Party experiences.
Although there are some cross-cutting experiences as for example the international solidarity movements we discussed earlier with respect to Cuba and Latin America, those are the four pathways. Both with the passage of time and the neoliberal reconfiguring of those institutional pathways there has been a dissolution of some the original currents and they've become much more diverse. For example, in the current period, with the rise of contingent academic labor, and with the academy itself transforming the 19th-century disciplines in favor of new less defined 21st-century disciplines, academic Marxism for all its diversity and fluid edges is increasingly exposed to real world challenges. There's also an increase in overlap between these areas. So there would be people who could be in academia, but might be working in non-profits for some period of time, and then going back into working in other sectors, back and forth.
I would like to see how Marxists and journals like Socialism and Democracy can contribute to a bringing together of those knowledges, of those experiences, so that we may reflect on some of the institutional processes that keep us divided, that may not necessarily be ideological, but different work practices, different organizational cultures that are keeping us apart as well.
So for example, I think that a large part of what we often bemoan as identity politics – the transformation of something that's militant, like the Combahee River Collective theses on interlocking oppressions, into a domesticated identity politics on campus – ends up sharpening the difference between more Marxist and more nationalistic tendencies. As this kind of political polarization extends off campus, it works well with Democratic Party elites who are comfortable with capturing and exploiting identity-based grievances while disciplining working people as a whole with very rigid austerity regimes. As a result, parts of the left are able to win some “power” in this or that sinecure of the campus, or as is the case with the non-profit world, win a junior place in the welfare or housing or planning bureaucracies of the city or state, but within the larger structure of exploitation and domination, not so much power, and with very few real world consequences. Nonetheless, they have gained deeper knowledge of their respective institutions and also developed certain skill sets and work cultures to which other parts of the movement have not yet had access. I'd like to see how we can recover these experiences, to bring them together again.
Victor: That's a very good way of putting the challenge. In terms of what can be done: first of all, one big new issue that has come up that ties a lot of these together, is the issue of the student debt, which affects so many people. It's part of the development of the academic proletariat now as well. The other dimension that needs to come in, thinking generally about differences from that period, is the overwhelming urgency of the environmental issue – which was there all along, but should now be at the forefront of everyone's consciousness. I think it's inseparable from the class issue of capitalism, and is integral to what could bring together all these constituencies.
And then there's the whole area of the social media, and how these cross lines that might otherwise exist. And that's still in the process of definition; I don't quite have a clear idea of what effect that'll have. It will be up to us to find creative ways to use those media, to allow them to be more than just dropping something into the ocean. How can those discussions be structured? And how can we collectively take over the process of transmission, so that access and search engines are not controlled by Facebook, Google, or any other corporate giant? Considerations like this underscore the need for expanding, exponentially, the reach of the independent media.
The independent media that have been developed since the '60s are quite impressive, on a level that didn't exist then, but it has to go so much further, because we've never in this country had anything comparable to the kind oppositional press that, for example, exists in many European countries in the form of the communist press and so on. That still has to be developed, and now it's under new terms. So I think that developing that kind of oppositional culture is what could bring together all these trends.
I was thinking of this also in terms of the project around Roots Action.16 Roots Action is interesting because although its specific demands don't raise the issue of socialism directly, it nonetheless articulates a critique of both the dominant parties in the United States, and therefore is beginning to create a space of people who viscerally reject the dominant consensus. It now has approximately 1.4 million subscribers in the US, and can mobilize thousands of signatures on many different issues. Mobilizing signatures, of course, is not the be all and the end all; it's a first step to establishing networks. But the combination of issues that's reflected in the total agenda of what it's doing, should provide a basis for people to think more about how all these things fit together.
Another thing that's very important is the phenomenon of whistle-blowers. Of course the classic ones from the '70s were Daniel Ellsberg and Philip Agee, but now whistle-blowing seems to have expanded, again, on an impressive scale.17 I've come to think of this as an absolutely strategic component of any kind of radical change in the society, because if you just think in terms of direct confrontation with the capitalist state, any, even the most massive left, would be so completely out-gunned by the forces of the ruling class, that its only hope lies in an eventual crumbling of the whole machinery of enforcement. Developing a culture that can encourage whistle-blowing, at every level, is part of the process of eating away at this otherwise seemingly impregnable structure.
Suren: Now I'd like to go back a bit. I really appreciate and support the notion that the social media we have, including such mobilizational media as Roots Action, are vital first steps for building up networks and developing a conversation, and it takes me then to the second part of our title, democracy. We've spoken to a certain extent about socialism without actually going into the content of our socialisms or socialism, but democracy too is an important part of this conversation. In fact, my own direct observation of working in anti-war coalitions, as well as even within diverse socialist formations, is that the culture of democracy, if it ever was strong, is very weak in some respects. To some degree conversations take the form of charge and counter-charge, missive and counter-missive, very much like Donald Trump's tweets. And social media seems to encourage the same in some ways, or it at least has an “elective affinity” for that kind of engagement. As a result, very rarely do I see real conversations happening on the left in which people not only state their propositions but provide supporting arguments, and are heard as they provide those supporting arguments.
One of the things that Liz Mestres, who's on our editorial board, and former director of the Brecht Forum, pointed out, was that they started out at the Brecht Forum teaching, or encouraging people of the left to engage in public speaking, to be articulate proponents of a particular perspective.18 In fact, in China Miéville's book, October, one of the interesting sketches he provides is how the Bolsheviks developed over the course of that revolutionary period as orators, learning to become articulate defenders of points of view.19 But the point that Liz made is, by the end of the nearly 40 years of the Brecht Forum, they were doing courses and classes on listening – how to be active listeners. And it feels like that is one component that's really missing from our left culture and from the broader society's culture, so it's not a uniquely left-wing deficit. But it would be interesting to think through how we can develop deliberative platforms, ways in which we can talk with each other and do so in structured ways, and ways in which we can arbitrate between points of view, and perhaps even reach conclusions different from what either held at the beginning.
Now often that kind of thing gets shunted aside as wishy-washy liberalism, or the idea of a call for tolerance and discussion. Do you see us as being able to play a role, as Socialism and Democracy, in bringing about a space for democratic deliberative conversations?
Victor: Well, I very much hope so. I certainly agree that the democracy part is integral to this whole project. Again this is something that I've worked on in the sense that I think the main deficiency in the socialist model that was developed in the Soviet Union was the absence of democratic structures for, let's say, the workplace especially, which extend then out into the wider society.
Socialism and communism have always entailed the idea that you take the very limited democratic rights that we now have and extend them into regions that are not even thought about in capitalist society. So that's very central. In terms of how we can bring it about, I think you're right about how these social media tend to encourage polarization rather than constructive interaction. And that's where I guess you do come back to the desirability of organizing direct interaction among activists. Conferences are a kind of pinnacle to this process, but at a more routine level, we can encourage local study groups, discussion groups, at every level of the society. I'm thinking of Boston Social Unity; the conference comes once a year, but we should stimulate a continuing process of people talking about these things.
That's also intimately tied up with the environmental struggles, because transforming the environment means reconfiguring space, it means changing our ways of living, it means maybe taking down certain structures, putting up new ones – on the basis of guidelines that can't possibly be determined by the market, they'd be counter-productive. So people have to determine them collectively.
Suren: To go back my improvised framework of four left-wing experiences that came out of the 1960s—excursions into academia, into the third sector, into party building, and also into the trade union movements. One of the benefits, I think, that have come out of it is that within parts of the non-profit world, including those more corporate parts, there have been various kinds of models evolved for conducting and organizing conversations among large groups of people. Within the Occupy movement, the people's microphone became a sort of ritual, a practice associated with it, but it had very little to do with democracy. It was almost a one-way technology.
But there are some other kinds of technologies and methods of conversation and dialogue. For example, on the left, May First/People Link, in New York City, has theorized about the “The Organic Internet,” that emphasizes the original promise of the internet as a platform for connecting people.20 There was also a mainstream liberal not-for-profit organization called, America Speaks, that developed a method of dialogue for extremely large gatherings.21 Here, groups break up into small circles of 8 to 10 people, and they all get a common set of questions, which they address with a facilitator taking discussion notes on a computer or smart device and then these are shared with all the other tables of people, in real time. The outcomes of their conversations are aggregated and then made viewable on a web page or read out loud to all participants. A central group of facilitators collates all of the information, identifies common themes, and clumps together different concepts or propositions to provide a sense of what the group thinks. This is no panacea and certainly centralizes some power in the facilitators but it nonetheless enables a deliberative process usually seen as impossible for large groups. A succession of such conversations can move from the mere aggregation of opinions to decision-making.
I'd like to be able to see us moving in the direction of evaluating or even developing such technologies, so that we can take advantage of what is newly available – not merely to aggregate opinions, but also to have people share and engage one another and even conduct political education. In the non-profit and union spheres, a whole layer of people are developing as facilitators. To put it differently, people acquire these skill sets by virtue of their repeating these roles in their “professional lives.” They learn to aggregate opinions, and to share them back in ways that are functional for their workplaces. We need to democratize these skill sets. It feels like something that we may have once hoped a political party would do. And maybe it still is something that a party could do in the future.
Perhaps this is a good moment to turn to the question of the party. How do you see the left's role right now, in terms of building a mass party that could actually give voice to the left-wing side of the spectrum?
Victor: The left, as it now exists, is just a kind of tendency of opinion, not an actual organization, so really the question is probably more about just what our journal might do to help the process along. Part of this could involve bringing together different political tendencies. This may include giving a platform to research that stretches the limits of debate about past history. We should welcome research, for example that calls into question either the idolization or the demonization of various figures in the history of revolutions. A given writer may lean in one or another direction on such matters, but the convergence of multiple voices committed to serious research may bring new insight. In sum, we must offer a broad platform, and we must be willing to open up questions that have been taboo. This is very much in the spirit of democracy.
Suren: To take the point about democracy a bit further – in relation to our journal: one problem I have is that within liberalism, there are a large number of people who do not realize that they are unwitting capitalists. And yet I believe that some of them have a lot of useful information about procedures, institutions, that we on the left need to take seriously and engage. Where the left has engaged with this, we've often done so from a point of weakness, and been absorbed or co-opted into becoming unwitting accomplices. One thinks of say the Italian Socialist Party, which for a while was to the left of the Communist Party, and then once they're in power, they move way to the right. But it included a number of important thinkers who were important in the resistance to fascism. One who comes to mind is Norberto Bobbio.22 He recognized that there are matters outside the traditional scope of Marxism that are important, that have to do with the way in which technology shapes our lives, with dilemmas of democracy itself, the fact that not all problems are purely class based, and that whatever processes we adopt, techniques of decision-making are going to have trade-offs with it. Marx, of course, developed and grew as a thinker by moving into and criticizing new literatures and knowledge from the point of view of the working class’s historical mission.
Suren: And these questions of procedure, etc., are matters with which we have to come to terms. Often, we attribute class motives or biases to disagreements that are a result or even a necessary outcome of particular processes that are not necessarily class based or class driven.
Victor: Yes, we got into that discussion a little bit with the article by Richard Schmitt in number 67, and the dialogue that ensued.23 So that's certainly an important question. Also, just carrying forward the argument about workers’ participation and self-management; this has been developed quite a bit by Rick Wolff in his book, Democracy at Work.24 He talks about it in quite explicit structural terms, about how it's organized at the enterprise level. We need to have a discussion about how it's organized at the social level. That's something I've been interested in.25 I feel that there needs to be a structure to provide safeguards and guarantees. This also entered into Cuban practice, because Cuba has modeled certain structures, like the requirement that legislators meet in their districts and structuring the meetings and so on. Those are valid points, so we can pick up ideas from practice here and there, and different experiences.
Suren: Would you say you're optimistic that, within our networks that have accumulated over these 30 years or so, we have people who can not only provide us with access to that knowledge, but who are also developing those experiences?
Victor: Well, yes, Rick Wolff would be an example. He has written for us sometimes and has formed an organization to promote workers’ self-management.26 It would be a question of maybe a list of different issue areas.
Suren: As far as my thinking is shaped by recent articles, another topic that seems to pose a challenge for us is found in intense debates provoked by so-called post-colonial theorizing about class and about labor, especially the supposedly non-traditional or non-proletarian forms of labor, and how we are to relate to it. It feels like as post-colonial thought diffused through academia, a lot of the radical potential and the practices that they claim to be celebrating – the agency of this or that layer of non-working-class people as opposed to a traditional working class – get stripped of their radical, anti-capitalist essence. I wonder to what extent Marxists are to blame for that, in our emphasis on the traditional working class.
Victor: Well, Marxism is continually evolving… right now, Monthly Review is having some very interesting lead articles on precisely this issue. The last one, a month ago, was about women's labor, and its centrality even.27 Some of the points in it, I was unaware of, like the fact that in the 19th-century English textile industry, the workers were overwhelmingly women.
One of the writers whose work I think is especially important is Kevin Anderson; he has shown very well how Marx himself provided a bridge to the consideration of some of these issues – not necessarily in his published writing, but in some of his notebooks, in his general thinking.28 This is exactly what John Bellamy Foster has done in regard to Marx and ecology.29 Between Anderson's treatment of Marx in relation to colonialism and gender and race, and Foster on ecology, we are reminded that the underlying theory can encompass all these things. So it's up to us to show that. I suppose if there's anything to blame for the de-radicalization you speak of, it would be the narrow interpretations of Marxism that prevailed at a certain point.
But again, there has been a lot of anticommunist stereotyping, because the Communist Party in the United States, for example, was the most advanced organization in terms of anti-racism. For a long time, it was the only non-black organization that a lot of black people would join, because whatever the specifics of its policy, it recognized the centrality of the African American component of the working class.
I think that Marx and Engels themselves are positive models in all this. We don't have to be in the position of claiming that there's some kind of pure Marxism that can't accept these cross-class issues, because Marx himself – and a proper understanding of his theory – allows us to encompass them. I think those who push Marx away, they're just missing an opportunity to bring all these struggles together.
Suren: I am very excited by the work of Kevin Anderson both on gender and on the Global South or Third World, and similarly by Foster on the environment. Also more recently, by George Ciccariello-Maher’s Decolonizing Dialectics, which I think we should definitely review in the near future. It's worth engaging because I think it continues Anderson's work of bringing into the Marxist tradition, and bringing Marxist and Hegelian insights to bear on anti-colonial revolts in the Global South, and on histories that are unconnected to the western narrative itself. So I think those are all exciting areas that we need to engage.
One recent book that suggests to me just how far we have to go in terms of this type of intellectual work – and suggests that Anderson and Foster and all, are just beginnings, in terms of growing Marxism – is China Miéville's book, October. One of the things I really appreciated about the book was the way in which working-class agency in the factories of Petrograd comes to life, and you get a sense of it. You also get a sense of the organizations within the military that emerged and their sense of power and the practices that they engaged in that demonstrated this confidence. The part that surprised me in the book, and that I appreciated, was this inclusion of conversations, not only about women, since that is better known, but also about the different nationalities, the people from the future Muslim republics getting together in congresses during 1917. And so he adds all this to the story of 1917, showing us what a multi-national, multicultural phenomenon that was.
But I do have one critique of Miéville in terms of 1917 and the workers' experience, the Russian workers' experience, as in the Russian nationals’ experience of it. He rightly and effectively provides a pre-history of those working-class struggles, going back to the Narodniki, and to successive movements, and then to 1905, and then 1917, so we get the sense of continuity. But then when it comes to the nationalities, they are merely given cameo roles in 1917. We don't have a sense of their pre-history. In other words, given the narrative form of the book, these nationalities’ experiences are ancillary. And while certainly it's a great leap forward to bring in these other experiences, I feel like a “bigger” account—one that could be just as exciting from a narrative perspective—would bring in the pre-history of the various central Asian revolts and the anti-colonial resistance to the Czar and to the extension of the Russian empire, showing us continuities in that kind of thinking too.
So that's why I'm saying that Anderson's work, Foster’s work, and similar efforts are all great steps forward on what will be a very long journey toward enriching Marxism, or showing us how Marxism has so many different expressions around the world. And so I think there's a lot more work that we can do, and have Socialism and Democracy to bring those currents in.
Victor: Yeah, that's great. That's exciting.
Suren: Retreating a little from that path, my next question is going to sound a bit doctrinaire. Going back to the Manifesto itself, there are some wonderful lines that are worth repeating and figuring out how the tasks of the journal relate to them. For example, Marx and Engels note that communists have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. I like to think about what does that mean for a journal of movement strategy, especially in the absence of a broad working-class party? What role do we play in the formation of the proletariat into a class? Ernesto Laclau might describe this as “suturing” – bringing together disparate elements and fusing them into one. But he's actually right about that; the proletariat emerges as a class in part because of deliberate activities of working-class parties. And in creating a coherent entity called the working class, to the extent that the party begins to fall on hard times, so too does the class itself, and vice versa. Absent that kind of party, the working class appears like a mass of other kinds of entities and groups.
How do we play a role in terms of forming the proletariat into a party, into a class? – that movement from a class in itself to a class for itself.
Victor: In a way that's what we've been talking about throughout, because we've been taking these different fragmentary strands of the working-class experience. Talking about insurgency in unions, Labor Notes has been a very good expression of that all along. I think if any outfit is fairly directly involved with that, it's them.
Suren: Localizing this topic to our journal and building on work that's already been done – outreach to people in disparate arenas, getting them involved in the writing and the creation of knowledge within our journal, using your efforts in with working with prisoners as a model for working with other constituencies of the working class – we have to make sure that the journal is a welcoming and appropriate space for them to be expressing themselves. This might mean battles with standards that are developed elsewhere, but that should be the productive and active work of the journal.
One of the challenges for us, then,—within our own ranks, within our editorial board and within our broader collectivity—is to ensure that we are open to many diverse forms of expression, writing styles, vocabularies, and narratives. I think that this can be a bit of a challenge, and it might also mean working with people who may not have an explicitly socialist framework, but nonetheless, because of their objective class location, are saying things that we need to engage in order to transform one another.
For example, I'm thinking about the very recent debates within the #Metoo movement and what are its edges, and that kind of thing. One hears many different themes. I was really inspired by some speeches at a recent demonstration against Trump. An actress invoked the concept of mutuality in terms of pleasure and I wondered how we would relate that to our movements and our journal. But it was also inspiring to see these very highly paid Hollywood types begin to articulate standards for employment that speak to gender, but then generalize these to all workers including in the auto industry, in the hospitality industry, and so on. It seems like that's something we should be embracing as really valuable contributions to a workers’ movement and we should be finding ways to capture those expressions too. Respect, after all, is a powerful theme in labor movements, and in fact, as Miéville reminds us, for the soldiers and workers who made the Russian Revolutions.
Victor: We are living in a period of enormous danger, which will not be easily dissipated. By the same token, it is a “teaching moment.” The approach you describe is one that we have barely begun to implement. But your consciousness of the issues and your engagement with the newer currents give me hope that this journal will be able to play a valuable role in bringing the necessary heightened awareness to large numbers of people.
1 Fidel Castro “Cuba and the End of Apartheid,” Socialism and Democracy 10:1 (1996) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08854309608428173
2 Philip Agee, “Terrorism and Civil Society as Instruments of U.S. Policy in Cuba,” Socialism and Democracy 17:2 (2003), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08854300308428363
3 For Kevin “Rashid” Johnson’s contributions to Socialism and Democracy, see: http://www.tandfonline.com/action/doSearch?target=default&ContribAuthorStored=Johnson,%20Kevin%20Rashid
4 Peter Kamau Mukuria, “What Is Left?” Socialism and Democracy 30:3 (2016), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08854300.2016.1218143
5 Victor Wallis, “Marxism in the Age of Gorbachev.” Socialism and Democracy 6:2 (1990), 47-73, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08854309208428073?journalCode=csad20
6 The climactic stage of this experience is discussed in Victor Wallis’s two-part review essay on the documentary film The Battle of Chile, in Jump Cut (1979, 2010), http://ejumpcut.org/archive/jc52.2010/wallaceBattleofChile/index.html
7 Victor Wallis, “Keeping the Faith: The ‘60s Contribution to the ‘90s Left,” Socialism and Democracy 11:2 (1997), 109-135, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08854309708428200
8 Victor Wallis, “Intersectionality’s Binding Agent: The Political Primacy of Class,” New Political Science 37:4 (2015), 604-619, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07393148.2015.1089032
9 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (ed), How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket Books (2017).
10 Victor Wallis, “Marxism and the U.S. Left,” Monthly Review, 43:2 (June 1991).
11 Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent & Holly Sklar, Liberating Theory. Boston: South End Press, 1986.
13 “The Roots of Mass Incarceration: Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor,” Socialism and Democracy 28:3 (2014), http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/csad20/28/3; and “Hip Hop, Race, and Cultural Politics,” Socialism and Democracy 18:2 (2004), http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/csad20/18/2.
14 “Gender and Globalization: Marxist Perspectives,” Socialism and Democracy 18:1 (2004).
15 Max Elbaum Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che London: Verso 2002.
17 See https://exposefacts.org/; also Victor Wallis, “Ordeals of Whistleblowers in a ‘Democracy’” (2015), https://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/11/20/ordeals-whistleblowers-democracy
18 Liz Mestres “Reflections on the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School” Socialism and Democracy 27:2 (2013) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08854300.2013.795083. See also Suren Moodliar “The Lamentable Demise of the Brecht Forum” Counterpunch May (2014) https://www.counterpunch.org/2014/05/02/the-lamentable-demise-of-the-brecht-forum/;
19 China Miéville October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. Chapter Six, New York and London: Verso Books, 2017.
20 Alfredo López, Jamie McClelland, Eric Goldhagen, Daniel Kahn Gillmor, and Amanda B. Hickman, The Organic Internet: Organizing History's Largest Social Movement, https://mayfirst.org/en/files/organicinternet.1.5.pdf
21 For a description of America Speaks, see Archon Fung, “Public Deliberation: The Left Should Learn to Trust Americans,” Huffington Post, June 28 (2010), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/archon-fung/public-deliberation-the-l_b_627983.html
22 Norberto Bobbio, Liberalism and Democracy. London: Verso (1990).
23 Richard Schmitt, “Socialist Democracy and Solidarity,” Socialism and Democracy 29:1 (2015), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08854300.2014.1001557 , and the ensuing exchange in 29:2.
24 Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012.
25 Victor Wallis, “Workers’ Control and Revolution,” in Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini (eds), Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011.
27 See the January 2018 “Review of the Month”: John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Women, Nature and Capital in the Industrial Revolution,” Monthly Review 69:8, https://monthlyreview.org/2018/01/01/mr-069-08-2018-01_0/
28 Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Also see Anderson’s “Not Just Capital and Class: Marx on Non-Western Societies, Nationalism and Ethnicity,” Socialism and Democracy 24:3, 7-22. 2010, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08854300.2010.513606
29 John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.