Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Satirizing the left

by Frank Brenner

I'm posting Ted Rall's cartoon about last month's Left Forum in New York, “The revolution will not be organized,” with Rall's kind permission. The cartoon was originally published in the LA Times.  I have a few reasons for posting it. For one thing, in the opening frame, Rall happens to mention the title of the panel this website hosted at the Left Forum, “Utopia, psychoanalysis and the Marxist theory of human nature.” The reference is anything but flattering, but that isn't so hard to take given that Rall had no idea what went on in our panel. He was looking for titles to illustrate how out of touch and pathetic the Left Forum was. “The whole thing was marginal and loserish and sad” was how his friend and fellow cartoonist Tim Kreider put it in a blog posting, and that's just the sense you get from Rall's cartoon. Obviously I'd argue that this wasn't true of our panel, but as to the Left Forum as a whole, it's certainly fair comment. (By the way, Rall and Kreider were part of a panel themselves, on political cartooning.)

More interesting for me was that this was criticism coming, not from the right (as one might expect) but from the left. A syndicated cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, Rall is one of the rarest of all creatures – a radical left-wing voice in the American mass media. The cartoon's final frame makes it evident that he isn't disparaging revolution but rather those who call themselves revolutionaries: “If and when revolution comes to America, it's hard to imagine these people leading the charge.” Last year Rall published a book-length, totally earnest, appeal for revolution, The Anti-American Manifesto.

(For anyone interested, here's my mini-review: the book is a page-turner, full of articulate anger that makes a very compelling case that nothing short of revolution will save American society. There are some fine flashes of insight in the second and by far longest chapter in the book, “Why haven't we acted yet?”, but when it comes to the how? and what for? of revolution, things fall apart. Rall is no theoretician, doesn't claim to be and pretty much dismisses the need for theory beyond an awareness of the basic facts of political life. “Looking to cut-and-paste old ideologies”, e.g. communism, socialism, anarchism, “into our near future is doomed to failure. Revolutionary goals will develop organically after revolution has begun.” In other words, for Rall revolution is only ever going to happen spontaneously, and so ... “The most effective organization is no organization.” Ouch! That kind of line might work well in a cartoon but it gets you nowhere in real life; think Egypt or Wisconsin, where the crying need is for more organization not less, and for clarity of purpose that only a big dose of 'old' ideology can provide. It also undercuts Rall's blast at the “loserish” pedants of the Left Forum: you can't fault them for being useless at organizing a revolution when you don't think such organizing is necessary in the first place. Anyway, consistency isn't – or even shouldn't be – what political satire is about. The point is to get people thinking, and Rall can be very effective at that.)

There is a mounting frustration with the staggering ineffectiveness of the left in America. That's what the Rall cartoon epitomizes, and you can find similar sentiments in lots of other places. Some of this is fallout from the Great Disappointment that has been the Obama presidency. Suddenly a lot of liberals no longer have a savior they can believe in. This disillusion has led the most daring and radicalized to venture beyond the bounds of mainstream politics, only to discover that what awaits them in the nether regions of left field are some pretty grim prospects, to wit, “marginal and loserish and sad”. But as valid as that impression may be, it isn't the whole story. Within the left – or more accurately buried within the left – is a treasure trove of ideas about how to change the world. Those ideas are the distillation of two centuries of struggle to end the class oppression of capitalism. To ignore those ideas is to condemn yourself to repeating old mistakes. If revolution isn't just a passing enthusiasm but a serious project, then you cannot ignore the left, you have to transform it. Even at the risk of making it less obvious a target for satire.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Charlatan Exposed: A reply to Gerry Healy's 'Studies in Dialectical Materialism'

Gerry Healy

We are publishing for the first time the full text of David Bruce’s critique of the bastardization of dialectics that Gerry Healy foisted on the International Committee in the 1970s and 1980s. David Bruce joined what was then the Socialist Labour League in the late 1960s and soon afterwards the staff of its printshop. He worked there continuously until the WRP broke up in 1985. Though ‘elected’ to its Central Committee early in 1984, he was primarily a technician, not a political leader. He was, however, one of a soon-to-be-notorious group that worked covertly to expose what its members saw as Healy’s personal and the wider movement’s political corruption. His essay was at the time and remains to this day the most comprehensive and insightful analysis of the philosophical outlook that Healy called ‘the practice of cognition’. Yet Bruce’s contribution to the attempts to overcome the disorientation within the International Committee in those years has been unjustly forgotten.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Left Forum presentations: 'A critique of Lacanian reductionism in the work of Slavoj Žižek'

We are providing a link to the audio of Harrison Fluss's presentation from the 'Permanent Revolution' panel at the Left Forum held on March 19, 2011. Fluss's topic, 'Bolshevism beyond good and evil: A critique of Lacanian reductionism in the work of Slavoj Žižek', provides a much needed response to the work of Slavoj Žižek,  particularly in the latter's role as a psychoanalyst of Bolshevism and Leon Trotsky. Note that the very beginning of Fluss's presentation can be found following the presentation by Charles Herr that we posted previously.

Slavoj Žižek

Friday, April 1, 2011

Left Forum presentations: 'A Marxist Theory of Human Nature' and questions

We are providing a link to the audio of Alex Steiner's presentation from the 'Permanent Revolution' panel at the Left Forum held on March 19, 2011. Steiner's presentation, 'A Marxist Theory of Human Nature' is followed by questions from the audience and responses from all the panelists. (We have previously posted the presentations of Frank Brenner and Charles Herr here and that of Harrison Fluss here.)

The capacity crowd that attended the panel and the lively discussion that followed was undoubtedly a reflection of the recent events in the Middle East and Wisconsin. The renewal of the class struggle internationally have led many to reconsider theoretical issues of Marxism and socialism. After years of dismissal of theses issues by the American left this trend is most welcome.  We hope that our presentations at the Left Forum contribute to a revival of interest in Marxism among workers, students and intellectuals.

Comments from readers are welcome.

Clock machine scene from the 1927 movie Metropolis by Fritz Lang

If audio player is not visible click here to download talk by Alex Steiner followed by questions