I HAVE A NEW PODCAST: Revolutionary Left Radio!

I have a brand new podcast which features activists, organizers, and intellectuals on the revolutionary left (democratic socialists, Marxists, anarchists, etc.); we discuss political philosophy, activism, and current events.

If you are interested in left wing political philosophy, and left wing analysis of political and cultural events, this podcast is perfect for you!

This is our first time doing anything in the realm of podcasting or radio, so there will be a bit of a learning curve. However, I am proud of our first episode and I encourage people to listen to it here:  http://revolutionaryleftradio.libsyn.com/

Our Facebook page is called, appropriately, “Revolutionary Left Radio” (facebook.com/revleftradio). We will post every episode on our FB page as well as on LibSyn.

 

Go check it out!

 

The Materialist / Idealist Distinction in Marxism

First and foremost, we have to be clear that when we use the terms “idealism” and “materialism”, we aren’t talking about metaphysics. In metaphysics, the term “materialist” refers to someone who believes that reality is composed primarily of matter, and mind (or consciousness) arises from the complex interactions, neurochemical events, and information processing, within the physical (i.e. material) brain. Idealists, on the other hand, think that reality is fundamentally comprised of immaterial mind; meaning the world of appearances is either directed by a mind that stands outside of it, or is actually taking place within a mind (usually that of God’s). When Marxist use the terms, however, they are talking about society and history and political analysis, not the fundamental structure of the cosmos. So it’s important to keep that distinction in mind.

Definitions 

“Idealism” in the Marxist context means to analyze a historical/political event (or series of events) in terms of what is ideal, or in terms of ideas about reality. “Materialism” in the Marxist context, however, means to analyze a historical/political event (or series of events) in terms of the actual conditions that were (or are) present during said event (or series of events). More specifically, it means to analyze events in terms of the historical, political, social, cultural, and most importantly, economic context in which they actually take place.

Idealism v. Materialism: Marxism and Cuba

In previous discussions on this topic, I have found that using Cuba as an example is a good way to illuminate the difference here. After all, it is often easier to understand an abstract concept when you embed it into a concrete example.

An idealist analysis of Cuba would involve comparing Castro and his government to the moral or philosophical ideals of what we think a government should be, outside of the actual material realities that Castro and his government had to operate in. So, idealists will critique Cuba on the grounds that his government wasn’t immediately democratic, or that he committed human rights violations (like every other country), or that Cuba’s difficult economic situation is a result of the ideas of socialism, etc. In other words, they will not analyze Castro and his government in terms of what he replaced, or what he was fighting against, or the obstacles he had to overcome, or the actual compromises he had to make given that he was faced with certain concrete dilemmas and limited options; rather they will compare Castro to ideals about what a government, in a vacuum, should be.

A materialist analysis of Cuba, on the other hand, would involve analyzing Castro and his government solely in terms of the actual conditions on the ground in which he had to operate in. You cannot understand Castro and the revolution, for example, without understanding what regime the revolutionaries overthrew, without understanding how Batista’s Cuba was run and how it operated, without understanding the US’s role in Cuba before, during, and after the revolution, or without understanding the economic situation in post-revolution Cuba (in which Batista and his regime ransacked the Cuban treasury before being ejected out of power, leaving Castro and his new government with literally nothing in terms of money). You cannot understand the authoritarian nature of Castro’s political system without understanding what he was up against, both internally and externally, what role U.S. sabotage attempts played on the nature of the system, and what Castro had to do, in real life, to protect the gains of the revolution from being loss, and to prevent Cuba from devolving back into a casino and whorehouse for the wealthy U.S. elite.

Additionally, you cannot understand Cuba’s economic situation by merely analyzing socialist ideas in a vacuum and assuming the ideas themselves caused the material outcomes in Cuba over the last half century or more. Instead, a materialist would argue, you have to understand the history of Cuba, how it’s productive powers and social relations evolved, under what conditions its modern economy sprang up, and how the U.S.’s embargo effected their economy, among other things.

To be clear, however, one can be an idealist and defend Cuba on idealist grounds. You could, for example, defend Castro and his revolution solely by referencing ideas about the immorality of capitalism, about the need for a socialist revolution in every country, or by pointing to abstract concepts like “equality” or “liberation”. But if those ideas are not connected to, and interpreted through, the material conditions in which Cuba’s revolution actually unfolded, then that analysis is going to be extremely limited, simplistic, and intellectually childish. And while two people may reach similar conclusions based on the use of totally different approaches (i.e. idealist and materialist), the idealist explanation will, by definition, be far more narrow-minded, ahistorical, and generally less tenable. Furthermore, one can have an overall analysis that employs both materialist analysis in some areas and idealist analysis in other areas; but the materialist analysis will always be deeper, more historically informed, and more nuanced.

To be a materialist does not necessarily mean agreeing with Marxists on everything, but consistent, coherent Marxists will usually apply materialist analysis; whereas liberals, generally, are idealists. They often analyze things in terms of ideas and not in terms of material realities. The reasons for this difference between Marxists and Liberals goes back to the roots of their respective philosophical traditions, but to attempt to address that here would go beyond the scope of this essay. So perhaps I will write more on that at a later time.

Why Historians are Disproportionately Materialists (in the Marxist sense)

In my opinion, professional historians, and scholars of history, often take a more materialist approach naturally, because to study history in a serious way is to inevitably understand how material realities throughout history gave rise to other material realities. A historian understands context in a deep way, and so will naturally include that in his/her analysis. This isn’t always true, of course, and there are idealist historians, to be sure, but compared to the general population historians are more likely to organically employ materialist analysis. Marxism, after all, is deeply history-based. To be a Marxist is to be fundamentally interested in history, and to interpret the present through the lens of historical materialism. This explains why many historians are Marxists, and why many Marxists care about, and study, history. And in fact, in my personal life, I have found that the more I studied history, the more I gravitated towards Marxism; the two are deeply connected, and to study one is to bump up against the other.

In Conclusion

In Marxist terms, to be a materialist means to analyze events in terms of the historical, political, social, cultural, and most importantly, economic context in which they actually take place.

Historical Materialism is principally a theory of history according to which the material conditions of a society’s mode of production (its way of producing and reproducing the means of human existence) fundamentally determine its organization and development.

Materialism, then, is a certain approach to history, and Historical Materialism is the theory that blossoms out of the materialist approach to history. Marx was the first person to identify, articulate, and defend this position, and therefore those who employ this methodology today are called Marxists.

The goal of this short essay is to help people understand what is an otherwise vague, often under-defined distinction; the confusion around which often leads to the derailing of many otherwise worthwhile discussions. I hope, to some extent at least, I’ve succeeded in doing that.

Is Marxism Deterministic?

A primary criticism of Marxism (often employed by people with a poor understanding of Marxism, incidentally) is that Marxism, and Marxists, are rigid determinists. The critique goes something like this:

“Marxism is a determinist philosophy. Marx thought that communism was inevitable, and that individual people are just automatons; mere pawns of historical forces. This strips people of their free will and individuality, and reduces them to cogs in a deterministic machine. Marx’s theory of history is basically just a secular version of Divine Providence or Destiny, and therefore should be discarded.”

Needless to say, this is untrue; and the point of this short essay will be to correct this common misconception.

First and foremost, while Marx did believe that history unfolded based on certain historical laws over which individuals have no control, he did not think that this meant human beings were merely plankton swept up in the oceanic wave of history, being tossed to and fro, with no ability to influence what happened to them. Marx argued, as I do, that although history unfolds via a process that human beings can’t dictate, it unfolds via human beings as it’s agents. Therefore, once human beings become conscious of the fact that history unfolds in certain ways, they can then be free to pick what role they want to play in that process. We are the agents of historical change; we are the vehicles through which history unfurls. To be conscious of that fact, and to choose action in the face of it, is to be as free as a human being can be.

Some Marxists, it is true, have been such strict determinists that they effectively gave up on political action; opting instead to either work within the capitalist system, or abandon politics all together, while waiting for the glorious revolution, and the subsequent ushering in of Communism which they viewed as inevitable and imminent. But this is a perversion of Marxism, if not an outright subversion of it. Marx was the person, after all, who famously declared that “philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”. Marx himself was doggedly engaged in European politics during his life, and his theory and methodology was explicitly a call to action! It was meant to give the working class an understanding of their material and historical condition so that they could weaponize that understanding in pursuit of their own liberation. It’s our job as Marxists to organize, participate in direct action, form resistance movements, fight back against fascists, and do all the other difficult political work that there is to do in order to realize, in so far as we can, the system we want. To sit back and wait for history to play itself out as a convinced determinist is to effectively abandon Marxism altogether.

Other Forms Society Can Take As Capitalism Collapses

Marx was well aware of the fact that when capitalism began to break down, it would not necessarily lead to communism, it could just as well devolve into fascism, devolve into a sort of neo-feudalism, devolve into barbarism, or even result in “the common ruination” of the contending classes altogether.

The most likely of these outcomes, based on what has happened in the recent past, is the rise of fascism. As is commonly said “fascism is what capitalism does when its under threat”; and history proves this again and again. Most notably, Nazi Germany arose out of the Weimar Republic after the Great Depression and the national humiliation of WWI. In contemporary America we have just elected a white nationalist with fascistic dispositions and a segment of his base which is explicitly and unapologetically fascist. This is largely a reaction to the excesses, depravities, and the impotence of neoliberalism (i.e. globalized capitalism). The narratives on offer from the far right are always simplistic, visceral, bigoted, and broadly appealing to people who have been beaten down by the capitalist system but who lack a comprehensive understanding of how they ended up where they are. Capitalism creates problems, then brings out the teeth and claws in the form of fascism as the solution to the very issues that it has created.

It’s essential to understand this point, so I will restate it in a slightly different way: fascism is just a form of capitalism cleverly disguised as not only a totally different system, but also as a solution to the failures of  the system which it still essentially represents. This provides a unique challenge to revolutionary leftists. The right wing narratives are simpler than ours; whereas we try to describe reality as it actually is, the far right appeals to gut prejudices and creates convenient and easy scapegoats to distract people from the failures of the system itself. “It’s not capitalism that is to blame”, they say, “it is that Muslim, or that Mexican, or that Jew. THEY are the problem.” In this way the system protects itself.

Therefore it is by no means an inevitability that communism will arise out of the ashes of capitalism. To the contrary, we could get capitalism recapitulated as fascism, or we could merely descend into chaos and barbarism as institutions fracture and collapse. The left needs to understand this and organize in order to be a force and viable option when that time comes, so that we can push the system in the correct direction and not merely hand it over to the worst elements of our species by virtue of our impotence, disorganized state, and general inability to act. Communism isn’t inevitable, its merely an option among many, and it’s our responsibility to implement it. This requires action.

A Word On Social Democracy

One thing that Marx did fail to anticipate is capitalism’s ability to use it’s economic surplus to pacify the working class and the poor.

If fascism is capitalism with it’s fangs out, social democracy is capitalism with a smile.

In times of relative prosperity, capitalism maintains its hierarchy of wealth and power by handing out concessions to the lower classes. Northern Europe is a place where this aspect of capitalism has been fully developed. But it’s important to realize that social democracy is one way the capitalist system, when it is in good health, holds off revolutions and maintains it’s stranglehold. It essentially “buys off the revolution” by pacifying the working class with goods and services as part of the social safety net (healthcare, education, and maybe even a basic income), while ensuring the basic social relations, power inequalities, and authoritarian hierarchies of capitalism stay firmly in place. This strategy, while certainly the best that capitalism has to offer, suffers from the same flaws of capitalism generally, and, as I said above, only takes hold in times of relative prosperity. The moment economic times get rough, social democracy and it’s bedazzled social safety net is the first thing to be sacrificed on the alter of “austerity”. So social democrats should be wary of hitching their wagon to capitalism: it’s failures will be your failures. Additionally, anti-capitalists should be wary of social democrats. For us, social democracy can only be a means to a further end, something to support while working for more radical changes. But it can never be the end itself.

Conclusion

Marxism is not a fundamentally deterministic philosophy. It does not preach a narrow-minded inevitability, and Marxists can only truly be Marxists, in my opinion, if they act on their Marxism. To sit back, endlessly theorizing and waiting for the magical revolution, is to abandon a fundamental aspect of Marxist philosophy: political action. That is not to say that theory has no place in Marxism, of course it does! But theory only becomes relevant when it is backed by concerted, organized political action. Marx and Engels knew that as well as anybody, and it’s worth noting that the Communist Manifesto, which they wrote together, was a call to arms, not armchairs.

 

 

 

Dear Americans, with regards to Cuba:

Did you know that the water in Flint Michigan is *still* poisoned? Did you know that 1 in 5 American children live in poverty? Did you know that America has more of its citizens in prison than any other country on Planet Earth, both in per capita terms and overall? Did you know that many of those prisoners are used as slave labor to make products for large corporations while only getting a few cents an hour? Have you read the 13th amendment? Did you know that this week in North Dakota the American government is initiating violence against peaceful protesters (i.e. its own citizens), injuring hundreds, and costing one woman her arm, just so a corporation can put an oil pipeline into the ground in the name of profits?

If I’ve never heard you be consistently outspoken about all of these things, then I definitely don’t want to hear your ass lecturing the world on Castro’s “human rights violations”. When did Castro have slavery? When did Castro have segregation? When did Cuba drop a nuke on 100,000 women and children? When did Cuba invade two countries, slaughtering over 100,000 civilians? When did Cuba under Castro commit genocide? When did Cuba prioritize profit over people In their healthcare system? When did Cuba lock up millions of people and subject them to slave labor?

How dare anyone who defends American Capitalism talk about human rights and morality. The moment you defend this rotten system, you lose all credibility.

Another thing: I’ve noticed a lot of Americans call Fidel Castro a dictator, as if we don’t live in a dictatorship ourselves. Do you really think that being able to pick between two rich people every four years means you are free? Do you really think that you have any more voice in your government than the average Cuban citizen has in theirs?

Cuba isn’t perfect, no place is. But, pound for pound, its better than America. Can you imagine what Cuba could do if it was as wealthy as the United States? Do you think that if Cuba had the wealth and resources that the US has, that any of its children would go to bed hungry or have to drink poisoned water for 3 years? And do you think Cuba itself would struggle economically if the largest economy *in the world* didn’t impose a brutal decades-long trade embargo on it?

But even with all the obstacles Cuba faces, 90% of Cubans own their own home. There is a 99.99% literacy rate. There is NO homelessness and NO hunger. Every Cuban citizen has access to a world renowned healthcare system.

There are no billboards or commercials or advertisements. And there is a beautiful, diverse array of cultural and artistic expression.

There is plenty of corruption in the government, and the Castro government is more authoritarian than I would prefer (although given the geopolitical context they must operate in, and the fact that the U.S. has never stopped trying to instigate sabotage and overthrow their government, perhaps this is defensible). There are plenty of leftists organizing in Cuba trying to create a better, less repressive form of political organization. But capitalism is not the answer. They don’t want homeless people and hungry people and fast food restaurants on every corner. They don’t want the wealth inequality, exploitation, and environmental nihilism that comes with capitalism. They want a socialist economy with a freer political system.

I hope they get it. But the positives of Cuban society are not given nearly enough credit in the US, because far too many people passively absorb bourgeois propaganda instead of putting in the work of studying other countries and reaching their own conclusions.

I, for one, applaud the achievements of Cuban socialism, and I hope that the Cuban people can continue to build on those achievements going forward.

Rest in Peace, Fidel.

 

Six Ways of Approaching and Interpreting Marxism

Marxism, like many philosophical traditions, is a huge series of concepts and ideas with plenty of complexity and nuance. Too often discussions of Marxism are befuddled and unproductive because people are using the term in different ways than their conversational partner, and so they end up talking past one another. What I want to do here is propose six basic ways of approaching and studying Marxism in an effort to bring some of these complexities and nuances to light, and thereby, hopefully, increase clarity and understanding with regards to discussions of Marx and Marxism. I am motivated to do this because I think Marx, more than ever, offers an essential and important way of orienting oneself to current social, political, and economic events in the pursuit of understanding them fully. However, for a plethora of reasons, there continues to be a stigma attached to Marx and Marxism, and a large reason for this is because so much confusion exists as to what exactly it is; I hope this short essay will clear some of that confusion up.

Here are six general ways of understanding Marxism (in no particular order):

1) As a historical, empirical subject of study: If you were asked, for example, to do a paper on Marx in a college class, you would likely approach him in this  way; as a subject of third-person research or of a biography, in which the historical facts of his life and writings are explicated in as objective a way as possible.

2) As a doctrine: as a core set of ideas. This is done by extracting what one considers to be the central points of Marxism, and molding them into a coherent doctrine that can be subscribed to or refuted. This involves abstracting away from any changes in his thought over time in order to put forward a cohesive net of basic ideas. It is a rational reconstruction of Marx’s thought based on what one believes to be the most important, or most central, aspect of his thought. 

3) As a conceptual revolution: One could view Marx, fundamentally, as starting a *tradition* of thought; as re-conceptualizing capitalism and history, and thereby spawning a philosophical and political tradition. Much like Darwin and Freud re-conceptualized biology and the mind, starting long traditions which expanded on, edited, corrected, and carried forward those basic ideas.

4) As a branching-off: You could study the thought of *the people who called themselves Marxists* throughout history (Lenin, Adorno, Althusser, Gramsci, Debord, Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc.). So Marxism just becomes a loosely connected net of different strains of thought as represented by different thinkers after Marx. In this interpretation, Marxism becomes identical to the thought of historical figures who called themselves Marxist.

5) As a historical application: You could study Marxism merely by studying the ways in which his ideas were put into practice, focusing more on how they operated in the real world (Soviet Union, Cuba, China, etc.) instead of on the ideas themselves or the methodology he proposed. In this interpretation, Marxism most often becomes synonymous with Leninism and Stalinism. Many of Marxism’s opponents take up this interpretation as the ONLY valid interpretation for obvious reasons.

6) As a methodology: as an interpretive lens through which one can make sense of historical and political events and through which one can analyze the economic paradigm. It can be seen as a continuing project of consistently applying the methodology that Marx put forward. Under this view, it matters less what the exact ideas of Marx himself were, and instead focuses on the WAY in which Marx proposed we analyze the world.

—-

I study Marxism largely via #3 and #6. And insofar as I call myself a Marxist, I mean that I view him as a conceptual revolutionary who put forward an interpretive lens and a methodology (namely historical and dialectical materialism, theory of alienation, the critique of political economy, etc.) that I find particularly useful in analyzing current social, political, historical, and economic events. It is not a dogma or a doctrine to which I blindly adhere, rather its a general approach I take, fully backed up and informed by my own critical thinking, ethical values, and political / historical context. Beyond that basic orientation to Marxism, I also find #4 extremely important. Marx was just a human being, and as such he was wrong about a lot, and many thinkers that came after him took his thought in new and exciting directions, and expanded on his philosophy in such a way that it was improved and updated, and continues to be improved and updated. I place myself in that long tradition of people who studied Marx and his philosophical heirs, and who continue to update Marxism and apply it in new and unique contexts (as Marx himself would have wanted).

But NONE of these ways of interpreting Marxism are completely wrong. All of them are valid ways of studying Marxism, its just a matter of realizing that all these approaches exist and are valid in their own ways, and then being conscious about how you are using the terms involved at any given moment.

Lots of confusion stems from people talking past one another by using different approaches without being clear, in their own minds as well as explicitly, about which one they are using. I’ll often get into arguments with people interpreting Marxism STRICTLY as #5, when I am using it in the ways outlined by #3 and #6. Such discussions are bound to fail because we are literally talking about different things without realizing it, and no constructive dialogue can blossom out of that fundamental miscommunication.

So, whether you are sympathetic to Marxism or are firmly opposed to it, I hope you keep these distinctions in mind going forward, and do your best to articulate them explicitly when engaging in dialogue about Marx and Marxism. It’s not only an intellectual obligation, its also a moral one, because in these times of rapid change, ubiquitous corruption, and constant upheaval, understanding Marx, and what he had to offer, is more important than ever.

More Meaningful Ways To Spend Your Time This November Instead Of Voting for Hillary or Trump.

Hillary Clinton will be our next president. Trump is tanking in every poll, and stands a snowball’s chance in Hell at winning this election, especially after he is embarrassed in the first debate (and he will be embarrassed). His relatively small cadre of angry white voters aren’t enough to propel him into office. The GOP has put up perhaps the single worst presidential candidate in modern American history. Even Hillary supporters have realized this, and have pulled back a bit on the shameless fear-mongering and condescending finger-wagging.

So, since a Clinton victory is inevitable (as I predicted as far back as the night before the first Super Tuesday of the primaries: https://selfaware1.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/super-tuesday-2016-analysis-and-predictions/), here are some ways you can spend your time, INSTEAD of going to a voting booth and casting a vote for Hillary, that will have a far more meaningful impact on the world:

– Write a well-argued public blog or FB post exposing and criticizing the un-democratic nature of American elections.

– Have a discussion with your children about the importance of political and social engagement.

– Donate a small amount of money to a good charity or cause.

– Research the requirements for running for local public office, and if you meet the requirements, run.

– Participate in a protest, rally, or march in your town or city; and use it as an opportunity to network with other like-minded activists in order to lay the groundwork for more political action in the future.

– Watch (and comprehend) a documentary about the causes of the 2008 economic recession or how the influence of money in our political system dramatically skews the focus of our government in favor of the rich and powerful, and then tell someone else about it.

– Have a deep political discussion with a friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor.

– Consciously abstain from voting for either of the candidates offered up by the dictatorship of the wealthy, and let as many people as possible know exactly *why* you are consciously abstaining.

– Plant a tree or a small garden in your back yard; increasing the biodiversity of the small patch of land in your possession.

– Pick up litter on the side of the road or the shore of a river/lake/ocean and recycle what you can.

Any and all of these activities will be more beneficial to you, and to your community, than casting a vote for either Trump or Hillary.

Anarchism In The Context Of Today’s World

Being an anarchist, for me, does not mean that I think we can have, or even should have, a stateless society overnight, or in the near future. That wont happen.

What being an anarchist REALLY means for me is to be constantly surveying the political, social and economic landscape in search of all forms of hierarchy, power, authority, and injustice, and then systematically analyzing and critiquing those structures; forcing them to justify said hierarchy/power/authority, or be opposed in every way possible.

Those systems of hierarchy, authority, and power can be obvious, like in the case of governments or corporations, but they can also be more subtle, albeit just as dangerous, like in the case of patriarchy, institutional racism, homophobia/transphobia, etc. An anarchist opposes them all, and knows *exactly why* she/he opposes them.

Additionally, its our social duty, to whatever extent possible, to self-govern. This means making a concerted, daily effort to behave as morally as possible; to plant, in you own little sphere of influence, the seeds of a better world. A world of cooperation, solidarity, social responsibility, and love.

If you call yourself an anarchist, you better be trying everyday to do these things or what’s the point? Anarchism is not just wanting to “smash the state”; its much, much more than that. Its about developing yourself and your community, its about caring for your fellow human beings, its about opposing injustice anywhere and everywhere that it appears.

Ultimately, its about believing that a better world, a more just world, is possible, and then taking on the responsibility of trying to help build that world…