What is it that defines communist politics from the politics of the rest of the left? This blog argues that communist politics are a politics of negation; a movement to abolish the present state of things.
Political debate often tends to quickly polarise into simple binaries. This is perhaps even more so online. Mainstream politics has its liberals/conservatives and left/right; radical politics has its anarchist/Marxist and reform/revolution. Almost invariably these dichotomies are false ones, obscuring the subtleties of the debate and leading to endless circular slanging matches with the protagonists becoming evermore entrenched.
However there is one pairing I’ve often found useful; that of distinguishing between leftist politics, and communist ones. This is not to use ‘leftist’ as a slur, as many (generally North American) post-leftists and primitivists are wont to do (as indeed are Trots with ‘ultra-left’), but rather as a political term to distinguish between the politics that characterise ‘the left of capital’ – Trots, union bureaucrats, NGOs – and the communist movement.
To this end, I tend to use the following definitions: Communist demands are those which stress the concrete material needs of the class (wage demands, universal healthcare etc, the length of the working day, through to a rejection of wage labour altogether!). Leftist demands are those which stress how capital should be managed to accommodate the struggles to impose those needs (tax this! nationalise that!).
While this definition is fine to distinguish communist politics from those of your typical Trots in many situations - as they try to run union candidates to manage the struggle ‘better’ on the workers behalf, or demand the nationalisation of the banks (oops, it’s now ‘real nationalisation’), or call for higher taxes on the rich etc (rather than the concrete things we want them to finance) - it doesn’t adequately address a whole host of other political positions which cluster around leftism – such as support for national liberation movements and identity politics, particularly with regard to gender, race and sexuality (and with the SWP’s recent Islam-affair, ethno-cultural identity too).
For example, consider prominent platformist Wayne Price’s argument that
Central to anarchism is the belief in self-organization and self-determination of the people. But there are topics on which many anarchists reject the pro-freedom position, paticularly involving free speech and also national self-determination.
Here, he clearly envisages particular groups – implicitly workers, women, ethnic minorities, and more controversially and explicitly “oppressed nations” - as subjugated and in need of affirming themselves, of practicing ‘self-determination.’ Indeed, “revolutionary anarchists must be the champions of every democratic freedom, every struggle against oppression, whatever its immediate relation to the class struggle as such” (my emphasis). The oppressed must assert themselves. (The fact there are ample precedents for this position within the anarchist tradition is not at issue here.)
I would juxtapose this leftist approach to one of my favourite political quotes, from Gilles Dauvé, which for me typifies a communist one.
If one identifies proletarian with factory worker, or with the poor, then one cannot see what is subversive in the proletarian condition. (…) The proletariat is the dissolution of present society, because this society deprives it of nearly all its positive aspects. Thus the proletariat is also its own destruction. (…) Most proles are low paid, and a lot work in production, yet their emergence as the proletariat derives not from being low paid producers, but from being "cut off", alienated, with no control either over their lives or the meaning of what they have to do to earn a living.
I will for the time being ignore that Dauvé is talking only of the proletariat and not other possible subject-positions (I hope to return to the important differences – not hierarchies - between class politics and race/gender/sexuality politics in a future blog). The important thing here for me is that Dauvé is outlining a politics of the dispossessed, a negative politics that must destroy both its adversary and itself in the course of its liberation. That is to say, a politics of negation.
This is in contrast to the example above (of which Wayne Price is only a convenient example as I have that quote to hand as I write); a politics of self-determination of the oppressed, a politics of affirmation. Let’s consider another example. Anti-racist Action write:
We have much less of a problem with "Black pride" or "Black power" than we do with "white pride" or "white power." The reason is that if you're Black and you've grown up in a world where being Black = being treated like and looked upon as shit, then to say "fuck you, I'm PROUD to be Black!" challenges the racism you've lived under and the racist assumptions that some people have about Black people. So when people of color turn the tables on racists and claim their "second-class citizen" status as a point of pride, we see that as an effective anti-racist strategy.
This is a much more glaring example of the politics of affirmation than the one above. It’s also an example of what Friedrich Nietzsche called slave morality. For Nietzsche, master morality determines what is good - be it wealth, power, the arts or anything - and lives by it. By contrast slave morality looks at the values of the powerful, and inverts them. For Nietzsche, the case in point of this was the Christian churches praise of poverty and humility (in 'this life' at least, lol). The prolem with slave morality is that it exists as a permanent reaction to some master, it makes a subordinate position inseperable from any politics based on it. It means a politics of perpetual victimhood; the lefties feigning surprise at police battons, lapping up fresh martyrs. The point is not to heroically suffer, but to win!
However, ever the individualist Nietzsche also targeted socialists and anarchists as typifying a ‘herd mentality’ characterised by envy of wealth and power, a desparate cry of weak victims. So here we must set Nietzsche on his head, so to speak. It is easy to see how the politics of the oppressed discussed above mesh with slave morality; anti-consumerism (Buying stuff bad! Dumpster diving good!), anti-imperialism (Imperialism bad! Resistance good!), Class War Federation (Toffs bad! Workin’ clarse caricatures good!), black pride (White good? Black good!), gay pride (Straight good? Queer good!), much anarcha-feminist health (Patriarchal medicine bad! DIY herbalism good!), and even heavyweight theorists like Toni Negri, Harry Cleaver and other ‘Autonomist Marxists’ who have a tendency to pose the working class as an autonomous force external to and in conflict with capital which must affirm itself (Capitalist valorisation bad! Self-valorisation good!) [see Aufheben’s discussion along similar lines (pdf file)]. None of this is to say individuals or groups fall neatly into one category or t'other, only that the difference between communist politics and leftist ones appears one of kind rather than one of degree.
But Nietzsche is usually seen as a philosopher of affirmation who would see negation as the rallying cry of the weak and envious herd. How does the politics of negation outlined above avoid the trap of slave morality? Simply that communist politics, by asserting our concrete material needs makes no reference to the values of capital at all. We determine for ourselves what it is we want not as 'the oppressed' but as human beings cut off from control of our lives, that is as proletarians. These needs may or may not coincide with what capital determines as good; neither a knee-jerk asceticism nor a fetishism of the working class as is, but an assertion of our concrete material needs. Our subversive potential comes not from being oppressed, but from being alienated, separated from the potential our own activity creates. By contrast the politics of the oppressed sees self-determination as the reassertion of the repressed identity or subject position. An assertion of national independence or black pride. It is a politics of affirmation, affirmation of oppressed subject positions.
Communist politics is not about affirming ourselves as workers, or as women, or ethnic minorities, or nations… but at destroying these categories along with the capitalist social relations to which they have come to belong. Being a woman or having a certain skin pigmentation, or sexual preference, or country of origin should carry no more implications for a person’s social role than their eye or hair colour or height or blood type generally does today; they are not sources of pride, much less revolutionary subjectivity. Similarly, for communists the working class is not something to be celebrated, but the class against work and classes. This blog has dwelled on a somewhat theoretical delineation. But my hope is the implications for concrete communist politics are more easily drawn now such a delineation has been made.
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