Revolutionary Marxism v. Chomsky, Part 2
Antonio Gramsci was a Communist with a Problematic Maxim
Recently The Nation published an interview with the great left intellectual Noam Chomsky by David Barsamian that first appeared on TomDispatch.com.
Below I write up some critical reflections expanded from my notes in the margins of my print-off of this interview. They are I hope instructive on some of what distinguishes a modestly accomplished revolutionary Marxist (myself) from a legendary left thinker who identifies as a workerist left anarchist and tends towards social democratic reform in real world/real time politics. There is much in the interview that I agree with, of course, and I was struck (as always) by the precision and eloquence of Noam’s prose, reflections of a magnificent mind at work. For what’s it’s worth, it has long been my observation that Chomsky’s undeniable brilliance on matters of linguistics (the academic field he essentially re-made), United States (US) imperialism (so called “American foreign policy”), and corporate-imperial media control and propaganda (“manufacturing consent”) has led too many of his many fans and interviewers to mistakenly consider him an expert on just about everything else, including areas where he does not especially excel like Left/radical strategy and US domestic politics.
My critique comes in two parts. Part 1 was published last Monday. Read it here. This is part 2.
(I am aware that criticizing Chomsky [hereafter “NC”] from the Marxist left will cost me some support here. So be it. I came up through the classic revolutionary Marxist and communist traditions, not the anarchist or social democratic/revisionist paths. I have a deeply ingrained dislike of anti-communism in all its many forms, including “left” ones. The best organizers and activists I have met and worked with over the last six years have been revolutionary communists, hands down. At the same time, I am a fan and longtime grateful student of NC’s writings and speeches on and against US imperialism, corporate media control, and capitalist-imperialist propaganda.)
“There’s Still Plenty to Do” for Women’s Rights: Did NC Get the News About Dobbs v. Jackson?
Barsamian: Corporate power seems unstoppable. The über class of gazillionaires—Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk—are now flying into outer space. But I’m reminded of something that the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin said some years ago: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable.” And then she added, “So did the divine right of kings.”
Chomsky: So did slavery. So did the principle that women are property, which lasted in the United States until the 1970s. So did laws against miscegenation so extreme that even the Nazis wouldn’t accept them, which lasted in the United States until the 1960s. All kinds of horrors have existed. Over time, their power has been eroded but never completely eliminated. Slavery was abolished, but its remnants remain in new and vicious forms. It’s not slavery, but it’s horrifying enough. The idea that women are not persons has not only been formally overcome, but to a substantial extent in practice, too. Still, there’s plenty to do.
Street: Plenty to say on this but let’s focus just on the comment on women: “The idea that women are not persons has not only been formally overcome, but to a substantial extent in practice, too. Still, there’s plenty to do.” Did NC miss the Christian fascist Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which signed on to the effective re-imposition of female bondage? Please see my September 26th Substack and my October 10th Substack for merely partial surveys of the post-Dobbs horror being inflicted on women and girls. My fellow Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights volunteers and I are quite serious when we say that “forced motherhood is female enslavement.” Talk about bringing back the supposedly “formally overcome” idea that “women are not persons”!
“There’s plenty to do” takes understatement to a new level. Again, where is the call for millions in the streets and public squares, the call for mass action to restore women’s critical and unapolgetic right to safe and legal abortions in the USA?
“The Constitutional System”
Chomsky: The constitutional system was a step forward in the 18th century. Even the phrase “We the people” terrified the autocratic rulers of Europe, deeply concerned that the evils of democracy (what was then called republicanism) could spread and undermine civilized life. Well, it did spread—and civilized life continued, even improved. So, yes, there are periods of regression and of progress, but the class war never ends, the masters never relent. They’re always looking for every opportunity and, if they’re the only participants in class struggle, we will indeed have regression. But they don’t have to be, any more than in the past.
Street: Perhaps it terrified European monarchs and aristocrats, but the US constitutional system has been a remarkably durable and darkly reactionary straight-jacket on democracy, precisely what it was designed to be by its militantly propertarian, slave-owning, merchant capitalist, and land-grabbing framers (as NC knows), who feared and hated the new republic’s propertyless and property-poor majority. I have written about this at length: please see this, this, and this for starters. “Civilized life” did not exactly improve for Black people in the USA during the first half of the 19th Century, which saw the vicious spread of the torture-based but highly profitable capitalist system of Black chattel slavery across a rolling, blood-soaked frontier of mass forced cotton labor camps in the southern states. It took a giant bloody and extra-constitutional Civil War to end Black slavery, which was largely re-imposed in the South under new names and with constitutional protection after the bloody white-supremacist defeat of Reconstruction. It’s for nothing that the great US abolitionist William Loyd Garrison used to call the Constitution “a covenant with death” while burning the document in public. It’s always good to read Frederick Douglass’s famous July 5th 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Meaning of the Fourth of July?” before writing about the virtues of US constitutionalism.
This is not just about class. A radical Marxist or left anarchist does not descend into bourgeois identity politics and culturalism when they point out that the people’s war with “the masters” involves more than class struggle. The American laborite and social democratic “left” has long been plagued by an economistic and class essentialist fetish under whose influence it can’t quite fully process the role of race and gender – and can’t appreciate the centrality of patriarchy and white supremacy to capitalist rule. (I say this as a communist and longtime labor historian who has tried to organize workers in numerous wage-earning positions and who aspires to help create what Marxists have long called “the dictatorship of the proletariat” – the transitional socialist state required to defeat capitalist counterrevolution and permit the emergence of a world beyond class rule.)
I’m Fine with “Bourgeois Democracy”
DB: In your Masters of Mankind book, you have an essay, “Can Civilization Survive Really Existing Capitalism?” You write, “Really existing capitalist democracy—RECD for short (pronounced ‘wrecked’)” is “radically incompatible” with democracy and add that “it seems to me unlikely that civilization can survive really existing capitalism and the sharply attenuated democracy that goes along with it. Could functioning democracy make a difference? Consideration of nonexistent systems can only be speculative, but I think there’s some reason to think so.” Tell me your reasons.
NC: First of all, we live in this world, not in some world we would like to imagine. And in this world, if you simply think about the timescale for dealing with environmental destruction, it’s far shorter than the time that would be necessary to carry out the significant reshaping of our basic institutions. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon the attempt to do so. You should be doing that all the time—working on ways to raise consciousness, raise understanding, and build the rudiments of future institutions in the present society.
At the same time, the measures to save us from self-destruction will have to take place within the basic framework of existing institutions—some modification of them without fundamental change. And it can be done. We know how it can be done.
Meanwhile, work should continue on overcoming the problem of RECD, really existing capitalist democracy, which in its basic nature is a death sentence and also deeply inhuman in its fundamental properties. So, let’s work on that, and at the same time, ensure that we save the possibility of achieving it by overcoming the immediate and urgent crisis we face.
Street: I do not feel the need to re-invent the terminological wheel with phrases like “really existing capitalist democracy.” I get the cleverness of RECD, pronounced as “wrecked” and shrewdly signaling that capitalism cancels democracy (it does). But I’m okay with revolutionary Marxism’s longtime understanding of “bourgeois democracy” as the freedom of capitalists to own and control the means of production, investment, and distribution along with – to quote the onetime Revolutionary Union (RU) from half a century ago – “the right to fill the airwaves and daily newspapers with their propaganda and lies and to use them freely to debate with each other. For the capitalists,” the RU noted, “elections are a way to settle differences among themselves, while making it look like everybody has equal say…The bourgeoisie is no more willing to share power with the majority of people than it is to share the ownership of the means of production and the wealth that comes from this.” RECD is nothing new. It is the basic historical context for the rise of “late fascism” (Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective’s useful term) in the US and elsewhere today.
Sorry, but Revolution is Required: The Anarchy of Capital Cancels Humanity
I certainly share Chomsky’s concern with the seeming disconnect between the time required for the overthrow of capitalism and the time required to avert environmental catastrophe. But is he correct to say that this and other existential catastrophes can be averted “within the basic framework of existing institutions”? I doubt this very much. The bourgeois/“RECD”/profits/ capitalist system is fundamentally addicted both to relentless, eco-cidal expansion and indeed (and less abstractly) to fossil fuels, in which “late capitalism” has a massive sunk investment. (An essential reflection on this difficult topic is Raymond Lotta, “50 Years Since Earth Day 1: Reflections on the Catastrophe That Is Capitalism-Imperialism,” Revolution, April 27, 2020.) Like it or not, the name of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s weekly YouTube show is dead on: “Revolution, Nothing Less.” As Che Guevera used to say, “it’s not my fault that reality is Marxist.”
Here again we need more proper attention to the Marxist tradition and in this case specifically to Marx, for whom the major contradictions of capitalism included not just class struggle between owners and workers but also the constant competitive struggle of capital vs. capital – the key driving force behind both the constant cancerous and eco-exterminist assault on a livable natural environment and the recurrently bloody and now potentially thermonuclear-exterminist conflict between different capitalist-imperialist states. In Marx’s work, the critical contradiction is not only capital vs. proletariat; just as significant is the “anarchy of capital” resulting from the constant competitive intra-capitalst struggle over the division the world’s natural and social spoils. In the absence of the organized revolutionary proletariat that Marx thought would become capitalism’s gravedigger (and which Marx struggled to organize, learn from, and lead), the chaotic scuffle of capital v. capital – reflected in conflicts capitalist-imperialist states (e.g, the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine) – is by far and away the biggest underlying driving force in the historical process under what NC has called the “bourgeois system of socioeconomic management.” Combined with the maddening number of governments in a world capitalist system characterized by a single global economy and a multiplicity of nation states, the modern capitalist order is a fatal barrier to the species-wide planning and policy required to refashion humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature and within “the web of life.” An international people’s eco-socialist revolution is required, like it or not. I know this is irritating to hear for many smart and caring environmentalists who are fighting heroically to try to avert ecocide under “this world” of “really existing capitalism” (REC). But REC is terminal cancer, really existing death to a decent future, as some Earth Scientists have dared to note. It needs to be radically replaced by eco-socialism as soon as possible if the human experiment is not to be brought to a miserable conclusion.
It’s like Marx and his financial planner Frederick Engels wrote in 1848: either “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or “the common ruin” of all.
Mis-appropriating “Leading Left Labor Activist” Antonio Gramsci
Barsamian: There are multiple mentions of Antonio Gramsci in two of your most recent books ….specifically, of his comment, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Right now, though, the quote of his I’d like you to address is: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Talk about his relevance today and the meaning of that quote…[Also…] In these dark times, it’s difficult for many to feel that there’s a bright future ahead. You’re always asked, what gives you hope? And I have to ask you the same question.
NC: Gramsci was a leading left labor activist in Italy around the late teens, early 1920s. He was very active in organizing left worker collectives. In Italy, the fascist government took over in the early 1920s. One of its first acts was to send Gramsci to prison. During his trial, the prosecutor stated: We have to silence this voice…So, he was sent to prison.
While there, he wrote his Prison Notebooks. He wasn’t silenced, though the public couldn’t read him…In the early 1930s, he wrote that the old world was collapsing, while the new world had not yet risen and that, in the interim, they were facing morbid symptoms. Mussolini was one, Hitler another. Nazi Germany almost conquered large parts of the world. We came very close to that. The Russians defeated Hitler. Otherwise, half the world would probably have been run by Nazi Germany. But it was very close. Morbid symptoms were visible everywhere.
The adage you quoted, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” which became famous, came from the period when he was still able to publish. In his spirit, we must look at the world reasonably, without illusions, understand it, decide how to act, and recognize that there are grim portents. There are very dangerous things happening. That’s pessimism of the intellect. At the same time, we need to recognize that there are ways out, real opportunities. So, we have optimism of the will, meaning, we dedicate ourselves to using all the opportunities available—and they do exist—while working to overcome the morbid symptoms and move toward a more just and decent world.
…One thing that gives me hope is that people are struggling hard under very severe circumstances, much more severe than we can imagine, all over the world to achieve rights and justice. They don’t give up hope, so we certainly can’t.
The other is that there’s simply no option. The alternative is to say, OK, I’ll help the worst to happen. That’s one choice. The other is to say, I’ll try to do the best I can, what the farmers in India are doing, what poor and miserable peasants in Honduras are doing, and many others like them around the world. I’ll do that as best I can. And maybe we can get to a decent world in which people can feel that they can live without shame. A better world.
That’s not much of a choice, so we should be able to easily make it.
Street: What a banal and understated characterization of Antonio Gramsci! There's some technical semi-accuracy to NC’s description of the (early) Gramsci, but it is absurd to try to make the great Italian communist theorist of ideological hegemony into a onetime syndicalist trade unionist. Gramsci was a leading and Leninist Italian Communist Party member who travelled to the early Soviet Union, where he met his wife and sharpened his dedication to Bolshevik-inspired communist revolution in Italy. He returned from Bolshevik Russia determined to build a Leninist vanguard party in his home country.
NC’s idea of the communist Gramsci as a lefty “labor activist” into workers’ collectives strikes me as attempted ideological appropriation on the part of an anarchist-identified progressive intellectual (NC) who has always stood critically aloof from the history of Marxist thought and writing and the international communist movement – to the point of preposterously calling the great revolutionary Lenin a “counterrevolutionary.”
Also suggestive of anarcho-anti-communism is NC’s statement that “the Russians defeated Hitler” and “otherwise half the world would have been ruled by Nazi Germany.” That is technically accurate, but the deeper truth is that the socialist (if authoritarian) Soviet Union defeated the Third Reich and thereby saved half of humanity from fascist and genocidal tyranny. No Stalin love here, but the Soviet state created by the revolution of workers, soldiers, and peasants that Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks led permitted “the Russians” to crush a German military far more formidable than the German army Tsarist Russia could not defeat.
Also, how was Gramsci “not silenced” when the public could not hear or read him as he passed his final years sick and dying in a fascist prison?
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Pessimism of the Intellect vs. Optimism of the Will
I dissent from the praise NC gives to Gramsci’s self-cancelling aphorism “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” This oft-quoted maxim posits a false separation between the mind and cognition on one hand and the heart and body on the other hand. Pessimistic thoughts do not fuel engaged action. They tend rather to discourage activism. They fuel surrender, depression, passivity, lethargy, and a mindset of “oh well.” This is so psychologically and bio-chemically obvious that it seems astonishing to have to point it out.
Radical analysis of the dark future – the ride of the apocalyptic horsemen that NC and Barsamian talked about at the beginning of their discussion – we face under capitalism-imperialism is premised on the actually optimistic belief that our fellow humans are capable of hearing about and acting upon the grave menaces we confront. The point of bringing up potential bleak futures likely to arrive without revolutionary transformation is to highlight the need for and point the way to alternative paths of liberation and revolution that can steer humanity clear of catastrophe.
NC says he finds hope in the facts (a) that people continue to struggle against (one presumes) “the masters” (the ruling class) and (b) that people “have no choice” but to resist if humanity is going to live to see a decent future. But what exactly should we be fighting to achieve? And shouldn’t we try to be specific about what we want and need going forward, something more inspiring and tangible than “no choice” but to make reforms under the existing imperial class rule system (with a vague eye to an egalitarian future someday over the rainbow)? How about a socialist revolution that takes us beyond the multiply oppressive and eco-exterminist capitalist-imperialist order and towards a classless society matched to our best human nature and potential? I have always found NC’s reluctance (based on the false premise that doing so is inherently authoritarian) to say much of anything about Lenin’s 1902 question What is to be Done? as the partial squandering of a brilliant mind and a step back from what NC calls “the moral responsibility of intellectuals.” We need great thinkers to advance radical and revolutionary deas on the ways out of our capitalist-imperialist and “proto-fascist”/fascist mess. And it would be good if they would think less in terms of the dysfunctional Gramsci maxim and more in the way of at once dialectical and optimistic reflection on the potentially beautiful and liberating dimensions of our dark situation.
I can already see US “left” eyes rolling and brows furrowing as I quote something the Revolutionary Community Party’s longtime leader Bob Avakian wrote in 2015. So be it. Here goes: “There is the potential for something of unprecedented beauty to arise out of unspeakable ugliness.” Two years ago, Avakian, no academic mandarin, wrote this : “Something Terrible or Something Truly Emancipating…This is one of those rare times and circumstances when revolution becomes possible, not just because this system is always a horror, but because the crisis and deep divisions in society now can only be resolved through radical means, of one kind or another—either radically reactionary, murderously oppressive and destructive means or radically emancipating revolutionary means.”
In all fairness, it should be acknowledged Chomsky seems to agree with my critique of the “famous” Gramsci maxim when he says this: “we need to recognize that there are ways out, real opportunities… we dedicate ourselves to using all the opportunities available—and they do exist—while working to overcome the morbid symptoms and move toward a more just and decent world.” Yes, that’s not just “optimism of the will.” Those are cognitions, reflecting some optimism of the mind.
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” Gramsci wrote from the depressing confines of Mussolini’s prison. Yes, the old – here in the US previously normative bourgeois democracy and rule of law (no small mater!) – is dying (this is the topic of my next Substack). But who says that “the new cannot be born”? It is being born. It will be something terrible, revanchist, and fascist or, perhaps, something beautiful, revolutionary, and socialist. To claim that the desirable “new cannot be born” is to trump radical will (heart, emotion, readiness for engaged collective action) with the pessimistic mental slavery of “there is no alternative” (TINA).
“Chomsky’s Wager” is Much Better: “I Don’t Think it’s a Question of Optimism or Pessimism”
Which way things turn is up to us to no small extent. And here’s where I stand in rich agreement with NC: it’s not about the crystal ball. It’s about the Left version of “Pascal’s bargain” – once dubbed “Chomsky’s Wager” by my old ZNet comrade Mike McGehee: whatever the chances of success or failure may be (that’s a question for Mandarins and oddsmakers, not revolutionaries), we must act to increase the prospects for revolutionary progress. As Chomsky put things in an interview many years ago:
“I think an objective observer, from Mars, let's say, looking at the human species would conclude that they're an evolutionary error—that they're designed in such a way that leads them to destroy themselves, probably much else along with them. That would be a rational conclusion. We can decide whether that conclusion is right or wrong. Fate: that choice is in our hands. I don't think it's a question of optimism or pessimism. But do we make the choice, the effort, to show that what looks like a rational conclusion is nevertheless mistaken? That's up to us.”
Indeed. A desirable new must be born. And another world is possible, as Chomsky knows (“there are ways out, real opportunities”). Shall we mourn the death of the old worn-out and used-up bourgeois democracy (NC’s “RECD”) and meekly tell people to “just keep on working” in worn-out and used-up ways that never embraced the revolutionary transformations our times require (and that past times required) – citing the supposed “social justice” vanguard that was the purportedly “authentic” US labor movement of old as a/the way forward – without seeing the death of the bourgeois old as an opportunity to make a beautiful socialist new? No! Let’s make it so that future generations living without “masters” (of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and empire as well as class) look back on the current period as proof of the old proverb that “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” If that sounds romantic and voluntarist, so be it. The proverb has traditionally been understood to counsel “perseverance through hard times.” But persevering in the old revisionist ways, as in “you just have to keep working on this” to get more and better things and policies under the terminally cancerous capitalist-imperialist order will not get the job done. We’re better than that and we must raise our sights to new revolutionary heights, crazy as that sounds to many even and perhaps especially on what passes for “the left” in the USA.
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So my take on things:
NC and Robert Reich are of the same mind that the social/political chane needed can happen within the system. Paul Street and others believe only from without can the needed social/political change happen. NC argues that the dynamics of time make the later untenable.
What to do? I'm with you Paul. Abrupt change is needed and needed now. Tweeking the system from within is bogus: to many asholes at the top to get the changes we need now. However, wimpy, couch potato me wants to liberate the black pather within and fucking GO FOR IT!
Cheers and lol to all
I started to distrust Chomsky when he advocated voting for the "lesser of two evils", something a Marxist would never do.