A 79 Year Old Woman Who Bowls: An Interview with Diva Agostinelli, Anarchist
Poststructuralist Anarchism: An Interview with Todd May
Capitalism, Marxism, and the Black Radical Tradition: An Interview with Cedric Robinson
The Need for Critique, the Need for Politics: An Interview with Barbara Epstein
by Rebecca DeWitt
Radical Cities and Social Revolution:
An Interview with Janet Biehl
A 79 Year Old Woman Who Bowls: An Interview with Diva Agostinelli, Anarchist
Born in Jessup, PA, in 1921, to an Italian anarchist coal mining family, Diva Agostinelli is one extra-ordinary person. I hesitate to say that I think of Diva as role model because, even though she is a "part of history" she continues to teach and learn alongside of radicals, not above them. Diva often, in response to a question, says she doesn't have an answer but then goes onto to relate an experience or situation that lends itself to understanding. Diva left Jessup when she was 16 and went to Philadelphia where she attended Temple University. Afterwards, she went to NYC and joined the Why? magazine group (later renamed Resistance). Why? was a group that split off from the Vanguard group and included Audrey Goodfriend, David Koven, and later, David Wieck, Diva's lifelong companion. She worked with this group from 1942 to the mid-50's and met many other people who came in and out of the circle, including John Cage, Paul Goodman, Paul Maddock, Robert Duncan and James Baldwin. It was at Why?'s weekly meeting, at SIA hall, in NYC, (run by Spanish anarchists) where Baldwin first publicly read parts of "Go Tell it on the Mountain." The first time Diva met Goodman, he was on the floor demonstrating a Riechian orgasm! But, the famous personalities dim in the face of Diva and her comrades' life long dedication to anarchism. Whether she was on a speaking tour, writing pieces for the magazine, teaching history, or running a school library, Diva has never given in. Consider her mantra, of sorts, when things get rough: If you've succeeded in the real world, then you need to figure out how you failed.
What follows is more of a conversation than an interview. Diva's life doesn't lend itself to a structured session of questions and answers. I spoke with Diva in Troy, NY, (where she has lived for the past 40 years) on March 3, 2001. ~ Rebecca DeWitt
I was never, after a certain point.I hate to say this but it's true: after a certain point I stopped trying to be a "propagandist," an advocate, a political activist. I was very disillusioned with the anarchist movement. I had to go through this period and ask myself what am I going to do. I really don't have that much confidence in people who call themselves anarchists anymore. But I realized that I really couldn't become part of the world because I so hated, despised, detested what the world was like that I couldn't be part of it. I couldn't sell out. I tried, I literally tried.
When was this, when did these feelings start?
When I was young, I was convinced that I was going to be Voltarine de Clyre, Louise Michel, Sofia Perovskaya. I was going to go out there and make the revolution. Ever since I was a kid, that's the way I saw myself to the point that I would go to the grocery store and start making speeches to the women. And, I guess in a way I was almost a joke to the people in town and I didn't realize it. The young men in town had a pool hall called the Speedway and they would call me in - my mother said I was 6 or 7 then. They'd take my shoes off, put me up in my stocking feet on the pool table and say "Tell us about the revolution" or "Tell us about the strike" and I would make a speech. God knows what I said. They would put nickels on the pool table and say "What are you going to do with this money Diva?" and I would say "I'm going to bring it to Nena for the political victims." I would collect my money and run up to Nena's house. In school, they gave me a soapbox when I graduated. I was always making speeches, always in trouble. Although, being a small town, they knew me and never expelled me. I went to Philadelphia and, this is very hard to say, but I was so disillusioned with the rank and file of the anarchists. The anarchists I grew up with in Jessup, they never treated me as if I was one, a child, and two, a female child. I get to Philadelphia.it was a more traditional Italian culture and their attitude towards women stank. I was horrified and I was in a terrible, terrible bind because they were kind, they worked and sent money to the movement. They supported me in the sense that I didn't pay for room and board for four years. I realized that they were good people but they were ignorant about a lot of issues. They were all working class people but so was my family. Well, I came to NY and I met some really terrific people, David, Audrey, the Why? group. They saved my life in a sense; I mean it was the best thing that happened to me. We were naÔve, we really didn't know as much as we thought we did but it was wonderful. I felt I belonged, I felt I was part of something important. We worked hard, we had meetings, we had discussions and we wrote the magazine. When the war came.I did not support the war effort.
It was a major issue that permanently divided the anarchists.
It divided the anarchist community. I understood that America's involvement in the war had absolutely nothing to do with getting rid of fascism, saving Jews, or any of that. It was to make America the center of the empire and we tried to tell people this.But it was very hard not to be pro war. That's why I could never completely identify with the pacifists because I could not say I would never fight, I would never kill anybody. I found myself helping people escape the draft and feeling very strange. For example, I helped a young person in the Midwest. I went there by bus and on the bus I met a Jewish refugee kid who told me about his experiences in Germany. Of course, he came from a well to do family and they had money and they got him out just before the death camps were full blown. He's telling me these stories and I'm having this problem that I'm going to help this kid come east and get out of the country to avoid being drafted. I was never a hundred percent convinced that I was doing the right thing. So, I brought the kid back to NY and he got out of the country. Today, he's a solid citizen of America; he's a good catholic. But at least he's not dead...When one of the Why? group people said he was being ostracized because he went into the army, it's a crock of shit. We supported you in your decision. If you felt that you had to go and fight, we supported you. We differed in propaganda style, either being publicly pro-war or against the war but once you said you went into the army, it was okay.
Was that unusual, were other anarchists groups that supportive?
No, no I wouldn't think so. Franz Flagler went into the merchant marines; he felt he had to do something. He was working on his ship, trying to get refugees Israel. David Koven joined the merchant marines. I mean people had to do. Cliff Bennet went on the lam before he was sent to jail. David (Wieck) went to jail. It was a hard time but of course post war has shown that we were right in that that's what America wanted. It became the American century. I really hated so much of what America stood for. Part of that was what my father had inculcated in me. Here was this man with a second grade education who had told me about the treatment of American Indians, which I didn't hear about again until college. I don't know where he learned it. My father made sure that we understood how America treated blacks. I remember him telling us as children that the reason why Jack Johnson was forced to give up his title was not because he was black but because he used to date white women.
The story of the name your father gave you is also indicative of the kind of upbringing you had.
Well, that was true of all the Italian anarchists. They knew they had relatives who were religious and who would sneak the children off to church and baptize them. So they wanted to have a name that they were sure the priest wouldn't accept. They [the priests] sure as hell wouldn't accept some of the names of my friends. Revolta, Volunta, Unico, Liberta, Diva, that's the kind of names we had. Some named their children after famous people, like we had a Sofia Perovskaya...Oh Christ, they were good people. But anyway, there were certain things that my community seemed to have that the rest of the Italian anarchist movement didn't have, like acceptance of women..To make a long story short, [during and after the war] I used to make speeches, I used to go around to Boston, Detroit, Chicago. I can give speeches, I have the gift of gab. [One day] I'm making a speech and I realize I had a lot of young people in the audience and that I was influencing them. I listened to myself and I felt that this was not what I wanted to be doing. I did not want to influence people by emotionally getting to them. What I wanted, what I saw as anarchism, was to help people think for themselves, make decisions themselves. I said to myself, how different, Diva, is this than when Mussolini harangues the crowd and gets them yelling "a la la". I could have gotten those kids to run out into the street and start demonstrating that day. I quit speaking and I never made another public speech again.
How do you feel about direct action these days, like in Seattle, where there's always someone getting the crowd going? Is it useful?
That's a hard one. The fact that the movement is spending months after Seattle explaining Seattle has not done a hell of a lot for anarchism. One of the reasons why I'm allowing this stupid piece to appear (an interview by the medical group who owns Diva's retirement community) is because of the sentence "Do you think of an anarchist as a young radical? What would you say about a 79-year-old woman who bowls once a week?" I'm hoping that maybe people who read that will understand that anarchists are not just young hot headed kids. I think that we sometimes do a disservice to young kids by getting them emotionally involved, which is necessary, but at some point they have to begin to think for themselves. Do I believe in leaders? Yes, but only to this extent. I think that David (Wieck) put it very nicely: that in any given situation there's going to be a person who by general knowledge is more expert in that situation, knows more, has more of take on it. So, that person will be the "leader" in this particular action. This does not make him or her a permanent leader. I'm not sure how I feel about Seattle since my first instinct is to join them!
What kind of ideals or goals does the anarchist movement need to address?
Well, there are two really basic changes that have to be made, without sounding like a Marxist. One, there has to be a real moral change to find your place as responsible individual but functioning within a group. And, two, the basic economic structure of society has to change. [In Seattle] they were trying to bring attention to the worldwide corporate structure of the economy that is happening which may really lead to the science fiction world of one world. The Seattle movement is right in attacking that because that really has to change before anything significant happens. Because we're headed down a terrible road and I won't be here to see it. I'm sorry in a way but I'm also glad in a way because I think it's coming. Except for these people who are protesting, there's nobody who really takes it seriously. Of course, the irony will be is that if they finally have their multinational corporate world and there's no world to dominate. The pollution will destroy the world anyway.
When you were younger and active in the Why? Group, did you have a cynical worldview?
No, I still thought we could change the world. I expected that we would have an influence but I didn't think it would happen fast. I had the sense that we were laying the groundwork. It was okay if I didn't see it in my lifetime.up until the end of the second world war, I really expected that we would make a difference. What really was devastating was to see how the economic upturn of working class people in the US affected how they looked at issues. I was shaken by how readily people accepted the Levittown's, the cars, the fancy refrigerators, the stoves, all those trappings of middle class life. And, the dying of the community. There used to be communities in America, I used to live in a community wherever I lived. The anarchists in Jessup were like an extended family. Nena would write plays that my mother and I would act in and 400 people would come to see them. I saw the dying of the community when the economic upturn was happening. I remember thinking, isn't it sad, am I saying that there has to be poverty and misery for good things to happen? I knew that wasn't right but that's what I was feeling at the time, that people were not active when they were in better economic circumstances. So, the children of the anarchists were taken up with making the good life and they were no longer part of the movement. Very few children of the anarchists, whether it was the Jewish, Italian, Finnish, Spanish movement, were active. I did think we would make a difference up until the end of the second world war. I remember telling people, in a very angry tone, that they were buying their comfortable life on the blood of the rest of the world. And, they were. And, we are.
You mentioned that your friend David Koven made you feel guilty about not wanting to be interviewed. What did he say to you that made you change your mind?
Well, he says to me, on the telephone a couple of weeks ago, that he meets a lot of young people who want to know about the movement and the past and he thinks that I'm depriving them of that knowledge if I don't tell them about my particular community, the kind of anarchists I grew up with, what our life was like. He makes me feel guilty and I think that maybe I should but do they really want to know? Is what happened to me of significance to some young kid in downtown Troy who's trying to come to grips with a world that's so terrible? For example, I met a young kid who, just on the question on religion, had so much trouble in school because he declared himself an atheist. Teachers were ostracizing him and so forth. Now, what effect, to a kid like that, will my telling him that I grew up accepted produce? I was an atheist; if we had a school party on Friday I brought chicken sandwiches. But I was never ostracized. Why? Because my father and mother were part of the community. My grandparents had been in the community since 1890 or something. Everybody knew, so I wasn't ostracized. This poor kid, living in the non-communal society that we live in, is being treated like shit because he says he's an atheist. What good will telling him about my experience do to this kid? It's not him, it's the people who are treating him badly who need to be told what's it like. So, if it should have any affect, it should be on the people who are attacking him. [Tell them] that there were "good Catholics" who accepted the fact that some of us were atheist. How do I get to them, they're the ones I want to talk to. If I could write, that's whom I want to write to, not to the kids who are already aware what the world is like but for the people who think the world is fine. Who I would like to get to, because I think their impulses are generous, are all these kids that are running into born again Christian sects. They scare me but I think that what's really scary is that very often their motivation is a good one, they want to help people. But they've fallen into the hands of these manipulators. So that's whom I want to talk to, if I talk to anybody.
Seeing as you are walking, living history, you have to admit that you are, how do you feel about historians?
I have a problem with historians. I refused to be interviewed by Avrich. I read some of those interviews - there are so many inaccuracies. I realized that history is a lie, in a sense, because it's a contemporary interpretation of something that happened in the past. I especially detest what I'm doing right now, which is a kind of oral history because memory is a very convenient thing. I can try to be as objective as I can but I forget what I don't want to remember. So does everybody else. It was in one of [Avrich's] interviews that the guy said that we ostracized people who joined the army. Well, what he was doing was justifying the fact that he went into the army, loved being an officer, came out, stopped being a practicing anarchist, and enjoyed his middle class life. So he was justifying himself. If I were to write anything about my life I would not write it as history. I have in my head, and I may be too old to do it, an idea of writing short sketches, stories based on fact.That's the only way I can see it..[and then there's] Avrich's insistence on "accuracy" to show that some anarchists were involved in violence to the point that he thinks that either Sacco or Vanzetti were probably involved in the robbery. So, my question is, what good does that do? Of course, I leave out my absolute dismay at what was happening to people who were involved in direct action and how people were being sacrificed and dying for really not that much reward. I don't mean personally, but to the movement. I personally knew two people who were involved in bombings, anti-fascist bombings and they both got blown up by a bomb [including] my uncle who was 21 years old. It was devastating; especially since I felt that I was partially responsible in the sense that in the back of my mind was the idea that I might have helped him make the bomb. He had asked me for a piece of metal and I found it for him and later I realized what he was using it for.Am I being dishonest if I don't talk about the fact that my uncle and his friend were involved in "terrorist" activities.they were making bombs that killed people. And, yet, if I see my [uncle's friend] in my head, and after all I was only 11 when he died, I don't see a bomb maker. I see this soft-spoken gentle man who had a bar to support himself, ostensibly. But the bar was full of homeless old men who had no pension and no way to live. He fed them and made them sleep there and took care of them. Never raised his voice, never angry.In his mind he was part of the war against the capitalist system and fascism.
What role does historical awareness play in social change?
It's fundamentally what used to be called "nature vs. nurture." In a sense, what anarchists are trying to do is change the nature of the human beast. Human's developed in small groups so society is changing the nature of the human beast too. Small groups are, I think, a necessity in human life but with that goes the fear of the stranger, territorial rights, power within the group - those are all things that nurture, history, has to change. There's been a lot of change but now, of course, the corporate world might be changing human genes. Maybe they'll be able to create race of satisfied slaves. How much does history mean? I know that's what we repeat, knowledge of history is necessary. But, look at the killing. This is the part that I have difficulty with. We all know about the holocaust and it was horrifying but it was one of many. This human race has had one holocaust after another.
The wiping out of one race by another has gone on for a long time. Look at what's happening in Indonesia. Interestingly enough, people react to what's happening in Indonesia like they're a bunch of headhunters, but the literacy rate in Indonesia is one of the highest in the world. That's another one of the things that I used to believe, I was disillusioned by this pretty soon, but I really believed that the reason why everyone wasn't an anarchist was because they didn't know. If they knew, if they were told the history, they would change so I would go make speeches in these bars. Of course, I was a child, I was ridiculously naÔve. But, it's true; education hasn't changed anything in a certain way.
What keeps you working towards a free society?
John Schumacher [colleague of David Wieck at RPI] used to say you just have to keep doing it because change will come dramatically and it's probably true because a lot of the change that happened in the world came dramatically. Women have been fighting for their rights since the 18th century. Did anyone expect that the feminism movement would come to a some kind of a peak in the mid to late 20th century? No, I think it took everyone by surprise. So, would it have happened without these two centuries of activities, I doubt it.I'm still in the same position: the world is unlivable to a feeling, thinking person, it's unlivable so I have to not be part of it as much as I can.
Where ere I am,
There let me be.
Be home to me,
Where ere I be.
Black diamond hills of Jessup coal,
Flat barren streets of Philly,
Raucous towers of New York's city
Endlessness of Brooklyn and the Bronx,
Or here, in Troy's decaying solitude.
There I have been
There have I lived.
Lovely things to be.
Trying to be me
Now, in Beechwood's genteel boredom,
I weave remembrance and desires
Into threads of endless dreams.
Surrounded once by eyes
Of mostly amber tints,
Now, I swim in a sea of boundless blue.
What am I doing here?
I often think.
Certainly, not passively awaiting
That legendary reaper sure to come.
No, no. Not the idle weaving of remembrances
But the active search that is never done.
To find the me.now.
Like Wordsworth, let my heart leap
When I behold
Some rainbow in the sky
Or let me die.
But I am here.
Where ere I be,
Here I shall be,
†††††† ~ by Diva Agostinelli
Poststructuralist Anarchism: An Interview with Todd May
As a political philosophy, anarchism is concerned with the transformation of society; however, anarchism is often neglected by major political and philosophical trends. In an attempt to situate anarchism within contemporary philosophical thought as well as think critically about anarchism, Todd May has created what he calls postructuralist anarchism. By grafting French postructuralist thought onto anarchism, May offers a new political philosophy with which to analyze our world. I conducted an interview with Todd May via email in October 2000.†
Postructuralist Anarchism is the combination of anarchism and poststructuralist philosophy (the work of Foucault, Lyotard and Deleuze). What is essential to both these political philosophies that makes it possible to combine them?
What I see as the essential link between anarchism and the poststructuralism of Lyotard, Deleuze, and especially Foucault, is the denial that there is some central hinge about which political change could or should revolve. For Marx, political change was a matter of seizing the means of production; for liberals, it lies in regulating the state. What anarchists deny (at least in parts of their writings, the parts which I'm trying to draw out) is that there is a single Archimedean point for change. Inasmuch as power is everywhere, the need for political reflection and critique is also everywhere. Not only at the level of the state or the economy, but also at the level of sexuality, race, psychology, teaching, etc. etc.
Is there anything left of anarchism?
I believe there is. If I'm right in my approach, what anarchism provides to poststructuralism is a larger framework within which to situate its specific analyses. The framework is a different one, to be sure, from the traditional anarchist framework. It is not unchanged by poststructuralism. But the new framework I have tried to articulate would be news to most poststructuralists, who resist the idea of a larger framework altogether.
How do we reconcile anarchism, which often relies on politically unifying principles (such as anti-capitalist/statist stances), with postructuralist thought, which sees power as an interconnected network rather than a system to be opposed?
Regarding the idea of totalizing systems, it is surely the case that much of anarchism, both in practice and in theory, targets capitalism and the state. My book is a suggestion that we not look in those two places so as to blind ourselves about the ubiquity of power's operation. If capitalism and the state were the sole culprits, then eliminating them would by itself open us up to a utopian society. But we ought to be leery of such simple solutions. One of the lessons of the struggles against racism, misogyny, prejudice against gays and lesbians, etc. is that power and oppression are not reducible to a single site or a single operation. We need to understand power as it operates not only at the level of the state and capitalism, but in the practices through which we conduct our lives.
In your book, political philosophy is cast in terms of the articulation of "the discordance between the world as it exists and the world as it is envisioned." When the discordance is no longer present, that particular political philosophy became obsolete, whether it occurs because the world has changed or because the goals have been realized. You give the example of the communist revolution where, once the goals of the revolution were reached, the political philosophy that described such a change becomes obsolete and therefore a new political philosophy was needed in order to advance. Is political philosophy a process where we are constantly remaking our view of the world and what we want?
The idea I'm trying to press early in the book is that political philosophy is motivated by a discordance between how people think the world should be and how they find it. Why think about political philosophy unless there is a problem that needs to be addressed? And that problem, for political philosophy, is that the world is distant from how one thinks it should be. Whether political philosophy is a constant process is something I'm not sure how to answer. I don't see any reason in principle why it should be, although it may turn out to be. The question of whether political philosophy is a process of constantly remaking ourselves is tied to the question of what kinds of nature human beings have and what kinds of environments they find themselves in. Since elsewhere in the book I deny that there is anything interesting to say about human nature, it all comes down to environment. But who knows how environments will change, and what kinds of questions they will raise for us?
For postructuralist anarchism, power is both creative and destructive. In contrast, anarchism natural justification of its own existence - that humans are essentially good and it is the institutions of power that are bad therefore we need to get rid of them - characterizes all power as bad.† How does the anarchist concept of power change with the addition of postructuralism?
While [anarchists] have a two-part distinction:† power (bad) vs. human nature (good), I have a four-part one:† power as creative/power as repressive and good/bad.† I do not take creative power as necessarily good, nor repressive power as necessarily bad.† It all depends on what is being created or repressed.† The ethical evaluation is independent of which kind of power it is.† That's why it's so important for there to be clarity on one's ethical vision - a point which too many poststructuralist thinkers neglect.† But one does not solve the ethical problem by positing a good human nature and then saying that it should be allowed to flourish.† There is too much evidence against the idea of an essentially good (or essentially bad) human nature for that claim to be made.† One cannot rest one's ethical judgments on human nature, but instead must develop the socially given ethical networks within which our lives unfold.
You state that we "must abandon [for the most part] the idea of a clear demarcation to be made between political philosophy and political programs.as one moves away from analysis and toward suggestions for intervention, one passes from philosophy to programmatics." Most political philosophies seem incapable of passing into programmatics and then back again. The tension between the world as it exists and what we envision is most often destroyed by consolidation of power by one idea or political party. Anarchism advocates a direct democracy or federalism to ensure that this doesn't happen but is the life of a political philosophy capable surviving programmatics?
Bear in mind that the anarchism I'm trying to draw out of the tradition would not see direct democracy as the answer to all political problems (otherwise, anarchism would be another strategic political philosophy). That said, your question still remains, since one can wonder what happens to political philosophy when a programmatics is carried out. Certainly, one thing would remain of the view I tried to develop: the idea that we need always to be investigating the power relationships that arise in various practices and to give them proper ethical evaluation; that is to say, to ask whether they are acceptable or not. On the view I'm defending, since we never know in advance how power works, we need always to keep investigating its operation, in order to see where it's leading and what it's creating; and we need always to ask the ethical question of whether we find that acceptable.
Whose job is it to construct the programmatic?
As far as who is to construct the program, it is certainly not to be philosophers. (Goodness gracious, banish the thought.) This idea is, I hope, no longer taken seriously, even by philosophers. The only response as to who IS to construct the program, or at least have input into its construction, is that it is those who are affected by the current situation and the proposed changes. Now that may be another way of saying "the people," but it does limit things somewhat. For instance, I will have little to say about ho w gays and lesbians should be treated in society (e.g. should they be admitted into the category of the marriageable or should they challenge marriage itself?) That, it seems to me, is up to them. My role is to support them in their choices.
The anarchist concept of power is characterized as one which "conglomerates at certain points and is reinforced by [power] along certain lines", and therefore can be amenable to the idea of reform because certain reforms at certain points could result in revolution. Is there a place for revolution in postructuralist anarchism?
The term "revolution" strikes me as a loaded one. Sometimes it seems to mean that there is an overturning of the key point of power in a society. When used in that way, the term "revolution" seems to imply a strategic political philosophy, so I think it is better avoided. When things change enough as a result of political intervention, then we have a revolution. Thus, the distinction between reform and revolution should not be the tired one of "mere reform" vs. "real revolution." It should instead be an issue of how much and how deep of a change is going on. In fact, I think the term is often used as a banner, a mark of one's radicalism, and an unconsidered way of marking out one's distinction from liberalism. As such, it hides the question, which we should be asking: what needs to be changed and how does it need to be changed? When we ask that more concrete question (yes, a philosopher suggesting that a certain jargon is hiding our ability to see the concrete), then we're on the right track. The question of is it revolution or just reform drops away.
What is the World Trade Organization to poststructuralist anarchism? The WTO seems to be one of those organizations where power conglomerates, where a variety of practices collude to create an oppressive power arrangement. I think we mistake many supporters of the WTO if we describe them in terms of a conspiracy theory. My suspicion is that most of them sincerely believe they are doing good things, even though they're not. How to explain this? It seems to me that we need to look at the practices they're engaged in and the effects of those practices on others, and to recognize that there are a whole series of deleterious effects that supporters of the WTO have failed to recognize. That, it seems to me, would be a poststructuralist anarchist take on the WTO.As an activist, I find myself in accordance with the recent demonstrations intended to eliminate the WTO and related oppressive institutions and to abolish loan paybacks from Third World countries. Of course, there's a lot more, but philosophy, while it interacts with the programmatic, does not, it seems to me, have as a role the construction of the programmatic
As far as action is concerned, you offer suggestions of how postructuralist anarchism can be acted upon. These include: experimentation, situated freedom, valorization of subjugated discourses, and the intellectual as a participant in theoretical practice rather than a leader. Can you tell me how you and other politically active people can practice these guidelines? It is difficult to practice much of any politics in South Carolina. Just to point in the general direction of how I live this stuff, it concerns my attitude toward gays and lesbians (I was faculty advisor for the gay/lesbian group for six or seven years); my teaching (I try to reject the idea of a given human nature in my courses, I experiment with course ideas, I include neglected works, often with a political spin, in my syllabi, I often situate the problems we face in the context I've developed in the book); and my parenting (trying to see the effects of power relative to my children's lives and attitudes, and offering alternatives to them). If I were to approach the question from the standpoint, say, of someone living in an urban area in the U.S. I would point to the necessity of understanding and participating in struggles against racism, sexism, the WTO, etc., and in doing so to see the interactions among those struggles and the oppressions those struggles seek to overturn, without trying to reduce them all to a simple formula.
Many anarchists feel it is imperative to create a public intellectual culture and that, increasingly, the university is not a place that encourages intellectual freedom, not to mention political thought. What is your experience?
I agree that the university is a questionable source of intellectual culture.I believe that the reality of an intellectual culture is difficult to achieve now, because with the "mall-ization" of the U.S the whole idea of public space is being marginalized. Some say that the internet is a new place for a public culture, but I have my doubts. First, the sheer size of the internet makes the intimacy of an intellectual culture difficult to achieve. Second, there is something about sharing the same space and time in conversation that is denied by the internet, something without which interchange remains too anonymous in character. I don't think the internet is useless; but it's ability to substitute for what we have lost is more limited than some folks think.
Can you respond to critics who charge that poststructuralist theory (postmodernism in general) is an example of a highly specialized, abstract and obscure language that is alienating to most people and doesn't encourage thought outside of a graduate department?
Guilty as charged. But that doesn't apply only to poststructuralists and postmodernists. It is a general problem across the humanities and across academics generally. We talk to one another rather than to those outside our immediate circle. There are a number of reasons for this: pressure to publish, the history of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., etc. But we also contribute by adopting the jargon we do. I have tried to stay away from jargon as much as possible, and I hope that my anarchism book, although difficult, is at least not laden with jargon. But what you're pointing to is a problem for all academics, and only serves to marginalize us further.
Given that "knowledge, like other subjects, is a matter of struggle and domination" and recent publish or perish/cost-analysis tendencies of universities, how does postructuralism escape being just another commodity? Much of poststructuralist discourse is, of course, just like other academic discourse in that it replicates the current academic system of ideas in the cost-benefit consumerist model currently dominating academia. I think that change comes not only through the ideas themselves but, especially in academics, who's spouting them. The real question, it seems to me, is whether people are living these ideas out or whether they are just holding them as ideas.† ~
Capitalism, Marxism, and the Black Radical Tradition: An Interview with Cedric Robinson
It is the task of the radical critic to illuminate what is repressed and excluded by the basic mechanisms of a given social order. It is the task of the politically engaged radical critic to side with the excluded and repressed: to develop insights gained in confrontation with injustice, to nourish cultures of resistance, and to help define the means with which society can be rendered adequate to the full breadth of human potentialities.
Cedric Robinson has embraced these tasks. His work explores the relationship between our social order and its negations, particularly Marxism and the Black Radical Tradition. He has examined this relationship in historical, political, and philosophical terms with an orientation that is as comprehensive as it is anti-authoritarian.
I interviewed Robinson by e-mail in January 1999. Chuck Morse
In the conclusion of Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition you write that "the evolution of Black radicalism has occurred while it has not been conscious of itself as a tradition." Your writings (especially Black Marxism and Black Movements in America) are attempts to introduce a level of self-consciousness to this tradition. Why is this important now and what do you hope this can offer to the development of Black radicalism and radical movements generally?
My work is in a sense notational - reinscribing historical experience - for a political objective. Present generations must know, at the very least, what has been known in order to achieve greater clarification and effectiveness. Just as Thucydides believed that historical consciousness of a people in crisis provided the possibility of more virtuous action, more informed and rational choices, so do I.
At the time I was writing Black Marxism and Black Mass Movements I felt strongly that Black nationalism as it was beings pursued by spokespersons like Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan was a failed enterprise. As a peevish and perverse inversion of the political culture and racialism which had been used to justify the worst excesses of the exploitation and oppression of Black people, it served as a fictive radicalism, a surrogate mirage of the Black struggle. So both of these works, politically, were written to address the miscomprehensions and conceits of Black nationalism in historical terms: to examine how our ancestors responded to the seductions of this construction of the struggle and their visions of the future social order.
Black Marxism is not a chronological narrative of Black radicalism but a dialectical analysis of the development of racial capitalism, Marxism, and Black opposition. What is it about the Black Radical Tradition that requires this method of analysis?
There are several rationales for the employment of dialectical analysis to the Radical Tradition: they relate to the subject matter, to the audience, and to the method itself.
The Tradition's first stage of development is oppositional, i.e. the negation (resistance) of the negation (slavery); the response to the attempted cultural alienation and the effected physical, geographical and social alienation of slavery.
But slavery itself must be understood in a new way by readers familiar with the melodramatic and Eurocentric narrative of slavery as the capture, impressment, and exploitation of primitive peoples. I attempted to intrude upon the familiar construction of slavery as a superior culture overtaking an inferior culture. This narrative is hegemonic and must be ruptured.
In order to present this to the readers it is important to recognize the cultural history of the enslaved, but this is not easily done. The Black Radical Tradition is not a biological reflex, but a reconstitution of historical, cultural, and moral materials, a transcendence which both transfers and edits earlier knowledges and understandings among the several African peoples enslaved.
The dialectical method is well suited to these tasks.
In Black Marxism you point to a distinctively ĎAfrican consciousnessí that informed the commitments, insights, and politics of Black radicals. What is this consciousness and what is its importance for Black radical politics?
I believe that the historical struggles in Africa and the New World culled some of the best virtues of their native cultures. One such virtue was democracy, the commitment to a social order in which no voice was greater than another (I wrote about some of the precedents for this regime in The Terms of Order).
This alternative to hierarchy also produced a critique of political order; and during the anti-slavery struggles, it achieved a rather sophisticated critique of the rule of law. And the core and tributaries of this moral philosophy were what Greek classicists term the transmutation of the soul. So, from the center of a world view in which the reiteration of names (an African convention in which the name of a recently deceased loved one is given to the next child born) reflected the conservatism and responsibilities of a community, the resolve to value our historical and immediate interdependence substantiates democracy.
This heritage gave Black Radicals many things. For example, it gave them an ability to retain the value of life, a fact that had many consequences, such as presenting restraints on the use of violence as a political instrument.
In analyzing the contributions made by W.E.B. DuBois, C.L.R. James, and Richard Wright to the Black Radical Tradition you highlight DuBoisís emphasis on the peasantsí revolutionary role, Jamesís critique of the Leninist party model, and Wrightís emphasis on the cultural dimensions of revolutionary politics. These observations have been constitutive of the anarchist tradition and, to a lesser degree, libertarian socialism. Do they create a unique common ground upon which Black radicals and anti-authoritarians from other backgrounds can meet?
What these anti-authoritarian traditions have in common is that they confront and show the necessity of avoiding certain conceits which follow from the general theory of revolution in Marxism.
One conceit is class; another is determinancy; and another is the stage-construction of history. As Amilcar Cabral argued thirty years ago, class is not a world-historical phenomena enveloping the histories of all peoples; and culture and consciousness are as powerful in determining choice and behavior as the material reproduction of a society. Finally, the discrete stages of history which Marx borrowed from the Scottish Enlightenment of the 17th century hardly corresponds with any human history, even Europeanís.
However, I do not believe that it is necessary for a convergence of these traditions to take place. They are all assaults on the same social and political authority. We should remember, for example, that the Russian Revolution - despite its reconstruction as a consequence of the Leninist party - was the result of many different revolutions (revolutions for which Lenin or Trotsky had no responsibility or theoretical understanding). The Tsarist regime did not collapse under the weight of a single force.
Black and other radicals originate and articulate distinct histories which converge and diverge depending on historical circumstance: this was James's conception of the confluences of the Haitian slaves and the French peasantry, etc.; a historical correspondence which was broken by the time Frantz Fanon wrote of French colonialism, French workers, and the colonized subject. These histories of radicalism are neither determined nor dictated by the world-system, merely given local impulse.
Marx believed that a communist society could only emerge from the European working class. Black radicals and others excluded from world-historical significance by Marx confronted this claim and produced important insights into the nature of capitalist development and revolutionary agency. Are these insights developed by Black radicals distinct from those generated by similar confrontations among other peoples?
What is similar is the historical tendency to succumb to the seductions of nationalism on the premise that Marxism is essentially Eurocentric. It is as a response to the denial of historical agency within Marx that many non-western radicals have often thrown themselves into nationalist projects. (Although many recent movements, such as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, are no longer concerned or consumed by that problem.)
But confrontations with Marxís historical vision are also shaped by the social context in which they unfold. The Black Radical Tradition emerged in the belly of the beast, in a setting where physical and cultural problems were very immediate and the surveillance of Black radicals was omnipresent. Black radicals thus took slave society, colonial, and post-colonial society at its word and attempted to subvert in on this basis. Whereas Chinese Marxists, for example, saw capitalism and the West as an invasive force coming from without. The Chinese revolutionaries never conceded to the West its self-definition, and thus had a different relationship to Marx's historical vision.
The relationship between the West and Africa, mediated by the development of capitalism, is central to your discussion of Black radical politics. However, at a time when capitalist firms are increasingly globalized and various non-western economies are major factors of the world economy, the ĎWestí plays a more ambiguous role as a center of capitalism. How does this change the character of Black radical politics?
Changes in capitalism have produced changes in Black Radical politics and they also provide new opportunities. For instance, racial capitalism in England and the US exposes the instability of race categories. In England, where South Asians are Black as well as Africans and West Indians, this creates an opportunity for political alliances which were never anticipated by capitalism.
However, Marx and later Marxists were enthralled with the notion that capital would organize the world into a single order and then the proletariat would inherit that ordered world. I have never conceded the notion that the West has ordered the world in a rational whole: no coherent order, no singular whole, has ever been forged under the authority of capital and the unifying language of world systems theory simply does not capture the chaos of capitalism.
For the purposes of liberation, it is not necessary for Black radicalism to shadow or reiterate the world-system. There will be no proletarian armageddon with capitalism. Centralism is anathema to revolutionary change for the courage, resolve, and intelligence necessary to defeat oppression issues from different historical and cultural sites.
I believe it is necessary for the Black Radical Tradition to remain focused upon the cultural legacies that have provided for its strengths. The Tradition is most powerful when it draws on its own historical experiences while resisting the simplifications of Black nationalism. This protocol allows for the emergence and recognition of other radical traditions, drawing their own power from alternative historical experiences.
In Black Marxism you argue that racism is integral to the development of capitalism. However, given the emergence of various Asian economies (including Ďsocialistí China), it appears that capitalism has taken on a much more multi-cultural character. Has the relationship between race and capitalism changed in fundamental ways and, if so, what does this imply for a radical, anti-racist politics?
When we inspect the expansions of capital in Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. we discover racial protocols. These are encrusted from much earlier histories (for example, a thousand years of slavery in Korea).
What is important to remember is that capital never develops according to pure market exigencies or rational calculus. Whatever the organization of capitalism may be and whoever constitutes its particular agencies, capitalism has a specific culture. As Aristotle first revealed, capital accumulation is essentially irrational. And as was the case in his time, race, ethnicity, and gender were powerful procedures for the conduct of accumulation and value appropriation.
You describe a dialectic between Black radicalism and the larger social order in which Black radicalism gradually evolves, understanding itself more deeply and articulating a more incisive, revolutionary critique. However, revolutionary, anti-capitalist commitments are far less prevalent in Black politics and theory today than a decade or two ago. What does this indicate about the evolution of the Tradition as a whole?
I do not believe that the Black Radical Tradition is at a low point. For example, there are vanguard movements in the Tradition: think of the reception of Nelson Mandela in the US after his release from prison. He became a marker for the advance of the Black Radical Tradition as a whole in the minds of many Black Americans. On the other hand, local conditions in places like the US have not produced such world historical individuals in recent times.
But the world is dynamic, constantly changing, constantly creating new possibilities (see, for instance, how far revolutionary agendas were pursued by youth gangs in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in the post-Civil Rights era). All over the US, Black Radicalism is manifesting itself in urban churches, in theory (i.e. doctrine) and practice (i.e. volunteerism). What will be the next phase, when the rule of law becomes transparently farcical, the Christian right achieves its fascist perfection, and the State acquires a predominantly carceral posture towards the majority of Blacks, Latinos, etc.?
The conflicted relationship between intellectuals and popular movements is an important theme in your work. Does the emergence of high-profile Black Studies departments (at Harvard, example) and the popularity of writers such as Cornell West, bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates Jr., etc. mark a new stage in the relationship between Black intellectuals and movements?
Hegemonic control of Black Studies is as important to capital as any other field of knowledge production. The selective breeding of Black intellectuals in this country is even older than the appearance of the philanthropic Black colleges of the late 19th century; and the necessity of dominating Black knowledge production finds a template in the Gunnar Myrdahl enterprise in the years of World War II.
However, Black Studies is revolutionary in its political and historical origins and intellectual impulses. To paraphrase C.L.R. James, who insisted that Black Studies was the study of Western Civilization, Black Studies is a critique of Western Civilization. This is all too apparent in one of the first articulations of radicalism by David Walker in 1829. Modern slavery, Walker demonstrated, was not like Ancient Mediterranean slavery; modern Christianity could not oblige a Just God; education had to have a revolutionary emancipation as its central virtue, etc. So at those sites of its inception, Black Studies was seen as preparatory to re-articulating justice and the Good.
The Tradition is by now well prepared to defend itself against attempts to colonize it: after all Black revolutionists were working with George Washington Carver at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee preserve. Imagine the contradictions!
As a new and controversial development in the analysis of ethnicity, what role do you think ĎWhiteness Studiesí can play in fighting white supremacy and what are its limitations?
Whiteness Studies deconstruct and decenter whiteness, showing that it is an artifice, that it has a history and one that does not go back very far. The best of the work (like George Lipsitz's The Possessive Investment in Whiteness) is an extension of radical Black Studies.
Although it is currently in fairly progressive hands, problems could emerge. For example, it could be used to challenge the very existence of Black Studies. It could lend itself to arguments such as: "weíve gone too far: weíve had Black Studies, now we have White Studies, what we need to do is prosecute a universal American identity". Or, in the same vein: "if you canít give us resources for White Studies then the you shouldnít provide resources for Black Studies." These are possibilities.
The American University integrates people into the capitalist social order and is also the primary setting in which radical social criticism is (currently) developed. How has academia helped or hindered your work as radical social critic?
The academy is indifferent if not hostile to Black Studies. Since WWII the University has become very dependent upon state support and Black Studies has remained outside the pale of this support. For example, the most well funded research on Black youth are essentially police studies. Racism simply remains a powerful break on Black Studies and research in the academy.
The hostility and indifference to Black Studies makes collaborative work very difficult. So, too often, serious work is done in the singularity of private labor. This has presented difficulties for me and many others working in the field. This obstacle frustrates not only individual efforts but also the development of Black Studies as such.
Given the distinctions you have made between Marxism and the Black Radical Tradition, how do you define your own political commitments?
What name do you give to the nature of the Universe? There are some realms in which names, nomination, is premature. My only loyalties are to the morally just world; and my happiest and most stunning opportunity for raising hell with corruption and deceit are with other Black people. I suppose that makes me a part, an expression, of Black Radicalism.
Please tell me about your forthcoming book, The Anthropology of Marxism: A Study of Western Socialism?
This work attempts to extricate the history and origins of socialism in the West from Marxism. This requires moving beyond the chronological constraints imposed by Marx (socialism can only follow capitalism, etc.) and suggesting a more open epistemology of socialism. In a sense I revisit familiar sites (Hegel, Kant, Engels, etc.) only to mark forgotten and suppressed work (e.g. Hegel's study of British political economy) in order to proceed to the unexpected richness of the history of socialist visions and pursuits.
Please tell me about future projects you have planned.
My next project concerns the American racial imagination formed from and cast through American films. This is another attempt to get at the social imagination, particularly how it relates to the changing construction of Blackness.
As someone fascinated with culture and its potentialities, interrogating film is another means of determining how popular cultures contest with mass cultures; the latter being stories about the world and human experience which are manufactured for the masses by elites. Aristotle once wrote that the many are wiser than the few. In the best sense of this observation, the conflict between social history and popular cultures, on the one hand, and induced memories of the past on the other may be the most important site of analysis in a civilization whose technicians can now design virtual reality. Under these changed circumstances it becomes even more imperative that we can distinguish authentic (historical) radicalism from imagined radicalism.
The Need for Critique, the Need for Politics: An Interview with Barbara Epstein
by Rebecca DeWitt
The nonviolent, anti-nuclear movements of the 1970ís and 80ís inspired thousands of people to radical, leftist political action with the vision of an ecologically balanced, egalitarian society.
Barbara Epstein, in her book Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, explores the successes and failures of these movements as a theorist and an activist participant, paying considerable attention to the role of anarchism. While the book focuses on two groups, the Clamshell Alliance of New England and the Abalone Alliance of California, Epstein has also worked to elaborate a broader radical critique and theory of social movements.(1) In particular, she has also written extensively on post-structuralismís inadequacy for a radical politics.
I interviewed Epstein by e-mail in the summer of 1998. ~ Rebecca DeWitt
In Political Protest and Cultural Revolution you analyze the direct action movements of the 70ís and 80ís as a significant chapter in radical history. You state that it is important to engage a movement from the inside in order to truly understand the meaning of its actions. Why is this important?
I think that one always learns more about a movement by studying it from the inside. "Inside" can mean various things. Actual participation is best, but is not possible if one is studying a movement of the past or one from which one is excluded, or which one has no sympathy for, etc. But in all cases the more one can come to understand the inner logic of the movement, to be able to think the way people in that movement think or thought, the better oneís account is likely to be although one has to maintain some degree of distance, and the capacity for criticism. When I wrote this book I thought that the movement I was studying would be the beginning of a new surge of progressive movements. I was wrong. Instead we are in a period in which progressive movements are on the whole in decline. Under these circumstances I think it is especially important for those who study, teach or write about social movements to try to get inside their skins, so to speak. Otherwise the study of social movements is likely to become one more academic sub-field, of little help to the movements themselves, either in terms of the analysis that is made or in terms of the likelihood of students in the field themselves becoming involved in progressive social movements.
The cohesiveness of theory and praxis is an historical stumbling block for radical, utopian movements. The Abalone Alliance and the Clamshell Alliance, in many ways, collapsed over conflicts between political efficacy (leadership, strategy and decision-making processes) and principles. Did their utopian principles inhibit their ability to be politically effective?
I think that movements need utopian principles. The question is how a movement can sustain those principles and at the same time act effectively in the world, which often requires suspending oneís values to some degree. To give an obvious example, consensus process is sometimes too slow for decision-making, especially in a crisis. Working with more bureaucratic organizations often requires accepting their internal hierarchies. The question is always what can be compromised, and what cannot. Activists in the direct action movement too often failed to think about this, and tended to regard any compromise as unacceptable. I think this was one reason for the movementís short life.
Since the 70ís and 80ís, feminism seems to have lost its radical edge. Do you feel that there has been a loss of radicalism and how do you think feminism can recapture its revolutionary role?
I agree that feminism has lost its radical edge. I think that this is partly one example of the decline in radical movements generally, and partly the result of so many feminists going into academia, where academic values tend to take over, even among those who are ostensibly radical. Any mass radical movement of the future will have to be feminist in the sense that women will have to make up at least 50% of its constituency and it will have to regard equality between women and men in all spheres of life as a major objective. Whether feminism will play the kind of radicalizing role in a movement of the future that it played in the direct action movement I do not know. It may be that some other question, or issue, will play that role instead. One of the problems of the radical feminism of the late 60ís and early 70ís was that it was based so much on the experience and outlook of a very homogeneous (and relatively privileged) group of women: young, college-educated and therefore mostly white, mostly middle to upper-middle class, living in a period of unprecedented prosperity. The fading of radical feminism partly has to do with the fact that that group of women has aged, and partly to do with the fact that conditions have changed. Young people now pay a much higher price if they try to live outside the system (whether capitalism or patriarchy or both). I think that a new radical feminism would have to be quite different, less age and class specific, more sensitive to the situations of working class women, poor women, women of color.
In terms of new problems we face today, such as global capitalism, which lacks a geographical center, how effective is direct action?
Unless, or until, there is some international crisis that mobilizes people around the world, I think that people have to go on organizing around specific local or national issues; usually such struggles lead to challenging global capital. The problem is that global capital is so strong that it is hard to win, and the problems are massive, affect huge numbers of people, but leave most people with a sense that nothing can be done. I think that a direct action movement could help by providing some focus and by showing that even if we canít expect to win immediately, itís better to protest than to acquiesce, better to be part of a community of resistance than a cog in a depersonalized system.
Every radical movement has its "revolutionary actors" (e.g. the working class or women). Under what conditions does a certain group become "revolutionary actors"?
I think that many groups can become revolutionary agents. A revolutionary movement, to be credible, requires the involvement or support of lots of people, people who are sufficiently oppressed by the system that they are not likely to leave the movement easily, and preferably representing significant parts of different social groups. It does not seem likely that the working class will mobilize as a group any time soon. There are too many divisions within it for unified action to be easy. There are also divisions among women. There are moments when different groups develop similar critiques and similar social goals, and ally with each other. In the US, in the 30ís, there was an unofficial alliance between workers and a large sector of intellectuals and other professionals; in the 60ís the student movementís critique of the war in Vietnam resonated with broad sectors of the public (the student movement did not fully recognize that the agreement had to do with ending the war, not with embarking on a social revolution). In Paris in Ď68, large numbers of students and workers shared grievances against the government and a desire to transform the system. It seems to me that this kind of convergence is key to revolutionary moments - and it is almost impossible to guess when it is going to happen, or how long it will last.
You state that towards the end of the 70ís the New Leftís fascination with armed struggle (inspired by "Third World" political examples) was the downfall of the radical movement. However, some on the left continue to look to armed struggles for guidance. Is there any legitimacy for the left to continue looking in this direction for examples?
I donít see armed struggle as an option for left movements in the US or Europe. Though Western democracies have severe limitations, they are still democracies, and to engage in armed struggle rather than in the political process is to discredit oneself and lose the possibility of building a mass movement. It also gives legitimacy to what the extreme right is doing, namely by-passing the democratic process. This is not to say that armed struggle isnít legitimate, and important, under other circumstances, such as resistance to the Nazis, to right-wing militarist rule in Central America, etc. I think that it is important to study the history of movements that engaged in armed struggle, and to distinguish between situations that call for it and those that do not. I am not saying that recourse to armed struggle (or at least armed self-defense) is permanently out of the question in the West. The world is a volatile place these days, and who knows how things might change. But as things stand I think that notions of armed struggle, on the left, are foolish and irresponsible.
You point out the amazing number of people that were drawn to the utopian and predominately (although often not by name) anarchist principles of the direct action movements. What does this say about the importance of a committed ideology for a radical movement?
I donít see how a movement can act, or present an alternative vision, without an ideology. Of course everyone has an ideology; those who think they donít have absorbed the dominant ideology. Movements for social change have to have alternative ideologies, and the more explicit these are, the more thought is put into them, the better. Ideology consists partly of a conception of oneís goal - a social vision - and partly of an analysis of how and why existing society falls short of that vision, and how we might achieve the goals we have set. It is important to remember that analysis is only an approximation of reality, and needs to be constantly tested against reality and changed accordingly. Social visions also need to be looked at skeptically and revised as our ideas change. Ideologies are necessary but if they become rigid, they can be dangerous.
In your essay "Post-Structuralism as Subculture" you state (in criticism of post-structuralism) that if "alienation drops out of our vocabulary, we have no reason to protest current conditions and no basis for imagining anything better." Why is the concept of alienation especially important today?
I think that alienation has become so pervasive in contemporary society that it tends not to be recognized, even on the left; itís as if alienation has become the air we breathe, and therefore invisible. In fact we are living in a society in which alienation is so deep, so widespread, that it has become very difficult to act. Iím referring to the commodification of virtually everything, the destruction of community and of human connections generally, the extension of the market into virtually all areas of life, the widespread loss of a sense of meaning, of values that go deeper than cash values. I find it extraordinary that under such circumstances a theoretical perspective in which there is no place for a conception of alienation could be considered radical. I think that the widespread acceptance of post-structuralism has greatly undermined the possibility of radical thinking and action. It seems to me that the concept of alienation gives us a place from which to criticize existing society. It allows us to say that human beings have inherent needs ( not only for food and shelter, but also for viable human relationships, for community, for the possibility of doing socially meaningful work), that contemporary capitalism makes the satisfaction of these needs virtually impossible, and that we want a society in which human beings can thrive. The concept of alienation seems to me key in making this argument: it provides a way of saying that contemporary society is utterly inadequate and that we need a better one.
For many post-structuralists, certain stylistic, literary strategies are celebrated as political or insurrectionary acts but you state that it often has more to do with performance than any attempt at dialogue or persuasion. To what degree is style relevant to radical politics?
I think that things like rhetoric, performance, and theatrical skills can be helpful in attracting an audience and getting a message across and especially in gaining the attention of the media. But one of the problems that the left faces today is a culture that is organized around performers and audiences rather than community and collective action. I think that the left, in attempting to accommodate itself to this culture, has wound up promoting it. Performers are not the same things as leaders; the relationship between performers and audience is mostly one-way, and the audience is relatively passive. Leaders, hopefully, are engaged in a common project with their constituencies; they are shaped by the movements that they represent, as well as helping to shape those movements. Leadership, especially charismatic leadership, has its dangers if one is trying to build an internally democratic movement. The performer/audience dynamic has even greater dangers; it tends to drive out the model that revolves around local organizing, equality among movement members, collective action, etc.
From your most recent writings, it appears that you believe that there are important political struggles taking place in the University. What role do you think the intellectual, university culture play in forming a radical politics?
I think that the left within the university could play an important part in forming a radical politics. In the 60ís there was a university left that played a very important role in the movements of the period, especially the anti-war movement. It was mostly a student left, though some faculty were involved. One of the problems with todayís academic left is that it is dominated by faculty, especially by prominent faculty in major research institutions, which gives a particularly academic cast to its concerns. Meanwhile conditions in academia are deteriorating, especially for those lower on the rung: students are being charged higher fees, graduate students are overworked and underpaid, many colleges and universities hire large numbers of part-time faculty whose working conditions and pay are not that much better than those of the graduate students. Junior faculty, at many universities, are forced to publish at a frantic pace to have any hope of gaining tenure. There is beginning to be some organizing around these issues. I hope that a university left will begin to emerge out of protests over student fees and the treatment of those who work in the university.
I get the sense from your work that being a part of a left inspired by anarchism, Marxism, and socialism, is equivalent to being a minority these days considering the mostly apolitical atmosphere surrounding intellectual work. How have you experienced this?
I feel quite isolated in the university, not because I have left opinions - many academics do - but because the academic left no longer has any sense of a political project. In the absence of a political project the values of mainstream academia rush in, and the academic left becomes increasingly competitive and alienated. Especially in the humanities there is a great deal of conflict within the academic left, much of it personal and petty. I donít think that this strengthens anyone. I think that the academic left that revolves around literary theory and post-structuralism is exhausting its claims to radicalism. I hope that a more substantial university left will arise in its place.
A common theme in your work is the need to re-examine past radical movements and pose questions based upon this examination. Is there a point at which analyzing the past should become secondary to articulating a contemporary political program?
I think we have to do both at once. Iím afraid that there is no point at which we can stop examining the past, and our relation to it. Left movements often make the mistake of acting as if they were living twenty to thirty years earlier than they are. When the movements of the sixties turned toward a revolutionary perspective, many peopleís conception of revolutionary politics had more to do with the 30ís than the 60ís. The student movement of the early 30ís opposed war; they were thinking of the world as it was at the time of World War One, not the world of Hitler and Mussolini. During the Gulf War many of us assumed that we were facing a re-run of the war in Vietnam (a protracted war). The only way to avoid such mistakes is to have a clear understanding of the past, the present, what remains the same, what is different, and what appropriate responses might be. But examining these issues should not stop us from organizing.
You are one among few self-consciously left ist theorists within academia. How have your political beliefs shaped your experience in the university?
There is a large sector of the university in which being in some way on the left is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. The problem is that within this sector, especially in the Humanities, deep-seated antagonisms have come to the surface. This would not be a bad thing if it were possible to discuss the intellectual differences that lie behind them. All too often attempts at discussion degenerate into veiled threats of ostracism, personal attacks, and so forth. Even before the current disagreements about post-structuralism came into the open, a subculture had taken hold in the academic left (especially in the Humanities, especially in elite universities) that promoted the worship of celebrities, in which one-upmanship tended to take the place of debate, in which competition was rampant and mostly went uncriticized. In other words, left and feminist values were mostly left behind, in terms of peopleís behavior towards each other if not in their rhetoric. It is also true that the academic left has drifted further and further away from any engagement with political organizing or action. This is not the fault of individuals: it is the result of the weakening of progressive movements and of speed-up in the universities. But when rhetoric and actions become divorced from each other, there are bound to be severe problems. I think that the first step in remedying this would be to talk about these problems openly.
What does the future hold for your work?
Iím working on a book on what accounts for the decline of the left, in the US, over the last several decades. Iím using a number of case studies from the Bay Area, of arenas where the left once flourished but has faded. I hope that this pattern reverses itself, and movements of the left revive; even if this should happen soon, I think we need to look at the causes of the decline in recent decades. At the same time Iím working on a project that involves interviewing Jews who were members of the various ghetto underground movements and/or were anti-Nazi partisans. These peopleís stories, and their understanding of the struggles that they were engaged in, need to be recorded while they are still alive.
1. The Clamshell Alliance formed in 1976 to protest the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant near Seabrook, New Hampshire. The Clamshell was based on anarchist principles, a small-group structure, consensus decision making, and large-scale civil disobedience. Though the Clamshell failed to stop the Seabrook plant, it paved the way for a mass movement based on nonviolent direct action with a vision of radical change. "Clamshell" refers to the clams along the seacoast that would have been destroyed by Seabrook.
The Abalone Alliance, more explicitly anarchist due to the influence of anarcha-feminists, formed on the West Coast in 1976 in response to Pacific Gas & Electricís Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. The Abalone was more successful than the Clamshell and succeeded in shutting down Diablo by using similar tactics. "Abalone" refers to the thousand of abalone (a saltwater snail) killed when Diabloís cooling systems were first tested.
Radical Cities and Social Revolution:
An Interview with Janet Biehl
The abstractness and programmatic emptiness so characteristic of contemporary radical theory indicates a severe crisis in the left. It suggests a retreat from the belief that the ideal of a cooperative, egalitarian society can be made concrete and thus realized in actual social relationships. It is as though - in a period of change and demobilization - many radicals have ceded the right and the capacity to transform society to CEOís and heads of state.
Janet Biehlís new book, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism, is an affront to this. It challenges the politically resigned with a detailed, historically situated anti-statist and anti-capitalist politics for today.
I asked Biehl about her new work in the fall of 1997 by email. Chuck Morse
Your book is essentially programmatic: you set libertarian municipalism in a historical context and offer concrete suggestions for practice. What political circumstances made it seem especially important to produce this book now?
As the political dimension of social ecology - the body of ideas developed by Murray Bookchin since the 1950s - libertarian municipalism is a libertarian politics of political and social revolution. It constitutes both a theory and a practice for building a revolutionary movement whose ultimate aim is to achieve an equal, just, and free society. My book is intended as a simple articulation of these ideas, which Bookchin himself has expounded elsewhere.
Briefly, for readers who do not know, libertarian municipalism calls for the creation of self-managed community political life at the municipal level: the level of the village, town, neighborhood, or small city. This political life would be embodied in institutions of direct democracy: citizens' assemblies, popular assemblies, or town meetings. Where such institutions already exist, their democratic potential and structural power could be enlarged; where they formerly existed, they could be revived; and where they never existed, they could be created anew. But within these institutions people as citizens could manage the affairs of their own communities themselves - rather than relying on statist elites - arriving at policy decisions through the processes of direct democracy.
To address problems that transcend the boundaries of a single municipality, the democratized municipalities in a given region would form a confederation, sending delegates to a confederal council. This confederation would not be a state, since it would be controlled entirely by the citizens' assemblies. The delegates that the assemblies send would have the power only to advance decisions made by their assemblies; they would be mandated and easily recallable.
As the libertarian municipalist movement grew and as ever more municipalities became democratized and confederated in this way, the confederations would hopefully become powerful enough to constitute themselves into dual power, one that could finally be pitted in opposition to the nation-state. At that point either a confrontation would ensue, or the citizenry would defect to the new system that gave them full control over their lives, "hollowing out" the power of the nation-state. At the same time the municipalities would take control of economic life from private corporations, expropriating the expropriators. A rational, libertarian, ecological society could then be formed, where structural power would reside in directly democratic assemblies inhabited by an active, vital citizenry.
My book lays out concrete steps by which a movement could be formed to create such a direct democracy. It emphasizes the crucial role of an educated group of committed individuals who, through study groups and local municipal electoral campaigns, build a movement by spreading these ideas in their communities.
The book has been needed for a long time, and I only regret that we didn't have it back when we were working in the Left Green Network.(1) Just how much it's been needed is indicated by the fact that within only a few weeks of its publication, comrades in other parts of the world made arrangements to translate it into five European languages, and discussions are under way for several others.
You place libertarian municipalism in the anarchist tradition and embrace its anti-statist and anti-capitalist goals. However, your emphasis on the conflict between the municipality and the state (as opposed to the conflict between labor and capital) is a departure from several dominant tendencies in the anarchist tradition. Why is this departure important?
First let me clarify that Bookchin does not oppose libertarian municipalism to the conflict between labor and capital. His intention is, rather, to broaden class struggle by connecting it to the municipality-state conflict; to introduce transclass issues - especially hierarchical domination and ecological dislocations - into formulations of class struggle; and to give class struggle a direct democratic base, grounded in a self-managed civic political culture. Libertarian municipalism is an effort to make class conflict a civic issue as well as an industrial one. It's actually not so unusual: after all, revolutionary class struggles have historically been based in municipalities. The uprisings in Paris in 1848 and in 1870-71 were fought around barricades that were located in neighborhoods. Both in Red Petrograd in 1917 and in Barcelona in 1936-37, strong neighborhood civic cultures were crucial arenas for their respective revolutions.
Within the anarchist tradition, the municipality-state conflict goes back at least to Proudhon's 1863 book on federalism, which called for a federation of autonomous communes. Bakunin absorbed this call and made it a central part of the programs he wrote in the late 1860s. In those same years, communalist ideas were becoming widespread among opponents of Napoleon III's centralized rule in France. So in 1871, when Prussia defeated France and the French government collapsed, communalist ideas were already in place to infuse the Paris Commune when it sprang up on the ruins of the Second Empire. After only a few weeks' existence, the Commune met with a disastrous end, yet many radicals - not only anti-statists but also Marx for a while - were inspired by the Commune's audacious example and regarded the federation of autonomous communes as the model political structure for a free, self-managed society. In the later 1870s the idea passed into the programs of the Jura Federation, which regarded the communal federation as integral to the post-revolutionary society.
Libertarian municipalism draws on historical communalism, both in its anarchist and Marxist theoretical forms, as well as its concrete tradition in revolutionary history, going back to the French Revolution of 1789. At the same time it takes historical communalism further. Where early communalism saw the communes as mainly administrative in function, merely providing "public services," and gave actual decision-making power over to workers' associations (whose federation would parallel that of the federated communes), libertarian municipalism envisions the commune as a direct democracy that controls the economy. And where anarchist communalists thought people would form communes spontaneously after the state collapsed by other means, libertarian municipalism provides for a revolutionary transition, in which the federation of communes would become a dual power against the nation-state.
My point is that the communalist tradition, of which libertarian municipalism is a development, isn't by any means alien to the anarchist tradition - in fact, it was present at the creation.
One way anarchists have distinguished themselves from others in the socialist tradition is by emphasizing the importance of counter-cultures as well as counter-institutions for a general revolutionary strategy. What is the relationship, in your view, between these efforts and the struggle for the radical, directly democratic political institutions described in your book?
It's been much to the detriment of anarchism and the left generally that so much attention has recently been given to cultural change at the expense of institutional change, to the point that today it overshadows politics altogether. I don't mean to suggest that cultural work is bereft of political meaning, but it can't stand on its own - it must be part of a larger political movement. Art and culture and self-expression by themselves pose no threat to the existing social order, because by themselves they can very easily be coopted and marketed. In fact, the alienation and dissent that a radical work of art expresses can sometimes make it all the more marketable, as something with a "dangerously" hip frisson.
Without a political movement that opposes commodification as such - and hence capitalism - as well as hierarchical domination, art too easily becomes just another commodity. The 1960s counter-culture has famously deteriorated into nostalgia merchandising and New Age spirituality, with all their many marketing possibilities, and hip advertising has coopted much of its sensibility (see the recent anthology Commodify Your Dissent). For example, the Beatles' ĎRevolutioní is now used to sell sneakers and my local bike shop sells Anarchy brand sunglasses. Within anarchism the emphasis on culture and self-expression and lifestyle - at the expense of a revolutionary politics (in the sense of community self-management) - has become so acute that social ecologists have had to distinguish themselves from it, to try to retain for anarchism a core socialist imperative to transform society at the level of social and political institutions as well as sensibility.
You argue that to create a free society we must democratize and expand the political realm. What role does the struggle against hierarchies often relegated to the private sphere - such as patriarchy and white supremacy - play in this effort?
During the course of a political and social revolution, people's personalities will doubtless be changed, especially as they experience the solidarity of common struggle, fight on behalf of a common ideal rather than their own particular interests, and socially empower themselves. During such experiences we could expect that racism and sexism would be reduced. But insofar as they persist, either in mindsets or in social arrangements, the community members - in the political realm, in the democratic citizens' assemblies - would make decisions about how to address them in whatever ways they deem appropriate.
The danger exists that a community could set policies that are racist and sexist, but it would be irrational for a society predicated on the fulfillment of the potentialities of all its members to suppress the potentialities of some. One of the fundamentals of social ecology, of which libertarian municipalism is the political dimension, is a condemnation of all kinds of social hierarchy and class rule and a call for their dissolution.
The idea of potentiality appears throughout your book. You refer to the "political potential of the municipality," our "uniquely human potentiality" for a rational society, etc. Please tell me more about this concept of potentiality?
This question touches on the philosophical dimension of social ecology, dialectical naturalism, a topic too complex to explore thoroughly here; I'd refer interested readers to Bookchin's Philosophy of Social Ecology (2nd ed. revised). I'll merely say, in brief, that as a developmental philosophy (as opposed to an analytical philosophy), dialectical naturalism focuses on processes unfolding in both natural evolution and social history, especially those that tend, however obliquely and tortuously and even abortively at times, toward greater freedom, self-consciousness, and reflexivity.
As a developmental philosophy, dialectical naturalism uses a vocabulary that reflects develop-mental processes: potentiality, emergence, unfolding, growth, actualization, fulfillment. Where analytical philosophy presupposes fixity, dialectical philosophy presupposes movement, and not merely kinesis but directional movement.
By focusing on the potentialities of a situation, dialectical rationality encourages us to examine what kind of future could logically emerge from that situation. Thus, the municipality as it exists today contains the potentiality to become democratized and part of a rational society; the achievement of a libertarian municipalist society would mark the fulfillment or actualization of that potentiality.
You call upon people to overthrow capitalism and the state, and to create a free society informed by reason, solidarity, and an ethos of citizenship. However, your discussion of the colonization of social life by capitalism, the assault on communities, and the dissolution of the political realm seems to describe the destruction of the sources from which we could derive the capacity to build a social alternative. From where, under these conditions, can we find the strength and insight needed to create a free society?
Today's society of instant gratification perpetually gives us the message that our aim in life is to maximize our personal happiness, within the framework of capitalism. It gives little or no cultural support to subordinating immediate personal needs to the pursuit of a larger goal. It shrivels our imagination from expansively envisioning a better world to submersing itself in matters of practical survival and the consumption of goods and services. It systematically strips us of what earlier centuries would have called our better nature.
Not only does this social order commodify and exploit us, it obscures our historical memory and thereby stupefies us. It would like us to forget that for centuries people participated in efforts for social transformation that did not bear fruit in their lifetimes. Not only did they not need immediate gratification, they did not expect it and were willing to risk exile and punishment, knowing it served the creation of a better society.
We therefore have to recognize that the immediate gratification of desire is part of the system we are fighting. We have to hold on to our historical memory and resist social amnesia. We must be willing, on some level, to put the cause of creating a better society before the cause of putting an espresso machine on the kitchen countertop.
If we don't find the strength to persist and maintain our ideals, then our lives will be meaningless too, and we will become trivialized. We will, as William James once put it, "relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which [we] had been momentarily aroused."
So we have to look for other people who, like us, want to uphold human dignity, and who understand that the worst problem our society faces is not El Nino or incompetent nannies but the social order itself. We fight that social order because a diminution of our humanity and our best aspirations would be insufferable.
Marx essentially argued that communism would emerge from the maturation of capitalismís internal contradictions. Do you regard the creation of a libertarian municipalist society as an act of will or a culmination of a larger historical process?
It's both. I have no doubt that our society is heading toward a crisis - the only question is whether its immediate cause will be social or ecological. As Marx pointed out in Capital, capitalist enterprises must either maximize their profits and therefore expand, or else succumb to their rivals and perish - grow or die. Bookchin has added that this imperative puts capitalism on a collision course with the natural world. Even as global warming is poised to wreak enormous havoc in the next century, the discrepancy between rich and poor is widening. To maximize its profits on a global basis, capitalism is rendering whole categories of people useless - by some estimates, about three-fifths of the worldís population.
I also think we might take another look at Marx's "immiseration" thesis. He argued that the logic of capitalism was to reduce wages to the lowest possible level; when people were pauperized, he thought, they would be impelled to revolt against the bourgeoisie exploiting them. This prediction was not fulfilled, in part because welfare states were created that softened the impact of capitalism somewhat. Now that many of the social welfare benefits upon which the social peace has come to depend are being whittled away, the prediction that immiseration will lead to social revolution may yet turn out to be correct.
Whatever the cause of the crisis, when it does develop, its social outcome will by no means necessarily be a rational, ecological, and libertarian society. Its outcome could be a dictatorship, or chaos. If the crisis is to result in emancipation, at least some degree of consciousness of the liberatory alternative will have to be in place beforehand.
This is where voluntarism comes in. Pre-revolutionary periods are usually quite short. We are unlikely to have a lot of time to do the painstaking, molecular work of education that a liberatory movement will require. That's the kind of work we should be doing now: especially building a libertarian municipalist movement, showing people how they can take their political and economic lives into their own hands, showing them how they can build a society that will allow them to reclaim their humanity. It requires endless patience, but it must be done. If it is not, then the crisis that comes will result in tyranny.
Itís hard to find a radical theorist these days not ensconced in the university. You are an exception and have deliberately remained outside of academia. Why is this?
The other night I came across a passage in Bakunin, where he talks about "the history of all academes." "From the moment he becomes an academician," Bakunin wrote, " . . . the greatest scientific genius inevitably lapses into sluggishness. He loses spontaneity, his revolutionary hardihood, and that troublesome and savage energy characteristic of the genius, ever called to destroy tottering old worlds and lay the foundations of the new. He undoubtedly gains in politeness, in utilitarian and practical wisdom, what he lacks in power of originality. In a word, he becomes corrupted."(2) I think this passage is too harsh; many academics from all parts of the political spectrum do try to participate in public political culture, writing books and op-ed pieces and articles for a popular readership. And the research that radical historians in the academy do on revolutionary movements and socialist-anarchist ideas is certainly invaluable to those who are trying to build on those traditions.
But it's hard for professors to write works that directly advance revolutionary movements, works that will educate and inspire revolutionary activists and intellectuals. In a university, most of the writing one does must help consolidate one's career, especially by demonstrating scholarship. Writing a movement-building work could jeopardize that career. So academics tend to address each other, more than the general public, and certainly much more than the revolutionary public. In this country, the mass exodus of leftists from public life into the academy has undoubtedly vitiated radical political culture.
Tell me about the future of your work. Do you have new projects planned or new issues you intend to explore?
I'm happy to say that The Murray Bookchin Reader, which I edited, is now available in the U.S. Currently I'm helping Bookchin put together a collection of recent interviews and essays, to be called Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left (published by A.K. Press next year).
Some of your readers may be interested to know that an international conference on libertarian municipalism will be held in Portugal in August 1998. Its purpose will be to discuss and advance the ideas of libertarian municipalism, as defined by this book and by Bookchin's own writing. Those interested in advancing libertarian municipalism may contact the conference organizers at P.O. Box 111, Burlington, VT 05401 USA or firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
1. Biehl and Chuck Morse were co-coordinators of the Left Green Network Clearinghouse from 1990 to 1991.
2. Sam Dolgoff, ed., Bakunin on Anarchy (New York, Alfred Knopf, 1972), p. 228.