Interview with Chuck Morse by the Anarres Projects for Alternative Futures

This interview with Anarres Project for Alternative Futures was published on October 14, 2014. It is here.

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Chuck Morse is an American anarchist, academic, translator, editor, and writer. He founded the Institute for Anarchist Studies and The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books. Morse was the editor of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory and taught at theInstitute for Social Ecology.

In 2006, Morse completed a translation of the classic biography of the revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti by Abel Paz, titled Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, published by AK Press. In 2007, he published “Being a Bookchinite,” a controversial account of the years he spent working with American anarchist, Murray Bookchin. In 2010, he completed a translation of Juan Suriano’s Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890–1910, also published by AK Press. He has published widely in leftwing journals and blogs. (Source: Wikipedia)

How did you come to anarchism as a viewpoint that made sense of the world for you?

I was born in 1969 and came of age at a time when the white, American middle class was consumed by existential doubts about its place in the social order and its future. Although my family was very staid and restrained, with an attitude rooted more in the 1950s than the 1960s, I vividly remember the eruption of things like yoga, jogging, EST, and encounter groups (etcetera) into my white, suburban world. These practices, which emerged from the counterculture and later became mainstream, helped people address anxieties about their identities and how they fit into a larger context.

Anarchism helped me address some of these issues. Filtered through the lens of punk rock, it gave me a vocabulary with which to connect personal feelings of alienation to larger social processes, and it did so without the saccharine boundarylessness characteristic of the trends that I just described. Its insistence that ends and means should coincide resonated with the New Left idea that the “personal is political.” While I now see that my “anarchism” had more in common with democratic strains borne of the New Left than the classical anarchism of a Bakunin or a Kropotkin, it helped me place my experience in a broader framework and offered me tools with which to engage it.

Can you talk about what lead you to develop the Institute for Anarchist Studies? What were your hopes with this institute?

I founded the Institute for Anarchists Studies in 1996, during the early stages of what was an explosion of intellectual work by anarchists and about anarchism. I had been involved in the anarchist movement since 1982 and, at the time, was a frustrated graduate student in the philosophy department at the New School for Social Research. I really hated academia and desperately wanted to link my intellectual pursuits to a broader community of engaged, radical scholars. Continue reading

Radical Cities and Social Revolution: An Interview with Janet Biehl

[From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory  * * *  Vol. 2 – No. 1 Spring, 1998]

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 CEO’s and heads of state.

Janet Biehl’s 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

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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’ ‘Revolution’ 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 capitalism’s 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 world’s 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.

It’s 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 blakrose@web.net or bookchin@igc.apc.org.

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Footnotes:

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.

Dimensions of Chinese Anarchism: An Interview with Arif Dirlik

[From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory – Vol. 1 – No. 2, Fall 1997]

 

From 1905 to 1930, anarchists exerted a broad influence on Chinese culture and politics. They were at the center of the emerging social radicalism of that period and their activities left a significant mark on later decade’s revolutionary movements.
Arif Dirlik is among the few historians writing in English to treat the Chinese anarchist movement, which he has chronicled and analyzed in several works, most notably his Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. He has also written numerous explorations of contemporary problems in radical politics and theory.

I spoke with Dirlik on May 19, 1997. I asked him about Chinese anarchism, his experience as a radical social theorist in the university, and the future of his work. ~ Chuck Morse

See Also: Arif Dirlik: A Short Biography and Selected Works

Most histories of anarchism begin by establishing the principles of anarchism and then narrate the lives of those who embraced these principles. You chose a different approach in Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. You describe the Chinese anarchists as both subjects and objects – products and shapers – of the larger revolutionary process in China, and your book traces the dialectic between the anarchists and this process. Why did you choose this form of exposition? Is there something about the Chinese anarchists that makes this necessary or does it reflect larger methodological commitments?

It’s the latter. I believe in approaching concepts, theories, or political orientations historically. While some kind of notion of what one means by these concepts is necessary for analysis, establishing first principles tends to dehistoricize the approach to them. In other words, you establish first principles – as if they were true everywhere at all times – and then begin to analyze people in terms of those principles. This leads to ahistorical judgments, in my opinion, on “who is or isn’t a true anarchist” or “who is or isn’t a true Marxist?”

It leads inevitably to unproductive questions of orthodoxy — unproductive both intellectually and politically. This also results in certain kinds of sectarianism, since it leads to a question of truthfulness rather than historical variation. So, this didn’t have anything to do with Chinese anarchism per se, but rather my approach to intellectual history and concepts.

Unlike Peter Zarrow in Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture, you de-emphasize the role of Daoism and Buddhism in the constitution of Chinese anarchism. Why is this?

There is a methodological problem here … There has been a long-standing tendency – I’m tempted to call it an Orientalist tendency even – to attribute everything new in China to Chinese tradition, which is another way of saying that there is never anything significantly new in China, anything that cannot be explained in terms of the past.

I have been a critic of this tradition in Chinese historiography. I believe that Chinese society was as subject to change as any other society, whether or not we are willing to recognize it. So, I was hesitant, therefore, to attribute the emergence of anarchism, Marxism, or anything for that matter, to some Chinese tradition or another.

The problem is that the Chinese tradition has been used to explain everything, from communism and Maoism to anarchism, and these days it’s fashionable to explain Chinese capitalism in terms of tradition. I don’t know how valid that is as an explanation, that notion of tradition, when it can explain so many different and contradictory things.

I came to study Chinese anarchism by tracing the origins of this notion of social revolution, and I believe that Chinese anarchism was a radical, new idea.There may be Taoist elements in it, there may be Buddhist elements in it, there may even – through Tolstoy – be Christian elements in it: nevertheless, my concern was with the new ideas that anarchism brought into the Chinese intellectual scene, chief among them this idea of a social revolution. So, I think this emphasis explains some of the differences.

Also, we need to make a distinction between the past as a determinant of the present and the past as a reservoir of ideas upon which people can draw to deal with the present. There is no question that some of the Chinese anarchists – Liu Shipei was the outstanding one among them, and then Shifu – drew on Taoism and Buddhism. However, this is not just the determination or constitution of Chinese anarchism by Daoism or Buddhism, but rather a two way, dialectical process. In other words, the Chinese past is being read in new ways with the help of anarchism and conversely there is a rereading of anarchism through Taoist and Buddhist ideas. What is important to me is the dialectic, and I stay away from the notion that the Chinese were somehow unconsciously under the sway of this or that tradition that then shaped their readings of anarchism.

You claim that the emergence of Chinese nationalism actually created many of the theoretical and political preconditions for the emergence of Chinese anarchism. This seems contradictory at first glance. How did this happen?

This reflects a particular appreciation of nationalism on my part. While we obviously are concerned with many of the negative manifestations of nationalism, it is a rather radical idea at its origins. It calls for both a new conception of state, a new conception of the relationship between state and society, and a new conception of the political subject as citizen. In that sense, it breaks radically with earlier forms of political consciousness that rested legitimacy in the emperor and rendered the subjects into passive political subjects, whereas nationalism called for active political subjects. Aside from the question of the citizen, nationalism’s notion of the relationship between state and society requires a new kind of accounting for society, both in the sense of who’s going to participate in politics, what are the qualifications for participation in politics, and what are the factors that militate against political participation. As I argue in my book, in some ways these changes lead directly to questions of social revolution.

In the case of China, there is another element. There’s at least some kind of historical coincidence between the emergence of a nationalist consciousness and a new kind of supra-national utopianism, if you like. It’s as if the building of a nation becomes the first task but somehow not the ultimate task; that once the nation has been built and society has been reordered, there would, in the future, be a way of transcending that nationalism.

It’s tricky … I believe I described this as a counterpoint to nationalism. If you recall the parts in the book about Liu Shipei – and here the differences between anarchists become really important – there’s a feeling that nationalism opens up new questions that prepare the ground for anarchism, if you like, but also created new kinds of threats. For example, someone like Liu Shipei, could see correctly that for all the theoretical despotism of the Imperial State, nationalism promised far greater and far more intensive intrusion in society than had been the case under the imperial state. At this point, anarchism becomes a way of asserting the autonomy of the society against an intrusive nationalist society.

And, while I don’t want to generalize too much, this may be a fruitful way of thinking about other circumstances. This notion of nationalism – representing a new kind of politics, raising new questions, calling for new solutions, and playing some part in the emergence of socialism and anarchism – may be relevant to more than China.

Was there something unique about circumstances in China at this time that made Kropotkin – as opposed to other anarchist theorists – most pertinent or influential?

There are probably two reasons. First, Kropotkin’s anarchism is thoroughly tied to a program of social transformation and, given the concern among Chinese radicals with the question of social revolution, one can see why they would find Kropotkin more relevant than some of the other anarchists. Another interesting element is the importance of Social Darwinism in Chinese intellectual circles around the turn of the century. Chinese Social Darwinists almost adopted the Euro-American idea that the so-called progressive societies are progressive because they had won in the conflict for survival, and through this there was an element of the new world as a world of competition and conflict, where those who didn’t succeed might in fact perish. They were very preoccupied with the examples of the American-Indians and Africans, and some Chinese were convinced that those two groups, the black and red races as they called them, were doomed to extinction.

So, this called for a strengthening of China to struggle in this new world, but the counter-part to this was a dissatisfaction with this world view based on conflict. And, the discovery of Kropotkin under these circumstances – with his argument that it was not conflict and competition but rather mutual aid that served human progress – served as a significant antidote to this and also resonated with the utopian strain to which I referred earlier.

Kropotkin and Reclus were very important to Chinese anarchists and also quite Eurocentric thinkers, at least in their conception of world history. Did the Chinese anarchists take issue with this or attempt to develop alternatives?

I don’t think so. It was really not of much concern to the Paris anarchists. And the form in which Kropotkin and Reclus reached the Tokyo people did not really suggest a Eurocentric interpretation of Asia or China.

Although we are presently very sensitive to questions of Eurocentricism, the Chinese anarchists in Paris were much more down on Chinese traditions than anybody in Europe at the time. These are people who were calling for a revolution against Confucius. So, if they learned any of this in Europe, they were much more enthusiastic about the repudiation of the Chinese past for its backwardness than Europeans themselves.

In the case of Liu Shipei, who had very high opinions of Chinese past, I think it was somewhat different. There the influence of Tolstoy may have been quite important. Liu Shipei’s objection was not so much to Europe as to a new idea of politics and the idea of economic developmentalism that came with Europeans. 

The anarchists took a strong stand against the anti-Manchu racism implicit in the Revolutionary Alliance’s arguments against the Manchu government. Was there an attempt to develop an anarchist theory of ethnicity?

I’m not aware of any such attempt. I think they took a stand against anti-Manchu racism because they thought it was a distraction from the whole issue of politics. In other words, it was not the Manchus that were the problem, but the centralized political state system and, to the extent that racism was raised as an issue, it distracted from this more fundamental problem of the state.

Feminism and anarchism have had a difficult and complicated relationship in Europe and America, yet feminism was apparently integral to Chinese anarchism and not even a contentious issue within the anarchist movement. Is there a reason why feminism was so easily integrated into the anarchist movement in China?

I’m going to make a distinction between a concern for women and feminism in answering this question. The description of the Chinese anarchists, including people like He Zhen, as feminists may be somewhat misleading: it fits in with current fashions, but I think the concern was more with the oppression of women and what could be done about it than with a specifically feminist agenda.

The anarchist involvement in the question of women, when we rephrase the problem in that manner, followed almost automatically from their concern with the family as an oppressive institution. They were concerned with that throughout, and I think this brought them to the question of women, which was also a diffuse concern in Chinese society around 1920.

You write that you wanted to facilitate the emergence or re-emergence of a more democratic socialism by recalling and examining the history of Chinese anarchism. Did you also intend to assist in the revitalization or reemergence of anarchism?

When I began working on Chinese anarchism I sensed that there was a renewal of interest in anarchism, in a very broad sense, and I hoped to write this book as a contribution to that. And, by the 1980’s the failure of the promise of the Chinese revolution was becoming more and more evident, and I found that anarchism provided an interesting critical perspective on what had gone wrong. Also, to the extent that anarchism is laden with such valuable insights, obviously it is important to revive it and bring it to the forefront of discussions.

You are a unambiguously radical scholar of Chinese revolutionary movements and a full professor at a capitalist university in America, the center of world imperialism. How could you be employed in such a setting? Have you been pressured to de-radicalize or depoliticize your work? If not, what does this reveal about the relationship between the university and radical social criticism?

Contradictions (laughs) … No, I’ve never been pressured to deradicalize or depoliticize my work. If there’s pressure it’s indirect; you know, sometimes people say “what do you do?” and I’d say “I’m writing a book on Chinese anarchism” and all they can say is “oh”. There’s a sense that you are doing something marginal and playing games. That kind of pressure doesn’t bother me.

I think I’ve been lucky. You know, I’ve had friends who have suffered for being radicals. There have been hints of slight discrimination with regard to salaries and things like that, but I do not know whether to attribute that to the fact that I am a radical scholar or because I’m of third world origin. There may be a number of explanations here. 

We forget sometimes that elite uni-versities really need their radicals. Elite universities, committed to giving their students the broadest education possible and making them function in the world, cannot afford to produce narrow ignoramuses who have never heard of Marxism or anarchism. This may be why there’s probably more tolerance for radicals in the elite universities than in smaller places. That’s what I had in mind when I jokingly said “contradictions.”

In some ways, this is the strength of the American education system, in comparison, let’s say, to the Chinese education system where if something was politically un-desirable it was kept out, with the consequence that you end up with a bunch of people who didn’t know anything about the world other than what they’ve been fed by way of ideology. We are much more subtle with our controls and, under current circumstances, so long as you are not an activist, there are not serious reprisals.

We have a very intelligent power structure here. For example, about ten years ago somebody came to see me from the CIA. They were looking for students to recruit and were particularly interested in my students, because they figured they would know about Marxism, anarchism, etc., and if you want intelligent analysts you need well informed people who know about these issues. I think that’s where the power establishment here differs, say, from the People’s Republic of China or the former Soviet Union, where undesirable knowledge will simply be cast aside rather than incorporated into an understanding of the world. 

You just published a book on post-colonialism, The Postcolonial Aura. How does this work relate to your studies on Chinese anarchism? Also, please explain your discussion of postcolonialism as post-revolutionary. 

In The Postcolonial Aura I tried to raise the question of third world intellectuals. There has been a preoccupation recently with Eurocentricism and the Euro-American oppression of other peoples which sort of sweeps aside the importance of capitalism in shaping the world and how many of those rejected Euro-American values are actually transmitted to the rest of the world through capitalism. It seemed to me, to the extent that capitalism has globalized, it has globalized through the complicity of third world intellectuals, professionals, states, whatever, and, therefore, a critique of power and authority in our day cannot be satisfied with a critique of Eurocentricism or Euro-American domination of the world, but rather must include a criticism of third world intellectuals, professionals, states, power structures, etc.. That’s what I seek to do in this work. 

As for the post-revolutionary aspect, this grew out of a historical curiosity about the meaning of postcolonialism: we have been post-colonials for some time now, why should postcolonialism gain such currency in the late 1980’s? After all, even when we had the radical movements of the 1960’s, most third world societies were already post-colonial or clearly becoming postcolonial, and yet there was a sustainable radicalism in those years, unlike the 1980’s or 1990’s. The question became: What’s the difference? What’s happening here? Why are we talking about postcolonialism, all of a sudden, instead of colonialism, domination, and capitalism, etc? 

The tendencies that have gained the greatest popularity, in the United States especially, are those which tend towards an obsession with ethnicity, inter-ethnic relations, identity politics, etc., tendencies that question and even deny the possibility of collective identities. To me there is no meaningful political activity, especially revolutionary activity, without the sense of a collective identity. It is this undermining of notions of collective identity, combined with the circumstances I referred to earlier, that led me to assert that what we are dealing with was really a post-revolutionary, not just postcolonial, orientation.

How do you see your work developing in the future?

Well, I think any radical has enough reason to be depressed these days: there doesn’t seem to be anything happening and radicalism has sort of been highjacked by conservatives and liberals, and rendered into identity politics.

On the other hand, some of the recent work I and others have done indicates that there is a great deal of resistance and protest going on which is not visible in the old ways because it isn’t happening in major labor unions or big, visible communist parties, etc.. There are people fighting for their livelihoods, trying to create new social forms from the bottom up. Some of it is dangerous, some can be right wing, but much of this has to do with people’s efforts at survival under what’s happening with contemporary capitalism. And there is a proliferation of these movements: women’s movements, ecological movements, social justice movements. They are happening all over and yet contemporary radicals, such as they are, are unwilling to see them.

These are not movements that you would associate with conventional left (read: Marxist) politics. They are movements from the bottom up. I’m not going to call them anarchist – some are feminist, some are ecological – but if there were anarchist movements going on, they would be some-thing like that. I think it is important to draw attention to these movements and theorize them as much as possible. This is what I’m working through: how to really conceptualize radical movements from the bottom up.

Capitalism, Marxism, and the Black Radical Tradition: An Interview with Cedric Robinson

(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, spring, 1999)

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

See also: Cedric Robinson: Short Biography & Selected Works

– – – – –
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 “African consciousness” 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 DuBois’s emphasis on the peasants’ revolutionary role, James’s critique of the Leninist party model, and Wright’s 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 European’s.

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 Marx’s 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 ‘West’ 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 ‘socialist’ 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 ‘Whiteness Studies’ 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: “we’ve gone too far: we’ve 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 can’t give us resources for White Studies then the you shouldn’t 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.

(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, spring, 1999)