In the ceremony of Biden’s inauguration, there was a lone figure who stole the show by just sitting there, sticking out as an element of discord disturbing the spectacle of bi-partisan unity: Bernie Sanders. The effect was not of a person left out at a party but rather of a person who has no interest in joining. Every philosopher knows how impressed Hegel was when he saw Napoleon riding through Jena. It was, for him, like seeing the world spirit (the predominant historical tendency) riding a horse… The fact that Bernie stole the show and that the image of him just sitting there instantly became an icon means that the true world spirit of our time was there, in his lone figure embodying skepticism about the fake normalization staged in the ceremony. There is still hope for our cause; people are aware that a more radical change is needed. Lines of separation thus seemed clearly drawn: the liberal establishment embodied in Biden versus democratic socialists, whose most popular representatives are Bernie Sanders and AOC.
However, something happened in the past few weeks which seems to disturb this clear picture. In her interviews and other public appearances, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in defending Biden against attacks from the Democratic Socialist Left. In her interview published on March 19 in the Democratic Socialists of America’s magazine Democratic Left, she “combines the most lavish praise for the Democratic Party with vicious denunciations of socialism” and “presents the Democratic Party as having been completely transformed into a working-class party. She says the Biden administration and incumbent Democrats are ‘totally reinvent[ing] themselves in a far more progressive direction.’ Pressure from the left has forced “almost a radical change” among entrenched Democratic leaders. The only barrier to the Democratic Party establishment achieving perfection is left-wing opposition. This politician who made a career criticizing the ‘Democratic establishment’ and posturing as an outsider has now transformed herself into the establishment’s fiercest defender and a most bitter opponent of outside critics.”
Along these lines, AOC consequently rejects the Leftist critique of Biden as a “really privileged critique,” mobilizing the old and very suspicious distinction between “good faith critique” and “bad faith critique”: “bad faith critique can destroy everything that we have built so swiftly. We do not have the time or the luxury to entertain bad faith actors in our movement.” (Incidentally, I remember clearly this distinction from my youth when Communists in power regularly opposed “constructive” criticism to destructive anti-Socialist critique.) If we do not have time to “entertain bad faith actors in our movement,” is this not a (not so) subtle call to a purge? AOC goes further, accusing the Leftist critics of Biden of betraying “their disdain for the poor and oppressed by criticizing the president,” plus she flirts with identity politics against ”class essentialism,” and resuscitates the old liberal-Left trick of accusing the Left critics of serving the Right: “When you say ‘nothing has changed,’ you are calling the people who are now protected from deportation ‘no one.’ And we cannot allow for that in our movement” – a hint at a purge again… (No wonder that the conflict between AOC and the Democratic Socialists now involves even police: “Police officers show up at Twitter user’s home for criticizing Congresswoman AOC on social media, her spokesperson denies involvement.”) Nevertheless, AOC’s strategy is double here: she also criticizes the Biden administration for not going far enough in the New Green Deal, for not investing enough into the renewal of the infrastructure, and she slams Biden’s “barbaric” border conditions… In this way, she follows a coherent strategy: she wants the radical Left to put their trust and faith in the Biden administration, but, simultaneously, to exert a “good faith critique” and push it further.
The problem I see in this reasoning attributed to AOC is its implicit premise that the radical Left goes too far in the direction of “class essentialism,” thereby neglecting anti-racist and feminist struggle pursued by the Biden administration. Does the Democratic Party really defend the importance of these two struggles against the radical Left? Do radical feminists and BLM partisans also not attack the Democratic establishment?[i] A part of the BLM broke from the larger movement, precisely because of the latter’s support for the Democratic Party, or, as they put it, “to ally with the Democratic Party is to ally against ourselves.” So, the split between the Democratic establishment and the radical Left has nothing to do with the issue of class essentialism.
The first point to be made here is that, to use Mao Zedong’s opposition, the conflict between AOC and the Democratic Left is not a “contradiction” between the people and its enemies but a contradiction within the people itself, to be resolved by debate, which means that, in our case, no side should treat the other as an agent secretly working for the enemy. But let’s go to the basic question: who is right here, in this conflict? Or, at least, who is less bad? I am tempted to use Stalin’s old formula: they are both worse. How, exactly?
In some abstract theoretical sense, the radical Left stance is true: Biden is not the long-term solution; global capitalism itself is the ultimate problem. However, this insight in no way justifies what one could call a principled opportunism: the comfortable position of criticizing every modest progressive measure as inadequate and waiting for a true movement which, of course, never comes. So, AOC is also right that Biden cannot be dismissed as “Trump with a human face,” as I myself wrote in a previous commentary. Many of the measures enacted or proposed by his administration should be supported: trillions to fight the pandemic, trillions for economic revival and ecological commitments… Another move of the Biden administration to be taken seriously is the tax reform advocated by the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, a reform which follows the steps proposed by Piketty: increase the US corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent, plus put pressure on the international community to go along and raise the taxes to a comparable level. This IS “class essentialism” (a push towards economic justice) that has to be taken seriously. I agree with Chris Cillizza that the most important words in Biden’s speech to the joint session of the Congress on April 28 2021 are: “My fellow Americans, trickle-down, trickle-down economics has never worked.”
However, if each of the opposed stances (acceptance of the Democratic Party space versus empty Leftist radicalism) is in itself wrong, does the combination of the two, the claim that we should tactically support Biden even though we know his policy will not work, not amount to cynical manipulation, since officially we remain within the system, but in reality we pursue our own more radical darker aims? The truth of this stance is usually the opposite one: we think we pursue a hidden radical aim, but, in reality, we perfectly fit the system, or, to quote Duane Rousselle, “it is precisely this pragmatic attempt to remain relevant, to maintain a sphere of influence within the democratic party, that we should question.”[ii] Still, I think the strategy of supporting some of Biden’s measures involves no cynical manipulation, and it also doesn’t imply that we remain caught in the system. We can support some of his measures in a totally “sincere” way, but with the presumption that they are just the first step which will lead to further steps since the existing global system cannot endure these measures without some more radical measures. For example, if spending trillions will result in a financial crisis, much more radical measures of financial control will be necessary. All we have to do is to insist on these measures, to require their full actualization.
Why, then, are both sides in the conflict worse? The heart of the matter is in the reproach of “class essentialism,” which, I think, misses its target. We should of course discard the old Marxist cliché of the workers’ struggle as the only “real” one, so that all other struggles (ecological, decolonization and national liberation, women’s oppression, racism…) have to wait and will be more or less automatically resolved once we win the Big One. We should fully accept “class essentialism,” on condition that we use the term “essence” in the strict Hegelian sense. Although Mao Zedong did not really understand Hegel’s dialectics (see his ridiculous polemic against the negation of negation), his central contribution to Marxist philosophy, his elaborations on the notion of contradiction, is at the level of Hegel’s notion of essence. The main thesis of his great text “On Contradiction” on the two facets of contradictions, “the principal and the non-principal contradictions in a process, and the principal and the non-principal aspects of a contradiction,” deserves a close reading.
Mao’s reproach to the “dogmatic Marxists” is that they “do not understand that it is precisely in the particularity of contradiction that the universality of contradiction resides”:
“For instance, in capitalist society the two forces in contradiction, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, form the principal contradiction. The other contradictions, such as those between the remnant feudal class and the bourgeoisie, between the peasant petty bourgeoisie ant the bourgeoisie, between the proletariat and the peasant petty bourgeoisie, between the non-monopoly capitalists and the monopoly capitalists, between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois fascism, among the capitalist countries and between imperialism and the colonies, are all determined or influenced by this principal contradiction. / When imperialism launches a war of aggression against such a country, all its various classes, except for some traitors, can temporarily unite in a national war against imperialism. At such a time, the contradiction between imperialism and the country concerned becomes the principal contradiction, while all the contradictions among the various classes within the country (including what was the principal contradiction, between the feudal system and the great masses of the people) are temporarily relegated to a secondary and subordinate position.”[iii]
This is Mao’s key point: the principal (universal) contradiction does not overlap with the contradiction which should be treated as dominant in a particular situation: the universal dimension literally resides in this particular contradiction. In each concrete situation, a different “particular” contradiction is the predominant one, in the precise sense that, in order to win the fight for the resolution of the principal contradiction, one should treat a particular contradiction as the predominant one, to which all other struggles should be subordinated. In China under Japanese occupation, the patriotic unity against the Japanese was the predominant thing if Communists wanted to win the class struggle – in these conditions, any direct focusing on class struggle went against class struggle itself. Therein, perhaps, resides the main feature of “dogmatic opportunism,” namely its insistence on the centrality of the principal contradiction at a wrong moment. We can immediately see how this notion applies to today’s multiplicity of struggles: the true “class essentialism” means that class struggle is not a fixed essence but an over-determining principle which regulates the dynamic interaction of multiple struggles. Say, today in the US, one cannot talk about class struggle without bringing in the oppression and exploitation of the blacks: to focus on “pure” class struggle independently of the color of the skin ultimately serves class oppression.
Maurizio Lazzarato made a case against “class essentialism” referring to the Italian feminist Carla Lonzi’s formula “Let’s spit on Hegel.” Sputiamo su Hegel (1970), a seminal text of Italian feminism, stresses the patriarchal character of Hegel‘s dialectic and theory of recognition, and extends this ferocious critique of Hegel to Marxism: with its focus on production, hierarchic social organization and power, with politics in the form of a party which represents its base, Marxism views history as a dialectical progress through stages. Here, the blacks and women are “blocked” at lower “stages”; women can eventually attain the freedom of self-consciousness only if they rejoin male productivist logic… Lonzi rejects this entire vision as incompatible with an authentic revolution: the revolutionary process is a leap, a non-dialectical rupture of the order of history that will open onto the invention and discovery of something that history did not already contain.
In order to become an autonomous political subject, women have to invent a radical democracy: new horizontal, non-hierarchical relations that would create a collective awareness specific to women. The concept and practice of “representation” and delegation are absent, since the problem is not the seizure and management of power: women should get rid of the promises of emancipation through work and through the struggle for power, which are considered as values of the patriarchal culture (and of the workers’ movement). The feminist movement doesn’t demand any participation in power, but, quite the opposite, a placing into discussion of the concept of power and the seizure of power.
Lazzarato is aware of the traps of feminist or anti-colonialist essentialism. In the latest case, “the enemy becomes Europe as such; capitalism disappears beneath the racial division. These ambiguities will see an unfortunate reiteration in postcolonial thought, because revolution will be completely vacated.” So, class essentialism should not be simply replaced by feminist essentialism (the oppression of women is the basic form of all oppressions) or anti-colonialist essentialism (colonial domination and exploitation as the key to all others). Rather, Lazzarato asserts the irreducible plurality of struggles for emancipation and on the resonance among them. He quotes Jean-Marie Cleizel:
“A revolutionary movement does not spread by contamination / But by resonance / Something that constitutes itself here / Resonates with the shock wave given off by something that constituted itself elsewhere / The body that resonates does so in its own way.”
How does this resonance work between feminist struggles and workers’ struggles? Is the workers’ struggle irreducibly caught in the centralist-productive paradigm, or can a decentralized feminist form resonate in it? Plus, do anti-colonialist respect for premodern traditions and contemporary feminism really form a common front against modern organization and production? Is it not that modern feminism not only has nothing to do with premodern paradigms, but is also immanently antagonistic towards them? But the basic question here is: is class antagonism really just one in the series of antagonisms?
There is a nice joke from Germany about a debate between an identitarian progressive and a Marxist. The identitarian says “gender” and the Marxist replies “class.” The identitarian says “gender, race” and the Marxist replies “class, class.” The identitarian says “gender, race, class” and the Marxist replies “class, class, class”… Although the joke is supposed to make fun of the Marxist position, the Marxist is right here. There is truth in his tautology: class (struggle) overdetermines the totality of social identities.[iv] When an identitarian says “ethnic identity,” a Marxist analyzes how this identity is traversed by class struggle, how this group is included in – excluded from – social totality, which obstacles or privileges they face, which professions and educational institutions are open or closed to them, etc. The same applies to the oppression of women: how does capitalist reproduction in a country rely on their unpaid labor? To what extent are their freedom and autonomy sustained or prevented by their place in social and economic reproduction? Are parts of the feminist struggle dominated by middle-class values with a spin against immigrants and lower classes as not-feminist enough (as is the case in the US)?
In Germany and some other countries, recently a vogue is emerging of what is called “classism”: a class version of the politics of identity. Workers are taught to safeguard and promote their socio-cultural practices and self-respect; they are made aware of the crucial role they play in social reproduction… The workers’ movement thus becomes another element in the chain of identities, like a particular race or sexual orientation. Such a “solution” of the “workers’ problem” is what characterizes Fascism and populism: they respect workers and admit that the latter are often exploited, and they (often sincerely) want to make this position better within the coordinates of the existing system. Trump was doing this, by way of protecting the US workers from banks and unfair Chinese competition.
In the domain of cinema, the latest example of such “classism” is Nomadland (Chloe Zhao, 2020) which portrays the daily lives of our “nomadic proletarians,” workers without a permanent home who live in trailers and wander around from one temporary job to another. They are shown as decent people, full of spontaneous goodness and solidarity with each other, inhabiting their own world of small customs and rituals, enjoying their modest happiness – even the occasional work in an Amazon packaging center goes quite well… That’s how our hegemonic ideology likes to see workers. No wonder the movie was the big winner of the latest Oscars. Although the lives depicted are rather miserable, the movie bribes us into enjoying it with the charming details of a specific way of life, so its subtitle could have been: Enjoy being a nomadic proletarian!
It is precisely the refusal to be such an element in the chain of identities that defines the authentic workers’ movement. In India, I met with the representatives of the lowest group of the lowest caste of the Untouchables, the dry toilet cleaners. I asked them about the basic premise of their program, what they want, and they instantly gave me the answer: “We don’t want to be ourselves, to be what we are.” We encounter here an exemplary case of what Hegel and Marx called “oppositional determination”: universal class antagonism, which traverses the entire social field, encounters itself as one of its species, in the class of workers who are, to quote Jacques Ranciere, a “part of no-part” of the social body, lacking a proper place in it, an antagonism embodied.
So, what does class struggle mean in India in May 2021, with a record number of new daily infections? Arundhati Roy is right to claim that in India “we are witnessing a crime against humanity”– and not just in the humanitarian sense according to which we should forget political struggles and confront with all our forces the health catastrophe. To confront the health catastrophe with full force, one has to bring in many aspects of class struggle, global and local. Only now that it is already too late do we hear calls to help India. International solidarity often works like the proverbial husband who waits for his wife to do the kitchen work and then, when he makes sure that the works is mostly done, generously offers his help. India was proclaimed “the pharmacy of the world,” good to export medicines, but now that it needs them, the developed West continues with Covid nationalism instead of an urgent total “Communist” mobilization to contain the pandemic there. Plus, there are the obvious internal causes: India “has saved the world, entire humanity, from a major tragedy by effectively controlling coronavirus,” Modi boasted on January 28; however, his nationalist politics not only criminally ignored warnings about the danger of a new wave of infections, but also went on with its anti-Muslim offensive (including large public electoral meetings). India thus missed a unique opportunity to mobilize Hindu-Muslim solidarity in the struggle against the pandemic.
But does the same not hold the other way round? Is class antagonism also not traversed by racial and sexual tensions, i.e., as Lazzarato put it, do these antagonisms not interact in mutual resonances? We should reject this solution for a precise reason: there is a formal difference between class antagonism and other antagonisms. In the case of antagonisms in relations between sexes and sexual identities, the struggle for emancipation does not aim at annihilating some of the identities but at creating the conditions for their non-antagonistic co-existence, and the same goes for tensions between ethnic, cultural or religious identities. The goal is to bring about their peaceful co-existence, their mutual respect and recognition. Class struggle does not function like that; it aims at mutual recognition and respect of classes only in its Fascist or corporatist versions. Class struggle is a “pure” antagonism: the goal of the oppressed and exploited is to abolish classes as such, not to enact their reconciliation.[v] This is why class struggle “resonates” in other struggles in a different way than the others resonate in it: it introduces into others an element of irreconcilable antagonism.
So now we see why, in the conflict between AOC and radical Democratic Socialists, both sides are wrong, although right against each other. What the two sides share is the danger of opportunism: pragmatic opportunism on the one hand (the danger of getting caught in hegemonic space, of working as its “radical” supplement) and principled opportunism on the other hand (the danger of rejecting any engagement as a compromise and in this way criticizing reality from a safe distance). What both sides (or hands) miss is the proper dialectical unity of theory and practice, in which theory not only justifies particular measures but also enables us to intervene “blindly” in a non-transparent situation, making us aware that the situation may change in an unpredictable way through our intervention. As Max Horkheimer said decades ago, the motto of the true radical Left should be: “pessimism in theory, optimism in practice.”
[i] Incidentally, one should note here that the BLM elevation of white policemen shooting blacks into the exemplary image of state violence today is not as innocent as it may appear: the fascinating force of such images of direct violence serves to obfuscate a much more dangerous and widespread invisible racist violence enacted daily by members of liberal establishment themselves. (I owe this insight to Angie Sparks.)
[ii] Douane Rousselle, personal communication.
[iii] Mao Tse-Tung, On Practice and Contradiction, p. 87. (All numbers in brackets in this and next subdivisions refer to this book.)
[iv] I owe this joke, as well as this entire line of thought, to a conversation with Arno Frank.
[v] There are two further problems to be addressed here: sexual antagonism, power. My view is that sexual antagonism is irreducible, constitutive of sexuality, i.e., that there is no way to bring out a non-antagonist sexual relationship, and that relations of power and domination precede class distinction and cannot be accounted for as an effect of economic exploitation. Both patriarchy and social domination emerged earlier, with the rise of Neolithic societies – Marx missed the importance of this rupture.