TRC Revolution as Seduction, Pedagogy as Therapy, and the Subject is Always "Me"
The Red Collective

An Orthodox Marxist Critique of the University of Florida's Marxist Reading Group Conference: "Almost Always Deceived: Revolutionary Praxis & Reinventions of Need"

Orthodox Marxism and the Contemporary

What is Orthodox Marxism?
Stephen Tumino

(D)evolutionary Socialism
Deborah Kelsh

Corporate Transnationalism and Red Internationalism
Amrohini Sahay

Class, Labor and the "Cyber": A Red Critique of the "Post-Work" Ideologies
Rob Wilkie

Eclipsing Exploitation: 
Transnational Feminism, Sex Work and the State
Jennifer Cotter

Haven't you realized that workers have it pretty good today
Brian Ganter

Marxist Interventions

Main

One

"Almost Always Deceived: Revolutionary Praxis & Reinventions of Need," the Third Annual Conference of the Marxist Reading Group at the University of Florida (March 29-31, 2001), billed itself as a "Marxist" conference—a gathering for discussion and debates over the current situation of radical thinking in the U.S. It turned out to be a very interesting event to attend but not for the reasons advertised: there was no debate (only testimonials), no critique (only therapy), and nothing even remotely Marxist about any of these. It was a spectacle: a combination of flea market, boutique and e-auction of some of the recent as well as familiar textwares of the bourgeois left.

The "conference" was an occasion of confirmation and affirmation that the best stand for the left now is standlessness; the best strategy "persuasion" and "seduction"; and the most effective pedagogy nurturing, connecting, and accommodating. But these are the details, and details never tell the total story. We are interested in the total. Here, therefore, we first outline the legitimating theoretical frame of oscillations, standlessness, and seduction that were in play at Florida and then engage the "ideas" put forth by the two keynote speakers (Peter McLaren and Rosemary Hennessy).

Two

The oscillations, standlessness, and opportunism of the left now is justified by appeal to some very right-wing theories that ultimately derive from Nietzsche, Heidegger and their latter-day students such as Derrida, Nancy, and deMan. This standlessness is in large part the effect of the textualization of the inside/outside relations as the allegory of all "binaries" and the consequent deconstruction of "opposition" and its "dialectics."

The problematics of "inside/outside" are, of course, constitutive of some of the important issues in contemporary theory. The most recent contestations over the inside/outside, which have a long history in Western philosophy, begin with the rise of so-called "deconstruction" and poststructuralism in general. As part of deconstructing all binaries, the opposition of inside/outside was subjected to several sustained readings by Derrida (Of Grammatology, Dissemination, Writing and Difference, Margins of Philosophy) as well as deMan (Allegories of Reading, Aesthetic Ideology,…) and such other commentators as J. Hillis Miller, Barbara Johnson and Samuel Weber. The effect of these textualizations has been to inscribe the outside in the inside/the inside in the outside, and thus to establish, in the place of distinct zones of meaning clarified through critique-al theoretical debate, a (Heideggerian) zone of in-between-ness into which all meanings are placed, thereby becoming indeterminate, post-oppositional entities—playful "hybridities" which are presumably beyond binaries.

This double-inscription, like all double-sessions in post-theory, has been represented as "progressive" and politically enabling. Yet double-reading is a troping device deployed, for example, in "progressive" anti-racist readings to render "black" and "white" supplemental and thereby produce an indeterminate and unknowable hybridity beyond both (for example, Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture or Gayatri Spivak's A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present; Butler-Laclau-Zizek's Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left). Similarly deployed in queer theory, nation-studies, and other post-studies, double-reading reduces concepts to puncepts whose undecidability blocks the necessary reliable knowledge for revolution. To give another example, in his essay on "Class" (Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd edition), Daniel T. O'Hara "doubles" "class," turning the concept of class into an orphan trope and then adopting it so that it can be used "strategically, pragmatically, with a certain ironic, even (self-)parodic lightness" (418). Double-reading is a device deployed to simultaneously textualize and dematerialize—to sever at the level of the conceptual the possibility of connecting "inside" to "outside."

In-between-ness, then, is the logic of the "double" that serves, especially during times of heightened crisis, to legitimize liberal political vacillation, class opportunism, and stand-less-ness as "progressive." However, no theory can claim progressiveness without taking a decisive stand—not only on culture, but also on the fundamental issues that shape cultural practices. What the deconstruction of inside/outside provides is not a decisive stance, but an epistemological alibi for political oscillation—and thus (under the guise of philosophical self-reflexivity and a sophisticated "up-to-date"-ness) the resulting "in-between-nesses" provides a politics comforting to the ruling class.

The binary inside/outside is the effect of the fundamental binary of class: the bourgeois and the proletarian. Simply to textualize inside/outside—that is, to deconstruct them—is an idealist act. In order to put an end to inside/outside and all other social binaries (man/woman; straight/queer; rich/poor; white/black;…) we argue that class should be overthrown and that, in order to do so at this stage of historical struggle, the gap between binaries should be heightened and their underlying contradictions brought to a crisis, not simply textualized and made invisible.

Instead of bringing the inside/outside to a crisis by sustained reexamination of a set of related issues that heighten their crisis, the University of Florida's Marxist Reading Group conference tried to hide the crisis with tales of seduction and persuasion.

Three

The first "keynote speaker" of the conference was Peter McLaren, whose entire talk revolved around his project of "supplementing" Marxism with a theory of the "subject" and thus eventually rewriting it as "marxism." McLaren performed the very notion of "supplementation." We say performed because in his talk there was no serious conceptual discussion—what was on display was instead a rhetoric of seduction which writes his relation with the audience not as one of political or intellectual engagement but as a relation of desire. Political and intellectual relations both require concepts and, if concepts are, as he implied in his reading of Marx, tropes, then the only way that one can relate to the other is (as Baudrillard has taught the left) by "seduction." Seduction is, to use Baudrillard's own terms, the simulation of the spontaneous and on the Western left nothing has more attraction than the spontaneous—as in fact the "second" keynote speaker (Rosemary Hennessy) made quite clear.

Instead of "critique" aimed at producing knowledge for socialist praxis what McLaren's performance consisted of was thus tales of "radical" activism, sutured to conceptual revisions of Orthodox Marxism. Yet his story of the Zapatistas for example, like his other stories, was a revisionist tale, that left out how

[s]even years after launching a brief armed confrontation with the Mexican army that left 200 dead in the southern state of Chiapas, the Zapatista guerrilla movement has taken the well-trodden path of transforming itself into a political instrument of Mexico's ruling establishment (World Socialist Web Site, April 11, 2001).

McLaren moved opportunistically between the commonsensical notion of supplement—adding and completing; and the deconstructive one—adding to show the strange cohabitation of the opposites that leads to the marking of absence in the seeming presence and plenitude of such Marxist concepts as class, exploitation, revolution, labor theory of value and the subject of history-as-proletariat.

For example, instead of the "labor theory of value" (which sharply poses the binary of class exploitation), McLaren installed the "value theory of labor" which blurs the class binary by appeal to a generalized and inclusive (transclass) "domination"; in place of "vanguard party" McLaren reiterated the banalities of "cross-class alliances." Not content with contemporary forms of revisionism, McLaren further turned to an earlier generation of revisionists—Raya Dunayevskaya [a collaborator of CLR James and part of the group the "Johnson Forest Tendency"]—in order to argue for the transformative power not of labor but of (Hegelian) "absolute negativity" and thus to supplement "revolution" with the "creative" power of the "imagination."

In fact, McLaren's whole address was a staging of this vacuous idealism that now passes as "activism" among the U.S. left and a recycling of what Marx and Engels long ago critiqued as "utopian socialism": the view that the struggle for socialism is a question of capturing the "imagination" and thus that the goal of Marxism is seducing the listeners into believing that socialism is necessary. Hence McLaren's rhetorical extravagances (which substituted the language of "outrage" for scientific knowledge and appealed to "human resistance" as the basis for "change") and his performative dematerialization of Marxism. Against what he termed "rigid and dogmatic" Marxism, what he thus placed on display was Marxism-as-cultural-radicalism which (despite McLaren's own professed opposition to the neoliberal marketization-of-everything) is a device of the market to turn scientific socialism into a commodified and generic hybrid "leftism" (which can be comfort-ably worn along with the T-shirts of Ché and Lenin which are the hot new urban-shopper items and, like the music of bands such as Rage Against the Machine and International Noise Conspiracy, are part of the highly profitable manufacturing of a "radical" cultural identity for First World youth). It was no surprise then that deployed against our "red collectivity" of Orthodox Marxist critique at the conference was thus a staging of "rhetorical collectivity" by McLaren and the audience who (like him) gave their testimonies of engagement and self-identified as "soldiers" in the "army of commandante McLaren."

McLaren's winning point with the audience of course was the underlying claim of his talk: that Orthodox Marxism does not have a theory of the subject. This claim is, of course, a trivialization of the Marxist theory of the subject. But, what is necessary to point out here is not that McLaren repeats what is on the left network but (despite his professed love of Hegel) his total absence of self-reflexivity: he did not even recognize that no theory is void of a theory of the subject; the theoretical issue is how any theory accounts for the subject.  

Bourgeois left theory accounts for the subject as a pre-given AFFECT (hence its emphasis on the "emotions," "desires," "feelings," "passions"); on the contrary, Orthodox Marxism theorizes it as an EFFECT of social relations of production (private property relations) and the "emotions," "desires," "feelings," "passions," are explainable starting from the "base" of surplus labor. In other words, the issue is not that Orthodox Marxism has no theory of the subject but that the clerks of the ruling class simply do not like the theory of the subject in Orthodox Marxism. If they do not like something, it seems that thing does not exist! Which is, of course, itself symptomatic of why the subject looms so large on the "theoretical" horizon of contemporary left. The subject is always "me."

This "supplementing" of Orthodox Marxism—which was the object not only of McLaren's talk, but was also repeated in several of the other conference papers—is, it is necessary to reiterate, useful to the bourgeoisie because in the theorization of whatever the specific site (sexuality, race, affect, pedagogy, queerity,…), the "supplement" works to produce a hybrid of Marxism by mixing it with the ruling class view whose sole goal is to strengthen the social relations of property. This then is the dilemma of the Western left: how to suture the regime of private property to a theory of equality and, in enacting this suturing, this left has provided unending entertainment for even the mildly critique-al observer.

It was one such entertaining scene when in a paper "On the Ideology of Consumer Sovereignty & the Production of Needs" Dennis Badeen first presented a detailed summary of a materialist theory of need based on Marx's theorization of the primacy of production and as a critique of the sovereignty of the consumer in neo-classical economic theory, but then in the second part of his paper in his discussion of "agency," argued for the need to "supplement" Marx with Freud (via Marcuse) and posited the basis of "agency" in "instinctual energies" (i.e. the regime of spontaneous "desire"). By "agent" he put forth not so much an "autonomous" subject (although that is what he thought he was defending) but a "propertied" subject who, because he was propertied, had certain "rights" (Marx, "The Jewish Question"). In other words, he, like McLaren, was deploying the "subject" to defend and legitimate capitalist relations of property. The ownership, in the post-tradition of Lacan, Deleuze-Guattari, however, was relayed as desire and seduction: desire = desire-to-have.

The "false consciousness" that framed these and other papers of the conference made the participants refuse to recognize how objective class interest shapes the totality and thus deny the logic of "causation" (including as the shaping force of "revolution"): The unsurpassable objective fact that the wealth of the few is caused by the poverty of the many and that this fundamental economic relation systematically shapes the political, the social, the cultural. Instead of a sustained unpacking of the objective causes, the left bourgeois "scholar" always thus ultimately focuses on the realm of "effects." In fact the entire bourgeois scholarship is nothing but annotations and subscriptions of "effects" (always complicated by further effects—"mediations," "relays" and "detours") that will never allow a final confrontation with the cause. This is the logic of "false consciousness."

Historical materialist analysis, on the contrary, has always focused on "cause" and has sought the cause in objective relations of property—the class antagonism that is "the history of all hitherto existing society" (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party). It demystifies how the effects become (in history and as a result of class struggle) effects.

One of the recurring issues in the exchanges in the conference was whether in fact the necessary theory for social emancipation is one which produces knowledge of materialist causality and carries through this emphasis into its discussion of the "political"—or whether it (by various mediations) displaces it (and thus finally cuts off the political from the economic). What was ultimately at stake, of course, in the various presentations—whether they appealed to Adorno, Marcuse, Jameson, Gramsci, Dunayevskaya or…—was just this logic of mixing post-causality with objectivity in order to produce a left theory that legitimated private property while at the same time lamenting wage-labor and its inequality. This was a scene to watch: entertainment unseen anywhere in part because the participants were too un-self-reflexive to watch themselves entertaining themselves. 

In the midst of the entertainment that the conference had become, it became the public consensus that the test of the real effectivity of Marxist theory is its "persuasiveness." This theme was picked up and elaborated in the speech by the second "keynote speaker"—Rosemary Hennessy.

Again what was at issue in Hennessy's address was not only WHAT she actually said: her talk, like her published texts—was in fact a hybrid soup of clichés of left-liberal "activist" sentimentalities (which shore up the actual "other" practices of global-capitalism-with-a-human-face--neighborhood community activism, NGO-ism, "alternative development,"…all of which help to keep capitalism going as a system by reforming it in its localities) and (mis)appropriation of the central concepts of Orthodox Marxism (class consciousness, class struggle, needs,…). Rather, what was meant to be equally "instructive" to the main audience of bourgeois-activists-in-training was HOW she engaged (attempted to manage) the class critiques of the Marxist-Leninists in the audience.

Hennessy's tactic to address the Orthodox Marxist position was to "stage" an affective pedagogy (of persuasive personalism). Thus after her talk, she came out from behind the podium and approached the side of the room on which a group of Marxist-Leninists was seated and immediately addressed the issues in terms of the theorizations through which this group had engaged both the conference and the issues put forth at the conference.

In an exemplary corporate managerial mode aimed at reconciling the sharp class antagonisms in theory which had surfaced at the conference, she then deployed the logic of "on the one hand," "on the other hand" (which is the privileged rhetorical mode of all corporate management) to localize and contain the conflicts. Thus, as Hennessy said, on the one hand the Orthodox Marxism of the Red Collective had brought an important intervention to the conference which involved placing the serious issues in the foreground—but, on the other hand, her difference with Marxist-Leninists was at the site of "pedagogy." The "differences" in short, were not a result of the absolute difference between Orthodox Marxism and the new marxist flexodoxy—that is, a difference in "principle"—but rather it was all about the "how" since, in actuality, according to her, "we" all "shared" the same "principles."

In other words, the difference at stake (in Hennessy's flexodoxy, in McLaren's, to take only the most prominent examples) was in fact merely a difference of "strategy" regarding what would be more "persuasive" to others who did not share "our" views. One should keep in mind that for the bourgeois left—after textualizing concepts/principles—all that is left is "strategy." The "problem" with the Marxist-Leninists in the conference was that their theory was "lacking" because it did not "renarrate" the issues in such ways as to interpellate the (bourgeois) listeners. Instead of (like good flexodoxes) interpellating them, we were thus in fact "alienating" them. And what such "alienation" testified to was the "lack" of an effective theory of "affect" and thus ultimately of the ineffectivity of the praxis of the collective.

We leave aside here that part of what was at stake in this performance was a narrative of the "me" to justify her historical practices of class oscillation. That it was in this context that Hennessy inserted a nostalgic and self-validating narrative—similar to the banal stories of other "lapsed" leftists—of her rejection of revolutionary collective praxis: that she had once belonged to a revolutionary Marxist collective but that the activities of the collective had put them into such confrontation with the bourgeois world that it had caused a personal "crisis" for Hennessy and, because the collective did not have a theory of "affective" response to manage the crisis, she had left the collective. What made such banal narratives more embarrassing in a Marxist or even Marxian conference was the complete lack of basic knowledge of the revolutionary positions that McLaren and Hennessy—in a quick act of self-recovery—identified with. Hennessy for example, announced in public that Lenin has taught us that one cannot bring "class consciousness" from the "outside" (she called it "top" to emphasize her own non-hierarchical views)—but is a theoretician of class consciousness "from below"!

What Hennessy was calling the practice of "re-narration"—the practice that is in her view "the same as" the practice of Orthodox Marxist "ideology critique"—actually functioned in her pedagogy as a re-centering, re-confirming device. To give an example: while she claimed to be "all for" re-narration, yet she was in practice (that is, in reality, and not in the "imaginary") NOT "re-narrating" but re-confirming the anti-communist views that Orthodox Marxism is "totalitarian," "monolithic," "dogmatic,"…and that what is needed now is thus a "popular" (populist) "marxism-from-below"—which is a rehash of the ideological staple of the New Left's revisions of Marxism-Leninism into a reformist, spontaneist leftism which doesn't seriously antagonize the bourgeoisie. In short, what is needed is a "leftism" "popular" with the ruling class.

When her views were contested by audience members and it was suggested that it is exactly this practice of the pragmatic and "popular" opportunistic leftism which is what has allowed Hennessy and other leftists to have book deals with such corporate presses as Routledge/Verso/Blackwell and have their ideas widely disseminated while those of Orthodox Marxism are routinely suppressed in all sites by the monopoly presses and their agents in the knowledge and culture industry—at this juncture, Hennessy pulled out the alibis of left deniability: She did not make any money from Routledge, in fact—she hinted—she had to pay them! They could not sell her books, etc., etc. In other words, ultimately of course, she admitted: "Yes, it's an empirical fact that I am published by Routledge, BUT...it is not self-evident what that means!" Indeterminacy: the last refuge of the left-opportunists: Yes, I did it, but it is not clear what my practices mean so don't critique me for doing it!

The University of Florida's Marxist Reading Group Conference was no Marxist or marxist or even Marxian conference. It was a gathering of Young Libertarians.

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