Thoughts and Deeds 2: Perspectives

This is part two of a six part interview. It mainly deals with attitudes to some political perspectives and a possible alternative. As to the other parts, they will be linked, below, as they are published…

Thought & Deeds 1: Revolution
Thoughts & Deeds 2: Perspectives
Thoughts & Deeds 3: Participatory Economics
Thoughts & Deeds 4: Winning
Thoughts & Deeds 5: Organization
Thoughts and Deeds 6: Venezuela, Media, Music…


Regarding revolutionaries, most people know those who come from the typically Marxist background: Lenin, Trotsky, Guevara, Castro, the Zapatistas, etc. However I know for a fact you aren’t a Marxist, why is that?

Lenin and Trotsky, yes, they are Marxist, indeed Marxist Leninist. Guevara and Castro, the Zapatistas too, it is really not so obvious. Che and Castro had huge battles with communists in which their views were at odds with much in Marxism, actually, and Castro finally had to accommodate the need for alliance with Russia for reasons of survival, not, I suspect, true belief. The Zapatistas, I don’t know, but I doubt the tie to Marxism is particularly strong. It depends a whole lot on what we mean by Marxist. If being anti capitalist means one has a Marxist background, then it doesn’t really mean much. If it means one takes certain core beliefs as guiding, or even gospel, then it has some real meaning.

In any event, one typically rejects a perspective, assuming one is rational, because one thinks it is wrong about reality, or one thinks it is aimed at some end that one doesn’t like, or both.

I think Marxism, while powerful and insightful in many ways, is also wrong in other very important ways, and, in particular, in the way it orients people too narrowly toward economics as alone or at least most fundamental and, even more so, whatever priority one assigns it, regarding economics itself, toward what constitutes classes and toward discerning which classes can rule.


How about Leninism then?

Leninism basically takes Marxism’s worst errors about reality and forges an approach to revolution which, in the end, serves the interests of the class whose existence Marxism obscures. Leninism claims to seek classlessness, that is, and most of its adherents most likely do sincerely hope to win a classless economy, but despite those desires among its base of supporters, Leninism’s concepts and strategic commitments elevate what I call the coordinator class, a new boss, in place of the capitalist class, the old boss.


Sorry for the change in topic, but I just had a flashback reading the above he he… Something you want to tell us? Are you paraphrasing the rock band, The Who?

Yes, I was, though I think – I don’t know – they took the insight in a bad direction, dismissing revolution most generally, rather than only dismissing revolution in which you “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” If so, that would help explain why Pete Townsend of the Who smashed Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock when Abbie tried to get up on stage during their set to make an announcement, and why he called the song with the quoted lyric anti political, and why just a few years ago he called himself a neo conservative. Of course, his position in the industry and his income would have likely contributed to that trajectory, as well.


Do you believe Marxism and Leninism, given your comments above, are revolutionary? Strictly from your definition, both do seek to replace the structures in the societies we know in the West with new ones.

They not only are compatible with thinking that society – and particularly the economy – needs fundamental change, they also posit many things to do to attain that change, and sincere Marxists and Leninists pursue those paths. So, yes, these ideologies are compatible with being revolutionary. But, crucially, they are not the only way to be revolutionary – as some seem to think – and my problem is with the claims and logic underpinning it all, and especially with where the Leninist path leads.


Here in Belgium, we have a party called the PS/SPA (Parti Socialiste/Socialistische Partij), which claims to be on the left, progressive and what not. However, I strongly doubt you’d agree with their modus operandi (support of markets, no issues with hierarchical divisions of labor or differentials in income according to property, output or bargaining power, etc), nor do I. Nevertheless, in many places outside of Europe, people on the left claim they are socialist and wear the badge with pride. For the sake of argument, would you say you are a socialist?

I would not be surprised at all to hear of a party that calls itself socialist but supports markets and doesn’t question hierarchical division of labor, but I would be surprised at one that says it is fine with income from property or power.

But, regardless of that particular case, If by being a socialist you mean wanting an economy, or society, in which people self manage their lives in collective unity with others, in which there is equitable allocation of income and circumstances, in which there is solidarity, and so on – then yes, I am a socialist.

But if by being a socialist you mean supporting the particular institutions that have typically been called socialist – which includes, for example, markets, central planning, corporate divisions of labor, and one party states – then no, I don’t support any of that.


So it’s all about same word conveying different meanings depending on personal context?

Yes, I think there is confusion that stems from the history of the word’s use. Some people think it is important to win the battle over what the word socialism means. For that reason, they think that people like me should refer to ourselves as socialist and in doing so intend to convey the libertarian, anti authoritarian and not just anti capitalist but also anti classist meaning. Other people think the word is too compromised to use because using it confuses people too much. So it is better to just be clear about what one believes.

There is another meaning, too. Let’s call what I mention above twentieth century socialist and, in contrast, libertarian or participatory socialist. The third meaning is social democratic. Nowadays the right typically calls the use of government programs that in any degree at all mitigate pains imposed by markets, socialist. They then call Obama a socialist, even as they want a person hearing this to of course also associate it with the Soviet Union. So this is another layer of confusion.


So you think we should jettison the whole use of the word ‘socialist’ and name it something else? To me that does sound like the sensible thing to do, since it would mean different things to different people…

I vacillate. Sometimes I think we should use the label and fight for the meaning. Other times, more often, that feels to me like a silly pursuit.

In general, we should use words people can understand and not tell them that words they see as meaning x – which is actually perfectly reasonable since in popular usage it does tend to mean x – instead mean y. And I think that my vacillation, too, is not surprising. Instead, it owes to the fact that the popular connotations of the word can also alter, in time.

So, yes, it is both semantics, and also whether one wishes to identify with the Soviet model and its varients, social democracy, or something new as one’s goal.


How about the label “anarchist”? Except for looks and language, you seem to me more close to anarchism in terms of views… So would you label yourself an anarchist?

Similar issues. Does anarchist mean someone who rejects top down rule and prefers collective and cooperative self management? Does it mean someone who seeks institutions that can deliver that aim? If that is what anarchism means, then I am certainly an anarchist.

Or does anarchist mean someone who thinks all institutions are by definition bad, or that all reforms are bad, or, for that matter, that a desirable economy must have “from each according to ability to each according to need” since, absent that, in this view, an economy is just capitalism? If it means those things, then I am not an anarchist.

To me, however, anarchist does mean the former. So while there is again a risk of confusion, and while there are contexts in which I would avoid the term to avoid that confusion, often I use it, and claim to be one.


You have paid attention to feminist issues during your talks, which is unusual to say the least on the left, especially as a male. Would you call yourself a feminist?

Yes, I think there are fundamental changes needed in how we handle such functions as procreation, nurturance, sexual union, and perhaps others, too – though I am less confident about the shape of the needed changes than I am about, say, needed economic changes. And that is all consistent with, let’s call it, revolutionary feminism.


How did you become interested in women’s struggles in society? What was the spark?

In the late sixties, a new women’s movement emerged in the U.S. Where I lived, in Cambridge Massachusetts and the larger Boston area, the key organization was called Bread and Roses. While I had intellectual understandings of some aspects of gender relations even before that, I would say it was the influence of the women in that organization and their teachings and actions that cemented me into being a feminist.

There were writer/activists who had a large effect, as well, on that organization, on the women’s movement, and on myself. Sheila Rowbotham, Linda Gordon, Shulamyth Firestone, Bell Hooks, a less known woman named Batya Weinbaum and others had large effects on my initial trajectory, and later, too. Lydia Sargent who I partnered with had a huge impact, too.


Yeah, I can see how. I remember her article which I thought was named “Searching for a Post-Sexist Society”, which not only wasn’t what I expected, but it was an amazing read… 

Indeed. Lydia has worked tirelessly from the sixties to now, in many capacities. She doesn’t write as much as I do, though I wish she would, because, as you say, when she does the results are exceptional – and, honestly, she has much better writing style than I do. But there would be no South End Press, no Z Magazine, no ZMI which you mentioned earlier, without her work. 


You also have dealt with what you call the community sphere, and racism in particular. Care to elaborate how you became anti-racist, and even involved in the Civil Rights Movement back in the 60’s?

This was quite similar to the path regarding feminism, though I was less in touch with specific people at the heart of it. I moved left, largely due to the anti war opposition that we all felt and due to the general sense of being violated by our society and a general desire to transcend its limits which were epitomized by the counter culture of the time. I was affected, as well, however, by what I heard of the civil rights movement, and then by what I heard and also experienced of the Black power movement.

Again there were writer/activists who meant a lot to me, and to those movements, for example, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and then Manning Marable, and the young Ward Churchill and Bell Hooks, for example, not least because we published all three of them. And, again, the prioritization of related issues became a central part of my political viewpoint.


So , contrary to most people we hear from, your attention was spread amongst several “types” of oppression. Did this approach of paying attention to the “big picture” affect your decisions regarding activism, your agenda so to speak? 

Yes, it was these commitments that caused me to spend tons of time fighting against economism that was prevalent in particular in various Marxist approaches, and to fight for paying attention to race, gender, and power each with the same priority as class, including understanding the mutual impact of each on the rest.

Nowadays some people call that kind of approach intersectional, but it certainly had its roots way back in the late sixties and early seventies. In fact, we used to call the intersection, or sum, of such relations – the “totality of oppression” as early as 1968. And, yes, right to the present, I still see gender, race, class, and power as equal concerns, each contouring the shape of the others. Witness the recent book Occupy Theory in the set Fanfare for the Future.


As a co-founder of the organizational project, International Organization for a Participatory Society, or IOPS, clearly the PS bit is important to you. What is this to you, a “participatory society”?

The label participatory society refers to the key defining institutions in four spheres of social life fostering self management, solidarity, diversity, equity/justice, and ecological sustainability, and doing so for everyone, not just for some targeted subgroup.

The label participatory society is still vague, however, because those seeking this vision haven’t yet developed a shared agreement on the new defining institutions, or at least not on all of them.


What are the four spheres? This viewpoint has also been called “Complementary Holism” which sounds good to me, but wouldn’t tell me much right off the bat, if I wasn’t into it. Can you elaborate on this?

The four spheres are economy, polity, kinship/gender, and community/culture. The complementary holist perspective – probably not a great name for it – explains how the defining institutions in each of these spheres of social life each emanate influences that determine social options for people and that also contour social relations, including each contouring the other three.

As to the vision aspect, there are strong intimations for political vision – self managing assemblies, etc. – which Stephen Shalom, for example, has written about. Just a little less developed, but still indicative and instructive, are the initial formulations for gender and race/culture vision, which Cynthia Peters and Justin Podur, for example, have written about. And then there is participatory economics, which describes key institutions able to accomplish economic functions to further all the above mentioned values – and an overarching value, as well, that is implied by and in some ways encapsulates the others, called classlessness. Participatory economics has been written about by more people than the other elements of participatory society, and is further developed and debated than them, as well.

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