OFFICIAL CALL FOR PLENUM
to Work Out Marxist-Humanist Perspectives for 2017-2018
February 26, 2017
To All Members of News and Letters Committees
The total degeneracy of today’s capitalism is shown on the one hand by the rising threat of fascism internationally, especially with the corrupt and lawless Donald Trump in coalition with the theocratic Right; with racist extremists such as the “alt right,” anti-immigrant groups and the Tea Party; with megacorporations like ExxonMobil; with finance capital like Goldman Sachs; and with fellow plutocrats like Carl Icahn and the Koch brothers. It is shown on the other hand by the genocide in Syria, in which global and regional powers have at best paid lip service to the people in revolution, while some have actively thrown in with Assad’s counter-revolution. Now, Trump is preparing to shift U.S. policy drastically toward open cooperation with Assad. In one of the new administration’s first international actions, it continued and escalated the U.S. approach to Yemen, combining complete, callous disregard for the well-being of the country’s people with treating it only as a base for Al Qaeda. U.S. troops murdered about 30 civilians, mostly women and children, while one of the troops died, adding up to what Trump calls “a winning mission.”
The domestic forces of reaction did not wait for direct orders. Even before Trump took office, hate crimes soared. State legislators began writing laws to turn protesters into felons, “racketeers,” and targets for assault by “negligent” drivers. By now 18 states have seen such laws introduced. Police from local forces to the border patrol have felt reassured of their impunity to violate rights and laws, even when they murder people like 25-year-old Chad Robertson, an unarmed Black man traveling through Chicago on Feb. 8. Police have repeatedly and viciously assaulted Native American water protectors and their supporters at camps opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, including on Inauguration Day while the news was focused on Washington. ICE agents have discarded the boundaries set by the previous administration, pouncing on people leaving schools, churches and courtrooms.
Trump in power, with the guidance of Steve Bannon, is working to plunge the U.S. into a “giddy whirl of self-perpetuating disorder,” as Hegel put it. Bannon and Stephen Miller crafted the “Muslim ban” in a way guaranteed to generate tumult. They are creating chaos not only domestically but globally, arrogantly alienating allies, stirring hostility in China—which was not fully quelled when Trump meekly capitulated by endorsing the “One China” policy he had questioned—and other countries, and calling into question longstanding international arrangements.
For Trump the only positive principles are confined to Ego: his own fame, wealth and power, obstacles to which provoke the fury of destruction, a pure negativity. His Cabinet and Supreme Court choices are defined primarily by their opposition to movements such as labor, Black Lives Matter, Women’s Liberation, and the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline and climate change in general. His road to power was paved with a retrogressive negation of Reason, the backlash against all freedom movements in a period of capitalism’s dissolution. The negativity of that dissolution in itself does not inspire confidence because the end of the present social order could mean not a new, human society but the collapse of human civilization, especially with genocide, war, and the effects of climate change seemingly on the rise, and with the threat of nuclear war escalated by Trump’s access to the apocalypse button.
While fascism is the transformation of liberal democracy into its opposite, its roots lie within capitalism. But the absolute opposite to capitalism cannot be found in the dialectic of counter-revolution. Rather, the absolute opposite to both is the dialectic of revolution. It is therefore necessary to look to the negativity inherent in the freedom movements that grow out of capitalism’s dissolution, because this negative contains a positive in itself.
The point of revolutionary activity, thought, and organization today is to unloose, to liberate, that positive in the negative. And it is clear that Trump’s extremism has sparked massive protests and other actions that have brought out many thousands of people new to activism as well as many who had not been active for years—opposing everything from sexual assault to anti-immigrant actions to oil pipelines to destruction of Native Americans to white supremacy to the attack on public education—and has engendered new questions and rethinking.
This is not just about Trump as individual, nor even as the “flawed vessel” for Bannon’s racist, sexist, fascist ideas. This is about a social order that is negating itself from within but is desperately trying to stifle the positive in that negative. In this grave crisis, Trump/Bannon’s politics of counter-revolution is directed not only against the forces of revolt but against the rival capitalist political party and even against the party he captured and heads, and which abjectly grovels before his absurdities.
This may seem contingent, after a resistible rise made possible by the establishment Republicans’ underestimation of him and an election victory in which he lost by nearly three million votes, not to mention all the fraudulent factors we need not enumerate here. But it is through such contingencies that essence forces its way to appearance, and fascism is a native outgrowth of capitalism that has been gnawing for decades at “democratic” institutions. The machinery for fascism has been prepared by decades of the steady swelling of militarism, the secret surveillance state, the criminal injustice apparatus, and the executive power of the president, and the steady withering of constitutional and legal limits on all of those, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, with only a temporary reversal after Watergate.
Nevertheless, Trump and Bannon have no guarantee that they can fulfill their urge to exploit this disorder—or in Trump’s cultish phrase this “mess” that “I alone can fix”—to consolidate power and smash opposition. Quite the contrary. The gathering revolt and open questioning of the foundations of this decaying society reveal an opening for a movement toward tearing up the system by its roots and laying the foundations for a new, truly human society.
Trump’s onslaught is focusing people’s minds on the degenerate state of society and the need to resist. We need to pay concrete attention to the objectivity of the crisis and as well to the subjectivity of both revolt and the passion for philosophy. The combination of revolt and rethinking makes possible the throwing off of mind-forged manacles on a mass scale.
One of the big barriers to that unchaining is the theoretical void in the would-be revolutionary movement. The theoretical void has bred so deep a degeneration in a significant part of the Left that it too is stuck at the first negation—just opposing what is—and is so disoriented by its own fury of ineffectual destruction that it has become incapable of recognizing real revolution and freedom movements, let alone giving them solidarity. When Syria’s people rose as part of the Arab Spring revolutions, too many in the Western Left deluded themselves that the U.S. was actually helping the revolution. Their fantasy of opposing U.S. imperialism overrode any solidarity with the people, and gave birth to further delusions that there is no freedom movement there. Another, largely overlapping, case in point is those who are in such denial that they still repeat ad nauseam how much worse it would have been if Hillary Clinton had won the office of president and not only the vote. This degenerate Left’s abstractions obscure the nature of counter-revolution and pull thought away from the dialectics of liberation. It thus bears no small part of the responsibility for Trump’s rise to power and for the self-creating disorder he is unleashing—and yet they are busy trying to take over leadership of anti-Trump marches and movements.
Fascism believes it can impose its will on objective reality, and does not shrink from rewriting history both past and ongoing, even where people can check it immediately, in the service of imposing its ideology on the minds of all. Resistance to this attack on truth cannot stop merely at pointing out the true facts, or even at punching Nazis and preventing them from speaking. It requires establishing the true ground of liberation, which is, as Hegel put it, not just the objective world separated from its ingrained subjectivity but the “objective world whose inner ground and actual persistence is the Notion.”
The dialectical philosophy of revolution in permanence is needed both to counter the ideologies of Right and Left that pretend to be “for” the workers—and it is the ideology of the far Right that has been making ominous strides—and to recognize the thrust of counter-revolution and hear the voices driving for freedom, to develop actions to block the former and move the latter forward, that is, to unloose the positive in the negative in both thought and activity.
Thus, while we join in the opposition to Trump and simultaneously warn about the self-limiting opposition of liberals and Democrats, and their outright attempts to co-opt the militant opposition—as well as the movement-killing attempts of the vanguardist parties and individuals and voluntaristic “propagandists of the deed” to co-opt it in their own way—while we do all that, we cannot stop there. Nor can we stop at criticizing the alternatives to social revolution that pervade the Left, as important as that criticism is. We need to work at the concrete projection of a liberatory banner to act as a polarizing force for opponents of the turn toward fascism—at a time when there is a great pull to bring together what empiricists believe to be the broadest possible opposition by reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. This points to the need for the philosophy of revolution that can become the unifying force.
Whatever lip service is paid to the Russian Revolution whose 100th anniversary is being observed this year, its significance is being pushed to the background by the immediacy of activism opposing Trump and his counterparts. Moreover, its significance as a historic event and as a link of continuity to revolutionary history and the thought and practice of Marx has been basically lost to the Left for much longer, because of the abandonment of truly revolutionary perspectives.
Our new book collecting writings by Raya Dunayevskaya on the Russian Revolution on its 100th anniversary aims to recapture for today the greatness of that event, but much more than that. She singled out Lenin’s philosophic break, his return to Marx’s roots in Hegel and to Hegel’s dialectic in and for itself, how Lenin extended that to a concretization of the dialectics of revolution, and how that allowed the second revolution of 1917 to be. At the same time, he remained on the threshold of the absolute, his philosophic ambivalence kept hidden what should have been a beacon for the movement, and he did not extend the philosophic break to fundamentally rethinking the vanguardist concept of organization he had inherited from the Second International. This did not prepare Marxists then and afterwards to deal with the counter-revolution that came from within the Russian Revolution. Thought is still held back today by the failure to comprehend that counter-revolution from within, and this has compromised attempts to resist the ideological pollution from the Right, not least the lethal doctrine that there is no alternative to capitalism.
It is high time to push to the forefront the role of the philosophy of revolution in permanence in facing the reality of dialectics of liberation, 1917 and 2017. It is crucial to recognize both the indispensability of the movement from practice, and at the same time the indispensability of its unity with theoretic preparation for revolution, if we are to help change the objective course of the world. And this requires practicing dialectics daily in thought and in mass activities.
The Plenum this year, which is the meeting of the National Editorial Board members of News and Letters Committees, opens in Executive Session Friday evening, May 26. Beginning on Saturday morning, May 27, and running through Sunday, May 28, all other sessions of the Plenum will be open to all members and to invited friends, who are given the same privileges to the floor for discussion.
We are asking the Chicago local to host the Plenum and to be responsible for a Saturday evening party to greet out-of-towners. All locals and members at large are asked to let the Center know at least two weeks in advance who will be attending the Plenum, in order for the host local to plan meals and to know your arrangements for housing.
Pre-Plenum discussion begins with the issuing of this Call. A draft Perspectives Thesis will be published in the May-June issue of News & Letters so that it can be discussed by members and friends, correspondents and critics, before the Plenum. Articles for pre-Plenum Discussion Bulletins must be submitted to the Center by Monday, May 1. Any articles after that date must be copied and brought to the Plenum to be distributed there. Central to working out our perspectives are concrete discussions from all of us about how we will project the need for philosophy of revolution in permanence and how we will bring that philosophy to bear on the different movements and events. Discussion within our local committees and with all those we can reach becomes a measure of the inseparability for us between preparation for our national gathering and all our activities throughout the pre-Plenum period.
—The Resident Editorial Board