Revolution at the armchair — a response to Jerome Roos

  • January 27, 2013

Intellectuals & Ideas

What role for revolutionary theory and practice? In this debate, Matan Kaminer takes ROAR founder Jerome to task for resurrecting obsolete prejudices.

In a recent piece celebrating the spirit and determination of the Egyptian revolutionaries, Jerome Roos has decided to incorporate some harsh criticism of Marx and his legacy, as expressed in the contemporary work of people working in the Marxian tradition.

Jerome does not mince his words: Marx is “fat” and “old” (crimes against the people if there ever were any), Slavoj Žižek a narcissist and “thinker” (scare quotes in the original), Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara an “armchair socialist”. All and sundry are dismissed for forcing a stale “ideational legacy” on a revolutionary process from which they are, presumably, entirely disconnected.

These accusations seem to be based on a willful misreading, or in the case of Marx himself, no reading at all, as the only citation of him is to an apocryphal remark “allegedly” made to Engels. Žižek does not fare much better; he is accused of condemning the Egyptian Revolution to failure, where he has done no such thing. In the piece linked to, the closest he comes to such an assertion is the following passage, which describes the experience of 2012:

What are we to do in such depressive times when dreams seem to fade away? Is the only choice we have the one between nostalgic-narcissistic remembrance of the sublime enthusiastic moments, and the cynically-realist explanation of why the attempts to really change the situation had to fail? … The first thing to state is that the subterranean work of dissatisfaction is going on: rage is accumulating and a new wave of revolts will follow. The weird and unnatural relative calm of the Spring of 2012 is more and more perforated by the growing subterranean tensions announcing new explosions; what makes the situation so ominous is the all-pervasive sense of blockage: there no clear way out, the ruling elite is clearly losing its ability to rule.

Clearly Žižek is in no way arguing that 2011 was a failure or making some abstruse, speculative point; he is summing up the mood of the year in what appears to me a perspicacious fashion. His refusal of both “nostalgic-narcissistic remembrance” and “cynically-realist explanation” is a practical, political injunction geared at rescuing what is valuable and enduring in the experience of 2011, while recognizing that in most places the tide has ebbed. Nowhere does he rule out the kind of resurgence we are now witnessing in Egypt.

The attack on Sunkara is in a similar vein. The closest thing I could find to the putative intellectualist defeatism in the op-ed linked to is a recognition that a survey of the political landscape in America, despite Occupy’s emergence in 2011, is bleak:

The labor movement has shown some signs of life, especially among public sector workers combating austerity, but these are at best rearguard, defensive struggles. Unionization rates continue to decline, and apathy, not revolutionary fervor, reigns.

I am no expert on the USA, but after a residence of five months in the Midwest, Sunkara’s summary rings rather true to me. Jerome is entitled to differ, of course, but nowhere does he make an argument to that effect.

What this tirade in fact amounts to is a rehashing of the crusty feud between Marxists and anarchists. Marxists once stereotyped anarchists as feeble-minded, hot-headed provocateurs and anarchists returned the favor by caricaturing Marxists as disconnected, mystically inclined intellectualists more interested in scholastic nitpicking than in actual revolution. Thankfully, the twentieth century is over and this ongoing spat is irrelevant. People working within the Marxian tradition recognize that the theory and practice of revolutionary politics must incorporate resistance to hierarchy of all kinds if we are not to repeat the dire disasters of Stalinism. Activists inspired by the anarchist lineage now realize the practical importance of theorization in such supposedly obscure fields as political economy and the philosophy of the subject.

We must, all of us, reject the dichotomy between thought and action (admittedly the scion of a distorted Marxism). Thought is a social, material process, embodied in such things as books and blogs. As we all know, much work and much exploitation is carried out today at the “armchair” – though more often it is an Ikea Klemens rather than an ornamental Louis XV. It is likewise with revolutionary practice – we are building the common space we need to fight from with our fingertips as well as our feet. We have time to write and time to occupy, time to talk and time to pull up barricades. What we do not have time for is resurrecting obsolete, wrong-headed prejudices.

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Matan Kaminer

Matan Kaminer has been active in the conscientious objection movement, in migrant solidarity work and in municipal and student politics in Israel. He is currently a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan, doing research on Thai migrant workers in Israeli agriculture.

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