In Reply to Doug Henwood, Liza Featherstone and Christian Parenti


posted to on February 10, 2004


An article co-authored by Doug Henwood, his wife Liza Featherstone and Christian Parenti has been making the rounds on the Internet. It is now the subject of discussion on Indymedia, a website geared to anti-globalization activists, and Infoshop, an anarchist website run by the red-baiting Chuck Munson.


It originally appeared in Radical Society, a small-circulation journal put out by CUNY professors. For people on Marxmail who are not familiar with US politics, a word or two of background. Henwood is the author of "Wall Street", the best-selling book ever published by Verso. Featherstone is a free-lance journalist who wrote red-baiting attacks on the ISO for the Nation Magazine in her capacity as "movement" expert. Parenti, the son of Michael Parenti, has written a well-received book on the American prison-industrial system. More recently he written an article from Baghdad in the Nation claiming that Iraqis are anxious to give us all the oil they have in exchange for safe streets, jobs, running water and electricity. (Of course, somebody should tell Parenti that the Nigerians worked out the same deal, but have gotten nothing back so far.)


The article is titled "Action Will Be Taken:  Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents". It addresses what the authors call "activistism", which put simply is action minus theory. With what I know about the trajectory of these three celebrities, I had to rub my eyes when I read their description of what theory is lacking, namely Marxism:


"Activistism is also intimately related to the decline of Marxism, which at its best thrived on debates about the relations between theory and practice, part and whole. Unfortunately, much of this tradition has devolved into the alternately dreary and hilarious rants in sectarian papers. Marxism's decline (but not death: the three of us would happily claim the name) has led to wooly ideas about a nicer capitalism, and an indifference to how the system works as a whole. This blinkering is especially virulent in the U.S. where a petit-bourgeois populism is the native radical strain, and anti-intellectualism is almost hard-wired into the culture. And because activistism emphasizes practicality, achievability, and implementation over all else, a theory dedicated to understanding deep structures with an eye towards changing them necessarily gets shunted aside.


"Marxism's decline isn't just an intellectual concern - it too has practical effects. If you lack any serious understanding of how capitalism works, then it's easy to delude yourself into thinking that moral appeals to the consciences of CEOs and finance ministers will have some effect. You might think that central banks' habit of provoking recessions when the unemployment rate gets too low is a policy based on a mere misunderstanding. You might think that structural adjustment and imperial war are just bad lifestyle choices."


To start with, it is somewhat surprising to see them speak so derisively about dreary sectarian newspapers since Henwood has stated publicly that he is a fan of the Spartacist League newspaper, which he describes as well-written. I guess that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


It also puzzles me to find them disparaging "wooly ideas about a nicer capitalism", since Henwood has backed a vote for John Kerry because it would create "a marginally better policy and a better discursive and organizing environment." Talk about diminished expectations. I haven't seen such bowing and scraping since 1968, when the CPUSA urged a vote for Hubert Humphrey.


I also got a big chuckle out of their swipe at philanthropies:


"Unreflective pragmatism is also encouraged by much of the left's dependency on foundations. Philanthropy's role in structuring activism is rarely discussed, because almost everyone wants a grant (including us). But it should be. Foundations like focused entities that undertake specific politely meliorative schemes. They don't want anyone to look too closely at the system that's given them buckets of money that less fortunate people are forced to bay for."


This objection apparently did not persuade Christian Parenti from turning down an offer as a fellow at George Soros's Open Society.


Turning to the question at hand, to what extent does the US left suffer from a kind of mindless activism? To be sure, there is a powerful legacy of pragmatism in this country, as much of an official philosophy as Confucianism was in China. This means that activists veer between street militancy one year and parliamentary cretinism during a presidential election, or a combination of both as was evidenced in the 1968 Chicago protests when smashing windows on behalf of a "peace candidate" epitomized the limitations of the American left.


Ultimately, I think that the problem is not just an absence of theory, but a failure to think politically. Since the rise of the anti-globalization movement, you have seen a renewed interest in anarchism and its second cousin "autonomism", a nominally Marxist theory/movement launched by the obscurantist Italian political science professor Toni Negri who advocated physical attacks on CP members in the 1970s. Both of these movements have little interest in *politics*, which they equate with reformism.


The anti-globalization movement posited itself as an "anti-capitalist" movement, which was all to the good. Unfortunately, it failed to understand that this kind of "maximalism" is of little use except for periodic protests at meetings of some international trade body when physical militancy in support of demands that the capitalist system be terminated was put on display. Meanwhile, these trade bodies continue on their merry way while making few concessions to the mass movement. It is interesting that the most serious challenges to neoliberalism have come from governments of the left in Latin America that are held in such disdain by anarchists and autonomists. Ultimately the only way that the IMF can be forced to retreat is when it is confronted by a *state* with armed bodies to back it up rather than by symbolically tearing down a chain-link fence.


Finally, there is not simply a need to study Karl Marx, who the authors note is found on the bookshelves of European activists. There is also a need to *apply* his theories in a creative manner. This means engagement with the body of Marxist literature that lives through the ages, including those works written by V. Lenin, the arch-demon of the "acceptable" left. Lenin's writings were consumed with the question of what to do *next*. Unless the radical movement in the USA begins to think in such terms, the task of ridding the world of capitalism will remain a fantasy at best.