*UPDATE* I want to clarify that I in no way intended any offense to Graham, or anyone else for that matter. I find the sort of remarks to which this post responds (and Graham is certainly not alone in making them) to be objectionable and deserving of criticism, but I certainly am not attacking anyone. This is simply a statement of my skepticism regarding the out-of-hand dismissal of political positions with revolutionary aspirations. I hope this is taken as a good faith statement of my convictions and not some kind of personal attack.
*UPDATE 2* To abate any confusion, let me clarify at the outset. My argument here is absolutely not that skeptics of revolutionary politics are McCarthyists or guilty of any sort of ‘Red Scare’-like tactics. The argument is really the opposite, that this skeptical position was originally generated as a reaction-formation to the brutality of McCarthyism, that the moderate left’s hand was forced by the latter. They had to dissociate from any sort of radicalism or risk being attacked as well. This skepticism was an unfortunate but necessary defensive tactic that by now has outstayed its welcome. However, it is, again, in no way a form of McCarthyism, and is on the contrary a defense against it.
Some brief comments on K-punk’s “Dialogue with Graham Harman”:
There are several mentions of “a Left devoted to Revolution” as Harman puts it. Perhaps I’m showing my ignorance, but I admit I wasn’t aware of anyone actually ‘shouting “Revolution!” without context or explanation’, in a philosophical article or any other sort of mature discussion. Of course the caricature is commonplace, but I don’t know anyone over the age of 17 that makes such a heedless appeal to some “total and immediate eschatological transformation of society”. I’m beginning to think that the demonization of this largely imaginary position is about as detrimental as the behavior it ridicules. Who are these leftists so concerned with such a fantasmatic and unattainable ideal?
This sort of rhetorical criticism seems especially discomforting to me, in that it is likely derivative of mocking dismissals of Marxist and anarchist positions by the more mainstream Left. Of all the conversations of I’ve had with people of such persuasions (and I do count myself among the former), I’ve never encountered anyone that regarded such a quick-fix notion of revolution as anything more than a self-deprecating in-joke. I doubt there are many radical Leftists of an adult age that seriously advocate such nonsense.
It seems more likely that this condemnation is a remnant of the sort of anti-communist hysteria that unfortunately split the Left for so long, at least in the US (I’m not sure about the UK or anywhere else). Where there should be solidarity, for too long moderate Leftists were forced to distance themselves from their more radical comrades for fear of loosing any popular credibility. And resentment amongst the radical Left was an understandable side-effect.
Make no mistake, the red scares were long, bloody monstrosities, the closest the US has come to Stalinism thus far. They were so frightful they drew the condemnation of famed Soviet defector Victor Kravchenko. A truly shameful moment in American history. I get the feeling that the knee-jerk rejection of radical politics is a sort of inheritance from that history, looming skeptically over any vaguely revolutionary temptations.
Of course, radical Leftists, especially those of a more theoretical stripe, are generally more talk than walk, and Graham is certainly right to say they likely don’t expect a revolution to actually occur. Indeed, as Zizek has said repeatedly, the majority of Leftist academics would probably shy away from any such upheaval that deprived them of their comfortable social status (which is not to imply all academics are so comfortable, but only that such status is not easily relinquished). Yet this criticism misses the point.
One would have to be a madman to think that revolutionary transformation could occur out of nowhere, that suddenly everything would up and change. Nobody expects this to happen. Revolutionary politics has far less to do with this sort of pipe-dream, and far more with questions of what people want, why they want what they want, and how to get them to question these desires. Above all, revolutionary change is not a matter of instantaneous redemption, but of generating a critical desire in the people, a desire capable not only capable of questioning authority or the status quo (such desires are almost ubiquitous on the far Right), but of questioning itself. The people must become critical of their own desires, they must ask why they want what they want, rather than always criticizing from a position of certainty.
Revolutionary politics is concerned first and foremost with generating a revolutionary criticism amongst the people. Recently, it has not often been successful in the thinking through pragmatics of this task, certainly no more so than with greater strategic and theoretical concerns. Yet I doubt there are many people actually committed to revolutionary politics that think such considerations are unimportant. No one worth listening to advocates any sort of imposition of revolutionary change on unwilling masses. The question is one of provoking the masses to strive for such change themselves. The heart of this change is, above all, in the shift from a social order based upon certainty of its own desired ends (however broad and general these might be), to one based upon a foundational critical stance with regard to any such desire. This is not to say such criticism must remain negative and dismiss any positive content, but it cannot advocate any such content without retaining an essentially critical prerogative toward it. Again, the question of revolutionary politics has nothing to do with the miraculous solution to all social woes, and everything to do with the pragmatics of generating and maintaining an essentially self-critical social order.