Comments on Barbara Epstein article in Monthly Review

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Sep 2 17:22:42 MDT 2001

The most heated debate within the movement is over the question of
violence. The debate over violence within the anti-globalization
movement in the United States concerns violence toward property, and
the danger of inciting police violence. In Seattle, groups of
black-clad young people, who later identified themselves as the Black
Bloc, smashed windows and destroyed property of corporate targets
within the downtown area over which protesters and police were vying
for control. These attacks took the organizers of the protest by
surprise, and, provoked more police violence against protesters
generally. Some nonviolent protesters tried to restrain those
smashing windows. In the wake of the demonstration some protesters
condemned the violence, arguing that it discredited the movement as a
whole and that tactics should be decided democratically, not by small
groups acting autonomously. Others argued that window smashing, and
the police violence that it provoked, had brought the attention of
the media and given the demonstration a prominence that it would not
have otherwise had. In subsequent demonstrations the Black Bloc and
others with similar approaches have become more integrated into the
movement and have modulated their actions, while some others have
become more willing to accept some violence against property.

Some things never change. During the 1960s, the Monthly Review
routinely tail-ended the student-based Maoism that destroyed the
radical movement and now it refuses to take a clear Leninist position
against ultraleftism. My guess is that Epstein was part of this
milieu 30 years ago and feels comfortable coddling the Black Bloc
today. The notion that they have "MODULATED THEIR ACTIONS" is utterly
preposterous, especially after Genoa. If somebody at MR had exercised
a little editorial discretion, this howler might not have made it
into print.

It seems to me that the importance of the current debate over
violence, in the anti-globalization movement, lies less in whether or
not the opponents of violence to property prevail, and more in what
kind of ethical guidelines the movement sets for itself. What is
important is whether the movement establishes an image of expressing
rage for its own sake, or of acting according to an ethical vision.

This misses the point entirely. The polarity of "expressing rage for
its own sake" or "acting according to an ethical vision" omits the
most important question of all for Marxists--namely, the potential of
the movement to involve the heavy battalions of the working class. To
do so, tactics will have to be geared less to the appetites of
frustrated middle-class youth and more to the needs of less
politicized people. Furthermore, the "anti-globalization" movement
will have to evolve a demand that has the kind of cutting-edge
clarity of the Vietnam antiwar movement of the movement to legalize
abortion. As long as the goals remain a hodge-podge reflecting the
needs of reformist NGO's, the protectionist bureaucracy of the labor
movement, and impatient post-adolescent boys, it will inevitably be
dragged into whatever militant tactic the more audacious fragment of
the movement cooks up on the spot. If there was a clear demand, then
more attention would be paid on drawing in new forces rather than
titillating the media through adventurist tactics. Essentially this
movement seems stuck in the same kind of rut that a section of the
antiwar movement was stuck in back in 1968, which led to the fiasco
at the Chicago convention and the Weatherman "days of rage". One
would hope that the Monthly Review could provide a Marxist
orientation for this movement, but not in Epstein's article, I'm

The traditional socialist left in the United States now mostly
consists of several magazines and journals, a few annual conferences,
a small number of intellectuals.

The tunnel vision found in the above sentence makes me spitting mad.
Basically what she is saying is that the socialist left in the USA is
equivalent to the ingrown pack of tenured professors who publish in
MR, SR, etc. and speak at the Socialist Scholars Conference. This is
a fucking slap in the face to all those people who did not get
dissertations and cushy jobs in the 1970s or 80s but who went out and
did the messy and frustrating job of defending Nicaragua, El Salvador
or the African revolution. Or who built militant trade union caucuses
in auto, teamsters and urban transportation unions, etc. Or who work
in community radio like WBAI. Or who do a million and one things to
build the movement without getting attention in Time Magazine. In
fact the willingness of the bourgeois media to highlight the Black
Bloc is related to the hype surrounding Hardt-Negri's "Empire", a
book that is the intellectual compass of this new "revolutionary"
movement. As we used to say in the Trotskyist movement, it doesn't
challenge the system to break a window. It is far more important to
break illusions. For that patient explanation is required.

I attended the last Socialist Scholars Conference (the last time I'll
make that mistake) and went to a workshop where Epstein, Bogdan
Denitch and Immanuel Wallerstein were holding forth on the future of
the radical movement or some such nonsense. Their talks were
delivered at such a high level of abstraction that they were
virtually useless. Some young kid got up in the discussion period and
let them have it. He said that they weren't at all concerned about
the myriad expressions of radical activism that were going on all
around NYC and the rest of the country. Epstein, to her credit, had
confessed to the audience that their social position isolates them
from exactly such developments.

When tenured left professors who have not made a leaflet in the past
30 years or sat at a table on a Saturday afternoon collecting
signatures against contra funding end up speaking in the name of the
left, they are kidding nobody but themselves. If a new Marxist
movement takes shape in the USA, people who have a consistent record
of grass roots activism will spearhead it.

Though the anti-globalization movement has developed good relations
with many trade union activists, it is hard to imagine a firm
alliance between labor and the anti-globalization movement without
firmer structures of decision-making and accountability than now
exist. An alliance among the anti-globalization movement and
organizations of color, and labor, would require major political
shifts within the latter. But it would also probably require some
relaxation of anti-bureaucratic and anti-hierarchical principles on
the part of activists in the anti-globalization movement.

This is an evasion of the central question. You now have a stubborn
tendency as represented by the Black Bloc (and the white coveralls to
a certain degree) to turn each of these demonstrations into a kind of
street theater version of an insurrection. This is their sole
interest. Unless the broader forces come to terms with the kind of
impasse this has led to, then the movement will face more and more
provocations. And more and more police attacks. That the Monthly
Review cannot put this into unambiguous terms is singularly
depressing. In contract, the latest Canadian Dimension has such an
article and more credit to them for having the guts to go against the

"Actually existing" anarchism has changed and so has "actually
existing" Marxism. Marxists who participated in the movements of the
sixties tend to have a sharper appreciation of the importance of
social and cultural equality, and of living according to our values
in the present, than did many members of previous generations of
Marxist activists. If a new paradigm of the left emerges from the
struggle against neoliberalism and the transnational corporate order,
it is likely to include elements of anarchist sensibility as well as
of Marxist analysis.

Why can't we all get along.

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 09/02/2001

Marxism list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list