An Anarchist review of Robert Kurz’s No Revolution Anywhere, Chronos Publications

2013 promises to be an interesting year for anarchist theory, on top of the AK Press release of The Value of Radical Theory: An Anarchist Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, and the upcoming English translation of Anselm Jappe’s Crédit à mort (no publisher or title found yet, though), Chronos Publications have undertaken to finally publish some of Kurz’s essays in English. Under the title The Substance of Capital, it is expected for the end of June 2013. For the impatient though, they have already published a short pamphlet, titled No Revolution Anywhere in October 2012, introducing some of Kurz’s work, previously unpublished in English. For the curious, Libcom published quite a few of Kurz’s essays, and the Exit! website does have some English translations of their articles.

No Revolution Anywhere, Robert Kurz

No Revolution Anywhere, Robert Kurz

The quality and pertinence of Kurz’s writings have ensured its progressive dissemination across language barriers among anarchist circles for a long time now, leading to his planned conference at the St. Imier congress this summer. Sadly enough, he died shortly before. But English-speaking anarchists will be happy with this attempt at publishing Kurz, although the quality of the proofreading and some of the translation are somewhat lacking (for example, the substitution of “the coming revolt” for “the Coming Insurrection” obscures the meaning of a paragraph, and some sentences must be tweaked to make any grammatical sense at all). Last but not least, a text that the publishers claim was written in 1999 mentions the 9/11 attacks. However, technical difficulties are to be expected in any first publication like this one, and we have complete faith that they will be resolved by the release of the longer, better Substance of Capital later this year.

Another ‘technical detail’ to get out of the way, is the introduction in the presentation by the London group of something problematic that I have never witnessed in Kurz’s own writing: the depiction of political enemies as ‘pathological’ and ‘neurotic’. Of course, there was nothing ‘pathological’ and ‘neurotic’ about Marx’s work (or Kurz’s, for that matter) and tolerating mental distress sufferers to have any part at all in the elaboration of theory could only lead to its ruin by infecting the work of healthy minds… We have no doubt the writers were simply not thinking when they borrowed those images which are sadly common in the English language and made them their own. Still, it got me pretty upset, so be warned, it sounds more intelligent than calling them ‘gay’, ‘dwarves’ or ‘sissies’, because that’s the power of words of more than three syllables, but I’m not convinced it is fundamentally different. However; this slip should not tarnish Kurz’s work which, if it sometimes falls heavy into name-calling, remains to my knowledge quite politically correct about it.

 

Review of the introduction

In their introduction, I don’t think we can reproach the editors their lumping of Anarchists among the footsoldiers of the TUC. It is not true, but to the outside viewer, despite the involvement of many well-intentioned anarchists, the anarchist position has remained invisible in the anti-cuts movement. A comrade remarked:

we have been too timid in our critique of the “solutions” that other “lefty” groups propose.

I would disagree with the use of “other”, as we are not a lefty group, no matter how many quote marks you add, but I agree with the sentiment. Anarchists have been seen regurgitating the anti-austerity rhetoric, despite it being at odds with the anarchist view that austerity is not what we are fighting, but capitalism. This has always been a complicated position to present to the general public. In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, even bourgeois newspapers announced the end of capitalism. Now, only a few years later, the TUC discourse did its job, and ‘radicals’ don’t dare fight anything more than ‘austerity’.

Obviously, we cannot blame the individuals involved in this campaign if they failed to make an anarchist analysis heard: on top of the lack of perspective in this movement, there was also a lack of alternative decision-making spaces, which meant that the TUC and leftist sects remained in complete control of the movement and its discourse. Of course, for a movement to develop demands or perspectives, from the most reformist to the most revolutionary, they need some structure in which to discuss and decide, call them councils of war or general assemblies (and we don’t mean the so called popular assembly launched in the Guardian by ‘personalities’ to assemble union delegates). There was very little achieved that questioned the control of unions and parties over the movement (and it is not going to get better, as apparently now ‘horizontalism’ is conveniently attached to the worst excesses of the Occupy movement by people like Paul Mason or David Harvey), consequently the whole movement was on the nonsensical format of the one-day strike, repeated up to every three month, with a central rally in London (sometimes Glasgow as well, where the possibility of any serious discussion of the real issues of capitalism are further drowned by the buzzing of the campaign for an independent Scotland who shamelessly highjacked the demo, promising free public services, no benefit cuts and/or full communism for all after the rapture/referendum). This format presents strictly no danger/opportunity to overflow into something more, and that is why the TUC sticks to it despite its total lack of effectiveness.

Once again, I must say that UK anarchists really should point out the fundamental difference between a one-day strike decreed by union bureaucrats and a strike until demands are met (or an unlimited strike!) instead of using a rhetoric of ‘it’s better than nothing’. One-day strikes only lead to ‘Vote Labour and you won’t have those days of disruption anymore’ (and to well-meaning people losing one day off their wages, while others just ignore it, which is justifiable, but can lead to complete disillusion and people scabbing when it actually matters, that is, when a strike needs to hold). How can anarchists make it so that instead of ending in a speech by Ed Milliband, a demo ends with a general assembly deciding on whether or not to go on strike again the next day? Not by being bussed out to London for the day would be a good start. Rant over.

However, the editors show some quite obvious intellectual dishonesty when they reduce the Cuts Café, which was lauded by the Guardian as “set up by UKUncut-types to foster face-to-face debate about protest and capitalism in the run-up to last Saturday’s TUC demonstration” to one internet comment on their page stating:

Lets hope to god this place actualy just makes some solid plans instead of having, as is more probable, 20 ‘meetings’ every day, concenring which topics to have for other ‘meetings’, to consist of bickering and hand signals. Dialogue Kills.

Now, the Cuts Café is quite an easy target, that the Guardian celebrates it in an article titled “The return of leftwing café culture” is ominous enough for people who remember the ATTAC alter-globalization cafés, but the truth is, it is a place that existed for 2 weeks, and failed to be the place where people could theorise together a sensible approach to this movement. Instead, they sat in circles listening to people give talks, playing guitar and painted banners. Being lectured, listening to music and painting do not sadly suffice to develop theory. I strongly suspect that a lot of people involved in this Café were either lefties (who think theory is the realm of the party, let’s not worry footsoldiers with it, we have dedicated thinkers paid to tell us what to do) or activists (who think theory is everyone’s private business, lets’ not start an argument but a show of hands who is up to do this or that, without discussing the theory behind it). Many things can be said about the limits of such a place, I am sure, both in a general way and for the precise example of the Cuts Café in London. However, taking a stupid comment on a webpage, that is not in any way ‘typical of the general tone’ (the rest of the comments are an Occupy-style declaration that instead of talking between radicals, they should invite “the plutocrats” to listen to their grievances, and a very mature discussion of disability and accessibility) is disingenuous. It is all the more stupid that if this one commenter complains about the fact that there is too much dialogue, it is indicative that there are in such places at least (numerous) attempts at dialogue. This is a very low level of argumentation on the part of the editors, which reminds me of some of the worst “Occupy is wrong” articles, which managed to be just as appallingly vacuous as the Occupy movement itself. It is not because you’re taking on an easy target that you can dispense with the normal rules of argumentation and resort to strawmen, bad rhetorics and insult.

Kurz

About insults, I will say something here about why I think Kurz is so important for anarchists, but also what I find the most annoying about Kurz. I think Kurz is important because the fight between anarchists and orthodox marxists is so old, that we rarely express it in terms that are more than insults. This causes many problems, like young people who flee organisations like the SWP because they lack internal democracy to join anarchism. This can be a good thing, but it can also be the creation of a whole group of ‘anarchists’ who basically want a more democratic SWP. That is better than not realising the problem with the organisation of the SWP, but anarchism has other profound differences with orthodox marxism. The main one has to do with the relationship between class-struggle and the revolution. And that is the point where orthodox marxists lash out at you, calling you a petty bourgeois individualist, and why anarchists feel like they have to remind people that, yes, they do have a class analysis of society every two lines.

Kurz re-reads Marx in a way that reconciles Marx and anarchism, in a way that means we no longer have to claim that Marx is unparalleled for his description of capitalism, but that we differ on how to do away with it, which is the general simplified version anarchists give to the curious. And that is why Kurz is great. I am not saying his ideas are especially innovative, but they can be used as reference, in a way that ‘that conclusion we reached in our discussion after taking part in that dead-end campaign’ cannot.

Now, what is annoying when you read Kurz as an anarchist, is that he does not stop at exposing his reading of Marx positively, but goes on at length about why people who developed other more traditional readings of Marx are absurd. As anarchists, we have not waited for Kurz suddenly to realise that orthodox marxists were absurd and faced a dead-end with no communism in sight, and this aspect of Kurz is frankly quite tedious. And depending on the text, he can argue very well how Stalinists make no sense, or just be angry at them without much ground. As another comrade said:

Kurz just lashes out at others (quite narcissistically at times) and often just insults them: his analyses can be fab, his presentation and style of argument is shite.

However, the selected texts are not too bad in that regard and mainly just have bits that are a bit boring if you’re looking to sharpen your own understanding of capitalism and revolution rather than find yet another reason why orthodox marxists/ Coming Insurrection-types/ etc. make little sense.

By Way of Presentation

This interview sums up in short paragraphs some of the main points that Kurz makes in his articles: this is not just another cyclical crisis of capitalism, this does not mean this is the only ever time we could have a revolution, capital has reached its limit, and so on and so forth. I don’t see what objections anarchists would have to this which would have any kind of practical consequence (there are always other objections, but, although interesting, like in the case of question 5 contrasting his and Postone’s value critique, they do not lead to major disagreements in real life), apart maybe in number 8 where he lumps together alternative economy-types, Primitivists, but also what sounds like more anarcho-friendly anti-industrialism, which imho is concerned with “the abolition the capitalist rationality of the social synthesis operated by value, and of the calculation resulting from this rationality which is that of the economy of the firm”. I think there is possibly a convergence there, which is masked by Kurz’s ‘them vs. me’ style.

No Revolution Anywhere

This text owes its title to the abuse of the word Revolution to designate anything from ‘the Arab Spring’ to ‘the Occupy movement’. Kurz offers a more down-to-earth short analysis of recent social upheavals and reminds us of a few obvious facts, like the fact that violence is not in itself a sign or radicality, ‘theoretical renewal is long overdue’, ‘whoever is unwilling to grasp and fight against capitalist totality has already lost’ which will rejoice any anarchist. He then concludes on a call to everyone to support EXIT and its theoretical positions.

Now there is another text, which was aimed especially at anarchists, about why value critique is important. It was not previously released (I get the feeling the author thought that anarchists were unredeemable after all, but I might be wrong). I think it is interesting to compare and contrast this text to Kurz’s No Revolution Anywhere.

Beneath Contempt

This text is about capitalism and war. I have been trying to find some kind of impressions on the September 2012 “War starts here” anti-militarist camp in Germany (call here, http://warstartsherecamp.org/en/call-war-starts-here-camp ) to compare and contrast, but no luck so far.

The text starts with a long presentation of moder-day capitalism and the place of states, North and South in it. Then it criticises both the “regressive anti-Imperialists” and the “ideological supporters of crisis imperialism and lobbyists for the humanitarian-industrial complex”, and claims that we need to break free from capitalist ontologies, as usual.

Conclusion

These reviews are quite far from the text, mainly because the text as established in this pamphlet seems very erroneous. My German is pretty bad so I’m not always sure, but definitely compared with the French translation available on Exit’s website, there are significant discrepancies. This present edition is hard to get excited about, but I hope anarchists will build on this attempt, and publish and read Kurz in English.

Advertisements