Toward A Postmodern Marxism...
TOWARD A POSTMODERN MARXISM…
This book is a collection of essays written over some three decades by Fred Newman, Lois Holzman and other leaders of an emergent postmodern Marxist movement.
It is important to note from the onset that these essays are not meant to give expression to this movement, for a movement is not expressed on paper. It is expressed through its activity—the institutions it builds, the social motion it initiates and/or impacts on, the culture it creates. The writing and reading of the essays gathered in this volume might best be understood as being one of those cultural activities, along with the plays, talent shows and cabarets it has produced, the songs and raps that its participants have composed and sung, the social relationships that have been created and/transformed.
It is helpful to make the distinction between writing as an expression of a movement and writing as an activity of a movement. The cognitive basis of our culture, a basis that goes back at least as far as the Enlightenment in Western history, privileges knowing, the written word, the theoretical. Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Marxism, a product of that cognitive bias, gave undue weight to its theoretical and tactical texts, transforming the writings of its founders and leaders—Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Mao Zedong, et. al.—from activity into virtual holy books. Their writings were consulted and studied like the Talmud or the Bible or the Koran for political guidance and rules of correct living. Differences of opinion among Marxists were fought out (in the best cases) by citing appropriate quotations from the sacred texts and (in the worse cases) by killing each other.
Postmodern Marxism will have none of that—neither the religiosity nor the murder. It considers writing/reading, like language itself, to be an ever-evolving relational activity. These essays were written for a variety of reasons—to clarify, to engage, to speculate, to provoke, to explain. Whatever the tactical and historical context, they were/are relational activity: an activity between writer and reader, as well as between the activity of writing and reading on the one hand and all the other activities in which the postmodern Marxists, their communities, their countries, and the world are engaged.
Newman and his followers are Marxists who do not believe in truth, neither in its scientific nor metaphysical variants. Unlike the first wave of Marxists (including Marx), we do not strive for validation through science. We don’t accept the scientific premise that there is an objective reality/truth outside of human perception/construction, an assumption pervasive not only in Marxism but in virtually all of modernism. Following this notion of truth, the task of human beings in general and scientists in particular (be they natural or social scientists) is to discover the objective laws of nature and society and live/act/lead others in accordance with them. Nor do the Postmodern Marxists adhere to any metaphysical notion of truth—that there is an essence or spirit or abstraction that is the Truth that human beings in general and priests, rabbis, mullahs, shamans, spiritual seekers and philosophers in particular must strive to find and live by and for.
Indeed, we consider the scientific notion of objective reality to be simply another version of the metaphysics of truth. In both traditions, which might, crudely, be characterized as modern and pre-modern, truth is something other than human beings and their activities. Postmodern Marxists do not search for the truth or seek to validate their activities by appealing to the truth; instead, we create new things with our fellow human beings. The essays in this collection are some of those creations.
As Marx, at his most methodologically brilliant puts it, “We set out from real active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process … This method of approach is not devoid of premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. … Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc.—real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and the intercourse corresponding to these.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, International Publishers, 1974: 47-48)
To Newman and his fellow Postmodern Marxists, the implications of Marx’s methodology lead, with some obvious historical detours, out of the assumptions of modernism into the emerging body of thought and activity generally called postmodernism. Postmodernism—a diverse and often contradictory amalgam of thought and activity, to be sure—does, in all its variants, reject the bifurcation of the universe into outside/inside, objective/subjective, mind/body, cognition/emotion, etc. and views what the scientist (including the orthodox Marxist) calls “reality” and what the religiously minded (including the orthodox Marxist) calls “truth,” as a complex social, historical and perceptual process constantly being constructed and reconstructed by human beings themselves.
This book, then, is not profitably studied as either a sacred text or as a scientific treatise. Rather, it is best approached as a part of the ongoing human activity of becoming.
The Postmodern Marxism discussed here makes no claim to being the only postmodern Marxism, to do so would run counter to the spirit of postmodernism.
It is a particular postmodern Marxism that has evolved in the United States since 1968. Its evolution took place as the social upheavals of the Sixties disintegrated, the communist revolutions and states established in the 20th Century stagnated and collapsed, and an extended period of reaction and conservatism took hold in the United States and around the world.
Much else was happening, of course: the rapid post-industrialization of the U.S., the flow of capital to the poorer nations of Asia and South America, the internationalization of capitalism’s institutions of authority even as the United States became the unitary world political and military power, the spread of the AIDS pandemic, the rapid development of computer and Internet technology, the emergence of postmodernism as an intellectual movement (along with a reaction to it among modernists) and of performance studies as an academic discipline, both of which contributed to the emerging notion of humans as a performing species.
While classic Marxism arose in response to the brutal birth of industrial capitalism in 19th Century Europe, and Marxism-Leninism grew out of the crisis of world war and subsequent world wide economic depression in the early 20th Century, the Postmodern Marxism discussed in this book developed within the world’s wealthiest and most privileged nation during a half century in which it reached its height of power and prosperity.
The Postmodern Marxists have seen the success of capitalism and found it wanting. The cultural movement of the 1960s, which, amidst unprecedented prosperity, challenged the dominate ethos of self-interest and the Western glorification of alienation and posited as an alternative the transformation of daily life through a grassroots communalism has remained an enduring influence on the development of Postmodern Marxism, evident in, among other things, its emphasis on the engagement of psychology and culture. The other ongoing factor in its development has been its response to America’s legacy of slavery and racism. For even as the United States maintained its post-World War II economic boom, its African American population has remained, to a large extent, in the grip of chronic poverty and underdevelopment, with vast numbers of its young men and women unable to find productive work, caught in a web of crime and wasting away in prisons. Confronting and building on this contradiction has shaped this Postmodern Marxism from its earliest days.
Here it must be pointed out that this Postmodern Marxism—like its modernist precursor—is first and foremost a mass organizing activity. While this should go without saying, sadly it does not. In recent decades, particularly since the collapse of the communist movement, Marxists in the West and especially in the United States, have, for the most part, retreated to the academy and in so doing reshaped their Marxism into an academic discipline, or an analytical slant on whatever field they are paid to research and teach. Unlike academic Marxism (some of which has also been given a postmodernist label), this Postmodern Marxism is not primarily a theory of history or an analysis of social relations or an alternative political economy and it is most certainly not an ideology—it is an on-the-ground organizing activity. So when I write, for example, that this Postmodern Marxism is an attempt to engage “America’s legacy of slavery and racism,” it isn’t meant as an abstract moral position or a theoretical analysis. It means, plain and simple, that these Postmodern Marxists—white, Black, Latino and Asian—went into poor Black communities and organized and allowed that organizing experience to inform their analysis and continuing organizing.
While most American Marxists have retreated to the academy, this Postmodern Marxism is, in its genesis, the story of an escape from the academy. Fred Newman, whose writings make up the bulk of this volume and whose influence is evident in all of them, was for much of the 1960s a philosophy professor who, in the midst of the upheavals of 1968, came to the conclusion that profound social change could not be effected from the college campus or by students, however militant they might consider themselves. He quit his teaching job at City College in New York City with a handful of student followers and set up community organizing collectives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan and in the Bronx. That was the move from which all followed.
The success of this political tendency has, on one level, everything to do with Fred Newman. Born in the Bronx, a few blocks from Yankee Stadium in 1935, Newman was the youngest of four siblings of a poor working class Jewish family. His father died when he was ten and his mother thereafter made ends meet through a combination of relief, taking in boarders and running a floating poker game. His family, like many working class families of the Depression Era, were New Deal Democrats; his middle name is Delano.
As a teenager, Newman worked in machine shops, learning tool and dye making from an older brother and attending Stuyvesant High School, a public school for gifted students. Upon graduating from high school, Newman joined the Army and was sent to Korea at the end of the war there. After his stint in the service, Newman attended City College of the City University of New York and from there went (on a fellowship) to Stanford University where, he studied with Donald Davidson and earned a doctorate in the philosophy of science and the foundations of mathematics.
Over the next six years, Newman taught philosophy at a number of colleges, including Knox, Case Western Reserve, Antioch, and his alma meter, City College. His journey to political activism was gradual and was channeled more through the counter culture than through the traditional Left. He lost his first job, at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois after standing up for a woman student who was expelled for violating curfew—a curfew that was only in force for women. Soon thereafter, Newman began giving all As to his students. This was both because of a general opposition to giving grades and because, with war raging in Vietnam, he didn’t want to contribute to any student flunking out of school and becoming eligible for the draft. As a consequence, Newman was dismissed from a string of colleges, leaving the campus for good in the summer of ’68.
Newman combines an unwavering identification with and commitment to the poor and the outcast with a remarkable intelligence that has been schooled in the most sophisticated philosophical thinking. A working class intellectual who is given access to the finest bourgeois education and then takes that education and returns to organize the class, is unusual in the annals of Marxism. Most European, Asian and Latin American Marxist leaders have come from middle class backgrounds. Antonio Gramsci’s history, which is somewhat parallel to Newman’s, is the exception in this regard. In the United States, Marxist leadership has come primarily from the trade union movement, not the university.
There are, no doubt, numerous intellectuals in the United States at Newman’s level of intelligence and schooling. They are researching quantum physics or grappling with complex mathematical problems or doing medical research. All of these are honorable pursuits and of value to the human race. Yet these activities are confined to and defined by established institutions, Newman has applied his intelligence, education, philosophic sophistication and open-ended creativity to building organizations and activities outside the confines of the State and its extended network of political, intellectual and cultural institutions of adjustment and control. This is what has made him and the movement he has led a magnet for the discontented—both intellectuals and working class and poor folks in the United States and beyond—and what makes his Postmodern Marxism so controversial and threatening to the authorities-that-be.
The commitment to being first and foremost a mass organizing activity—as opposed to an emphasis on abstract theory, ideology, or a particular organizational structure—distinguished this Postmodern Marxism from the other Marxist political organizations and tendencies it found itself among in the United States in the 1970s.
The 1970s saw the long, painful disintegration of the “New Left” in the United States. Disintegration may be the wrong word since it implies there was a cohesive whole that fell apart. While there certainly was a mass movement, many mass movements, in fact— the Peace Movement, Black Power Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, not to mention the politically amorphous but very wide spread cultural rebellion—there was no cohesive leadership able to unify or give strategic guidance to those movements. So perhaps a more accurate way to describe the 1970s is as a period in which the New Left failed to cohere into a sustainable leadership force for the mass movements that emerged in the 1960s.
The only Marxist organizations with a significant following in America’s poor and working class communities in the 1960s were the Black Panther Party and, on a smaller geographic scale, the Young Lords, based in the Puerto Rican community in New York City, and the Young Patriots, based among white Appalachian youth in Chicago. The Panthers and the two other groups that took inspiration from them articulated a Marxism with a strong overlay of nationalism. They did not attempt to provide leadership to the entirety of the mass movements of the decade, maintaining that each oppressed minority had to generate its own leadership. Even so, the beginnings of a mass following that they each had begun to attract was taken very seriously by the authorities, who instigated a series of raids and police shoot-outs with the Panthers that left much of their most promising leadership dead or in prison. At the same time, the FBI saturated these organizations with infiltrators who provoked vicious internal fights that resulted in their implosion by the early seventies.
Without a left leadership force, the mass of the mass movements returned to the Democratic Party, which, despite the fiasco of the Vietnam War and the violent confrontations at the party’s convention in 1968, was still able to project the aura of the New Deal and the Civil Rights coalition. Significant left forces followed the mass back into the Democratic Party.
The Communist Party, USA (CPUSA), while it still maintained an organizational identity, had long before integrated its membership (and its political hopes) into the left wing of the Democratic Party through the trade unions and, in New York City in the 1950s, into the “Reform” Democratic Party Clubs. New Left organizations such as the New American Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America, which modeled themselves on the European social democracy, soon followed suit. Eventually even the (for a while) militantly Maoist Communist Workers Party (CWP)—which in 1979 came out on the losing end of a shoot-out with the Klu Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina (two CWP members and three supporters were shot dead by Klan members)—dissolved itself in 1985 into the DP on the grounds that that’s where the working class was.
On the far left, there were many small self-identified Marxist-Leninist organizations, primarily of the Trotskyist and Maoist varieties, that not only refused to integrate into the Democratic Party, but, for the most part, regarded electoral politics in general as a capitulation to the myth of bourgeois democracy. They adhered to vague notions of leading a revolution in the United States modeled on the Russian Revolution of 1917 and/or the Chinese or Cuban Revolutions.
While the bulk of activists in these groups were young and had been politicized in the sixties, the groups’ lineages were rooted in the old communist movement—and lineage was a defining factor in their self-image and how they related to each other.
For example, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which had played a leadership role in the mass mobilizations against the War in Vietnam, and had thus attracted a good number of young members, traced its roots to 1934 when, under a different name, it split from the CPUSA reflecting the split in the international communist movement between Stalin and Trotsky over the direction of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, the Spartacist League split from the SWP in 1963 and, a few years later, the Workers League split from the Spartacists. During the same decade, based on other circumstances and with other rationales, the Workers World Party and the National Caucus of Labor Committees, split or were founded by people who had left the SWP.
On the Stalinist side, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) split from the CPUSA in 1961 as a result of the Sino-Soviet schism. The CWP, mentioned above, split from PL in 1969. PL in the early and mid-1960s played a significant role within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the student movement’s major mass organization. The Revolutionary Union (later, the Revolutionary Communist Party) and the October League (later the Communist Party/Marxist-Leninist), were formed during internal SDS fights in reaction to Progressive Labor—and, of course, in opposition to each other. Newman and the handful of students, hippies and seekers working with him, were not organizationally or historically linked to any of these groups. They lacked the proper lineage and hence were not considered to be “real leftists” by those jostling to wear the mantle of Marxism in the United States.
While all of this seems arcane and esoteric today, reviewing this history is important in understanding the failure of American Marxists to coalesce into a leadership force capable of sustaining and developing the mass movements that they had grown out of and/or were attempting to influence in the 1960s and ’70s. Although they all gave lip service to building a mass movement, “organizing the working class,” “building a base,” and so on, their major concerns were ideological and their major passions incestuous. Their mutually shared activity was not organizing poor and working people (or anyone else for that matter) but consisted of raiding each other’s members, an activity they openly called “regrouping.” Their energies were focused primarily on attacking each other on the pages of their various weekly and monthly newspapers and occasionally breaking up each other’s meetings. Virtually no successful mass organizing was done by these groups and the lack of any organizing progress combined with the constant family feuding drove many well-intentioned activists out of progressive politics.
Newman’s followers were not the only outsiders during this period. There were other organizations that formed and reformed and fell apart during the 1970s. Rejecting the clearly non-revolutionary path of reform within the Democratic Party and the obviously out-of-touch (one might even, in retrospect, call it psychotic) rantings of the so-called Marxist-Leninist left, there were groupings of Marxists thrown up by the turmoil of the sixties who created provisional organizing committees in various U.S. cities. While these organizations did not descend directly from a schism in the Old Left, they did accept the language and general premises of the communist movement.
Although none of these groups got very far in terms of situating themselves in poor and working class communities, many of them were making an effort to “go to the people,” as they put it at the time. Many of these activists, for the most part college educated youth politicized by the sixties, got factory jobs because, utilizing an orthodox Marxist analysis, they identified industrial workers as the leading force of social transformation. They described themselves as the anti-revisionist, non-dogmatic left and they made clear that they were seeking—primarily through discussion, the exchange of analytical papers, etc.—to come together into a new Marxist or Marxist-Leninist party or pre-party.
Two primary leadership poles emerged from these seeking-to-be-confederated local collectives. One was not a local collective at all, but a weekly newspaper. The Guardian was a weekly that had been founded in 1948 to be the organ of Henry Wallace’s presidential run on the Progressive Party line that year. When the Progressive Party failed to hold itself together after the election, The Guardian continued publishing and evolved into the independent (meaning not affiliated with a particular party or organization) national left newspaper of the 1950s, ’60s and’70s. In the seventies, its editor was Irwin Silber, a former Communist Party activist a generation older than most of the others in the anti-revisionist, non-dogmatic left. He led the formation of an organization called Line of March, which argued in the pages of The Guardian and through a number of speaking tours that “rectifying” (correcting) the “line” (the political analysis) of the international communist movement was the key to revitalizing the Left in the United States and elsewhere. His approach was essentially no different from that of the various Marxist-Leninist groupings fighting each other over who had the “correct line.”
The other pole of leadership in this milieu was the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC), a relatively large local collective that argued that practice, the activity of organizing, had to take precedent over the abstract development of theory, that the “correct line” would, and only could, emerge from the practice of attempting to organize the working class. Silber challenged Clay Newlin, the leader of PWOC, to debate him publicly all over the country. Newman warned the PWOC that the moment they agreed to the debate, they had lost the debate, because in so doing they had accepted Silber’s premise; debating among and for other leftists was, by its nature, prioritizing theory over mass organizing. (See, “Dialectics or Dogmatism? A further examination of the vanguard party and the mass organization.”) Newman had no influence on the PWOC. They accepted Silber’s challenge. Of course, neither side “won” the debate; without a mass base there was nothing to win. By the end of the decade, most of the local organizing committees had ceased to function and Silber was ousted as editor of The Guardian in 1979. The paper, diminished in scope and facing constantly shrinking readership, survived until 1992.
This was the left landscape that Newman and his early followers had to navigate in the decade of their birth as a political tendency. As Newman’s initial move off campus indicates, he and his cohorts were, from the start, wary (and weary) of the internal (and infernal) bickering of the Left, primarily because—in the midst of the continuing peace, women’s, gay, and welfare rights movements as well as the attempts to defend and democratize the declining trade unions—this ugly family feuding was obviously substituting for mass organizing activity.
The first thing Newman’s initial group, which called itself If/Then, did was get a storefront in what was then the primarily white working class neighborhood of Washington Heights and begin to organize against the war. They had their windows broken regularly by local youth. During that first year, they moved to another area of Washington Heights and then to the Bronx. Each move and organizing thrust met with similar results.
A naïve attempt, no doubt. Yet it embodied the spirit, the attitude, and the courage that would come to characterize this Postmodern Marxism. This handful of former campus activists knew something had to be done and they knew they had to go to the groups of people with the potential power to do something that mattered. Beyond that, they weren’t versed in Marxist theory. Later in the decade when they had learned more Marxist language, they would call what they did “Facing the Class, Not the Left.”
Within a year and a half, the activists of If/Then concluded that they had to bring more to the activity of organizing in working class communities than the “correct” political positions. They temporarily retreated to friendlier neighborhoods in Manhattan and began building Centers for Change, which, over the next few years, opened free health clinics, therapy centers and small experimental schools (with names like the Robin Hood Re-Learning Center, and the Working Class Room) in various parts of New York City.
The basic method that would guide the development of this Postmodern Marxism was evident in these first organizing efforts as well. They tried something, saw what worked and what didn’t, and based on that experience, reorganized the totality of what they were doing and tried something else. That’s one way to describe what they’ve been doing ever since.
In addition to an unwavering commitment to mass organizing, these Postmodern Marxists-in-the-making also distinguished themselves from the rest of the Marxist Left in the United States by their origins in and embrace of the cultural upheavals of the sixties, that is, to the Counter Culture and its underlying premise that how we live our lives matters—not just individually, but politically.
The Counter Culture was, of course, a mixed bag containing many, sometimes contradictory and usually mixed-together, political and cultural activities and attitudes. What these different strains had in common was “counter.” In various ways, they were reactions and lived alternatives to the corporate dominated culture and ethics of stability and conformity that had prevailed in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Western Europe and the other industrialized nations, since the end of World War II.
The Counter Culture contained a strong backward-gaze that looked romantically toward a once and future pre-industrial, agrarian world. In the United States, the agrarian vision was, not surprisingly, a version of the frontier (minus its genocidal history) and included usually half-baked attempts to emulate Native American culture and spirituality. People moved “back” to the land, setting up farms (often communal) in attempts to be “self-sufficient,” that is, free of dependency on corporate commodities and exchange networks, particularly of agribusiness. Fading echoes of this attempt are seen today in the desire of many consumers to buy “natural” and “organic” and “local” foods and other products.
This backward gaze within the Counter Culture also involved a strong anti-technology strain. Technology and science were viewed as the handmaidens of corporatism and industrial pollution. The ecology movement emerged from this concern, as did more crazed responses such as that of Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” who lived as a recluse in a remote area of Montana, surviving as a hunter-gatherer, while making and sending bombs to various corporations and universities that he felt were egregiously contributing to the continued over-industrialization/technicalization of the world.
There was also a very strong strain of individualism—a glorification of independence or selfishness (take your pick)—in the Counter Culture that drew on America’s deep anti-authoritarian strain and harkened back to a pre-corporate dominated capitalism. This was encapsulated in slogans such as “Do Your Own Thing” and “Whatever Turns You On.” Economically, this led to a high level of small-time entrepreneurship from the making and selling of jewelry and other crafts, to the growing and selling of marijuana. Politically, it led to what is now called Libertarianism. It also served as one (among a number) of rationales for the frequent use of drugs.
At the same time, there was a very powerful communalist pull within the Counter Culture. In the sixties there were millions of (mostly) young people seeking a way out of the isolated, alienated (albeit relatively prosperous) worlds they had grown up in. In addition to feeling confined by the conformity of corporate culture, many were repulsed by its glorification of competitiveness and were left empty by its ethos of “looking out for number one.” They were searching for ways to connect to people in meaningful new ways that were not defined and confined by the traditions they were rejecting. They wanted to be part of something more (or other) than their alienated selves, to live in ways that went beyond a boring job or money-driven career track and an isolated family.
It is not surprising then, that most of those who “returned” to the land set up communal, not family, farms. There were also many (and many variants of) urban communes and other forms of non-traditional (i.e., non-nuclear family) living arrangements being tried out. In many cities and towns, particularly those with universities, food co-ops were established. The co-ops bought food in bulk and in exchange for work shifts at the co-op, members were able to buy good food for less money. In groping toward cooperative and communalist alternatives to the deeply alienated capitalist culture (and economy) they grew up in, this “left” strain in the Counter Culture was informed—consciously and not so consciously—by the communist revolutions that at that time appeared to be spreading and morphing around the world (this was the time of Che Guevara, Vietnam, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution) as well as by the deep spring of utopian socialist experiments (religious and otherwise) in America going back as far at the 1830s.
The pervasive spiritual searching that was woven into the Counter Culture can also be understood as part of the quest for community that many people felt they were missing in the mainstream culture and its religions. “Spiritual” can, of course, be understood in many ways but surely a constant thread in the various uses of the word “spiritual” is the human urge for/conviction that we are more than ourselves, that we are connected with/committed to/part of something beyond our individual selves. (What Marx called “species life.”)
That yearning motivated many people in the Counter Culture. They rejected (or were rejected by) the established religions they had grown up in because they could find no spirituality, no communion, no transcendence of the culture of individualism, competitiveness and alienation there. Some tried variants of Christianity (The Peoples’ Church, The Family) or Islam (the Nation of Islam). Many went further off the beaten track and explored variants of Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American and West African religions, or pre-Christian European paganism, now generally labeled Wicca. So, while the spirit of communalism and communities of the spirit might, at first glace, appear to be separate strands within the Counter Culture, they are more helpfully understood as manifestations of the same cultural/historical reaction against alienation, the same impulse for community.
It was this communalist current within the Counter Culture that Newman and his followers identified with and were produced by. The Postmodern Marxism that they have created over the last four decades, while not accepting the metaphysical assumptions of these various pre-modern spiritual traditions, nonetheless recognizes in them the human need to be connected (unalienated), the need to belong to something beyond “self”—a human need that has increasingly not been met by capitalist social and economic organization.
The key impact of the Counter Cultural origins of this Postmodern Marxism was that it drastically expanded the range of revolutionary organizing beyond the traditional boundaries of orthodox Marxist practice. Previous Marxists had focused their practice and theoretical work almost exclusively on economics and politics. The Counter Culture, in all its variants, held that how we feel, how we perceive ourselves and others, the kinds of relationships we build (personal, sexual, familial as well as economic and political) were not fixed, but could be (and needed to be) reshaped and reorganized by conscious collective effort.
The interface/overlap of the cultural rebellion with the social/political mass movements that emerged in the late ’60s and early ’70s was pervasive. The Women’s Liberation Movement, beyond the demand for “equal pay for equal work,” was, essentially, a cultural movement. It is the Women’s Movement, after all, which gave us the slogan, “The personal is the political.” The Gay Liberation Movement challenged the long standing conflation of sex and procreation, as well as the assumed causality between love and the institution of marriage, none of which had anything directly to do with “class struggle” as the orthodox Marxists had understood it, but all of which had a great deal to do with changing the quality of life of tens of millions of people.
The New Left was remarkably tone-deaf to all of this. As has been noted, although the bulk of its activists were young, its organizational, ideological and cultural roots were deeply sunk in the early part of the 20th Century. Rather than being open to these cultural upheavals, the Left clung to traditional (i.e., bourgeois) cultural norms and assumed, somewhat condescendingly, that the working and poor people would be opposed to these cultural shifts.
Rather than embracing the Counter Culture as an unprecedented mass phenomenon that expanded the range of the struggle against the status quo—that, in fact, changed the very nature of what it meant to be political—the Marxist Left in the U.S., for the most part, was reactive to it. The very fact that the Counter Culture was unprecedented, at least in terms of size and the speed with which it emerged, no doubt helped to de-legitimize it in the eyes of a Left for which precedent and lineage meant so much. The Progressive Labor Party, for example, required that its male members wear their hair short in order not to be perceived as hippies and thus alienate working class people. The irony of this rule was that most of PLP’s organizing in the sixties was not done in working class communities but on campuses where their short hair made them stand out like sore thumbs. Both the old CPUSA and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) were explicitly anti-gay, and openly gay people were not accepted as cadre. The RCP, at least in its early days, also required its heterosexual couples who lived together to get legally married so they would more easily be accepted into working class communities.
For the most part, the Marxist Left dismissed, and to a certain extent, opposed, the Counter Culture on the grounds that it was a “petit-bourgeois” movement, that it consisted of a lot of middle class kids rebelling against their parents. (Echoing, in this regard, the conservatives and reactionaries.) While that might do as a description of the social origins of many of the Counter Culture’s adherents, the same could be said for much of the Marxist Left in the United States at that point; it largely consisted of rebellious middle class young people, who chose to become “communists” instead of “hippies.” The real meaning, for the Left, of the “petit-bourgeois” label, was that the Counter Culture did not focus on economic and political struggle as the Marxists understood those terms.
For the early band of pioneering organizers around Newman in the late sixties and early seventies, this was never an issue. Emerging from the Counter Culture and not from the orthodox Left, they just assumed that emotionality, culture and education had to be engaged along with economic exploitation and political repression. From the start, Newman and his followers approached the job of being a revolutionary as the engagement of the totality of what (as they would learn later) the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci called social “hegemony,” that is, the complex of concepts, emotions, narratives and perceptual constructs (along with the institutions that sustained them) by which those in authority shape daily life, and thus organize/impose their world view (and economic and political interests) on the rest of us.
Their working assumption—more instinctual, in the sense that it was based on the experience of living through the sixties than on any theoretical or ideological rationale—was that human beings changing the world and changing themselves were not discreet pursuits, but the self-same (revolutionary) activity. This notion of revolutionary activity was not new to Marxism; in fact, it was one of Marx’s major contributions to political and cultural thought, and one that, as will be unpacked later, would open the door to his “postmodernization.” Writing in the 1840s, Marx pointed out that, “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice” (Marx, 1974, p. 121). That said, the subsequent 140 years of Marxist practice concentrated almost exclusively on economic and political organizing, neglecting the dialectic between changing oneself and changing the world to such an extent that American Marxists in the sixties found themselves lining up with conservatives in defense of traditional cultural assumptions.
Here again, Newman and his followers were mass organizers. Unlike most “hippies,” they never had any intention of “dropping out” of society. On the contrary, their intent, from the get-go, was to bring what they considered the most liberating aspects of the Counter Culture into the mainstream of society, in particular to those—poor and working people, people of color, women and gays—who suffered most from the old cultural assumptions and who would have the most to gain by restructuring social conventions. Nor did they ever harbor the illusion, rampant in the Counter Culture, that they could change the world simply by example. Even in their earliest years, they were Marxist enough—and revolutionary enough—to know that changing the world involved changing power relations and that changing power relations necessitated mass organizing. The question was never whether you individually (or in small groups) ate organic food, lived collectively, participated in nontraditional personal relationships, rode a bike to get to work instead of driving a car. All those choices were important, of course, but given the dynamics of capitalism, all were inevitably subject to cooptation/commodification unless there was a fundamental change in power relations. The question, as Newman and his followers saw it, was how to create activities and organizations that allowed masses of people to play with new cultural and political possibilities, to create environments in which people could grow and develop in ways that made them more powerful. All of the subsequent history of this Postmodern Marxism—including the papers collected in this volume—has been the process of building such environments.
TOWARD A THERAPEUTIC REVOLUTION…
One of the activities that Postmodern Marxism engaged in virtually from the beginning of its evolution was therapy. Newman and his early followers saw the (re)organization and development of human emotionality as an integral part of the revolutionary activity of (re)organizing and developing the totality of society. Coming to politics from the Counter Culture instead of orthodox Marxism, there was never any question that psychology, education and culture needed to be engaged and transformed along with politics and economics. Nor were they alone in this regard. The cultural turmoil of the sixties gave birth and/or drew attention to numerous attempts at developing progressive therapeutic communities and movements. The orthodox Left however, would find it a strange and suspicious thing for political people to do–as would the institution of psychology.
Psychology, with roots in 19th Century Europe and the United States, became the dominant mode of explanation and means of social adaptation/control in the 20th, particularly in the United States. Presenting/understanding itself simultaneously as a science and as a new cosmology of the interior (the mind, the soul, the unconscious, et al.), psychology in little over a century has given birth to seemingly endless versions of itself. The common denominator of psychology in all its variants has been its concern with the individual—as its starting premise and its unit of study—and its attempt to understand and adapt the individual’s behavior to a society far less integrative (i.e., more alienated) than it predecessors. As political as this role is, psychology has seen and presented itself as above politics. It is, by its own account, a means of helping the human race deal with the flaws of its supposedly unchanging nature.
Yet the concept of the individual, as psychology (and the rest of us) understand it, is a relatively new one in human history. The notion that human beings are essentially separate selves—each with particular self-interests and distinct interior worlds—who must then find successful ways of interacting and connecting with other distinct selves was first expressed by the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers of Europe. In contrast to the powerlessness and passivity that came with being a member of an essentially undifferentiated class or estate or caste in slave and feudal societies, West and East, the notion of the self was a tremendously progressive development in human history which brought in its wake the belief that individuals had political and economic rights and that human beings had the power to make choices about their lives and associations. At the same time, the development of the individuated self also brought with it a gradual dissolution of traditional communities and connectedness (however unequal and brutal that connectedness had been) that had characterized previous human history.
The emergence of the individuated self was concurrent with the emergence of capitalist private property. While all civilized societies (that is, class societies as distinct from tribal societies) have been based on forms of private property, the landed estates of slave societies and the manors of feudalism remained stable over long stretches of time and—except in cases of war and pillage—remained within the same families. Capitalist private property is considerably more fluid; it can and needs to replicate itself endlessly. Capitalist private property is bought and sold. As Marx and Engels poetically describe in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism dynamically transforms virtually everything, including labor itself, into a commodity. Its ceaseless drive is to make everything into private property. It is no wonder, then, that during the centuries in which this economic system came to dominate Europe, and eventually, the world, the self, (the one who owns) came into being and the self’s emotions and thoughts came to be understood as forms of private property.
The rise of capitalist economic organization also brought with it the increasing separation of the producer from the product (and the social process) of his/her labor. Commodificiation meant that most people no longer produced for their own use or for simple exchange; they produced goods and services that were sold, mostly by others (capitalists) who make a profit from their labor. Marx calls this phenomenon alienation. The individuated self through this arrangement becomes steadily unmoored from traditional forms of community—a process that began with early mercantile capitalism some 500 years ago and accelerated drastically with the rise of industrial manufacturing in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Thus the modern self, with all the growth and development it has brought to human life, was born attached at the hip to alienation.
At the same time, and also clearly related to the needs of capitalism, science and technology have developed rapidly over the last two hundred years, resulting in, among many other things, a serious undercutting of the mythologies of religion, along with religion’s traditional role of providing a unifying conceptual/emotional cohesion to social/community life.
The development/invention of the institution of psychology was only possible—or necessary—in a society in which the concept and actuality of the atomized and alienated self had taken hold and in which the traditional role of religion had been significantly undermined.
Those very same conditions—the emergence of alienated labor/the self and the development of science and technology—can also be understood as preconditions for the development of Marxist thought and the socialist and communist movements it inspired. Marxism, on a very basic level, is a revolt against those material conditions and conceptual premises. It rejects the ontology of the self, instead seeing man-as-social, the group as the unit of development/study, and the world as changeable (and in need of change) through man’s activity. Its proclaimed historic mission is to (re)organize human activity in order to qualitatively transform the world-as-it-is—including human beings themselves. Psychology, on the other hand, emerging on the heels of the socialist movement of the 19th Century, takes the alienated, individual self as a given and accepts the world-as-it-is (including human beings) as fundamentally unchangeable. Its social mission (a qualitatively different task than a historic mission) is to adapt the individual and his/her behavior (a qualitatively different concept than activity) to the existing cultural norms of that society.
The rapidity with which the authorities-that-be embraced psychology as a means of social control has been documented elsewhere. (See, for example, Danziger, D. . Constructing the subject: Historical origins of psychological research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and Napoli, D.S.  Architects of adjustment: The history of the psychological profession in the United States. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press.) For the purposes of this discussion, it is enough to note that by the mid-20th Century a large number of researchers, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, etc. were functioning as secular priests, soothing emotional pain and helping masses of people, of various classes, adapt themselves to an increasingly alienated reality. The premises and methods of psychology soon spread beyond its formal borders, influencing everything from literature to organizational management and, perhaps with the most profound consequences, education, particularly in the U.S.
Both wings of modern Marxism—Social Democracy and Communism—failed to sufficiently grapple with the social, cultural and political implications of psychology. This was part of their larger failure to understand the significance of cultural/subjective elements of social control in general. Despite Marx’s simple but profound observation that, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectualforce,” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, ed. C.J. Arthur, New York: International Publishers, p. 65) few Marxists organizers or writers before the development of this Postmodern Marxism had given much thought to the specific processes through which the ruling ideas come into being, are articulated and disseminated.
The major exception in this regard were the members of the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt (known informally as the Frankfurt School) and their intellectual network. They were Marxist intellectuals not formally affiliated with either the Communists or the Social Democrats who grappled with the changes in capitalism in the 20th Century, in particular the role of culture in maintaining the status quo. The Institute for Social Research functioned from 1923 until the election of Hitler in 1933 when much of its faculty fled to Geneva and then to New York City. Having no organization on the ground or any way of maintaining themselves independently of university affiliation, the Frankfurt School had little immediate impact on either the Communist or Social Democratic movements, although the writings of some former Frankfurt School thinkers, particularly Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin, would be influential on the New Left in the 1960s.
In the case of the Social Democrats in Europe, who narrowed the vistas opened up by Marx considerably, revising Marxism into a means of reforming (as distinct from transforming) capitalist society, psychology, and the rest of the conceptual underpinnings that shape our daily lives, appeared to have little relevance to their ongoing need to win the next parliamentary election.
The Communists remained, for the most part, dedicated to overthrowing/transforming the old society. Following Marx’s analysis of the failure of the Paris Commune (see The Civil War in France), they concentrated on overthrowing the State as a precondition for socialism. However, their view of the State was narrow. For the Communists, the State was, essentially, organized violence—the military, the police, prisons, etc. Thus they paid scant attention to the less explicitly repressive, more coercive, means of social adaptation/control—not only psychology but public education and mass media as well— that developed in the last century. This is perhaps understandable given that for much of the 20th Century they were organizing for, making and/or consolidating revolutions, and therefore facing—or enforcing—organized violence daily. It was, for all of that, no less a profound area of underdevelopment.
The most significant exception in this regard was Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, touched on above, which was, among other things, a more nuanced understanding of the State than the one that prevailed in the communist movement, in that it recognized the interpenetration of subjective and objective means of domination. However, Gramsci’s most important writings on this subject, composed in a convoluted style to get by the censors of the fascist prison where he died in 1937, were not translated into most languages until the 1970s. His writings, therefore, had little impact on the Marxist orthodoxy of the 20th Century—although they did blaze a path that would prove helpful to the postmodernization of Marxism.
There were a number of attempts by Marxist intellectuals—from Wilhelm Reich in Germany in the 1920s through Herbert Marcuse (a former member of the Frankfurt School) in the United States in the 1950s and Louis Althusser in France in the 1960s—to learn from and engage Freud. In broad strokes, they attempted to give a Marxist spin to some of Freud’s quasi-biological claims. Marcuse, for example, in his most famous book, Eros and Civilization (1955), accepted Freud’s premise that the erotic instinct was primary, but disagreed that the role of civilization should be to repress it. Instead he argued essentially the opposite, that the problem with civilization was the suppression of Eros. Socialist revolution would/should liberate our erotic energy, transforming alienated labor into “non-alienated libidinal work.” Not surprisingly, his writings were embraced by elements of the sixties’ Counter Culture. Also not surprisingly, Marcuse and the others who engaged Freud and his followers had little impact on either on-the-ground Marxism or on-the-ground psychology, which, after all, were based on totally different premises and were working toward different ends.
For the most part, therefore, modern Marxism took psychology’s claim of being apolitical at face value. Considering therapy little more than a middle class indulgence, it was disinclined and ill equipped to take on a sophisticated enemy of radical change. Postmodern Marxism has embraced therapeutics, in the process transforming it from a means of social adjustment into an activity of social development. In so doing, it has had to endure the slings and arrows of an outrageous (and outraged) Left, and, more to the point, take on the institution of psychology.
In the late sixties and early seventies, as he made his move from liberal university professor to Marxist community organizer and political leader, Newman was in therapy. Decades later, he would say that he had gotten a lot of help from the therapy and isn’t sure that he could have carried on without it. Having been trained in the 20th Century analytic philosophical tradition, (Newman describes himself as being, at that point, anti-metaphysical but not yet a Marxist), what therefore perplexed him about therapy was that talking about his inner life was helpful even though he didn’t believe in an inner life. What then was helpful about it?
The answer he came to was the talking. The social activity of people talking with each other about their emotions could, he concluded, be helpful in making discoveries about how to reorganize their relationship(s) to their emotions. It wasn’t the imposition of a particular mythology of the mind or analytic framework that cured emotional pain, it was the activity of creating conversations together that opened up new emotional possibilities.
It is significant that the main activity of If/Then, the first organizing effort by Newman and his followers, was not staging demonstrations or organizing study groups, but holding conversations with local community people. The fact that those conversations sometimes resulted in smashed windows doesn’t diminish the significant break this signaled with the approach to political organizing that predominated on the U.S. Left at the time. The focus for If/Then, and following close on its heels, Centers for Change, was not on confrontation but on conversation, not on rallying like-minded people to “rip down” or “smash” (common verbs on the Left at the time) perceived injustices, but on organizing environments in which new relationships, new understandings, new emotions and new activities could be generated.
While Postmodern Marxism’s understanding of these activities—and the activities themselves—have developed and grown more sophisticated over the decades, its basic organizing mode remains therapeutic, as distinct from militaristic. It focuses not on the destructive, but on the unity of deconstruction/reconstruction. This is one of the most significant differences this Postmodern Marxism has with its modernist precursor, a difference that has tremendous implications on the very concept of social transformation/revolution.
Getting a job in a drug rehabilitation center in Queens and, over the course of the same few years, launching two experimental schools (the Robin Hood Relearning Center for elementary aged children and the New World High School) connected Newman to a number of people—recovering drug users, therapists, social workers, the parents of students—who were impressed with the work he was doing in these environments and who were also interested in therapy. Newman, with no formal therapeutic training, began doing therapy and was immediately successful at it.
Starting with the realization that the activity of talking together could be helpful, an insight soon enriched by Marx’s from his 1844 Manuscripts, that, “As society itself produces man as man, so it is produced by him. Activity and mind are social in their content as well as in their origin; they are social activity and social mind” (in Marx’s Concept of Man, ed. Eric Fromm, 1967, p. 129), Newman rejected psychology’s presumption that emotionality was a personal, individual, intrapsychic phenomenon. If human beings are indeed “social activity and social mind,” then emotionality, like everything else produced by human beings, is a social phenomenon. Once emotionality is removed from the realm of nature (instinct) and enters the realm of human social construction, it moves, as well, from the eternal and unchangeable to being something that, as Marx put it, both “produces man as man” and is, at the very same time, “produced by him.”
At first Newman and those he trained as therapists called what they were doing Proletarian Therapy, but by the mid-seventies they settled on the less class-based and less categorical term, Social Therapy. The premises of Social Therapy are diametrically opposed to the premises of all the therapies being practiced by the myriad varieties of psychology. For psychology, which starts and ends with the individual, emotionality is in one’s head. The therapist’s job is to help your private emotions fit more harmoniously, less painfully, with the world as it exists. Even when therapy takes the form of a group, psychology understands the group as a tool to help the individuals who make it up with their individual problems. For social therapy, which is by definition a group therapy, emotionality is relational, it’s one of the many things we human beings create together over the course of our lives together, lives that are being lived within the larger journey of human history. It is between us, not within us.
What goes on in social therapy appears on the surface similar to what goes on in psychologically based therapies—people sit around and talk. However, the difference is that in social therapy the group is not a tool for curing individuals. The building of the group is both how and why emotionality is developed/transformed. Helping people with “emotional problems” ceases to be a question of utilizing the correct analysis or technique to “cure” the individual and becomes the ongoing activity of reorganizing what goes on between us, for what goes on between us is not only what we feel, it is how we feel. Thus therapy is transformed from an adaptive process to a developmental one, from an attempt to fix a damaged individual to an attempt to create a new group, that is, a new environment/activity in which people collectively create new relationships with each other and with their emotionality.
The role of the therapist is to lead the group in creating itself as an environment/activity in which everyone develops, and in developing finds new, creative and powerful ways of being in/impacting on the world-as-it-is and as-it-is-becoming. In leading this organizing activity, the therapist relates to the “patient” as a revolutionary, in the sense of being someone capable of transforming him or herself and the world.
Since emotionality, like everything else, is socially constructed, to paraphrase Marx, the ruling emotions of a particular epoch are the emotions (or, at the very least, the emotional constructs) of the ruling class. Reorganizing those emotional constructs is thus a subversive, revolutionary, that is, transformative, activity. Recognizing this and developing the means for engaging psychology on its home turf is perhaps the seminal breakthrough of Newman’s Postmodern Marxism.
Working with therapeutics to undermine psychology is in some ways analogous to revolutionary Marxists working within electoral politics. The electoral systems in the developed (and not so developed) capitalist countries have evolved as a means of maintaining the status quo, i.e. corporate economic interests, protecting those interests through the placement of their advocates in positions of political power, while at the same time fostering a very limited democratic culture in which (at least some of) the people participate in elections in which, for the most part, their choices have been predetermined. Revolutionary Marxists don’t enter this arena of struggle with the illusion that qualitative change can be achieved by playing by the rules established by the ruling class. They take on elections to expose the limitations of such elections, to engage the narrowness of bourgeois democracy and to create new kinds of political alliances and activities that allow for further political development. Similarly, the revolutionary Marxists working with therapeutics don’t do so with the illusion that human development can be qualitatively advanced by playing by the rules of psychology.
The people in a social therapy group are making their own therapy, just as the people building an independent political party or association are making their own political culture. It is through the creation of a therapy and politics that meet their developmental needs rather than the demands of emotional or political adaptation that, at the most fundamental level, is the challenge to the status quo. This analogy is far from exact because, among other things, taking on psychology involves engaging not simply the illusions of bourgeois democracy, but our very notions of who we are. The point is, neither the authority of the electoral system nor the authority of psychology can be transformed or overthrown unless they are challenged—and organizing such challenges is the job of revolutionary Marxists.
The modern Marxists—Social Democrats and Communists alike—have been unable and unwilling to see the revolutionary activity in social therapy. At best (see Ian Parker, Revolution in Psychology: Alienation to Emancipation, Pluto Press, 2007) they project into social therapy a less-than-honorable tactic for recruiting political cadre. At worst the Left—along with every anti-Marxist who has taken notice—has attacked social therapy as a sinister political “brainwashing” effort. Both responses reflect the Left’s naïveté relative to the engagement of psychology (and subjectivity in general) and its willful blindness to the collective activity of development that is the social therapy group.
In fact, much of the orthodox Left has taken great umbrage at the opening up of this new area of revolutionary activity. Since the early 1980s, the remnants of the American Left have teamed up with the establishment press and elements of the State (regulatory agencies, etc.) to launch a steady barrage of hysterical and absurd attacks on social therapy in particular and this Postmodern Marxism’s social therapeutic approach to organizing in general.
When Newman and his followers took up their battle with psychology they were not starting from scratch. Within psychology there were dissidents and discontents who pioneered concepts and approaches that Newman and his colleagues would build on to engage the foundations of psychology.
As far back as the 1930s the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan and others argued that to understand the individual you have to understand the network of social relations that s/he is a part of. “Interpersonal Analysis,” as his approach came to be called, located the causes of mental distress not primarily “inside” the patient but outside in the cultural and social forces that shaped her or him, and urged therapists to focus on the “interactional” not the “intrapsychic.” In the 1940s and ’50s, Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman developed Gestalt Therapy, a therapeutic approach that emphasizes the process (what is happening) over the content (what is being discussed). Its focus is on the activity of conversation, not on the interpreting, explaining or judging of the conversation that characterizes traditional psychoanalysis. R.D. Laing, whose most influential work was done in the 1960s, saw madness as part of the human condition, and believed that people could emerge from severe mental illness with important insights and even become wiser and more grounded as a result. Thomas Szasz, took Laing’s critique of the traditional attitudes toward mental illness further, arguing in his book The Myth of Mental Illness (1960) and elsewhere that “mental illness” is a euphemism for behaviors that are disapproved of. He believed that psychiatry in particular, but by implication, the entire institution of psychology, is a social control system that disguises itself in the costume of science.
These radical approaches and critiques inspired numerous experimental therapies, including Newman’s, in the sixties and early seventies. Yet none of them challenged the ontological assumption of the individuated self. While they located the causes of emotionality in the social, the emotionality itself continued to reside within the individual. Newman’s qualitative advance, building on Marx, was in understanding not only the causes but also the emotionality itself as social. In so doing, he was able to avoid the need to reconnect individuals to what they were already a part of, namely the group—be it a social therapy group or the larger society—which was, in fact, always creating and recreating emotionality together. The social therapist had a fundamentally different (and far more radical) task: to provide leadership to the building of the group (whatever group) as a developmental activity. Newman was thus laying the foundations both for a qualitatively different kind of therapy, and, more to the point, for a qualitatively different way to approach organizing for social transformation.
Therapy was, of course, never an end in itself for Newman and the rag-tag band of activists he gathered around him during the first half of the 1970s. They were not interested in creating a niche for themselves as radical therapists; they were determined to participate in a political/social/cultural revolution. Their view of themselves at that time was as revolutionaries-in-the-making in search of revolutionary leadership. Toward this end, they participated in the mass movements of the time—the Peace Movement, defense of the Panthers, the drive for local control of the public schools, etc.—took part in union organizing drives in their workplaces, and became active in the electoral campaigns of the People’s Party. At the same time, they were working hard to educate themselves as Marxists, studying the “sacred texts” without the religious mind-set, attending public meetings and engaging in ongoing political dialogue with various Marxist and Marxist-Leninist organizations.
As part of their outreach to progressives, they also reached out to other radical therapists, mental health activists and therapeutic communities: the Mental Health Liberation Project in New York City; the Philadelphia Association at Kingsley Hall in London, a community founded by R.D. Laing where therapists and psychic patients lived together; the Sullivan Institute, a therapeutic community based on Manhattan’s Upper West Side which traced its therapeutic practice back to the ideas of Harry Stack Sullivan; and a number of others. What they found was that these groups were not concerned about making significant changes in the world beyond psychology. Mass organizing was not really within their frame of reference. Despite their outrage, for example, at the treatment of mental patients, or no matter how convinced they were that their particular therapeutic approach was more helpful than were others, their ambitions were limited to furthering their own project and/or reforming psychology. They were not particularly interested in a group of would-be-revolutionaries who wanted to change everything.
The one exception in this regard was the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition. As the name implies, it was not a grassroots grouping; it was a research laboratory, part of the prestigious Rockefeller University on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Nor was it particularly concerned with therapy; it was an interdisciplinary group of psychologists, anthropologists and linguists who were interested in researching cognition, that is, how human beings in various cultures learn, know and develop. While the leader of the lab, Michael Cole, was not interested in moving beyond the academy, a number of the graduate and post graduate researchers working with him in the mid and late seventies would go on to become significant leaders of this Postmodern Marxism. Lenora Fulani would emerge in the 1980s as the movement’s best-known mass organizer and leader in electoral politics and Lois Holzman in the late 1970s would become Newman’s major intellectual partner in deepening social therapy and expanding the social therapeutic model to education and youth organizing—and bringing it out around the world. (Another Lab associate, Jeff Aron, would go on to become an important on-the-ground organizer who helped to pioneer this Postmodern Marxism’s grassroots fundraising and community building model.)
The most significant accomplishment of the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition in terms of impacting on psychology and education was the translation by a team headed up by Cole of Lev Vygotsky’s book Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes, a selection of Vygotsky’s important essays, most of which had not been available in English before.
Vygotsky graduated college in 1917, supported the Bolsheviks in the civil war and went on to become one of the first psychologists in the new Soviet Union. Unlike the road that psychology was taking in the West toward becoming an institution of social control, psychology in the early Soviet Union was still in its infancy and Vygotsky’s concern was with helping people to develop the skills—many of them basic, such as learning to read and write—needed to build a new society in a nation devastated by war and famine. He was the first to apply/develop the Marxist dialectic relative to the subjective realm, in particular, to the arenas of human leaning and development. He approached human development as a social activity, taking place not in biologically predetermined stages (as the Swiss natural scientist turned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget did) but through the interaction of children and adults, in which the children creatively imitate, or in his words, perform “as if a head taller” than themselves and through this process learn language and all the other social skills of being human in their particular culture.
Vygotsky called the social activity through which this development happened, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The key dynamic of the ZPD is that people with varying levels of experience and skill work together with the result that everyone grows and develops. Everyone in the ZPD is simultaneously both who they are and who they are becoming, with the emphasis, for those interested in development, on the becoming. While Vygotsky concentrated his studies almost exclusively on the family and classroom where children work and play with caregivers and teachers, this Postmodern Marxism found in the ZPD a useful way of understanding what went on in social therapy groups and other organizing activities they were engaged in. The simple but profound discovery that people develop by creating something together would become a key methodological understanding of this Postmodern Marxism.
Vygotsky died of tuberculosis in 1934 at the age of 38. Had his health held up, it is generally agreed that Stalin would have had him executed a few years later. The Soviet Union under Stalin was more concerned with stability than with development and Vygotsky’s work was criticized in official circles for its “idealist aberrations.” His writings were not kept in print and his books taken out of most Soviet libraries. Although a small group of researchers, known as the Kharkov School of Psychology, kept his legacy (barely) alive in the Soviet Union, Vygotsky, clearly one of the most creative thinkers to emerge from the Russian Revolution and the only one to seriously apply dialectics to human development in daily life, was not to become a significant influence on the development of Soviet psychology or education. Since his writings were not translated at all until the 1960s, he had no impact on the international communist movement.
The first English translators of Vygotsky in 1962 edited out any reference to Marx or Marxism. It was not until Michael Cole and his colleagues published Mind in Society in 1978 that the significance of Vygotsky’s work became clear to English readers and his work began to influence psychology along with those who would become America’s Postmodern Marxists. Today there is a Vygotskyian school of thought within educational and developmental psychology and an international academic discipline based on his ideas called Activity Theory.
While the academic researchers and theorists who have embraced Vygotsky tend to focus on his work with children and to concentrate on his contributions to understanding early childhood development and schooling, Newman and Holzman and the Postmodern Marxists influenced by them, see in Vygotsky a major creative force in Marxism whose application of dialectics to human development laid the foundation for the engagement and transformation of the culture of day-to-day life, and as such, view him as a bridge between modernist Marxism and coming into-being Postmodern Marxism.
TOWARD A PERFORMATORY REVOLUTION…
Lois Holzman met Fred Newman when she went to hear him give a lecture on the subject of “Marxism and Mental Illness” in 1976. She was doing postgraduate work at Michael Cole’s Laboratory for Cognitive Comparative Human Cognition after receiving her doctorate in developmental psychology from Columbia University. While Mind in Society was still two years from publication, she and other members of the Lab were studying it in manuscript. Impressed by what she heard from Newman, Holzman signed up to take a six-week seminar with him entitled, “The Crisis in Science and Society.” Three years later Newman and Holzman, now working together in what they called the New York Institute for Social Therapy and Research, published “The Practice of Method,” the first writing in this collection.
The Institute, founded in 1978, has, over the years, gone through a number of name changes and at this writing is known as the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy. Whatever variations in name, it has consistently served as a research and education center for this Postmodern Marxism. Never affiliated with a university, a foundation or any other top-down funding source, it has been sustained, in various combinations, by revenue from social therapy and individual donations. Like all the organizations built by this Postmodern Marxist movement, (and unlike, for example, the Frankfurt School) the Institute has remained independent of the state and its complex web of surrogates. It has, instead, been dependent on and organically linked to the movement’s mass organizing. Thus it has been able to serve as a grassroots, activist “think tank” reflecting on and deepening the work of the mass organizing. It has been both the source of the methodology utilized by this Postmodern Marxism’s various mass organizing efforts and the beneficiary of the advances their practices make to the ongoing development of the methodology. (It has been, in this sense, a pioneer of what in academic circles is now called “participatory action research,” in this case linked not to a university or foundation research project but to the historical project of transforming the world.) This dynamic relationship between research and mass organizing activity has allowed Newman and Holzman and others at the Institute to play an unprecedented role in helping to develop new tools for social change, most particularly for getting beyond the constraints of ideology and discovering a method for reigniting human development.
The question facing Marxists—indeed anyone seeking qualitative social transformation whatever their historical, political or religious roots—is how to break out of the ideological stranglehold of bourgeois ideology. That ideology is more than simply this or that idea, this or that policy, this or that emotion; it is the generalized ways we have been socialized to understand the world and ourselves. It determines the very notion of “reality” and, therefore what we think is possible. Those categories of understanding/seeing/feeling have evolved in relation to social and economic conditions and have been reinforced by the evolution of those conditions over at least 500 years, (some of the basic categories go back much further than that) and are promoted and reinforced in school, on the radio and television, by popular music, etc. everyday, every hour.
If our concepts of “human nature” and “reality” have such deep cultural roots and are being constantly propagated and reinforced by public education, the media, and the consensus of “common sense,” if, indeed, our very notion of what’s possible is predetermined how can we ever come up with qualitatively new ways of seeing and living? How can a new consensus on what’s possible be established when we apparently have no way of thinking/seeing/feeling beyond the cognitive/perceptual/emotional box we have been born into?
The answer that modern Marxism proposed—following, in this regard, the rest of modernism—was scientific in form and cognitive in its foundation. To rationalize and propagate revolutionary change they embraced science, accepting it as an objective means of understanding and changing the world. Marx and Engels and their numerous followers called themselves “scientific socialists” to distinguish themselves from earlier, well meaning but, in their view, naïve “utopian socialists” who had advocated for socialism without the insights and methods of modern science. The fact that science itself is a social construct did not occur to them, or, in all fairness, to anyone else in the 19th or early 20th Centuries. Like other modernists, Marxists embraced science as an “objective” way of seeing the world—social as well as natural—and made the claim of being better (social) scientists than their bourgeois opponents. (For a discussion of science as a socially constructed paradigm see Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.)
Science has obviously proven itself to be a very useful construct relative to understanding and interfacing productively with the natural world. By the end of the 19th Century, the success of science, and its practical handmaiden, technology, in harnessing and transforming nature was unprecedented in human history and science was rapidly being extended from a means of studying and interfacing with the natural world into a general worldview and universal explanation. Thus the social sciences were born and most social movements, academic disciplines and institutions emerging at that time—from psychology to Marxism to the Church of Christ, Scientist—attempted to don the mantle of science, albeit often with very little resemblance to the real thing.
That a method developed to study stars and molecules, bacteria and chemicals would apply to the study of human social interaction and transformation appears, to our postmodern eyes, absurd on the face of it. Yet it is the assumption that prevailed in the 19th and 20th Centuries (even as it co-existed with pre-modern religious worldviews) and continues to dominate in modern societies today. That Marxism, emerging in this historic context, claimed to be scientific is, therefore, quite understandable. Being understandable, however, doesn’t change the fact that the attempt to fit human social organization and transformation into a scientific framework would prove to be a significant obstacle to the historic task of finding our way out of the fly bottle of bourgeois ideology.
That Marxists would so readily accept the model of the natural sciences as applicable to human development is particularly ironic given Marx’s methodological point that, “As society itself produces man as man, so it is produced by him.” This is a seminal insight of Marxism (which this Postmodern Marxism has emphasized and developed) and it has stood in stark contrast for a century and a half to the premise of conservatives of all stripes that human beings are not capable of qualitatively changing the world because they have a core “nature” (be it defined in terms of religion or science) that can not be qualitatively developed or transformed.
While human beings are surely a part of nature and share with other life forms the drives to survival and procreation, there is very little, if anything, beyond that that can be reduced to the “natural” or instinctual in human beings. It is our scarcity of instinct that is our unique strength and the key to our surviving and thriving for the simple reason that it opens up the possibility and necessity of development. Unlike any other animal on the planet, we are not “hard-wired” to a life cycle of predetermined behaviors. We are distinguished by our ability to actively interface with nature and ourselves to produce and reproduce our world, including—as Marx emphasized—our ways of producing and distributing our means of sustenance and how we organize our drive to procreate. Chemicals react to each other in prescribed ways that apparently never change. On the other hand, even a cursory survey of human history and anthropology reveals that this is not the case with human social life. The societies that we have collectively produced produce us. We create ourselves and our day-to-day world in ways that are hardly analogous to molecules and mollusks.
Thus modern Marxism contained within itself a serious paradox that it proved incapable of resolving and which ultimately would leave it impotent relative to the engagement of bourgeois ideology. On the one hand, it maintained that human nature and human social life was not primarily determined by nature. On the other, it tried to use the scientific method and worldview, developed to study the natural world, to study and transform the human (social) world.
The most obvious arena in which modern Marxism attempted to impose a scientific model is in its concept of history. The notion that human kind moved through a series of developmental social stages based on productive capacity and organization—savagery, barbarism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, communism—clearly has more to do with analogies to nature—be it the life cycles of insects or Darwin’s theory of evolution—than to the actuality of human history. While there are surely discernible patterns to be found in which similar social systems emerge from similar natural, economic and historical circumstances, it is just as discernible that these developments have never moved in a straight line or that they are universal to all human societies. Marx and Engels implied this theory of history in The Communist Manifesto. It was rationalized as scientific and codified by Engels in The History of the Family, Private Property and the State and was quickly adopted as dogma by both the Social Democracy and Communism.
It should also be noted that this view of history, while rationalized by Engels as “scientific,” bares at least as much resemblance to Hegel’s idealist notion that history is the Weltgeist (the World Spirit) evolving to higher and higher levels of development through human agency, as it does to (the popular understanding of) Darwin’s theory of evolution. There are also echoes in this modern Marxist story of the even older narrative found in Jewish, Christian and Muslim mythology of history culminating in a Judgment Day (The Revolution) in which the evil are punished and human kind enters a golden age (Communism).
That such a “scientific” view of history was so easily embraced by Marxist activists in a variety of cultures around the world speaks not only to its resonance with earlier historical narratives, but also to the undeniable fact that it is comforting. Its clear implication (often, in fact, explicitly claimed) is that communism is inevitable. Whatever the obstacles and setbacks Marxist activists may face, history (thus abstracted from human activity), this view held, is on the side of the oppressed. Just as life evolved from single-cell life forms to human beings, so the human species as a whole will evolve from its various backward states of social organization to communism. As in a chemical formula, the “objective conditions” of capitalism must lead to its transformation into socialism and, eventually, communism.
This myth dressed-up as science was clung to by tens of millions of people around the world until the collapse of the Soviet Union in1989. That collapse—of both the Soviet Union and of the myth of inevitability—meant, for most old Communists and, of course, all of their enemies, the collapse of Marxism itself. For the emerging Postmodern Marxism, it was one indication among many of the limitations of science, rationality, cognition and, indeed, of the framework of modernism itself as a basis for social development and transformation.
The limitations imposed on modern Marxism’s development by its insistence on being “scientific” went well beyond imposing natural science metaphors onto human development. Like the rest of modernism, Marxism’s attempt to understand human activity within the natural science model was based on cognitive/rationalist assumptions about human beings. These assumptions, which modern Marxists shared with most of their bourgeois enemies, were rooted in the Enlightenment’s premise most famously articulated by Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” This rationalist bias goes back much further in Western culture to ancient Greece, but was significantly reinforced by the rise of science and technology starting in 15th Century Europe.
Not questioning this cognitive bias, modern Marxists believed that the way out of bourgeois ideological control lay through knowing. (Here I am primarily referring to Communists because the Social Democrats abandoned any attempt to challenge bourgeois ideology early in the 20th Century.) The Communists were fond of slogans such as, “Each One, Teach One” and “Knowledge is Power.” That these slogans were shared by many non-Marxists as well speaks to the common rationalist assumptions of modernism. Thus they attempted to break out of bourgeois ideology by, in effect, positing an ideology of their own, which they called Marxism-Leninism, missing the point that ideology, a system of cognition and perception, was itself a bourgeois construct.
The Communists’ basic mode for attempting to overcome bourgeois ideology was “consciousness raising,” the assumption being that Marxism when properly understood provided people a higher level of consciousness. (This approach was adopted by the feminist movement in the 1960s.) Traditional Communist parties organized “study groups” for the people they were organizing and their own internal meetings alternated between “business meetings” one week to discuss ongoing organizing work and “study meetings” the next week to study the texts of Marxism Leninism. In nation states where the Communists held state power, this activity sometimes took the form of “re-education” camps where “consciousness raising” became mandatory.
Modern Marxists held, essentially, that if poor and working people could be led past the lies of the ruling class and understood what was really going on under capitalism they would want to overthrow it. The most sophisticated articulation of this approach came from George Lukacs, a Hungarian Communist. In his book History and Class Consciousness (1923) Lukacs labeled bourgeois ideology “false consciousness” and claimed that it needed to be replaced by “true class consciousness.” He and others who built on his work, including Althusser, denied that Marxism Leninism was an ideology, because ideology was, for them, as for Marx, a false social construct. (In this they differed from the mass of Communist organizers and activists around the world who had no problem with the word ideology. For them, Marxism happened to be the correct ideology because it was “scientific” and therefore in sync with the real/objective world.) Despite Lukacs’ and Althusser’s recognition of ideology as a social construct, their reliance on the categories of truth and falsehood reflected not only the acceptance of the modernist notion of an objective reality independent of human agency, but also implied what can only be called a faith, a faith they shared with the rest of the Communist movement, in the power of cognition and rationality to lead to social transformation. And so, like Wittgenstein’s fly trapped in a glass bottle, human beings, seeking change/development/revolution keep bouncing off the invisible walls of rationality and cognition.
For those seeking to change the world, the bind of knowing is that what is known can only be a product of the past. This is its fatal flaw relative to development and transformation. Even when the knowledge is gained, for example, through experimentation and thus appears to be new, its newness is constrained and (to use a Freudian term) overdetermined by the set-up of the experiment. Knowing, as necessary, and vital as it is to the continuation of human culture and as exciting as it can be to acquire, is, nonetheless, a closed system. As distinct from Marxist methodology (the dialectic, which is an open and constantly evolving creative process) Marxism Leninism as ideology was, at best, a reflection of that process fossilized as a dead set of ideas and, at worst, a rationalization for whatever mistakes and crimes the Communists were guilty of.
When the Communists attempted to counter the cognitively based knowing model of bourgeois ideology with a cognitively based knowing ideology of their own, they had already lost the battle of the 20th Century. Like the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee when it agreed to debate Silber’s Line of March organization about whether practice or theory was primary, the modern Marxists had lost the ideological battle from the start precisely because it was ideological, that is, premised on cognition and knowing, premises of the bourgeois worldview.
The immediate re-emergence of nationalism, anti-Semitism, sexism, material greed and religiosity in the former Soviet Union and the rest of Eastern Europe after 1989 is painful evidence of this failure. In fact, re-emergence is probably the wrong word, since they never went away. Under the gloss of Marxist language there was precious little human development under Soviet socialism. The old Communists, despite giving lip service to the emergence of a “new man” under socialism, had not a clue about engaging and transforming the “old man.” The bourgeoisie won because it was right about “human nature” as it currently exists, and the modern Marxists, being trapped by modernism, had no way of developing or escaping that “human nature.”
It’s not that this Postmodern Marxism had developed an alternative to “scientific socialism” from the start. As will be obvious when reading those essays in this volume written in the 1970s and ’80s, this Postmodern Marxist held on to the label (and the claim) of science for sometime. What was clear, however, to the emerging Postmodern Marxists was that while the Communists had succeeded in some parts of the world in making political and economic revolutions, they had failed everywhere in breaking out of the framework of the bourgeois worldview, that is, out of the generalized ways we have been socialized to understand the world and ourselves. The way out of that trap that this Postmodern Marxism had developed by the late 1980s was not a better science or an alternative way of knowing; it was a qualitatively different activity—performance.
In 1989 Newman wrote in Stono, a short-lived cultural journal published by the coming-into-being Postmodern Marxist movement, that, “…in a world so totally alienated as ours doing anything even approaching living requires that we perform. To be natural in bourgeois society is to be dead-in-life. Unnaturalness is required if we are to live at all. … The avant-garde (at least some of it) urged the re-organization of the performers (to make them less performatory). But if life is performance shouldn’t we instead get the audience to perform? Perhaps the performers must organize the audience to perform.”
This was the first articulation in print of an approach to practice that had been evolving throughout the 1980s within the very unorthodox Marxist movement that Newman led. (Similar conclusions, albeit without explicit revolutionary concerns, were also emerging within the performance art movement and in the then new academic discipline of Performance Studies.)
Performance has, of course, been associated in modern societies with the theatre and its progeny, film and television. It has been generally assumed that performance is a creative act appropriate only within the confines of those institutions. It is on stage and screen that we are allowed to be weird, to be other than ourselves, to try out new behaviors, to work with others to consciously create new experiences. The realization that performing could also take place off stage in all aspects of daily life has provided this Postmodern Marxism with the way out of the trap of ideology, be it bourgeois or Marxist-Leninist.
Performance, as this Postmodern Marxism has come to understand it, is the human capacity to simultaneously be who-we-are and who-we-are-not/who-we-are-becoming, an activity that can take place in virtually any social situation. As such, performance is both practical and critical, active and reflective and allows human beings to go beyond what they already know and create new things and activities together. This understanding of performance, which allowed Newman and his followers to get beyond the confines of the modernist commitment to knowing, developed out of the dynamic interplay of Newman and Holzman’s intellectual work with the mass organizing their political movement was engaged in.
The conceptual basis for the performance turn in Marxism grew primarily out of Vygotsky’s work. He had, as we have noted, observed that children learn language and other social skills by “performing” as if “a head taller” than themselves, and identified imitation (in the creative rather than the mimicking sense) as a process essential to development. (Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.) Newman and Holzman, looking at how the social therapy group is able to help people develop and create new emotions, began to see the activity of building the group as an improvisational performance in which the participants were able, at times, to perform beyond who they were and together create new versions of themselves. People were developing not through knowing more (or different) things, and not by a knowledgeable therapist applying the “correct analysis,” to their emotions or history, but by creating new activities together through an improvised ensemble performance. The clear implication was that such developmental performances could also be created in other social environments—other ZPDs—as well. This discovery would prove to be a seismic shift in the nature of revolutionary organizing.
It was not Vygotsky alone who prepared the intellectual groundwork of Marxism’s performance turn. Given Newman’s background in the philosophy of science and Holzman’s in developmental psychology, psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, they were well schooled in what has been termed the “linguistic turn” in intellectual life in the second half of the 20th Century. While the linguistic turn refers to many things across many academic/intellectual disciplines—including, but not limited to social constructionism, and psychological and psychotherapeutic approaches such as collaborative therapy, discursive psychology, and narrative therapy—its gist is a move away from viewing language as representational, that is, words and grammar as simply a means of representing things in the objective world (and/or subjective things, that is, “thoughts” in the mind), to language as a relational activity that shapes how we see.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, particularly in his later work, is seminal in this regard. He viewed language not as representing anything but, “as activity, or a form of life.” It was his contention that this misunderstanding of the nature of language was constraining the development of philosophy (and human development in general); philosophy was so tangled up in its dead language and its deadening understanding of language that it could not go much further on its old terms. Language, by Wittgenstein’s view, is not a tool for explaining what is (which, of course, is the presumption of virtually all Western philosophy, science and “common sense”) but a continuous social activity (“language games” he called them) by which human beings ceaselessly shape and reshape their perception, their ways of seeing. The implications of Wittgenstein’s later work, at least for those concerned with social transformation, are enormous. If we can alter the ways in which language is used, develop new ways of talking, or shift the context of usage, we can, indeed, develop new perceptions, new possibilities, new ways of relating to each other. The interesting question for social therapy—and for social change in general–became not “How do people use words?” but “How do people create meaning?” That is where Vygotsky proved helpful.
Although not a Marxist by any stretch of the word, Wittgenstein’s view of language as a “form of life” segues well with Vygotsky’s formulation that speaking and thinking are a dialectical unity in which language completes—rather than expresses—thought. Vygotsky, building on Marx’s dialectic, observed that children learning to speak did so long before they were “explaining” anything, indeed, long before they could possibly “know” what they were saying. Thought and language develop in tandem through social interaction with others and the child’s thought was, in fact, often completed by others.
All of this resonated, for Newman and Holzman, with Marx’s famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, that, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Newman and Holzman, in bringing Vygotsky’s and Wittgenstein’s views of language together, were able to approach language and conversation as a practical-critical, that is, revolutionary activity. Wittgenstein’s view of language as a social, meaning-making activity as distinct from a tool for interpreting, explaining, labeling or describing, recognized language’s dynamic role in human life and human transformation. Like Wittgenstein’s view of language as “a form of life,” Vygotsky’s discovery of the unity of thinking and language highlighted its constructive/active meaning-making nature and pointed the way out of the deadening weight of inherited language (and perception).
As they did with the rest of Vygotsky, Newman and Holzman moved the meaning making of thought/language beyond the early childhood contexts that Vygotsky had studied toward the self-conscious performance of new meanings at any age and in a variety of social contexts, the social therapy groups being, in effect, their living laboratories. Although, in various ways, the soon-to-be Postmodern Marxists had been approaching conversation as a revolutionary activity in much of their organizing since the days of If/Then, their synthesis of Vygotsky and Wittgenstein relative to language gave them a way to understand what they had been doing and how it could be further developed. If meaning making with/through language was a social activity that human beings could consciously perform, then they could, by implication, consciously perform (and transform) other social activities as well.
There are two related points to note here. First is that Newman’s training in philosophy at Stanford and Holzman’s in psychology at Columbia and Rockefeller gave them an intimacy with the most developed and sophisticated aspects of those disciplines. This allowed them to break out of the self-imposed and self-defeating parochialism that characterized Marxism during most of the 20th Century. As we have seen, the Marxist orthodoxy dismissed psychology. It also considered virtually all non-Marxist philosophers to be irrelevant (because they were not concerned with changing the world) and/or dangerous “bourgeois” thinkers (developing sophisticated rationalizations for capitalist domination). Newman and Holzman decisively rejected the willful ignorance of the communist movement. They were able to build with all that the human species had developed intellectually. Without their educational backgrounds and openness to building with everything available, it seems unlikely that this Postmodern Marxism would have been able to make the breakthroughs that it has. At the same time, it’s essential to remember that Newman’s and Holzman’s intellectual work was not happening separately from their movement’s continuous mass organizing, nor did it precede the experience of organizing. It is not that this Postmodern Marxism knew what it was doing and then did it. It was more like building the ship as it set off to cross the sea. The intellectual and organizing work have for some forty years functioned as a dialectical unity, each informing and enriching the other—with the common motivation/task of transforming the world.
One significant and sustained organizing activity that fueled the performance turn in Marxism was the Castillo Theatre. In 1983 the Institute for Social Therapy and Research, which from its inception viewed its mission as engaging not only psychology, but education and culture as well, launched the Rosa Luxemburg-George Jackson Center for Working Class Education, which held classes in everything from literacy to Marxist theory, and the Otto Rene Castillo Center for Working Class Culture, which included an art gallery and a performance space, in the Flatiron District of Manhattan.
What lasted was the Castillo Theatre. (The education center transformed a few years later into the East Side Institute.) What Castillo did, particularly after Newman became directly involved as a director and playwright in 1986—which proved not only popular but useful in the development of this Postmodern Marxism—was to bring together working class and poor people (some of whom were Marxists) and professionally trained theatre people (some of whom were also Marxists) to create performance pieces and plays. These performances explored, sometimes directly and sometimes more abstractly, questions and challenges facing the mass organizing/community building being done by the coming-into-being Postmodern Marxist movement. It involved people engaged in that mass organizing as performers, tech and house staff, and as audience members.
Thus, the Castillo Theatre became an on-going and ever-evolving ZPD in which all the activities of producing theatre—most importantly performance—came into constant interface with the activities and lives of political organizers and community members. In creating and viewing these performances together, they collectively exercised their social/political imaginations to explore and play with new possibilities. It also gave a significant percentage of the emerging Postmodern Marxist activists the experience of performing on stage, an experience that, as we shall see, proved transferable to the street, that is, to daily life and various types of political, community and cultural organizing.
At virtually the same time, organizers in Newman’s political tendency began to produce talent shows for young people in poor neighborhoods throughout New York City. These shows grew out of the work of the New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council. The Council, organized in the second half of the seventies, was a union for those on welfare. At its height, it had some ten thousand members and offices throughout New York City. (It was the organizing of the Council that first established a mass base for the future Postmodern Marxists among the poorest strata of New York City’s African American and Latino communities. In the early 1980s, that base would become the foundation of the New Alliance Party, which preserved and nurtured independent electoral activity/culture during a decade when a survey revealed that most American high school students believed that a third party was illegal in America.)
Members of the Council repeatedly told the Marxist organizers that they should do something for their children, who had nothing to do but hang out on the streets and get in trouble. So, in the spirit of going to the people and building something new together, a spirit that has characterized this Postmodern Marxism from its earliest days, the Marxist organizers asked the young people what they wanted to do and the young people said they wanted to put on talent shows. This was the period of hip-hop’s emergence and youth in the Black and Latino communities were eager to showcase their break dancing, rapping and other performance skills. The organizers and the young people (and some of the parents) worked together to produce a talent show in a local church basement. It proved popular and so another one was organized. As of this writing, the organization that emerged from this initial work, the All Stars Talent Show Network, involves thousands of young people as performers and producers every year and is active in New York City, Newark, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as in Amsterdam, Holland. Its success has led to the development of a number of other performance based youth programs—the Development School for Youth, Youth Onstage! and the Performance of Youth by Youth.
Newman and his followers, as has been noted, were concerned with education and youth organizing from the get-go. Along with others emerging from the Counter Culture of the 1960s, they rejected the hierarchal, authoritarian and industrial model of education that continues to prevail in the United States and around the world. In addition to running experimental schools in the early 1970s, Newman and Holzman and other educators who worked with them made a point of visiting and studying alternative schools and education approaches. Between 1985 and 1994 the Postmodern Marxists also ran a Vygotskyian-inspired elementary school, the Barbara Taylor School, named after its founder and principal Barbara Taylor, first in Harlem and later in Brooklyn. (See, Schools for Growth: Radical Alternatives to Current Educational Models by Lois Holzman, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.)
Political youth organizing in the late seventies and eighties among the African American poor proved very challenging. The victories over legal segregation achieved by the Civil Rights Movement stood in frustrating contrast to the fact that the vast majority of African Americans remained trapped in poverty and underdevelopment. Black leaders who had attempted to address the abolition of poverty—Malcolm X, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers—had been assassinated. Riots in response to these assassinations, to police brutality, etc. had left many urban African American communities physically devastated. The crack epidemic was beginning. Black youth in poor communities were demoralized, politically and otherwise. Traditional left issues fell on cynical and deaf ears.
Beyond the specifics of content, however, it became increasingly clear to these Marxist organizers that the cognitive model of teaching, in which one person knows and the other(s) doesn’t, wasn’t working—not only in the schools but also as a means of organizing. Cognitively based teaching was experienced by Black youth (and many of their elders) as a way of talking down. Given the centuries during which cognitively-based knowledge was developed by and for white-dominated society and systematically denied to African Americans and largely used against them, it was no wonder that knowledge had come to be considered “white.” Newman and his fellow organizers on streets of New York’s Black “ghettos” began to see that an insistence on cognitive learning was a denial of the young people’s way of being. The understanding of the African American poor was more of an understanding from within a situation, a group, a culture than a “knowing-what” or “knowing-how.”
In this context, the suggestion of producing talent shows not only clued the Marxists organizers into something the young people wanted to do, it established a common ground upon which they and the youth could meet and interact developmentally. From the vantage point of the organizers, performance was necessary to make a break from the dominance of cognition. Instead of asking, What do you stand for? or What do you believe? The question becomes, What are you doing? Wittgenstein’s breakthrough in philosophy was to shift the focus from what words and sentences mean to the activity of making language. Newman’s breakthrough in organizing has been to shift the focus from cognition—the teaching/learning of the meaning of Marxism (or anything else)—to the collaborative performative activity of creating something new together.
The importance of the Talent Show Network in this regard is that its evolution has been one of the activities through which this shift came into being. It has developed as an environment/activity in which working class young people perform, not only as rappers, dancers and singers, but also “a head taller” than themselves, as sound and lighting technicians, house and stage managers, producers—bringing their communities out to see the shows and organizing other young people to participate. Even before the coming-into-being Postmodern Marxists had the language for it, the talent shows were shifting the nature of their organizing from a knowledge based model to a performance based model. Thus the Castillo Theatre and the All Stars Talent Show Network brought variations of performance center stage, so to speak, in the organizing activities of this Postmodern Marxist movement.
While all this was happening, the expanding movement/community initiated and led by the soon-to-be Postmodern Marxists was trying various ways to fund its activities that circumscribed the State and that deepened its ties to ordinary people. (In the 1980s, the primary organizations built by Newman’s followers included the New Alliance Party along with its weekly newspaper, The New York Alliance, later, The National Alliance; the All Stars Talent Show Network; the Castillo Theatre; the Institute, which provided leadership to the Barbara Taylor School along with a string of social therapy centers, and the Rainbow Lobby, which lobbied in Washington, D.C. for ballot access and electoral reform and in support of progressive movements and revolutions around the world.) At this point, whatever mass organizing was being attempted by the remnants of the Orthodox Left in America (not much) was primarily funded either by foundations or by government agencies and was usually channeled directly or indirectly into the Democratic Party. It was obvious to Newman and his fellow organizers that building a movement to transform the world could not succeed in the long run if its economic support came from institutions with a stake in the world-as-it-is. Ways had to be found to reach the people with a stake in change and development and to organize them to finance organizations and activities independent of the State and its surrogates.
All sorts of things were tried—from selling the publications of the tendency (first The International Worker, and later the weekly of the New Alliance Party, The National Alliance) on the subways to producing musical concerts on boats that circled Manhattan. A series developments—including the establishment of the Rainbow Lobby, the campaign to put New Alliance Party leader Lenora Fulani on the ballot as an independent candidate for president of the United States in all fifty states in 1988 (an effort that succeeded, making her the first woman and the first African American to achieve that and laying the groundwork for Perot and other independents), and the financial separation of the Castillo Theatre from the Institute that had supported it in its early years—created the need for larger and more steady streams of income. Given these developments, the organizers of this political tendency turned to two basic community and electoral organizing tactics, canvassing and street work—with a significant twist.
Although the Salvation Army had been raising money on the streets at Christmas time for much of the century and the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been canvassing door-to-door for decades, the Left had rarely (and certainly not consistently) worked the streets or knocked on doors to raise money. But that is exactly what the coming-into-being Postmodern Marxists did. They solicited money by canvassing door-to-door and setting up tables on busy street corners and subway platforms. This strategic funding model has resulted, two decades later, in insuring the independence of the mass organizations built by this tendency and has proved to be a community organizing activity as well as a funding model. Each solicitation was an opportunity to talk politics, to talk culture, to have a conversation on the need to build institutions independent of the authorities-that-be. In addition, to discover that giving is a political act, and that when people give, they have a stake in what is being built.
The challenge in all this, and its relevance to the postmodernization of Marxism, grew out of the fact that the people doing this street and door-to-door soliciting/organizing were not trained salespeople or fundraisers. They were, more or less, a cross section of New York City’s class, professional and ethnic demographics, with various amounts of organizing experience under their belts. This was a very difficult thing for many of them to do. No matter how much one believes in one’s cause, given the capitalist culture we live in, asking strangers on the street for money seemed, to some, to be begging and felt humiliating. When people on the street or at the door were nasty or attacking, as they quite frequently were, it was hard, particularly for those socialized as men, not to be nasty, attacking or angry in response. Finally, the people doing this organizing had various levels of social skill and ease. For some, it was difficult to simply look a stranger in the eye and try to start a conversation.
What made it possible to sustain this intense work—which from the late eighties through the late nineties was a major organizing activity for the majority of Postmodern Marxist organizers—was approaching it as a performance. Since many of these same activists were going from the street to rehearsals at the Castillo Theatre where they were often performing characters very different than themselves, or working with young people to perform beyond themselves in the talent shows, or participating in the performed conversations of a social therapy group, it gradually occurred to them that they did not have to just be themselves on the street; they could also be who they were becoming. They could make the choice to perform rather than behave in prescribed and predetermined ways. In fact, it became clear that if they remained only the humiliated, angry and shy people they were, there was no way to hold conversations with and raise money from strangers. They had to find a way to become someone else (or, more accurately, who-they-were-becoming). They had to, in Vygotsky’s words, perform “a head taller” than they were. Thus the “street work,” became, over a period of years, the “street performance.”
Through these ongoing experiences—on the street, on the Castillo stage, and in the organizing of the Talent Show Network—it became evident to Newman and his colleagues that performance was not simply a tool for a result, not simply, in this case, a means for raising money; it was simultaneously a tool and a result, the result being development. Performance is the tool for development and the development itself. The way out of the fly bottle of bourgeois ideology had been gradually discovered. It was not a matter of coming up with a better version of social science or a more sophisticated variant on Marxist theory. It was, instead, a matter of creating new possibilities through the non-ideological activity of performance. The world cannot be re-conceptualized, but it can be re-performed.
Performance, as this Postmodern Marxism has come to understand it, is the ability of people to transform themselves and their world through the dialectic of simultaneously being who-they-are and who-they-are-not/who-they-are-becoming. Performance, which is not truth referential or based on knowing, provides us with the means of creating new possibilities. This realization/activity began, in the 1990s, to inform all aspects of this Postmodernism Marxism’s work. To paraphrase Newman, the performers set out to organize the audience to perform. In so doing, they provided those being organized with an active and creative role in shaping themselves and bringing into being the movement they were building together.
Thus, this Postmodern Marxism’s performance turn grew out of a confluence of a number of interrelated elements of its work: the activists’ first-hand experiences of performance as a form of political/cultural play at the Castillo Theatre; their encounter with the limits of a cognitively-based teaching/learning through, in particular, the organizing of the All Stars Talent Show Network; and the crucible of an extended period of intensive street organizing. All of this was constantly informing and being informed by Newman and Holzman through the work of the East Side Institute. The articles collected in this volume are one embodiment of that interaction. Most of these articles were published in movement journals and originally directed to its own activists and/or other would-be, could-be or once-were Marxists. By the early nineties, Newman and Holzman were also being published by the mainstream press and the work of Postmodern Marxism began to be noted and have an impact in the arenas of critical and postmodern psychology and education. Their first co-authored book Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist was published by Routledge in 1993. Since then, they have published ten books together and separately, along with dozens of articles and chapters. (See Appendix 1 for a full listing of the publications of Newman and Holzman.)
While the language of performance and the challenge to cognitive understanding that comes with it were new to the Marxist (and more generally, to the modernist) tradition, the understanding of performance as a revolutionary/transformational activity can be directly traced back to Marxism’s methodological foundations. Dialectics as Marx developed it, rejects the dominate (static) logic, which can be traced back as far as Aristotle, that holds that a thing can only be what it is and nothing else. Dialectics, an active and transformational view of human life, maintains on the contrary, that everything is both what it is and what it is not. Properly stated, dialectics rejects the very notion of things as distinct, fixed and unchanging entities—a view (if not the term dialectics) shared, not coincidently, by many Postmodernists, Marxist or otherwise. Dialectics views human beings as primarily activity and process, not a stable thing, but a dynamic contradiction of unending coming-into-being. Viewed from this perspective, what this Postmodern Marxism call performance is a recognition and embrace of dialectics (being/coming-into-being) in daily life. Given the super-alienation of contemporary life in the wealthy capitalist nations, in order to continue “becoming” (developing), a conscious effort must be made, this Postmodern Marxism maintains, to break through the rigidified behaviors of capitalist society, that is, we must perform or die, i.e., remain underdeveloped, adjusted and/or insane.
To Newman and his fellow Postmodern Marxists, performance is the postmodern articulation of what Marx called “practical critical” and “revolutionary” activity, that is, the human capacity to simultaneously change circumstances and change ourselves. (See, “Theses on Feuerbach.”) With the concept of “practical critical activity” Marx demolished the border between practice and theory, contemplation and application, positing as an alternative to this bifurcation in Western thought the dialectical unity of practice and reflection, which is, clearly, what goes on in performance. Practical critical activity also does away with the rationalist/modernist assumption that we must know what we are doing before we do it, the trap that led Marx’s modernist followers into the quicksand of ideology. Performance thus understood is politics without ideology and provides the creative/developmental alternative to the dead end of knowing, Marxist or otherwise.
Over the last few decades, the turn to performance has not been limited to this Postmodern Marxism. In the larger world, the limits of knowing and ideology were also being felt. The long-fossilized state of Marxist-Leninist ideology became evident to even the most faithful with the collapse of the Soviet experiment. On the larger intellectual front, the emergence, during this same period, of Social Constructionism, Postmodernism, Performance Studies, and Activity Theory, all of which recognized non-theatrical aspects of performance, set the larger context for the move from a modern, cognitive, knowledge-based, “scientific” and ideologically-driven Marxism to a postmodern, performance-based, unscientific and non-ideological Marxism.
At the heart of this Postmodern Marxism—as with its modernist precursor—is the question of power.
If power were not at stake, Marxism would never have been and would not now be a threat to the authorities-that-be nor would it have been able to provide hope for the poor and outcast of the world. If power were not its central concern, Marxism could easily be given a safe nook in the academy as an approach to studying history or adapted into a useful economic theory or, in the case of this Postmodern Marxism, repackaged as a self-help movement. The ethical spark, the political clout and the historic meaning of Marxism is the development of the power of poor and working people—and beyond that, the power of all people—to make the economic, political and cultural changes necessary to promote the continued development of the human species.
These Postmodern Marxists, while not organizing for violent revolution, are no less revolutionary than their Communist foremothers and fathers. Indeed, their concept and practice of revolution is far more extensive and foundational than that of the old Communists. It involves not simply the seizure of state power and/or the nationalization of the means of production, the orthodox roadmap to socialism. It involves the reorganization of all the social relations that constitute daily life and the very concepts by which we shape the world and ourselves (i.e., reality). For this Postmodern Marxism, revolution involves changing our very understanding of understanding.
The revolution being led by this Postmodern Marxism is not located in some golden future but, as they see it, is already underway, and it is closer to the historical/cultural/conceptual revolution represented in what is usually referred to as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, than it is to the failed political revolutions led by the Communists in the 20th Century. (While the Renaissance and the Enlightenment are distinct periods in intellectual/cultural history, they might best be understood as a continuum in the conceptual revolution that accompanied the economic shift from feudalism to capitalism in Europe.) The Renaissance and the Enlightenment contained within them political/social revolutions as we have come to know them (in fact, it is this period that invented revolutions)—among them the English Revolution (1640-1660), the American Revolution (1776-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799). As significant and long lasting as the effects of these revolutions have been, they were, nonetheless, simply chapters in a much more profound transformation in how human beings lived, perceived and exercised power.
While political revolutions as we have known them in the past (including their accompanying violence) may be a part of the historical transformation currently under way, they are not the focus of the organizing work of this Postmodern Marxism. For these Marxist revolutionaries, the meaning of power (and hence, of revolution) has been qualitatively deepened and broadened. For Newman and his followers around the world, revolution is not a singular climatic violent “overthrow.” It is the daily, mundane transformation of what is.
Power and Authority
In his first published Marxist writing, Power and Authority: The Inside View of Class Struggle (published by Centers for Change in 1974), Newman made the distinction—and noted the dialectical relationship—between power and authority. Summarized simply, power, as Newman understands it, is the creativity of groups, of the mass; authority is the commodification of power. In their 2004 essay, “Power, Authority and Pointless Activity,” (originally published in Furthering Talk: Advances in Discursive Therapies, edited by Tom Strong and David Parvé: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers and reprinted here on pages __), Newman and Holzman articulate the distinction and relationship this way:
…the socio-political sense of power is best understood in its dialectical relationship to authority. First, some simpleminded remarks. Authority goes from the top, down. It is imposed. Most importantly, it must be known. Power comes from the bottom, up. It is expressed. It is created. Obviously, in ordinary language, power and authority are often treated as synonymous. Yet nothing could be further from the truth ... the common confusion of the two, power and authority, says a great deal about the authoritarian structure of our ontic, now worldwide, culture. For not only are commodities fetishized—turned into god-like authorities, a la Marx—but everything is commodified. Hence knowledge, scientific and otherwise, is God-like here in late-modernism/early postmodernism.
This, of course, speaks to the centrality this Postmodern Marxism has come to place on breaking through the barrier of cognitive-based (authoritarian) knowing and the development of performance as an exercise in power. More to the point here, it also points the way toward a realization of permanent revolution, (not in the narrow sense envisioned by Trotsky to rationalize socialist revolution in semi-feudal countries, but by the constant exercise of power), that is, the ongoing creative activity of masses of people generating new possibilities.
While this understanding of power and authority is implicit in Marx’s methodology (dialectics) in general and Marx’s insight into commodification and fetishization in particular, that methodology and insight had not been brought to bear on the questions of power and authority, and hence, to the nature of revolution, before Newman. The distinction between power and authority remained as vague and confused for modern Marxists as it did for other modernist political thinkers and practitioners, and no wonder, given their blindness to the authoritarian nature of cognitive-based knowing.
Thus, new social forms developed by the masses through the exercise of power (creative group activity)—trade unions, workers councils, soviets, communes—were rapidly fossilized into institutions of authority—trade union councils, the Red Army, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, etc.—in the name of protecting from its enemies what the exercise of power had created. But authority does not develop, except on its own terms, and its terms are to stabilize, rationalize, control, conservatize. Authority is by its nature self-protective and self-perpetuating; it stifles growth, i.e. power.
One way to understand the 72-year failure of the Russian Revolution is its almost instantaneous transformation of the exercise of grassroots power, the soviets, into an authoritarian State, the Soviet Union. This is not to say that under the historical (including the conceptual) conditions that the Bolsheviks (Russian Communists) found themselves in—including the invasion by 14 capitalist nations and the almost total destruction of Russia’s industrial infrastructure—some form of transitional State was unnecessary. (Here it is important to note that as long as the Soviet Union existed, the political tendency that would become this Postmodern Marxism supported it, based on the principal that gains won by poor and working people by the exercise of power—however limited and compromised—needed to be defended.) The question going forward is: How can the power of the people be maintained in the face of opposition, even violent opposition, without resorting to authority?
That the weight of authority, including knowing, can be thrown off by the creative activity of groups, including performance, is demonstrated in social therapy groups and numerous other group building activities led by Postmodern Marxists day-in and day-out. It is one thing for these exercises of power to take place under the radar, as they have, for the most part, over the last three decades. However, as this Postmodern Marxist movement has taken root and given birth to a multitude of ZPDs generating power, and as these powerful activities move more and more into the mainstream of bourgeois society, they are increasingly coming up against society’s institutions of authority. The more successful the alternatives being built to psychology, education and the old party politics become, the more push-back (be it in the form of attacks and/or attempted cooptation) those building those alternatives will get from the authorities-that-be.
If these ongoing exercises in power are to avoid becoming integrateable (i.e. authoritarian) reforms of capitalism and instead generate continuous development of the totality of society (i.e. revolution), the issue of political power verses political authority must be engaged. While the builders of this Postmodern Marxism were aware, on a gut level, of this challenge from the start, just how to sustain and lead that engagement has been and remains an ongoing question and a continuous coming-into-being activity.
When Newman and the small circle around him at the time founded Centers for Change in 1971 they called themselves a “Maoist Collective.” They were, however, hardly hard-core Maoists. In fact, their knowledge of Maoism (and Marxism in general) was minimal. What they were mostly responding to was the spirit expressed in the Maoist slogan, “Serve the People.” That’s what they wanted to do—serve the people. They are perhaps better described, at that point in their political history, as politicized hippies rather than as Marxists or communists in any orthodox sense of those words. That said, they chose to identify themselves with an international communist tendency, Maoism, that, at the time, through the upheavals of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” appeared to be organizing people’s power at the grassroots level to challenge the authority of the bureaucratized Chinese Communist Party. (That this upheaval would be short-lived and prove to be a serious defeat/failure that would result in the strengthening of the authoritarianism of the Chinese party and State, could not, of course, be known at the time.)
Newman, in retrospect, says that he and the others at that time considered themselves revolutionaries-in-the-making in search of leadership. This search was an important part of their mission at the time and they actively sought out existing Marxist and other radical organizations, introducing themselves and their work and seeking to learn about the politics and practice of the groups they were meeting. For the most part, the other organizations were not overly interested in what they apparently considered an odd little grouplette without any left lineage (or even a program). The standard response Centers for Change got from the (slightly) more established (and considerably) more arrogant organizations was that if they were serious about making revolution they should join their presumably more developed and more politically correct organizations.
During this period, activists with Centers for Change began their first serious readings of Mao and other Marxist thinkers. It was, for Newman, a profoundly conflicted experience to discover how unsophisticated and shallow Mao was as a philosopher and he struggled to reconcile that with the fact that Mao had led a socialist revolution in the world’s most populous country and was revered as a great thinker by millions around the world. This apparent paradox, along with their ongoing organizing experiences, raised questions for the CFCers about the relationship of theory and organizational form as well as the nature of leadership and its relationship to the mass. The most important development in the perspective of Newman and Centers for Change during this period was the realization that sustained social activism with the goal of transforming the totality of society required something other than the loose collective form of organization that they were then functioning under.
All the socialist revolutions of the 20th Century (with the exception of Cuba) had been organized and led by a dedicated grouping of revolutionaries organized into a centralized organizational model developed by Lenin in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution. It was Lenin’s contention that a group of “professional revolutionaries,” that is, people whose primary mission in life is to organize and lead revolutionary change and who give all of their skills, energy and financial resources (to the extent that they have any) to the organization they are building together, was necessary both to sustain the struggle over extended periods of time and to insure that the economic, cultural and political battles waged by poor and working people were not limited to particular reforms within the system but were developed and coordinated into a transformation of the totality of society, that is, into revolution. This organizational form, which Lenin called democratic centralism, was, in theory, designed to allow for the democratic participation by all its members (who had ongoing on-the-ground interaction with the masses), while taking their collective experience and input and transforming it into strategy and tactics that everyone in the organization was obliged to carry out in a coordinated fashion. This centralization and discipline was necessary, Lenin argued, to meet the coordinated and disciplined attacks of the State. (See Lenin, What Is To Be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.)
Following the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917, this organizational model was taken up by revolutionary Marxists all over the world. Democratic centralist organizations had regular meetings of the whole (plenums), or, if they were of significant size, of representatives, at which basic policy was set and leadership elected. The leadership body consisted of a Central Committee and within the Central Committee, a standing Political Committee that did the day-to-day work of studying the group’s organizing experiences and transforming them into the tactics that, in turn, guided the organization and made it possible for the group’s members to act at virtually the same time on the same strategic and tactical tasks, and thus function, in Lenin’s word, as the “vanguard” of the mass struggle, leading it to a presumed revolutionary conclusion. It is this form of organization, tooled for revolutionary (including, when deemed necessary, military) struggle, that came to distinguish Communists organizationally from the Social Democrats who continued to organize themselves into mass electoral parties designed only to function within bourgeois elections on bourgeois terms.
While it became increasingly obvious to Newman and his followers that some variant of democratic centralism was necessary to make revolutionary change, they, like many others on the Left, were also aware that the states then being built by Communists—states that were ruled by, and to some extent modeled on, the democratic centralist party—had, for the most part, resulted in the power of the people being centralized into authority of the party and the state. (Cuba, while it had no party leading the revolution, quickly adapted the democratic centralist party model for consolidating rule after the revolution.) Arguably, it was the challenge to this fossilization process that they saw in the Chinese Cultural Revolution that attracted Newman (and numerous others around the world) to Maoism in the first place.
Meanwhile, while this study and meetings with other groups went on, the mass organizing work of Centers for Change never ceased. By 1974 they had storefront community organizing centers functioning in: Jamaica, Queens; East New York, Brooklyn; and the South Bronx, three of New York City’s poorest communities, and had purchased a three story building on 90th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side which was home to their experimental school, the Working Class Room, therapy offices, and a printing press. It also contained an auditorium for meetings and cultural events.
Among the Marxist groups that Centers for Change was talking with in the early 1970s was the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). The Labor Committees were an unusual Marxist grouping for the time, since they combined a relatively high level of erudition in both Marxist and non-Marxist economics and political theory (unusual, given the prevailing anti-intellectualism of the Left) with actually doing some successful mass organizing in poor and working class communities in the early 1970s, (unusual, given the general “regrouping” tactics of the Left). It was this combination that initially attracted Newman and the other activists of Centers for Change.
The Labor Committees had been founded and were led by Lyndon LaRouche. LaRouche, raised a Quaker, was a conscientious objector during World War II. He had been a member of the Socialist Workers Party since 1948 and, briefly, of the Spartacist League after being expelled from the SWP in 1965. In the late sixties he taught a course on Marxism at New York City’s alternative Free School, and gathered around him a group of students primarily from Columbia University and City College. His followers took part in the Columbia student strike of 1968 and became a caucus/faction with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on the Columbia campus (and soon thereafter, in a few other SDS chapters in the Philadelphia area). They advocated building ties with the neighboring Harlem community and with the labor movement, hence their name, the “Labor Committee.” The following year they were expelled from SDS for supporting the strike of the United Federation of Teachers against community control of the public schools. LaRouche then reconstituted his followers as the National Caucus of Labor Committees and began organizing nationally.
In addition to the Labor Committees’ erudition and their mass organizing—attendance at a national meeting of their National Unemployed and Welfare Rights Organization had a big impact on the Centers for Change (CFC) activists—the NCLC appeared to take its dialogue with Centers for Change more seriously than did other left groups. In 1974, the Labor Committees said that the conversations about their differences had reached a point that could best be advanced from within their organization and invited CFC to join. In June 1974, some forty CFCers, including Newman, did so. In the process, they turned over their storefront community centers and the building on 90th Street to the Labor Committees. The union lasted a total of three months. By the end of the summer virtually all of the CFCers left the NCLC.
The failure of this left marriage was obvious to most of the CFCers from the start. For one thing, the Labor Committees apparently didn’t know what to do with this influx of new cadre and the CFCers wound up having to invent work for themselves. (What they mostly did was sell Labor Committee literature on the subways.) In particular, the NCLC didn’t know what to do with Newman, who as an intellectual was more than a match for LaRouche, who was accustomed to being the final (and only) serious thinker in the group.
Presumably these things might have been worked out if the Labor Committees had actually been organizing in poor and working class communities and seriously attempting to develop Marxist theory. Instead, what the CFCers found was that the Labor Committees not only didn’t know what to do with them, they also could not/would not develop or retain the organic working class leadership that had begun to emerge as a result of their organizing. In fact, the NCLC was rapidly retreating from its earlier attempts to organize in poor and working class communities. Increasingly, the Labor Committees were fixating on other left groupings—the year before they had launched what they called “Operation Mop-up” to attack (polemically and physically) the Communist and the Socialist Workers parties, which they considered the only rivals standing between them and left “hegemony”—and the machinations of the State. Internally, they had developed an intense paranoia that included a vast inflation of their own importance and underestimation of the strength of capitalism—in fact, they were, at that time, proclaiming that the capitalist economy would collapse within 60 to 90 days. (An estimate that they, obviously, had to repeatedly revise.)
At the end of August 1974, the CFCers left the Labor Committees en masse and Newman published a polemic, “Idealism, Paranoia and the Mass Organization,” which exposed the increasingly psychotic politics of LaRouche and the NCLC, including how the combination of paranoia, authoritarianism and lack of a mass base were moving the organization to the right. In the subsequent years, the Labor Committees did, indeed, move steadily to the right, openly abandoning Marxism and, according to some sources, cooperating with the State during the Reagan Administration to inform on leftists. (See, John Minz, “Some Officials Find Intelligence Network Useful,” Washington Post, January 15, 1985.)
Newman and his fellow CFCers came out of the experience with the realization/belief that there was no Marxist leadership in the United States worth following. If such a leadership force was going to be created, they were going to have to build it. Within a month, crammed into a large apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, they formed their own democratic centralist organization, the International Workers Party (IWP).
The International Workers Party was structured like other democratic centralist communist parties around the world, complete with Central Committee, Political Committee and a chairman, Fred Newman. In its first years, it even had a program.
Newman and his followers were picking up the tool history had made available to them. However, the IWP, from its moment of birth, was also aware that to simply adopt a model developed in a different time and place while leaving it unchanged would be to ignore Marxist methodology and leave them without a coherent relationship to the social and historical reality they found themselves in. As Newman put it in “Dialectics or Dogmatism?” originally written as an internal party document and first published by United Struggle Press in 1978 (and republished in this volume, p. ___):
…terms such as “party,” “vanguard,” “democratic centralist” (indeed, “Marxist,” “Leninist,” etc.) must be understood historically, specifically (and therefore dialectically) rather than categorically (dogmatically); we must work constantly to avoid being guilty of mechanically forming a so-called Leninist organization by interpreting (as opposed to changing) current (as well as past) history in this national sector in such a way as to make it fit into the mold of some preconceived ideas based on Lenin’s Bolshevik organization in Russia, Mao’s organization in China, etc. Rather, to build a Leninist organization is to apply the historic lessons of both the past and the present in Leninist fashion.
The key methodological point in this statement is its call to understand/practice dialectically rather than categorically. That ongoing effort has, as we have already seen, impacted on all aspects of this Postmodern Marxism’s development. Yet it has had particular significance in economic and political organizing since these were arenas where not only those in authority, but modern Marxists as well, were deeply committed to (unchanging, non-developing) categories.
Members of the newly-born IWP—being first and foremost mass organizers—embraced Leninism on those terms, that is, as a strategic approach to sustaining their attempts to organize poor and working class people, as a means of consolidating working class leaders who emerged during the organizing process, and as an activity that allowed them to keep the totality (i.e., revolution) in view in the midst of often intense and consuming localized particulars (i.e., reform struggles). As Newman and the others viewed the Leninist party, its value—indeed, its very historical meaning—was to be found in its dialectical relationship to the mass. Its power would (and could) only exist through a developing relationship to a being-organized mass.
Recognizing the pretentiousness and self-delusion involved in proclaiming that an organization was a vanguard when it did not, yet, have a significant relationship to the mass, Newman and his followers called their newly minted organization a “pre-party” – which they understood as a leadership body focused on base-building which envisioned some form of vanguard emerging under unpredictable circumstances in the future. Some other Marxist-Leninist groups in existence at the time – the Revolutionary Union and the October League, for example, also started out calling themselves “pre-parties.” However, it was only a few years before they decided to declare themselves vanguard parties, the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Communist Party USA (Marxist-Leninist), respectively. Newman and his followers, by then increasingly distinct from this “vanguardist” left, rejected what he would later caustically refer to as “premature vanguardulation,” in favor of mass organizing. Hence, understanding the evolution and transformation of the Leninist organizational model achieved by this Postmodern Marxism cannot be separated from the history of its mass organizing.
While other self-proclaimed Marxist Leninist groups in the United States at that time gave lip service to the need to “build a base,” in fact, as we have seen, they gave little actual attention at all to poor and working people (except as an abstraction on the page). They strove to fit their organizations “into the mold of preconceived ideas” and had very little direct organizing experience that would seriously impact on those preconceived ideas. (Eventually, they had the experience of abject failure, which drove some of them to the right, and most of them out of political activism altogether.) The organizers of the IWP, on the other hand, already had some six years of community organizing under their belts when they embraced the Leninist model, a model that, to their thinking, was not primarily about the internal structure of a party. It was the activity of engineering a dynamic relationship between leadership and mass.
Here they faced their first (and, as it would unfold, defining) challenge as Leninists—finding the mass. The Leninist organizing model assumed a mass of (oppressed) people in (political) motion. The Russia in which Lenin first developed the model—and in most countries around the world where Communists had successfully adapted it—there was already a serious level of mass (anti-colonial and/or class) upheaval or, in the case of Europe, political organization growing out of the Social Democratic movements that had preceded the Russian Revolution. Without a mass in motion, the Leninist “vanguard” had no one and nothing to lead. The IWP came into being just as the social motion of the sixties, which had politicized and radicalized its founders, was being repressed and co-opted. As I have discussed, the mass of the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement and the African American community were rapidly migrating back into the Democratic Party (where the labor movement had been stubbornly ensconced since the 1930s).
The working class (historically the mass base of support of Marxism and socialism in industrialized countries) in 1970s America was politically organized to support capitalism. The sustained post-World War II economic boom (sustained by constantly expanding military spending), the intense anti-Communist repression of the 1950s which succeeded in snapping the roots that the Communist Party USA had sunk in the class in the 1930s and ’40s, and the reformist leadership of trade unions had all resulted in the American working class having little or no sense of itself as a class, that is, as a group with distinct economic and political interests.
Beyond that, just what the working class was (or could be) in America was not at all clear—even, or particularly, to those (like the Left) who remained stuck in categorical thinking. Economically, America was steadily de-industrializing. The capitalists (multi-national corporations) were moving manufacturing to various impoverished nations in Asia and Latin America where considerably lower wages meant considerably greater profits. The U.S. was in the process of retooling itself into the “counting house” of world capitalism. Finance capital, as distinct from industrial capital, was taking center stage in the U.S. economy, a shift that changed the type of work being done by many Americans. (And bringing with it other long-term changes in the structure of capitalism, the impact of which is only now becoming manifest.) An increasing percentage of the workforce, following the flow of capital, were becoming service workers, pushing paper and crunching numbers instead of making steel or sewing shirts. Since the most organized/unionized element of the class was in the industrial sector, this shift was steadily undercutting the power the labor movement had within the Democratic Party.
At the same time, a significant sector of the working class—in particular, African Americans—were being relegated to an “under class” of the permanently unemployed sustained primarily by welfare and petty crime. The changing skill sets demanded by finance capital (and the information technology its needs would generate), when combined with the educational underdevelopment of the African American community, was rendering a growing segment of the Black working class (particularly men who had previously found work in the rapidly disappearing factories) “unemployable.”
Given the dissipation of the mass movements of the 1960s and facing a conservatized (indeed, anti-communist) working class, the newly minted Leninists of the International Workers Party faced the very real question of who, what, and how to organize. Their experience of the U.S. Left, including their brief liaison with the Labor Committees, had made it clear that a leadership body without social motion to lead was destined to become in-grown and sectarian, i.e. not a leadership body at all but a band of embittered crazy people.
The way out of this apparent impasse was found by moving beyond the categorical thinking of orthodox Marxism and approaching class (and organizing) dialectically, that is, approaching the working class simultaneously as what-it-is and what-it-is-becoming. In this, they had help from Marx. While at times, Marx writes categorically about class, he had in a number of his early writings made a distinction between “class-in-itself,” that is, class as defined by its socio-economic conditions and relationship to the means of production, and “class-for-itself,” meaning class as an activity. In The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) he wrote:
Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The domination of capital had created for this class a common situation, common interests. The mass is thus already a class against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, the mass becomes united and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. (p. __)
The class-for-itself is the active, revolutionary aspect of class. It is the working class exercising power through its organizing of itself. In this regard, the working class is not a static social category defined simply by its relationship to the means of production or its social conditions. It is not a thing at all; it’s an activity. Indeed, the working class is the activity of organizing itself, the activity of exercising power. To use postmodern language, the working class is a relational activity, one that is constructed by the class itself through the creation of the cultural, economic and political activities that allow it to envision/create possibilities beyond the social definitions, constraints and authority of the society that gave it birth.
Given this dialectical/activist understanding of class and the actual state of poor and working people in the U.S., it became clear to these mass organizers embracing and transforming Leninism that the task at hand was to find ways of generating and organizing activities through which the U.S. working class-for-itself could come into being—and that is precisely what they have been doing for the last thirty years.
Thus the relationship between the leadership and the base, between the evolving-into-Postmodern Marxists and Leninists and the mass, was, from the start, one of co-builders. What they have been building is each other.
The power (in fact, the very existence) of the one depended on the power (and existence) of the other. It is the distinction—and the relationship/energy/perspective that this distinction provides—that is key to the power of each. Without a class-for-itself coming into being, the leadership body has no historical meaning. Without revolutionary leadership, America’s poor and working people have little or no chance of generating the activities that could further their development and move them beyond the political, cultural and emotional state their class-in-itself economic/societal position traps them in—which, stated simply, adds up to shame about their poverty and resentment of the rich, combined with the internalization of the needs, wants and values of capitalism.
Marx had pointed out that people’s wants and needs are determined by the society they find themselves in. One of Lenin’s great strategic discoveries was that in order to get beyond the wants, needs and politics determined by a given society a dedicated grouping of change-agents were needed who put themselves in a position—through their activity—to get beyond the perceptual and political boundaries determined by things-as-they-are. Newman’s contribution, in this regard, was to realize that in a non-revolutionary, indeed reactionary, period, the role of revolutionaries, of Leninists, was to organize new social relationships, new cultural, political and emotional activities (new Zones of Proximal Development, in the language he was not yet using in 1974) that could keep development—of both the leaders and the mass—alive in a non-developmental society.
Of course, exactly what those developmental activities might be and what the class-for-itself would look like could not be known in advance. They could only be learned by practice.
Newman and his organizing collective began their search for those developmental activities not primarily through study (although they did quite a bit of study of the Marxist classics at the time as well). Instead, their quest, as in their pre-Leninist days, was conducted through mass organizing. They started from the premise—based on Marxist economic analysis, the history of 20th Century revolutions and their own experience coming out of the upheavals of the 1960s—that the power to transform society needed to be led by those elements of society (the vast majority) generally identified as the working class. The industrial elements of the working class, long considered by orthodox Marxism to be the leading strata of the class because of their proximity to the point of production (and hence having the ability to shut down industry, transportation and communication), had, through the reforms of the New Deal and the subsequent integration of their unions into the Democratic Party, worked out a political and economic accommodation with capital.
Orthodox Marxists in the U.S., while they railed against the “sell-out” leadership of the unions, continued to identify the trade unions as the primary arena of working class development. They held (despite all empirical evidence to the contrary) to Lenin’s description of the unions as “schools for socialism.” The Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and most of the so-called “anti-revisionist, non-dogmatic” collectives discussed earlier clung to their categorical concept of class and poured their members into the black hole of factory jobs where they usually attempted to organize (almost always impotent) “rank and file caucuses” to oppose the union’s elected leadership, or, if they were “successful,” became the union’s elected leadership/bureaucrats or, as happened in most cases, dropped out of political activism all together. They were apparently blind to the bind that rank and file caucuses, even when they succeeded in gaining power within the union, were still tied to the reformist premises of the union, its authoritarian structure and its political links to the Democratic Party.
The unorthodox (albeit not yet postmodern) Marxists that Newman led were far more open to class as an activity and thus sensitive to where and when people were actually being responsive to their organizing efforts—and that response was coming primarily from the lowest strata of the African American working class. They attempted building some independent unions (a distinctly different tactic than a rank and file caucus) during this time with only modest success and were consistently given the cold shoulder by already-organized labor. Although the power of the trade unions, both at the point of production and within the Democratic Party, eroded rapidly throughout the ’70s and ’80s, this did not open organized labor to new possibilities. Instead, their slippage in economic and political clout caused them to cling more and more desperately to the authority of the Democratic Party. Newman and his colleagues found the most positive response to their organizing initiatives were not coming from the shop floor (or office cubicle) but from the city’s welfare centers and the streets of its most devastated neighborhoods.
It was, of course, no accident that they went to the welfare centers and began talking to people on line about their lives and their grievances.
On the gut level, Marxism to them was, and remains, an ethical/moral/spiritual or species life (chose your word) commitment to the poor and the outcast, a commitment to abolishing poverty and the underdevelopment and violence that accompany it. While this, no doubt, initially motivates all communists and socialists and well-intentioned political activists of various persuasions, all too often, as we have discussed, the blinders of ideology and knowing (not to mention the corruption of authority) have gotten in the way of this elemental, humanistic impulse. On the most basic level, these pioneering organizers went to the welfare centers because that’s where the poor and the outcast were.
They also went because American history led them there. The special oppression of African Americans has been a central feature of American history (and the American economy) since long before the founding of the United States. Slavery provided what Marx called the means for the “primitive accumulation” of capital in the United States. Starting with a very fertile land conquered from the Native Americans, a lot can be accumulated when you buy and sell human beings kidnapped from their homelands and pay them nothing for their labor. The capital generated by slavery provided the foundation for the industrialization of the country in the 19th Century. Concurrently, however, slavery, because it required vast tracks of land to be productive, had a limited capacity to expand its profits, and restricted the free flow of capital and labor, got in the way of capitalist expansion. After the Civil War, explosive industrialization drew tens of millions of immigrants from Europe and (to a lesser extent) Asia. These immigrants came to constitute the bulk of the American working class, while the Black population—upon which capitalism had originally built its blood soaked foundation—was largely ostracized and relegated to the lowest rungs of the economic and social ladder. Given this economic and cultural history, the struggle against slavery and its remnants has been central to the development of political and human rights in the United States—from Benjamin Franklin’s founding of the first abolitionist organization soon after the revolution through the election of Barack Obama.
Thus history, including that which Newman and his followers had themselves lived through—the catalytic effect of the Civil Rights Movement in setting off “The Sixties” and transforming American politics and culture, the emergence of the Black Power Movement, the leadership, however brief, provided by the Black Panther Party—made it clear to Newman and his followers (and not only them) that the possibility of social change in America remained inextricably linked to the struggles of the Black population.
It also seemed painfully obvious to them that capitalism, even during the period of its extended post-World War II, New Deal-regulated boom, seemed unable to economically integrate a significant element of the Black poor. The fight for their economic and social interests therefore, put them on a collision course with the status quo and placed the lower strata of the Black working class in a key role relative to stimulating the process of the working class coming into being. The class-for-itself—if indeed it is the activity through which the working class fights for the empowerment and development of all the oppressed—necessitates the inclusion, indeed, the leadership, of its most oppressed and marginalized elements, which in the United States meant the lowest strata of the African American community.
So the Marxist organizers, at that point, virtually all white and many Jewish, went to the welfare centers, talking with welfare recipients, advocating for them with the welfare bureaucracy, organizing demonstrations to press various grievances and reforms, setting up offices and holding meetings and study groups. Within five years they had built the New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council into a city-wide organization of some ten thousand members that had become a factor in New York City politics. At the same time, this organizing activity had produced a number of important Black leaders from the poorest communities of New York, some of whom became and remain activist members of Newman’s core group, and it established the beginnings of a mass base within the lower strata of the African American working class in New York City, a base that these Postmodern Marxists have continued to build on and with ever since.
The success of the Council raised the first serious challenges for Newman and his mainstream oriented Leninists. The challenge came on two related fronts. First, the base they had organized rapidly became obvious to local Democratic Party politicians, who, after all, always concerned with the next election, keep an ear and eye to the street. In Brooklyn in 1978, State Senator Vander Beatty, who was African American, asked the Council to help him circulate a petition to amend the City Charter to allow the people to recall elected officials, a drive aimed at Mayor Ed Koch, whose cutbacks to hospitals and schools were impacting mostly on poor neighborhoods. The Council took up the drive. The following year Bronx State Senator Joe Galiber, a long time Black Democrat who had been iced out of the party’s nomination for Bronx Borough President, sought the Council’s support for his insurgent campaign against the Bronx machine’s candidate. Having organized poor people into a power in the city, the question of how to use that power relative to electoral politics was now on the agenda.
The second aspect of the challenge grew out of the reformist nature of the Council itself. Like any union, its job was to fight for a better deal for its members within the framework of the existing society—in this case within an authoritarian and dehumanizing welfare system. Lawfully, some of the Council members as well as its founders began to relate to the Council as a service organization, whose primary function was to “take care of” its members. The reformist dimension of the “serve the people” impulse was becoming evident. Servicing the people, if not at the same time challenging/transforming the existing institutions of authority was not an exercise of power; it left welfare recipients victims and turned the power generated by the organizing of the Council into the authority the Council used to negotiate with the welfare bureaucracy. The confluence of this conflict within the Council over its nature and the interest of local politicians in the Council’s base proved to be a turning point in the development of the leadership/base relationship.
The Council’s support of Galiber came about because Gilberto Gerena-Valentin, a former union organizer, a New York City Councilman, and a leader of the Labor Community Alliance for Change (LCAC), which Newman’s circle had initiated as a way of linking labor and community activists behind some kind of independent electoral activity, wanted to support Galiber against the Bronx Democratic Party machine. He brought the idea to Neter Brooks, a grassroots welfare rights leader who represented the Council in the LCAC, and she brought it to the Council. At the meeting where the deal was cut, Gerena-Valentin (whose own history in electoral politics went back to the campaigns of Vito Marcantonio, the American Labor Party congressman who represented East Harlem in the House of Representatives in the 1930s and ’40s) was named the campaign manager and Newman, based on his ability to marshal troops through the Unemployed and Welfare Council and raise money through his middle class activist followers, was named treasurer. Thus (to use the old communist language), the mass organizations and the leadership body both played an active (and interwoven) role in bringing the campaign—and what would prove to be its long-term consequences—into being.
To Newman and his fellow organizers, entering hardcore electoral politics—if on terms favorable to the Council’s base—could be a way of expanding the influence of the lower strata beyond the welfare centers (which, of course, were isolated dead-ends), providing a broader framework that could more directly involve other social strata and project the interests of the Council’s base onto the field of social policy. At the same time, they had no intention of replicating the mistake of the Communist Party USA, which had, in effect, turned its trade union base over to the Democratic Party. Simply supporting a Democratic Party candidate, even if in exchange for particular reform promises, would perhaps give the Council some negotiating power but would transform little or nothing. The Council’s power, if that scenario had played out, would have simply reinforced the Democratic Party’s authority.
The leadership of the Council, together with Newman, offered the Council’s support to Galiber within the Democratic Party primary on the condition that win or lose in the primary, he would continue his campaign for borough president in the general election on the line of a new, independent electoral party. Galiber agreed, and the New Alliance Party (NAP) was born.
The founding organizations which came together to launch NAP included not only the Council, but a number of other grassroots organizations that had been built with the leadership of Newman’s organizers: the Association of Public Service Workers, an independent union with locals in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; the Bronx and Jamaica Health Consumers Union, which was bringing health providers and patients together to demand more and better health care; Black Economic Survival, an organization of minority construction workers; the Coalition of Grassroots Women and the New York City Union of Lesbians and Gay Men, women’s and gay organizations, based in working class and poor communities of color. Leaders and members of all these organizations hit the streets of the Bronx and campaigned for Galiber in both the primary and general elections. Running on the NAP line, Galiber received 22,500 votes, finishing second behind the Democratic machine candidate (who also ran as a Republican) and far ahead of the Liberal, Conservative and Right-to-Life parties. Coming out of that first election, NAP found itself a credible and new independent force in the mainstream of New York City politics, a springboard off of which the Newman circle would operate for years to come.
This move to re-invest the power of the New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council into the New Alliance Party would not have happened without the leadership of a force invested in long-term transformational possibilities. On its own (reformist) terms, the Council would have remained a service organization and politically would have become subservient to the Democratic Party. With the leadership of these Leninists activists, Gerena-Valentin’s and Galiber’s invitation became an opportunity to advance an independent electoral tactic on the Democrats’ home turf.
While it won only one school board election, the “pro-socialist, multi-racial, Black-led,” New Alliance Party was for 13 years a player in New York and national politics and brought into the mainstream not simply the possibility, but the actuality, of electoral politics outside the two-party system—generating a political culture of bottom-up participation (as opposed to top-down control) and adding it to the mix of American politics.
In 1984 NAP ran Dennis Serrette, an African American trade unionist, for president of the United States, a campaign that first brought NAP onto a national stage. Four years later, running with the slogan “Two Roads Are Better Than One,” NAP supported the Reverend Jesse Jackson in his bid for the Democratic Party nomination while running its own independent campaign in anticipation of Jackson’s loss in the primaries in order to challenge the African American community (and others) to sever their historical ties to the Democratic Party.
NAP’s candidate for president in ’88 was Lenora Fulani. NAP activists (many of them from Newman’s core group) spread across the country and secured her a place on the ballot in all 50 states, making her not only the first woman and the first African American, but also the first independent to achieve that. She received a quarter million votes, bringing independent politics into every state and proving that despite restrictive ballot access laws deliberately designed to discourage independent ballot access, independents, if they worked hard and smart enough, could secure the 1.2 million petition signatures needed to get on the ballot in every state—an achievement not lost four years later on Ross Perot.
Gathering a million signatures, of course, required talking to somewhere between 10 or 20 million others. That, on the most basic level, was the point—to get pro-democracy (and in many cases, pro-socialist) activists talking to as many ordinary Americans as possible about the value of opening up the ballot access procedure in particular and American democracy in general. That they did. They gathered signatures in shopping mall parking lots throughout the South and Midwest, in the bars of Texas, on Native American reservations in Montana, on college campuses and street corners everywhere from Florida to Alaska. Literally millions of people who had never thought about independent politics before, let alone considered the possibility of helping a Black woman, who was openly pro-socialist, get on the presidential ballot, did so.
Without the motivation, discipline and support made possible by the existence of a group of dedicated professional revolutionaries (as Lenin described his core followers), such a huge mass organizing campaign would not have been possible. Not coincidentally, the ’88 campaign also resulted in Newman’s followers establishing footholds in Chicago, the Bay Area, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Birmingham, and Austin, footholds that, in some cases, have flowered into thriving centers for a broad range of Postmodern Marxist organizing.
The value of the leadership body’s ability to look beyond the immediate struggle (and to resist the gravitational pull of institutional authority) in order to make tactical and strategic moves capable of reinvesting power and reorganizing the totality was again illustrated in 1992. In the wake of Ross Perot’s independent run for president in which he won 19 million votes, (18.9% of the total), Fulani (who had run her own campaign that year) flew to Orange County, California to meet with the white, virtually all male, center-right leaders of Perot’s campaign. Within a year, Fulani had led her primarily Black, Latino and gay New Alliance Party base into a coalition with the overwhelmingly white middle-of-the-road Perot movement.
Given the institutional weight generated by its 13-year history (or put another way, all the blood, sweat and tears that had gone into building it), this is not a move the New Alliance Party would have made on its own, without the leadership of the Leninists in it. An electoral party, even a relatively small, radical one, like any institution, has a lawful pull to self-promotion and self-preservation. What’s more, the official left position on Perot was that he and his followers were neo-fascists. It took a non-categorical, risk-taking left leadership group with a long-term, transformative perspective to see that if 19 million people had just broken with the Democratic and Republican parties and voted independent, then it was imperative that the activists and the base that NAP had organized find a way to work with and impact on those 19 million newly independent voters.
As with the founding of NAP, there were those, including core leaders, who opposed the move. Some of those who left at this point denounced the move to work with what became the Reform Party as a move to the right, conflating working with those on the center and right with becoming centrists and/or rightists. What the center-right forces of the Reform Party and the left forces of the former New Alliance Party had in common was a commitment to breaking up the two-party monopoly and providing more political options to the American people. It is that common concern that Fulani and her followers consistently strove to build on.
The Leninist organizers who remained—the vast majority—were convinced, as they had been all along, that as Marxists in the United States during that conservative time if they had only worked with those who agreed with them, they would not have worked with anyone. (Which is, after all, what happened to the rest of the U.S. Left; it strangled itself on the rope of its own sectarianism.) Revolutionary mass organizers go to the mass whenever the opportunity presents itself. They do not (and cannot, if they are serious organizers) wait for the mass to agree with them. While there have been many twists and turns in the independent movement (including many vicious and dirty attacks by right-wing independents on the Fulani forces), the presence of the former NAP base—overwhelming Black, Latino, gay and working class, not to mention, in many cases, pro-socialist—combined with the leadership provided by revolutionary organizers, has, after more than a decade, helped to nurture independents into a continuing and powerful voting block (some 40% of the U.S. electorate as of this writing register as independents) courted by both major parties. Their organizing and leadership has also succeeded in shifting the overall politic of the independent movement from center-right to center-left—a shift reflected by the fact that some 19 million self-identified independents voted for the center-left (and, obviously, Black) Obama in 2008, roughly the same number who had voted for Perot, the center-rightist, sixteen years before.
Also worth noting in this regard, the Fulani forces within the independent movement have not run their own candidates for president, or other major office, since 1992. It had become clear that attempting to build an electoral party with such diverse (and potentially divisive) forces was not the most effective tactic because it tied people, energy and money up in internal fights over party platforms and leadership posts. Instead, they worked to build and support an independent movement that was inclusive of but not tied to particular independent state or national parties. This non-sectarian, tactical approach to independent politics meant that when a grassroots progressive movement came into being around Obama’s bid for the Democratic Party nomination in 2007-08, they were able (unlike, for example, Nader or the Green Party who felt institutionally and politically obliged to run their own campaigns) to once again reinvest their independent base into backing Obama’s election, thus positioning that independent base and its politic in a way that could more effectively influence/impact on the newly refigured political landscape.
This Postmodern Marxism’s view of the working class as activity was, of course, not limited to the electoral arena, although it is there, for obvious reasons, that it takes its most explicitly political form. As has been discussed in detail earlier, this Postmodern Marxism’s approach to bringing the class-for-itself into being has been fundamentally cultural rather than political in a narrow sense of the word. It has worked to generate activities, programs, societal spaces in which poor and working people—and significantly, not only poor and working people—can work and play together to generate new ways of seeing and being, activities, in short, that are exercises in power. Producing not only election campaigns, but also talent shows. Building not only independent political parties, but also independent political theatres. Holding not only political study groups, but also social therapy groups.
A key distinction in all of this, relative to its modernist antecedent, is Postmodern Marxism’s emphasis on construction, rather than destruction. Marxism has always incorporated two distinct—albeit dialectically linked—views on historical activity. The first is class struggle, as articulated in the first line of The Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” The second is revolutionary (practical critical) activity, the ability of human beings to create new possibilities, through their exercise of power. Class struggle, as it has been understood and practiced by orthodox Marxism, emphasizes the anti-capitalist and deconstructive; revolutionary activity, as understood and practiced by this Postmodern Marxism, forefronts the communistic and reconstructive. The Communist revolutions of the 20th Century were, arguably, successful class struggles, but just as arguably failures relative to engaging the mass of people in continuous, day-to-day revolutionary activity capable of generating a new, communistic society.
The experience of those failed revolutions, along with the need to find ways to activate, (i.e., bring into being) the working class-for-itself in the United States combined to bring the reconstructive role of revolutionary activity to the fore for Newman and his co-revolutionaries. (This was not a sudden discovery but a gradual realization-through-practice. In the early writings collected in this volume, the emphasis remains on class struggle, albeit with an awareness of the subjective elements of class struggle that orthodox Marxism was blind to. Those essays written later focus more explicitly on the reconstructive and transformative potential of revolutionary activity.)
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) at the turn of the 20th Century in their founding charter called for the building of “the structure of the new world within the shell of the old.” While the IWW was anarcho-syndicalist, not Marxist, and the new world it envisioned was the working class running the world through its unions, nonetheless the image of building the new with (and within) the conditions of the old is useful in approaching the organizing being led by these now postmodernized Marxists. The focus of their organizing is not on making “The Revolution,” but on generating activities (political, cultural, educational, therapeutic) that make revolutionary transformation possible. The success of the leadership-mass dynamic that they have nurtured over the years is to be found in the generation of new relational activities (and the concurrent perceptions and values) that challenge the relations, perceptions and values of capitalism—activities that are open to all (no matter their class origin or location) who are interested in human development. These activities are simultaneously the tools for change and the results of the change. They have one foot in the bourgeois world into which they have been born and the other foot in the transformation of that world. As such, they make no bifurcation between before and after “The Revolution.” They are both its precondition and its result. They are a re-performance of the world.
The array of developmental activities touched on in this introduction and the concepts unpacked in depth in the essays to follow are neither the result of spontaneous mass movement nor the products of committed political activists; they have been sparked and sustained by the coming together of history and tactical organizing, and the means of that coming together has been the increasingly postmodernized Leninist leadership organization. Those who have assumed that Leninism was hopelessly stuck in modernism have missed the dynamic and transformative potential inherent in the dialectical relationship that Newman’s Leninism (building on Marxist methodology) establishes between mass and leadership. For those who have assumed that Leninism collapsed as a viable strategic perspective with the collapse of the old Communism, the history of the organizing dynamo that incubated this Postmodern Marxism stands as a living example to the contrary.
It is necessary when reviewing this history and unpacking the interconnected elements of this Postmodern Marxism to realize that its leadership body came into being—and has been developed—by the very same organizing activities it has been leading. The working class-as-an-activity and the leadership of the class-as-an-activity have come into being together. While, as has been mentioned, the core of professional revolutionaries started out organizationally—if not in its history and methodology—as a somewhat traditional Marxist Leninist (Communist) party, that structure (and its relationship to the mass) have qualitatively transformed in the course of organizing in the United States (and beyond) over the last decades.
From vanguard to core
When it was founded in 1974, the IWP was, as discussed above, an openly communist party. In 1976 the IWP even fielded a ticket for President of the United States with a platform calling for socialist revolution. However, shortly thereafter it ceased functioning as a public organization and began an extended period of reconsideration and experimentation-through-practice that would result, eventually, in the qualitative transformation of the nature of Leninism.
This reconsideration/reconstruction process – which went hand-in-hand with its continuous mass organizing – was fueled by a number of factors, the most important being the authoritarianism and abject failure of existing Marxist Leninist organizations in the U.S. Also, the radicalism of the 1960s was ebbing, and it was increasingly difficult to get a hearing from the American people if you led with communism. In addition, to be a radical organization in the public eye was, at that time, to draw the attention of the FBI and other government agencies of political repression. So, Newman and his fellow organizers rejected the public “pre-party,” in order to deconstruct the inherited vanguard model and allow it to be impacted on and shaped by the mass organizing on the one hand and by Newman and Holzman’s evolving postmodernization of Marxism on the other. The process that evolved over time might be compared to stripping an old building of its antiquated exterior and remodeling it from the inside out to suit the purposes of its new owners.
At the same time, a number of important elements of this transformative process were to be found in the practice of these unorthodox Leninists from the start.
The mass organizing history/culture/politic from which this Leninist leadership collective emerged was reflected and reinforced, from the beginning, by the fact that all members—no matter what their leadership function within the organization—continued to do mass organizing. Unlike many democratic centralist organizations of the past (and, presumably the present) in which the leadership tended to do the “intellectual” work in place of the organizing work, among these organizers everyone, including the chairperson, remains active mass organizers even while they provide leadership on strategy and tactics. This has kept them “on the ground,” in sensuous interface not only with other Marxists organizers, but also with people of all backgrounds and views.
This seemingly small fact would prove to have a tremendous impact on the culture of the organization and has worked as a barrier to a bifurcation within the organization between “theorists” and “organizers,” and the accompanying pull to rarify (alienate) theory into authority. Leninism, by making a distinction between—while at the same time insisting on the unity of—leadership and mass, as well as long-term goals and immediate struggles, encourages its adherents to be ever focused on the minutiae of what they are doing day-to-day and everything in the world, to be, as Newman is fond of saying, simultaneously in society and history. Never ceasing to be mass organizers while simultaneously taking on the responsibility of being revolutionaries has reinforced this essential creative tension built into the Leninist model.
Another distinguishing feature of this Leninism from its founding has been its therapeutic, as distinct from fractional, approach to dealing with differences of opinion within the organization. In the old Communist parties, differences were fought out through “two-line struggles” and often ended with the losing side having to go through humiliating “self-criticism” or being expelled from the party and, in cases where the party controlled the State, i.e., had the authority, jailed or killed. Such fights were, of course, based on cognitive knowing; therefore one side had to be right (proletarian) and the other wrong (bourgeois). These postmodern Marxists for whom subjective and therapeutic concerns were key, were convinced of and committed to conversation as developmental activity. Therefore, political differences—which were more pronounced in the early years before the general direction of the organization had been fully established, but which have never ceased to be generated by the work—tended to be worked on through the method of conversation and in the spirit of healing rather than through the method of polemic and in the spirit of winning.
Some of this therapeutic work literally took place in therapy sessions. Through much of the ’80s there were social therapy groups, led by Newman, which were limited to members of the revolutionary core and during which many conflicts and differences, not only those of an explicitly political nature, but the myriad of tensions that arise from bringing people from diverse class, racial, ethnic and sexual backgrounds together to work on a common project, were worked on. However, the therapeutic method went far beyond therapy per se. A deeply rooted element of the organization’s internal culture has been a commitment to listening to each other and trying to build with what everyone brings to the process. This method has permeated virtually all of the interactions among members of the leadership grouping and between them and the people they were organizing.
(Since the old always weights heavily on the new and development never moves in a straight line, it should come as no surprise that this overall commitment to conversation instead of confrontation did not always prevail. At the beginning and end of the ’80s there were old-Communist style internal campaigns/fights during which there were angry confrontations and denunciations. These were, however, brief exceptions in how the internal conflicts were addressed. It is significant that while many people over the years have chosen to leave the core, not a single person has ever been expelled.)
A third important characteristic of this Leninism has been its success in bringing (poor, working class and middle class) intellectuals and non-intellectuals together in a context in which they could learn from and influence each other. The U.S. Left, as has been noted, shared the anti-intellectualism of the rest of American culture. While many intellectuals and artists were attracted to the Communist Party, USA in the 1930s and ’40s, they were used primarily for their celebrity status, not integrated as organizers into the party. Lenin had understood the importance of including intellectuals in the leadership of the socialist project, and Gramsci wrote eloquently on the need to establish a dynamic interplay between intellectuals and the mass in order to continuously enrich the intellectual and cultural development of the working class and to help sustain the revolutionary effort over long periods of time. This function of the democratic centralist party as a political, intellectual and cultural Zone of Proximal Development (not a term used by Leninists in the 20th Century) was severely sabotaged by Stalin’s purges and further undermined by the virulent anti-intellectualism of the Chinese “Cultural Revolution,” a tendency in international Maoism that reached its shameful nadir in Pol Pot’s mass murder of intellectuals and artists on the grounds that their bourgeois educations made them class enemies, dragging Cambodia down to its lowest educational and cultural (not to mention, economic) levels.
Rather than “dumbing down” the working class and its intellectual allies, the work of Newman and Holzman and other intellectuals in the core has consistently been on the cutting edge of intellectual developments in society as a whole, particularly in the arenas of philosophy, psychology, and culture—and their work (which taken as a whole can be understood as the postmodernization of Marxism) as well as the work of other cutting edge thinkers has, as a matter of course, been shared with core members, those who they are organizing and with anyone who would read their articles and books. A working assumption of this emerging Postmodern Lenininsm has been that a vital part of the process of the working class developing as a class-for-itself is its ability to assimilate (and further develop) the most sophisticated human thought and culture. The success of this Leninist leadership group in this regard is not simply a result of its ability to attract first class intellectuals. More to the point, its practice of having all members function as mass organizers and its therapeutic approach to working together created contexts in which intellectuals and non-intellectuals could bond in personal (and historical) ways that have rarely, if ever, happened before.
The role of the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy in facilitating this intellectual/political/social intercourse has already been discussed. There were many other contexts, large and small. The Castillo Theatre was another ongoing environment that fostered this exchange. For example, a play about slavery was produced by Castillo during its first season that some African American revolutionary leaders (and non-leaders) found offensive. The play was immediately a subject of dialogue and debate—and that dialogue and debate helped to shape the road followed by Castillo in subsequent years. Artists at Castillo in the late 1980s introduced the work of Heiner Müller, an East German avant-garde playwright whose texts for the stage raised not only difficult political issues relative to the failure of the old Communism, but also stretched the conventions of the theatre, often doing away with plot and character. Needless to say, there was resistance to producing Müller (from intellectuals and non-intellectuals, inside the core collective and outside). However, the Castillo artists persisted, organizing social activities around the productions to foster creative responses to the content and avant-garde technique of the plays. Over the next 15 years, audiences came to welcome the challenges that came with Castillo’s regular Müller productions. In a similar vein, although more custom-made for Castillo’s audience, the 30 plays and musicals written by Newman and produced by Castillo since 1986 were all written to engage (directly and indirectly) the political and philosophical issues raised by the mass organizing. Newman wrote them as provocations, both in terms of content and style. The postmodernism now embraced by these Marxist organizers was experienced viscerally through these Newman productions at Castillo.
In the mid 1980s Newman’s organization came to a developmental crossroads. The mass organizing it had generated had grown to the point where it was inefficient to lead the organizing in the same manner as the organization had in the early days. Things were now too big to be dealt with by everyone, which is one way to describe how things had been done up until then. For example, if any of the projects they were involved in was to hold a major public event, everyone in the organization worked on it. Given the scale and scope of what had been built, such an approach was no longer necessary, nor was it, obviously, a growth model.
By mid-decade, three major areas of work had gained a significant foothold: electoral politics (at that time, the New Alliance Party); psychology (primarily represented by the various social therapy practices and the Institute); and culture (which included not only the Castillo Theatre, but the rapidly growing All Stars Talent Show Network). All this work was still being coordinated centrally by a central committee, a political committee and a party chairman. The growing demands of the work might have been dealt with through further centralization. A move to further centralization would have required some members taking on full-time monitoring and leadership of the various projects. Such a move would probably have resulted, for the first time, in the separation of mass organizing from political leadership, i.e., a move towards becoming a bureaucratized communist “vanguard party” with the concurrent fossilization of the power being generated by the mass organizing into party authority.
Instead, they chose decentralization, or what they termed “autonomy.” The autonomy being that of the various projects—electoral politics, psychology and culture—to develop on their own, that is, with Marxist leaders active in and presumably providing leadership to all of them, but without the need to consult each other—or a centralized bureaucracy—about day-to-day work. Thus they remained focused on mass organizing, not internal party building. The mass organizing was free to grow based on its organic needs and propensities, not on a preconceived plan, no matter how brilliant that plan might sound in the abstract.
Autonomy also set up (political, cultural, financial and personal) space between the various projects and the Marxist leaders involved in them. This space allowed for differences (and even creative tensions) to develop between projects with no need for them to be immediately reconciled into a common political “line.” In addition, autonomy put the demand on the Marxist organizers within the various projects to develop leadership from among those they were organizing—there was no “mother ship” waiting to come to the rescue. The success of the mass work depended on the mass work itself, which, not surprisingly, resulted in the development of leadership organic to (as distinct from being imposed on) the work and social strata being organized.
By the end of the decade, the mass organizing work energized by autonomy had given birth to a new kind of social construct. It was not a political movement in that it didn’t have a particular set of particularized goals it was agitating/organizing for. It was not even political in the usual sense of that word, because many of the people involved in its cultural, therapeutic and youth work had no sense of themselves as being political. It was not (at least not yet) the working class-for-itself and included people from virtually all social strata and a wide range of political views. In a speech delivered before some 500 people in November of 1990, Newman gave this new social entity a name—he called it a “development community.”
It was a “community” because all involved in it had a sense of belonging to something, of being connected to other people and of being part of something larger than themselves. It was “developmental” to the extent that those involved in it were interested and engaged in development of various sorts—be it emotional or political or artistic—and therefore had a shared sense of growing, and an interest in change. In his talk, “Community As A Heart In A Havenless World” (published in The Myth of Psychology, Castillo International, 1991, pages 140-157) Newman first pointed to the conservatizing impact that community in its traditional, categorical sense often has, as in “my community” (as opposed to yours). Communities that are pre-defined in terms of, for example, geographic location or ethnicity or religion or profession or sexual preference exclude as much as they include. “I want to introduce a whole new concept of community,” Newman declared in his talk, “What I mean by community … is a community which takes responsibility for defining what community is … that defines itself, that says, ‘We will decide who we are and how we are and how we relate.’”
This kind of community is inclusive (instead of exclusive), open to anyone who wants to be a part of it and to be a part of it is to engage in the activity of creating it. It is a collective creative process of people bringing into existence new social relationships, organizations and activities. There are no membership requirements, no set of beliefs to ascribe to, no prerequisite social identity. People are encouraged to participate and contribute whatever, whenever and however they choose, including providing leadership. Amidst these differences, there is a critical commonality—what people are participating in is a creative and therefore powerful effort to develop less alienated and more socially relational ways to be together and live their lives. One helpful way of understanding the development community is as a large group of people who come together because they want to change the world and don’t want to tell anyone how to do it. Community in this sense is, then, an exercise in power, power that has taken a new form in late 20th and early 21st Century America.
While the development community is open to all, it nonetheless has a distinct class character. It has that character because it has been built from the bottom-up (in a number of senses of that phrase) by Marxist revolutionaries. It has grown out of the organizing of the poorest strata of society and has been concerned with that strata’s development as both the precondition for and the activity of abolishing poverty. People from other classes and strata become involved in the development community for a wide variety of reasons related to their own development and/or their concern with the development of others. The nature of the activities that have been cultivated by the Marxist organizers within the development community have in common the process of bringing people from different classes and strata together to further the development of all—with the growth and development of the poor as its centerpiece.
Thus middle class and affluent people give money to support the youth development programs of the All Stars Project. Theatre professionals give their time and skill to train young people from poor neighborhoods in performance in Youth Onstage! Therapists, social workers and teachers from all over the world learn from the East Side Institute how to bring performance and improvisation into their work. Political activists of various class backgrounds work in the independent movement to create a political culture that allows for the grassroots to participate in and impact on the electoral system. As this Postmodern Marxism understands it, the development community it has generated is the social/historical context in which the class-for-itself is incubated.
At the same time, the development community has played a key role in helping Postmodern Marxism get beyond the categorical definition of class. If indeed the working class is an activity (the activity of its own development) are not all people who are engaged in that activity part of the working class coming into being? As Newman and Holzman put it in “All Power To The Developing!” (first published in the Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 2002, Vol. 3, pp. 8 -23 and reprinted here on page ___), “It is people—Marx made plain—who change the world. But what kind of people? Some read Marx as saying, ‘The working class’ or ‘The proletariat.’ We read him as saying ‘People who are developing.’” The development community, by providing an environment for its participants to engage in revolutionary activity and development, shifts the nature of class struggle away from the destruction of capitalism to an all-round inclusive reconstruction of culture, politics, ethics, psychology, etc. To return to Postmodern Marxism’s long-term historical perspective, the development community is thus, for this particular historic moment at least, an embodiment of the conceptual/cultural revolution that is underway.
It should be emphasized that—as might be expected in a social construct/activity of this scope and size, encompassing such a wide variety of constantly changing/evolving activities—not everyone in the development community is aware of its totality. The donors to the All Stars Project, for example, may not be aware that some of the leaders of the All Stars are also involved in social therapy as therapists or clients. Teachers at the Youth Onstage! Community Performance School may not know that the energy and development generated by their program’s performance classes and productions interface with political activists in, say, the New York State Independence Party. Conversely, activists in the electoral work, in many cases, may not know that the Castillo Theatre even exists. A young person from Soweto may not know that the youth group he is helping to build in South Africa is part of the same development community that includes the CEOs of several major U.S. corporations. A social therapy patient in Brooklyn or Atlanta may be ignorant of the fact that the social therapeutic method is being used by therapists and youth and community organizers from Belgrade to Johannesburg, from the crowded city streets of Taipei to the rural villages of Bangladesh.
The Postmodern Marxist organizers within the development community work to make the connections clear and to teach in context how the various components strengthen each other and contribute to the community’s development in general and to the development of the poor in particular. At the same time, however, being cognizant of the totality is not necessary to making a contribution to and feeling connected with the community. Graduate students majoring in biophysics at a large university may have little knowledge of how the university as a whole works and little or no social connection to students in other fields. One can be a citizen of the United States (or any other country) without ever leaving one’s neighborhood or village. Being part of the university, the nation, the development community is an activity, not a knowing.
Given the fluid and continuously evolving (one might even say postmodern) nature of the community that these Postmodern Marxist Leninist organizers have helped bring into being, the modernist notion of the democratic centralist organization being a vanguard leading a categorically-defined mass toward a predetermined end point had become irrelevant to them by the early 1990s. Instead of the vanguard of a class, they began to view themselves as the “core” of a series of constantly expanding concentric circles of organizing activity. This shift did not make their cultivated commitment to revolutionary transformation and the discipline it required any less important, but it did help move these Postmodern Leninists away from the modernist roles of knowers and authorities toward the postmodernist roles of performers and organizers of power. The core’s core job is to provide the stability necessary in the chaos of an ongoing creative developmental process—to be the glue that holds the wide range of expanding organizing processes together, over the years and over the generations, no matter what. It is the core that guarantees that the creative process that is the development community is sustainable.
In 1995 Newman’s postmodernizing Marxists resumed a public role in response to an investigation by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that had been set into motion by a former Newman follower who, for reasons of a political vendetta, charged financial irregularities in Fulani’s 1992 presidential campaign.
The FEC charges and the publicity surrounding them implied that there was a mysterious sinister organization hidden within Fulani’s campaign that was somehow embezzling or otherwise misappropriating federal matching (and other campaign) funds. The implication was that this secret group was misusing funds for the profit of particular individuals. In response, the now qualitatively transformed Marxist leadership grouping decided it was time to go public about its existence, its nature and its political function. After all, being a socialist organization was not illegal in the United States and there was nothing either sinister or illegal in a socialist collective working on an electoral campaign. Fulani’s attorneys thus explained that the supposedly “irregular” interconnections were the result of the existence of what in the legal brief was called an “ideological collective” and pointed to the fact that many of the people active in and leading the campaign were members of this collective. The collective, the attorneys pointed out, “requires an intense and serious commitment to certain socialist principles of collectivism. Among these is the principle that all money in the possession of or accruing to those at the core belongs to the collective and is used at the discretion of the members of the collective to pursue shared political goals.”
Thus, after 19 years, the postmodernized collective was now able to use the very fact of its existence to shift the ground from under the feet of those attacking it. Rather than argue the case on conventional legal (FEC) terms, they chose to make its case on its own terms. Since, indeed, such a political entity and its right to allocate its funds as it sees fit, is perfectly legal, the criminal charges against the campaign lost their credibility. The fine against the Fulani campaign was subsequently reduced from $600,000 to $100,000 and no criminal charges were ever filed.
The “core collective” that “came out” to the FEC in 1995 was a very different entity than the “vanguard” that shed its public persona in 1976—while the seeds of its development were present from the start and are evident in retrospect.
Autonomy also had a profound impact on the relationship between power and authority within the core group, no small issue when one reflects on the authoritarianism of most democratic centralist organizations. Autonomy impacted rather quickly on the structure of the leadership body. The primary interface was no longer between a center and a periphery or between a leadership and a rank and file, but between various foci of organizing activities and power.
Given this new arrangement, the Central Committee and the Political Committee had virtually nothing to do and faded out of existence—thus eliminating, to a large extent, the deadening impact of vesting authority in leadership. The plenums, the meetings of the core, continued every two years but evolved into gatherings to report on and showcase the work of the various projects rather than to make decisions per se and were opened up to more and more non-core members over the years. The role of the chairman, Newman, in addition to his on-the-ground therapeutic and theatre work and his research, training and writing with the Institute, evolved into meeting regularly with leaders of the various projects and sub-projects to get caught up on their work and offer advice and guidance.
(At the same time, the members of the core collective have maintained their commitment to come together to accomplish goals that the organization agrees are priorities, as they did, for example, in focusing on getting Fulani on the ballot in all 50 states in 1988.)
This de-centralized structure along with the Postmodern Marxists’ understanding of power as the creative activity of the mass has led the leadership core not only away from centralized decision-making, but away from decision making itself. In a modernist capitalist culture that works aggressively to transform processes into things, it is difficult to think of activity without decisions. However, an action based on a previously conceived decision is an action based on assumptions from the past; it is not the result of on-going collective creativity.
Thus the organizing of the development community has, over the last two decades, had very little to do with decisions and quite a lot to do with improvisation. The development of the community has far more in common with a theatre rehearsal or a creative classroom or an effective therapy group than it does with the military chain of command associated with the old Leninist model.
During a successful theatre rehearsal the play emerges from the “play” of the actors, the director and the designers. An actor works to find herself within a character while in the process of interacting with the other actors who are also engaged in the activity of bringing a character into being. Together, the actors bring something new into the world—a new performance. The director and designers are impacted on by what the actors are creating and bring their ideas, energies, and costumes, music, physical environments, etc. into the mix, which in turn impacts on what the actors are doing on stage. Together, without any formal decision ever being made, the play is created.
A similar thing happens in a creative classroom. A student asks a particular question or comes up with a new idea or activity. The teacher and the other students respond to the question/idea/activity and the class takes a whole new turn, a whole new direction. The class becomes something other than what it started out as, without any decision being made to change it. This, of course, often happens in a therapy group. People respond to each other, build with the changes constantly being introduced and the group gets built, not because of decisions by the therapist or anyone else but through the collective creativity of the group. In retrospect, given the limitations of our language, we say, “The group decided to talk about such and such.” However, the activity of the group did not proceed from the decision; “decision” is the description we give to the activity of the group, the class, the rehearsal, after the fact.
Instead of being determined by the past alienated into the authority of decisions and “correct political line” (which is nothing other than the articulation of a complex of dead decisions), this Postmodern Marxism has created an environment in which leadership is provided not through decision-making, but through the activity of organizing. Someone, anyone, be they members of the core or not, can initiate an organizing activity at any time. It is a matter of making an offer—not abstractly but in practice—and if others accept that offer and create something new with it, the organizing activity (the project, campaign, production, organization, etc.) grows; the “decision” is made through activity, not through knowing; it is an exercise of power, not authority. This has happened countless times in the organizing of the development community; it is the method of its growth and development.
It is also, in a word, a core political belief/commitment of the core. The wide range of political views and social/cultural attitudes held by individuals within this grouping would surprise (and perhaps shock) anyone used to the uniformity demanded of the old (modernist) Communist parties. For decades, the core has had no program, no set of pre-articulated beliefs (no “political line”) that its members must adhere to. What it does have is an informal, continuously evolving, set of communalist values. The foundation/the bottom line/the core of those values is radical democracy as discussed here—a radical democracy that has its roots in and is inspired by the creative process of the social therapy group. (It is this radical democratic process, not any content of therapeutic conversation, that makes social therapy so political, i.e., so powerful.) Radical democracy is the core value and central commitment of the leadership grouping because radical democracy, as this Postmodern Marxism understands it, is the pre-condition for development. Development happens through the active participation of those involved in it; it is not imposed from above or legislated by elected representatives. Despite their wide-ranging views, what the core members do agree on is that radical democracy is the means by which ordinary people can develop and (perhaps) create an alternative to capitalism.
All of this has shifted the emphasis in “democratic centralist” from the centralist to the democratic. The democracy embodied in this process goes beyond the limits and mediations of representative democracy. People don’t elect representatives to make decisions for them. It is a direct, unmediated democracy in which people, any and all, organize their development through their collective activity. This radical, direct democracy is closer to a classical anarchist vision and approach to organizing than to a classical Leninist one. As the anarchist theorist Peter Kropotkin put it:
Today we live side by side without knowing one another. … Our neighbor may die of hunger or murder his children—it is no business of ours; it is the business of the policeman. … In a communist society such estrangement, such confidence in an outside force, could not exist. Communist organizations cannot be left to be constructed by legislative bodies called parliaments, municipal or communal councils. It must be the work of all, a natural growth, a product of the constructive genius of the great mass. Communism cannot be imposed from above; it could not live even for a few months if the constant and daily cooperation of all did not uphold it. It must be free. (Patterns of Anarchy: A Collection of Writings on the Anarchist Tradition, ed. Leonard I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1966, pp. 230-31.)
The anarchists have always objected to the centralized authority of the old Leninist model. Yet without a dedicated core, they have had no way of sustaining their anti-authoritarian revolutionary efforts. Postmodern Marxism has embraced the direct democracy advocated by anarchism while retaining a mutually agreed upon means of moving quickly and in a coordinated fashion when the circumstances call for it. Indeed, it is the postmodernist core that has been the key to building the democratic culture/environment in which direct democracy can flourish and be sustained.
It has been argued, by both liberal bourgeois and modern Marxist critics of this Postmodern Marxism, that this radically democratic organizing activity opens the door to a particularly strong or charismatic individual making all the “decisions,” that is, initiating all, or most of, the organizing initiatives. They point to the status that Newman has in the Postmodern Marxist movement as evidence of this danger. What they miss is that while Newman certainly has a great deal of power, he has very little authority. That is, he has initiated more creative activities and successfully organized more organizers to improvise with them, than anyone else in the movement. Yet, since the introduction of autonomy more than two decades ago, he, as an individual, has made virtually no decisions.
So while Postmodern Marxism agrees with its critics that particularly effective organizers can, indeed, generate power through this radically democratic process that power is not imposed authority; it is the creative activity of groups of people voluntarily engaged in collective action initiated by that organizer. This radical (anarchistic) democracy opens the door to new—and new types of—leaders, leaders neither appointed from above nor justified by preexisting institutions of authority. In point of historical fact, this Postmodern Marxist core has created more leaders than one might reasonably expect from a relatively small grouping of people. That doesn’t mean that it has more people making decisions. In fact, the organization (and the development community of which it is a part) has virtually no one making decisions; what it has are more people involved in the creative process of exercising power.
Of course, the pull to fetishize power into authority remains—and will as long as capitalism and its cultural/conceptual residue remain. Some core organizers (and others) have, and, to some extent, still do, relate to Newman as an authority, in the old Communist mold. In fact, many of those who have left the core over the years have done so (in this writer’s opinion) because they could not find the comfortable authoritarianism (and vanguardism) they were apparently seeking. This Postmodern Marxism has, as it has evolved, put the demand on its leaders to be powerful, which, given the experience of growing up essentially powerless, can be a difficult challenge.
Needing and Wanting
All of the above underscores that at the heart of this Postmodern Marxism is the question of power.
The challenge that this Postmodern Marxism, as an on-the-ground cultural/political movement, presents to the status quo is profound. Unlike modern Marxism, it is not seeking to replace one authority with another. It is seeking the “withering away” of authority altogether. Authority, of course, cannot be abolished by proclamation or violence (which, after all, is the most extreme and destructive form of authority). It can only be realized by the ever-expanding exercise of power by more and more people in every sphere of human life.
As the grassroots exercise of power expands, the development community will increasingly interface and come into conflict with established institutions of authority—from the traditional family to the two-party electoral system, from the public schools to the military industrial complex. Although power and authority are mutually exclusive, the conflicts between them will not only (or even primarily) be openly antagonistic. The weight of millennium of economies and cultures of authority and the drive within capitalism to turn everything, (including, perhaps especially, challenges to its very existence) into commodities would suggest that the greatest danger facing the power generated by Postmodern Marxist organizing, at least at this early stage of its history, is not violent repression as much as cooptation.
As the organizations built by this Postmodern Marxism grow in size, mainstream location and influence, the pull to institutional authority will increase. There will be more bills to pay, more jobs to hold onto, newly achieved social status and influence to maintain. There will be all sorts of mundane pressures for the revolutionary power generated by the organizing of the “successful” organization(s) to become hardened into reformist authority. Here again, the role of Leninist leadership, the core, is essential. As a voluntary, self-selected group of people who take on responsibility for maintaining and developing a long-term commitment to revolutionary/transformational change, one of its essential tasks is to continuously and relentlessly cultivate a culture of power, group building, direct democracy. Without a postmodern Leninist core always working to generate and nurture grassroots power, it is fairly certain that the organizations and movements that come into being will become reformist, and wind up propping-up the authorities-that-be.
For those concerned with power, that is the historic necessity of a dedicated group of “professional revolutionaries.”
While this speaks to the need for a core, it does not directly address the want. It is the wanting that gives postmodernized Marxism-Leninism its subjective advantage. It can provide something that capitalism and bourgeois ideology, which rationalizes and supports it, never can. That something is its spirituality.
Leninism gives people not simply the feeling, but the actual experience of being connected to something larger than oneself, of working cooperatively with others to make a contribution to the development of the entire human species. It provides a meaningful life, a life of connection/communion, a life that cannot be provided by the individualism, alienation and isolation generated by capitalism.
People can get this sense of spiritual connection and transcendence from other things as well—religions of all sorts, of course, but also reactionary cultural/political movements such as fascism (which connect people in shared hate and fear). As the old communism was killed, religion quickly filled the vacuum, providing meaning and purpose to poor and oppressed people in all parts of the world, most particularly, as we have seen with devastating effect, in the Islamic World.
Religion has it roots in the pre-modern world and therefore, in most cases, is backward looking. It is not about the development of this world so much as the projection of another, imaginary, one. While it can, and for countless centuries has, given masses of people a sense of community and of belonging to something more and greater than themselves, that something is not the shared activity of development, it is the shared belief in a supernatural being or beings and the customs and rituals centered around that belief. Marxism rather than seeking to save individual souls through an outside agency, seeks to save this world through the efforts of ordinary (and real) human beings. The spiritual connection it provides comes not from myths, stories and rituals, but from the improvisational activity of people working creatively together to be powerful. The postmodernism of this Marxism does not, as much of religion does, reject modernism. It embraces all that capitalism (and everything before it) has created materially and culturally and works to further its development. That said, religion and Marxism both provide roads to community and spirituality that capitalism, given the logic of commodification, simply cannot.
No discussion of power—or of the work of this Postmodern Marxism—would be complete without acknowledging this spiritual dimension. As the Counter Culture from which this Postmodern Marxism emerged understood (“grokked,” to use a non-cognitive Counter Cultural term) capitalism, even if it were able to meet people’s material needs (and it has never been able to do this for the vast majority of the human beings in the world), can never fulfill their spiritual needs. By its nature, capitalism puts human beings in competition with each other. It isolates and alienates us. It may motivate us by fear and greed, but it has no way of fulfilling the species need/want to be connected to and working with other human beings for something more than our individual selves.
It is this spiritual want that Leninism addresses and that gives it power to sustain revolutionary activity and ongoing development.
The End/The Beginning
There is something new under the sun.
Like everything that’s new, it has been built through a reorganization/reconstruction of what is/was. This Postmodern Marxism, as I hope this brief overview makes clear, is rooted in Marx (more the early methodological Marx than the later categorical Marx). It has attempted to learn from the mistakes of modern Marxism (both Social Democratic and Communist) and Anarchism while building on the history and legacy that those failed movements of poor and working people have bestowed. It also has a living connection to the Counter Culture of the 1960s and it is that aspect of the mix that has given this Postmodern Marxism its perspective on the need to engage all aspects of daily life and its focus on the subjective element in social change. Its commitment to conversation (instead of confrontation) combined with a living relationship to Marxist methodology (dialectics), enriched by the vital questions posed by Postmodernism, led this Postmodern Marxism out of the traps of knowing and ideology toward performance as a more developmental means of understanding, engaging and changing the world. Along the way, this Postmodern Marxism has constantly learned from other thinkers, Marxist and otherwise. It has found particular value in Vygotsky’s discoveries about human development and learning and in Wittgenstein’s insights into the nature of philosophy and language.
The continuous deconstruction and reconstruction going on even as (and as an integral part of) its constant mass organizing, has created something qualitatively new. While Postmodern Marxism bears obvious family resemblances to Social Democracy, Communism and Anarchism and to the Counter Culture of the 1960s, it is now something quite distinct from them in all the ways specified above. It is, in effect, a practice of method, a means of maintaining and expanding revolutionary activity birthed by and uniquely suited to the specifics of the current historical epoch.
As I tried to make clear at the start, this Postmodern Marxism cannot be expressed on paper, or simply through words. Although it involves many conceptual and theoretical aspects, it is not a concept or a theory. It is an activity in the world, an activity that has begun to generate power at the grassroots level. This introduction (like the essays it introduces), therefore, has an impossible task. They seek to explain cognitively a non-cognitive phenomenon. This Postmodern Marxism cannot be understood; it can only be performed.
At best, our book will serve as a cue to step onto the stage of history.
January 1, 2009