Lessons From History IV: Nicos Poulantzas’ Final Interview

On October 12th, 1979, the journal of the Italian Communist Party, Rinascita, published what would turn out to be the final published words of Greek-French Marxist theorist Nicos Poulantzas.  He initially came to prominence as a defender (along with Louis Althusser) of a deeply problematic structuralist interpretation of Marxism.  This final interview is interesting, in 2017, the year of the100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, because it shows him to be re-thinking one of the pillars of his earlier theory:  that the state is nothing more than a programmed function of capitalist society, whose necessary and sole task is to protect capitalist class interests.

In the interview, he discusses the relationship between state and society and claims that Marxism must re-think the role that the existing institutions of liberal democracy will have to play in the transition to, and the political life of, a future socialist world.  In particular, he argues that twentieth, (now twenty-first), century Marxists have to jettison the vanguardism of Lenin’s understanding of the worker’s party.

In Marx there exist elements that are completely contradictory with respect to Lenin’s theories. Despite the criticisms of the formal character of liberties, there was always a preoccupation with the institutions of representative democracy that is difficult to find in Lenin.

This contrast between Marx and Lenin on the (at least instrumental) value of formal political rights anticipates the defense of Marx as a deeply democratic thinker decades later by August H. Nimtz Jr., (in Marx and Engels:  Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough).  Nimtz proves, by paying close attention to Marx and Engels’ political writings, that they did not regard “bourgeois democratic rights” as nothing but ideological camouflage for class violence, but as vital tools for working class  political organizationForty years on from Poulantzas’ remarks, in an era where people’s thoughts have been liberated from their heads and can be broadcast at will to the world through social media, it is even more important that the Left come to terms with political pluralism and civil and political rights.

Whatever merits Lenin’s version of democratic centralism had (and it has one that I will discuss below), the core of his revolutionary theory: the need for one working class party that will rule unchallenged, proved a disaster.  Yes, the revolution was undone by the severe depredations caused by the Civil War, foreign opposition, and, above all, the failures of other European Revolutions, but the belief that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant “dictatorship by the one party of the proletariat”  cannot be absolved of  all guilt for the catastrophe of Stalinism.  Neither one single mind, nor any disciplined collection of minds, can understand every nuance that needs to be understood by those charged with governing a complex society.  There needs to be political argument between competing interpretations of policy and programme, and those interpretations require organization outside of a single party.

Not even Stalinist dictatorship, the imprisonment and execution of millions, could destroy opposition.  It lay dormant, until ultimately exploding in 1989.  The lesson is:  it is impossible, in modern conditions, where people expect to think for themselves, that all  will arrive at the same conclusion.  There will be different interpretations of core political values and the wisdom of different policy options, and the only way to resolve those differences is through full and free debate between different possibilities.  Thus, any viable democratic socialist project needs competition between political visions. This argument has been a staple of liberal democratic critique of Marxism, and, in that respect, the liberals were right.

Even Gramsci, widely lauded for injecting a more fulsome understanding of democracy into revolutionary socialism, remained trapped, according to Poulantzas, within a Leninist worldview.  He failed to think through the real value of multi-party systems and constitutionalism (Rechtstaat):

Gramsci did not have a positive theory of the exercise of power, of the institutions of representative democracy in the transition to democratic socialism. Missing are a theory of a plurality of parties [pluripartidismo] and of the Rechtsstaat [del estado de derecho].

In the twenty-first century, the two most exciting attempts to renew democratic socialism, Bolivia and Venezuela, abandoned the language of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the practice of Leninist vanguardism in favour of constitutionalism (especially the radically democratic institution of the constituent assembly to write new constitutions).  Unfortunately, they have not successfully maintained a steady course towards socialist transformation. The problems that the Venezuelan government has faced, especially since the death of Chavez, reveal a paradox of political pluralism that complicates the picture Poulantzas was beginning to paint.

The real strength of Lenin’s idea of democratic centralism is that it insisted upon disciplined political unity.  After full and free debate (in the party) everyone was required to publicly endorse the decision chosen.  Such a demand is not undemocratic, because everyone was allowed to have their say and to choose whether to be a member of the party.  If you were allowed to make your arguments, but your side lost, and you were free to leave but chose to stay, then you were (in a curiously Kantian way)  the author of the collective act.  You could have refused to acknowledge its legitimacy by leaving, but you chose to stay, knowing you will have to publicly support it, which is equivalent to having chosen the option you did not prefer.  Since the transition to a new society will be rife with conflict, the party that is leading the transition will have to be internally unified if it is to prevail, and its prevailing is the key to securing the natural and social conditions of the robustly democratic socialist society that the majority of people are fighting for (in a revolutionary or transitional situation).

That is the theory.  Subsequent history has shown that the reality is different:  all the differences, even within the socialist camp, cannot be housed under a single party with unified leadership.  The unity at the top will prevent full and free debate in the party ranks below (not to mention all the people outside the party who still have an interest in future law and policy). There is no spontaneous virtue within the working class, or any other social group, that ensures that every decision it makes will be right and just, simply because of the class (or any other) identity it shares:

Indeed, it seems to me that the categories of Marxism tend to consider the problem of the relationship between the working class and political democracy as “naturally” settled. I wonder, is there not a relation between Lenin’s underlying underestimation of the importance of formal democracy and a theory that takes for granted the “spontaneously” democratic role of the working class?

It is about understanding, as experience teaches, that no class by itself, by its very nature, is destined to be a guarantor of freedom without the intervention of a conscious project to that end. It is necessary to know how to look, without illusions and hesitation, into the stratifications, the divisions, the internal complexities that characterize the working class. It needs democracy and democratic institutions not only to defend itself against its enemies, but also to “defend itself” at the moment it assumes political power. Understanding this is important in order not to underestimate, as some Marxists did, the immense work of invention necessary for the elaboration of a democratic political theory of the transition to socialism.

The only way multiple parties can be avoided is through police action to destroy them, but that sort of action destroys democracy in the name of a democracy to come, which (we know now, and Poulantzas could see in 1979) will never arrive.

However– and here is the paradox that Venezuela  above all has revealed– a gradual transition, which pays compensation for re-appropriated collective property, that allows independent, even outright oppositional  political organizations, risks being undone at any moment by organized counter-thrusts.  If socialists ‘liquidate the class enemy,’  then they militarize the struggle and indefinitely postpone democracy (but not totalitarian rule).  If, on the other hand, they try to preserve political pluralism, they in effect keep their class enemies alive to fight another day, ensuring that whatever steps towards socialism they make, through legislation and the creation of new institutions of popular power, will be precarious  and subject to legislative roll back should the government change.

There is no theoretical solution to this problem, but only a choice to be made.  Unless the socialist left can build consistent support for its ideas, realize those ideas in institutions of popular self-government that extend into economic life, and defeat, by superior results and arguments, class enemies, it will never achieve its goals.  Any sort of militarized conflict will lead to mutually destructive civil war (as in Syria).  Socialists have to win by political organization and argument, democratic struggle, international solidarity, and demonstrable  achievements.  Such success is imaginable only over the long term- and, in spite of the danger of reaction and roll-back– gradually.

The interview also touches on a problem which perhaps resonates differently in 2017 than in 1979, but is perhaps also more important now.  It concerns what Poulantzas calls the “pan-politicization”  of society. When he made this argument in 1979, his concern was that critics were treating capitalism as CAPITALISM, an omnipotent, omniverous system that ruled out any space for free activity and self-organized experimentation.

I ask myself more and more often if it is fair to say there is a political defect in our society. Are we sure we will not fall into “pan-politicism”, one of the biggest ideological illusions inherited from the history of these recent years? At its heart, perhaps, the problem consists in recognizing that not everything is political, that there are limits to the politics of “politicization”. It is necessary to adapt to thinking that spaces of freedom may exist for new collective projects, for the expression of new subjectivities that escape politics–or better, certain limits of politics.

He implies that capitalism might not be as monolithically oppressive as critics suggest.  Capitalism is a contradictory system, and social contradictions are spaces of possibility.   Capitalism commodifies life-necessities, it is true, but their life-value exist independently of commodification, and this potentially available for non-commodified appropriation and use.  Expanded civil rights and legal flexibility allow for experimentation and self-organization (co-ops, community run spaces, self-help groups, skill exchanges…).  His point seems to be that as we work against capitalism, we should not miss opportunities to live differently within it.  Not every argument needs to end with:  “if you want x, you have to overthrow capitalism.”

This point remains relevant today even as changed political conditions reveal a new dimension probably not intended by Poulantzas.  The cultural politics of outrage and censorship strikes me as a new form of over-politicization which threatens to suffocate the emancipatory vision of socialism.   All past history is marred by structures of hierarchy and oppression.  It therefore follows that traces of oppressive and hierarchical thinking can be found everywhere, from the crassest popular culture to the highest of high art.  It does not follow, as too many left wing guardians of virtue think, that art works that bear the traces of this oppression consciously endorse it, and that therefore public display should be banned because it supposedly reinforces it.

Instead of learning to read art critically, with an eye and ear for nuance, with the ability to detect contradiction, tension, and irony, instead of understanding art as invention, not description, and, above all to recognize the liberatory potential expressed by aesthetic form (whatever the ‘literal’ content appears to be), too much of the left– especially on university campuses-  is dominated by a philistine and censorious sensibility.  We need to leave banning art to right wing religious fanatics and the cops.  We need to remember that historically it is gays and lesbians, radicals, and iconoclasts–  Wilde, Marx, Joyce– who suffered most at the hands of a conservative state, and radicals who fought for freedom of speech and expression (the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960’s, or Toronto’s flagship LGBTQ Glad Day Bookstore, in the 1970’s and 80’s for example). The Left must stand on the side of iconoclasm, free thought and expression, appreciation for the artistic exploration of the dark side of the human character, and of beauty as a socialist value.  Socialists above all should understand that life is not always nice and safe and pretty, and defend the right of artists to spread discomfort and challenge polite sensibility.

Reality Check

On December 6th, U.S. President Trump did what the U.S. Congress voted to do in 1995:  recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and begin the process of moving the Embassy there from Tel Aviv.   The move was in keeping with the dominant trends of his presidency thus far:  it kept a campaign promise, but was an old idea he embraced as his creation; it was odiously reactionary, but more style than substance, and it left all the details about implementation open.

The reaction to Trump’s announcement is also in keeping with the pattern that has developed:  loud verbal condemnations matched by no practical actions.  Hypocritical leaders from Europe and the Arab Middle East condemned the move as the death of the “peace process,” when any sentient being knows that the peace process been dead for two decades.  Israel will not seriously bargain unless threatened by forces it cannot resist or defeat.  The vaunted “Arab Street” is not such a force, nor are heroic Palestinian youth (both forces seem exhausted after decades of struggle with little concrete achievement to show for it).  The Palestinians have affirmed their dignity by  their willingness to fight for what is right, but their valour has meant nothing to the leaders of the world.  European leaders sometimes say the right things about illegal Israeli settlements, but they have never taken any real measures to end them.  If they were serious about their platitudes, they could support meaningful sanctions, but no major politician in Europe or North America has ever even mentioned the word.  Arab leaders are perhaps worst of all:  the loudest in voice to condemn Israel, the most silent when it comes to concrete action to build a global movement against Israeli colonialism.  Palestinians have been, since 1967, mostly on their own in a fight where they need real allies.

Trump is an obnoxious, narcissistic, right-wing pandering slave of money and media exposure, but he also does what he says.  Widely vilified for constructing his own reality, he also lays bare the reality of this world.  Most other politicians pretend that things like human rights, social justice, equality, and diplomatic politesse  matter.  They do not.  The world is governed by money and political-military power, and Trump makes this clear, all too clear.  Perhaps that is the deep reason why he is so loathed by liberals (in the American sense).  His tweets are lasers cutting through decades of moralizing sediments to expose the bedrock of violence that really drives global capitalism.

They hate this exposure because it brings to light the emptiness of their words:  they ruled over the same system and supported the same substantive policies as Trump, but they couched that support in puffery about human rights and social inclusion.  Trump knows that the hymns sung to human rights are all bullshit and refuses to sing along.  Mariam Barghouti, writing for Al Jazeera makes this point clearly.

Today, we see both the international community and Arab leaders ignoring Palestinian cries for justice once again. This is evident in the dominating discourse of global and as well as Arab leaders – It revolves around the fear of another uprising, instability, and protest. There is no genuine address, in most the speeches and proclamations, to the roots of the travesty bestowed upon the Palestinian people in the form of a violent occupation.

Trump’s crime is that he lets the cat out of the bag:  European and Arab leaders really do not care about Palestinians.  More deeply and generally, they all abide by the principle that the world is ruled by those who have won the wars.  Social justice for them, as for Trump, is for each side to behave as it is in truth:  the winners rule by virtue of winning, the losers are ruled by virtue of losing.  The world has always thus been governed, but usually the rulers put clothes on this naked truth.  But the clothes do not make the man in this case:  the man underneath is a violent brute and he always ruled with an iron fist.

No immediate good will come out of Trump’s announcement. Even though he did little more than recognize a de facto political truth, the recognition is yet another humiliation for the Palestinians.  The have endured worse and continued to fight.  There is no doubt that they will endure this slap in the face and fight anew.  But over the longer term, there is perhaps some value to Trump’s political realism.   Writing one year ago, just after the Trump election, Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud mused that Trump might prove better in the long run for Palestinians than liberals just because he is so overt in his support for Israel:

The US has served as an enabler to Israel’s political and military belligerence, while pacifying the Palestinians and the Arabs with empty promises, with threats at times, with handouts and with mere words. The so-called “moderate Palestinians”, the likes of Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, were duly pacified, indeed, for they won the trappings of “power”, coupled with US political validation, while allowing Israel to conquer whatever remained of Palestine. But that era is, indeed, over. While the US will continue to enable Israel’s intransigence, a Trump Presidency is likely to witness a complete departure from the Washingtonian doublespeak.  Bad will no longer be good, wrong is not right, and warmongering is not peacemaking. In fact, Trump is set to expose American foreign policy for what it truly is, and has been for decades. His presidency is likely to give all parties a stark choice regarding where they stand on peace, justice and human rights.

Thus far, events have proven Baroud absolutely correct.  In order to win, one must not only know who the enemy is, but what they really think.  Attempts to build meaningful support  for Palestinian liberation through cultivating ties with Western governments have failed.  Just as in the case of apartheid in South Africa, mainstream politicians can smell the money over the pile of stinking bodies, and they always follow their nose. Unless something unexpected and unforseeable at present happens in the West, the liberation of Palestine will have to be the work of Palestinians and solidarity movements built outside of and against existing governments.

Writing one hundred and fifty years ago, Marx and Engels argued that capitalism undermines all the religious and superstitious beliefs that former ruling classes employed to justify their rule.  No one can any longer believe that the king is king by the grace of god or that the ruling class is possessed of superior blood.  Money and violence rule, and the observable everyday dynamics of the world prove it to anyone who can stand to look:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Trump forces us all to look with sober senses at the real situation and our relations with one another.  He is, unabashedly, the ideal expression of the real relationship between economic and political power in capitalism.  Puffed up by the trappings of his position, he is, manifestly, a servant of money-power.  This deep truth needs to be the basis of opposition to him and the forces that created him.

Readings: John Brown: New Work

John Brown:  New Work

Olga Korper Gallery

17 Morrow Avenue, Toronto

Field of Forces

a) My Hand …

Writes me into being,

Not straightaway and all at once,

but in loops and curls.

The body of the man hides

the imagination of the child;

in old age,

the reminiscence

restores strength

to the failing body.


At the end,

one is suspended

between the light and the dark.

Endings are awful,

but human.


b) Public Service Announcement

We your benefactors have heard you,

and we have taken care:

to prevent the unexpected,

to exile the unanticipated,

to organize experience

predictably, in advance,

to anticipate the possible,

and organize it

in the interest of your happiness.


All this we have done for you.

c) The Other’s Hand

The eye

that makes the observation

is connected

to the hand

that takes the notes,

that compiles the data,

that discloses the pattern,

from which you are a deviation.


The mind

prescribes the remedy,

the hand

writes the prescription,

which restores the natural order,

by curing the affliction.


The mind

imagines the numbers,

the hand

writes the code,

that drives the apparatus

of security and surveillance,

of comfort and control.


In love for you our hands are joined

to write the rules and regulations


divide in from out,

like from unlike,

known from unknown,

us from them,

citizen from refugee,

the desired from the shunned.


Within this architecture of security

an obligatory good

has been elaborated

by us, for you.

d) Being There

Anxiety:  to vibrate out of phase

with the promised sleep

of pacified happiness.

No network application

can still the mind

that has felt

the impermanence

at the very heart

of things.


Where you are now

you cannot stay.

Being here

is a moment

of the nowhere

you will someday be,


All Photos © 2017 Olga Korper Gallery.

World Philosophy Day 2017

STEM The Tide: The Revolution Will not Be Digitized
Remarks on the Occasion of World Philosophy Day 2017
Villain’s Beastro,
Windsor, ON

1. There can be no question of skepticism about the results of three hundred years of scientific research. The issue is not whether material nature can be understood by the scientific method. Rather, the question is whether human beings and our societies and cultures are reducible to material nature, its elements, forces, and laws.

2. There can also be no question of retreating to idealist dreams of a spiritual other-world and divine origins. Not only do they presuppose what would need to be explained: how god created the world and what reason there would be for souls to become embodied, they also abstract from the limitations and challenges that make life as finite, mortal being difficult.

3. Hence the philosophical object is the specific historical materiality of human beings, the way our individual and collective lives are at once biological and social, physical and symbolic, framed by objective forces that are nevertheless subject to interpretation and change. Grasping this specificity adequately is not only a philosophical problem: it organizes the whole field of the humanities. What is uniquely philosophical is the task of making the case, against reductionism on the one hand and idealism on the other, of the synthetic, bio-social nature of human beings.

4. Our biology both links us together in mutual need and allows us to think as separate individuals. We are drawn together and pulled apart; the meaning and value of our lives are at once collective political problems and individual existential problems. We build together and dread our deaths alone.

5. Our finitude can be lived religiously or philosophically, or it can be ignored scientifically. If religious belief cannot solve the problems of existential anxiety, the dread of uncertainty, the eventual reality of failure and loss, when it is honest it at least acknowledges them as the source of the need to question the silent heavens. “Let man, coming back to himself, consider what he is in comparison with what is; let him consider himself as lost in this out of the way corner of nature; and from this little cell he finds himself lodged … let him learn to appreciate at their true worth the world, the kingdoms, the cities, and himself. What is man within the infinite?” (Pascal, Thought 13).

6. Science makes the same mistake as the dogmas it claims to overturn. In reality a historical and dialectical accumulation of partial understandings, science oversteps its competency as soon as it weighs in on ultimate issues. The absurdity of thinking that there is an algorithmic solution to ultimate questions is as overt as the belief in a literal creation of the universe in 6 days.

7. Choice is not algorithmic but normative: what can cruel or kind, tender or ruthless mean to a machine? They are felt and cognized realties, machine intelligence is artificial because it is not a feeling intelligence aware of itself and its responsibilities.

8. Ultimate questions are those which human beings have perennially posed, in all reflective cultures: Life, death, purpose, love, hate, sex, creation, destruction, knowledge, ignorance, future, the part and the whole, the self and its community, justice, freedom.

9. Philosophy as the public exercise of foundational questioning lives now as it has always lived, nourished by these ultimate questions. Human beings apart from these ultimate questions are protein awaiting recycling. Feeling the essential importance and value of our existence depends upon being confronted with these questions. We do not reason our way to these questions as a computer grinds out solutions. They are just there one day: alone on a bus, walking in a field, looking into your lover’s eyes, alone and suicidal, deliriously happy but knowing it cannot last. “It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. … But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p.10).

10. Cut off from these ultimate questions philosophy is reduced to a loose connection of technocratic specialities that must live and die by their contribution to instrumental knowledge. In the competition between empirical disciplines and philosophy over the instrumental value of knowledge, philosophy cannot win over the long term. It will eventually be absorbed by the empirical disciplines. If it wants a future, it must confront those disciplines with the limits of their competence.

11. Those limits are: the values by which we live and ought to live, the interior life of imagination and thought, the purpose and meaning of existence, in all of their historical complexity and contradiction.

12. Once we open up this field of questions there is always the possibility that the best conclusion is nihilism: that there are no universal values, that inner life and the affections and attachments it helps us form are chimeras, that life has no purpose. Living only really begins where confrontation with the non-necessity of continuing to live has been thought through and felt.

13. Everyone must think down to this level below which there is no going deeper on their own and for themselves. The value of the history of philosophy is not to unburden each individual of the need to work down to that absolute floor. “The task of becoming subjective, then, may be presumed to be the highest task, and one that is proposed to every human being.” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 146). If any philosopher could answer fundamental questions once and for all, they would have been the last philosopher. Like Virgil leading Dante through Hades, the history of philosophy is a guide that lets us see what we need to see, but not an answer book.

14. Hence, the public value of philosophy today is that it keeps these questions alive for the whole community, in circumstances in which our politics, our culture, and our science wants to ignore them or pretend they can be answered by pointing to a chemical sequence or a string of numbers. It forces us to think the specificity of the human as an existential, historical, social, symbolic, and political reality.

15. While this task is not the preserve of an expert culture of academic philosophers, academic philosophers find their public justification as teachers of disciplined and rigorous ways of posing these questions, as interpreters of the history of answers, as creators of answers demanded by our own time, and as exemplars of the dignity of argument and reasoned defence of positions, against violence on the one hand and the dogmatism of quantifiable results on the other.

Emily Dobson,

MA Candidate in Philosophy

Philosophy, Poetry, and Dis-Orientation

In the spirit of the informality of this event, what I have to say will primarily be my own personal experiences with philosophy and the humanities. Given that these are my thoughts, feelings, and experiences, I must make a disclaimer that not everything I have to say fits into the lightheartedness of the event, but I intend to keep it as lighthearted as possible.


The humanities continue to give me perspective and direction in my life. Since we are here for World Philosophy Day, I will say in respect to Philosophy that it has helped to unify and strengthen some of my values and beliefs, and that, through philosophy, I have been able to find means by which I can contribute back to the community. This contribution comes in a way that I am inherently predisposed: through writing, asking questions, and rewriting.


The humanities allow for a level of freedom, creativity, and play that STEM fields lack. I have found Philosophy to be a space in which I can let myself breathe because I know there might not be answers to the questions I have right now, but I can still seek them out without being told to stop. And I can play with the questions and ideas as I go, taking them in and adding my own voice to them. You can’t necessarily do that in STEM. When we think everything will eventually fit into concrete categories with well fitting labels, when we think the world is a 10,000 piece piece puzzle just waiting for humanity to put the pieces together and display it, the creativity and play suffocates.


I believe a large part of what it means to be human exists in creativity and freedom to think and play with ideas and images. Humans are meaning bestowing creatures: we find and give meaning to things. The humanities teach us not only the history and ways in which we inscribe meaning into the world, but they teach us how to bestow our own meaning. Which is why a solution to the world’s problems does not exist in STEM as a solitary or even primary saviour. We cannot fix global crises by pretending that STEM has a value-neutral foundation or by moving further away from what it is to be human.


This is where things get a bit more personal, so I’ll begin with a definitive statement: If I had majored in a STEM field, I would not be where I am today. I mean this in more than the obvious fact that I wouldn’t be up here speaking or doing an MA in philosophy. I mean more so that I probably would have dropped out of university a few years ago.


My relationship with STEM fields has always been in tension. I have a habit of taking in information and regurgitating it beyond what is necessary; I’m relatively good at memorizing. There were a lot of examples that created a basis for public school educators and my parents to believe that science came naturally to me. While I enjoy learning about the world, my passion has always been centered around reading, writing, and interpreting the world instead of trying to map it. Yet somehow I fooled everyone into thinking I wanted to pursue a career in science.


When you’re a kid about to enter high school, adults around you want you to start building a solid plan for the rest of your life. Start thinking about a career and what kind of job you’re going to do to function as a perfect cog in the economy machine. When you’re from a working-class family, your parents push you to do better in school and figure out a plan so that you can work, take sick days when you need to, and find comfort in being able to retire at 65. So I knew in grade 8 when I had to write an autobiography describing the type of adult life I wanted, that I wouldn’t get away with saying that I wanted to be a big name author without some kind of negative feedback. Instead, I coupled the strongly emphasized desire to be a writer with a made up desire to become a marine biologist. I mean made up in the most removed sense; I was and still am incredibly wary of large bodies of water that have creatures with sharp teeth or beaks. But I was so confident in this fictional autobiography that when it came time for the arbitrary graduation awards that my school handed out, I was convinced that I would receive the English award. I thought the consistent emphasis that marine biology was a backup career for writing would be evidence enough that English was what I intended to do. I was so devastated when I received the science award instead that I stubbornly further committed myself to a career in English.


So that’s why I started university with an intended BA Honours in English Literature and Creative Writing. But in grade 12 I was also fortunate to take a course in philosophy. I failed the course with a 12%. Yes, 12%. I took it again the following year, passing with a 53.


How did I end up here, halfway through an MA in philosophy, with a BA[H] in English and Philosophy, when I barely passed high school philosophy? High school me didn’t have the work ethic for philosophy, but my exposure in high school led to taking a minor in philosophy in first year and then switching to a double major the next. I took grade 12 philosophy a second time because it affected me like English had. In both I was allowed to engage with the material in a way that was almost completely my own. Both gave me a direction beyond the unstructured idealism I had of just writing stories.


I was glad to have not enrolled in a STEM field because in university, both English and Philosophy gave me the perspective and foundation I needed to stay in school. I was very sick during my first year of undergrad and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease the following summer. At the end of my second year, I underwent major surgery to attempt to bring my Crohn’s into remission. It was, thankfully, successful, but all 5 years of my undergrad were filled with family problems, toxic relationships, and major depressive episodes. If I had been a STEM major, I may have been lucky enough to have understanding professors like the ones I have met in the humanities, who have always been more than willing to work with me so that I could get through each semester. However, in STEM I would not have been able to reach an understanding of myself and my situation outside of a framework that values productivity above individual lives.


We as a society try to pretend that STEM fields are not influenced by values, but they are just as heavily influenced by an underlying value system that holds profit above workers, productivity over sustainability. Meaning and humanity are forfeit when we work to live to work. I know myself well enough to say with certainty that I would not have lasted an entire undergraduate degree in STEM because it was only through the humanities that I could see myself as a human being with real limitations that no amount of caffeine could remove.


STEM cannot fix the world’s problems because they forget that they are built on and swayed by a dominant value system. Their forgetfulness results in not questioning the extent to which these values may and do cause harm. Some like to think that, eventually, we can use STEM fields to instruct us on how to regulate and account for the things that lead into the global problems we are seeing today. They don’t realize that no amount of regulation is going to fix a system that, at its very foundation, uploads money as having ultimate value. You cannot regulate the foundation out of a inherently harmful system. But the humanities provide means to actively question values and dominant systems and try to push beyond them while reminding us of our own humanity.


I cannot convince my body to do go past its limitations. I cannot remove these limitations anymore than anyone else can; as living, embodied beings, we are inherently constrained by our limits. But through the humanities I have been able to understand these limitations in a way that gives direction to my creative and philosophical work. There is a strong confliction in me between the emphasis on productivity in our society and the understanding that value can and does exist outside of one’s ability to produce. I have been able to bring the former into perspective through studying the humanities. I have given voice to this conflict in my creative and academic work, like many others. Giving voice to this conflict and actively critiquing the ruling-value system is how we begin to find a solution to the world’s problems, not through STEM fields in isolation.

What is Academic Freedom?

Like all liberal rights, academic freedom cuts both ways politically.  Much of the controversy that it engenders is a function of one side wanting to claim as its exclusive property a right that by its very nature is two-sided.  The growth of the  alt-right in the wake of Trump’s election and the return of arguments over political correctness (first time tragedy, second time farce) to North American campuses has made a public issue of what in less fraught times would be studiously ignored by everyone outside of academia.

In Canada, the main fault line today is the University of Toronto, and in particular Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson’s one man campaign against pronouns.  Cloaking himself in the mantle of “science,”  he has argued that there are no biological or social grounds for using genderless pronouns when referring to trans people, and has accused his opponents of violating academic freedom in their critical responses to his position.  Recently, he has upped the ante.  Building on his popularity as an alt-right icon, he has promised to start a web site to expose left-wing “cult”  classes on campus.  As he told CBC radio:

“We’re going to start with a website in the next month and a half that will be designed to help students and parents identify post-modern content in courses so that they can avoid them,” he told CTV’s Your Morning in August.

“I’m hoping that over about a five-year period a concerted effort could be made to knock the enrolment down in postmodern neo-Marxist cult classes by 75 per cent across the West. So our plan initially is to cut off the supply to the people that are running the indoctrination cults.”

[Colleagues at the University of Toronto are alarmed.  Not only is this a gross failure of collegiality– we are supposed to criticize each other but not call each other names and try to destroy one another’s classes– but they are also worried– legitimately– that in the ionized political atmosphere that prevails today, being singled out on this website could make them the targets of violence.  I will leave these legitimate concerns to one side and use the example as a lens to examine the real meaning and value of academic freedom].

So, parents, before you start worrying that your child will go to U of T and come home next Thanksgiving in saffron robes singing hymns to Lord Krishna, let me decode Prof. Peterson’s invective.  “Post-modern”  was a term that was au courant when I was graduate student, more than 20 years ago.  Today, um, not so much.  “Neo-marxist” is even older.  Its referent– if it ever really had one– would be figures like Herbert Marcuse who, in the 1960s, tried to re-formulate Marx’s critique of capitalism to account for the ways in which the working class had been absorbed into the system.  So his terms of abuse are a bit out of date,  but hey, he is a psychologist and not a practitioner of the dark arts of Anthropology or English literature (two disciplines which have, according to the good doctor, been taken over by cult leaders).

What actually troubles him is that some disciplines have the temerity to challenge the authority of empirical science,  to expose its historical entanglements with very unscientific hierarchies of power, and to defend interpretive approaches to the problem of truth that take into account self-understanding, context, culture, and history.  In other words, students in these classes have the opportunity to think critically– the very opposite of cultish indoctrination.

Supporters of Peterson will say that academic freedom gives him the right to expose what he regards as unscientific dogma; his critics can rejoin that academic freedom gives them the right to teach methods and content critical of the western canon and natural science.  The truth is that academic freedom gives both sides the right (subject to key limitations that I will discuss below) to make whatever arguments they think need making.  Like the right to free speech, academic freedom is a formal right that protects the expression, in an academic context, of politically opposed positions.  Attempts to capture it by either the left or the right will always fail, because it protects expression, not content.

In order to understand academic freedom as well as its real value and importance, it is important that we not treat it as an abstract value but as a collective agreement right.  Academic freedom does not appear in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  While it might usefully be thought of as a species of free speech, the only documents that formally assert it and are able to protect it are faculty collective agreements (and, sometimes, University Senate by-laws).  Here are the relevant clauses from the Collective agreement between my Faculty Association and the administration of the University of Windsor:

10:01  The fundamental purpose of the University and its unique contribution is the search for new knowledge and the free dissemination of what is known. Academic freedom in universities is essential to both these purposes in the teaching function of the University as well as in its scholarship, research, and creative work.

10:02  Each member shall be free in the choice and pursuit of research consistent with the objectives and purposes of the University and in the publication of the results, subject only to the normally expected level of performance of her/his other duties and responsibilities.

10:03  Each member shall have freedom of discussion.  However, in the exercise of this freedom in the classroom, reasonable restraint shall be used in introducing matters unrelated to her/his subject.  The University shall not require conformity to any religious beliefs, doctrines or practices.

10:04 The University shall not impose supervision or other restraints upon, nor will it assume responsibility for, what is said or written by a member acting as a private citizen.  However, as a person of learning she/he shall exercise good judgment and shall make it clear that she/he is not acting as a spokesperson for the University.

As should be clear,  the main purpose of academic freedom is not to protect marginalized political positions of whatever ideological stripe, but rather to ensure that research and teaching are unconstrained by administrative, economic, or political power.  The relevant contrast is not between left and right, but between truth and power:  academic freedom is necessary because the discovery of truths depends upon the free exercise of intellect, including its critical exercise against any and all authorities who would try to block the dissemination of certain truths that undermine their legitimacy.

The main threat to academic freedom is university administrations themselves, and the social, political, and economic forces that batter at the walls of the university demanding that research and teaching serve their interests.  That said, academic freedom itself protects Marxist economists and business professors, radical feminists and defenders of traditional marriage, nationalist historians of the First World War and post-colonial critics of imperialism.  So long as there are competing political positions in society they will be represented in academia.  All attempts of one side or the other to use academic freedom to de-legitimate the other side contradict the very value to which they appeal.

That said, there are two very good reasons for social critics to defend academic freedom even though it also protects the right of their opponents to attack them.   First of all, alt-right fantasies aside, the university is not ruled by neo-marxist cultists.  Boards of Governors are stuffed with business people, and senior administrators increasingly identify their role with that of a CEO.  While there are a few dogmatic leftists teaching, there are no neo-marxist cultists running universities.  Ordinary market forces are a much bigger threat to the existence of Anthropology and English Literature than Peterson’s website will ever be.  The totalitarian drum beat of jobs, jobs. jobs, abetted by administrators who design budgets that de-fund the arts and humanities (as well as basic research in the sciences)  in favour of commodifiable research, are rapidly shifting the university away from social criticism and toward conformity with money imperatives.  Academic freedom can be an important value basis for the critique of institutional degeneration.

Second, the left has to learn how to win arguments again.  We need to convince opponents that the world is wrong and stop being satisfied with patting each other on the back for our moral purity.  That means a willingness to engage the intellectual enemy and prove that we have more coherent and comprehensive understandings of the world, that we can expose their contradictions and one-sided constructions, and that we have a convincing program that can build multi-faceted majority support.

The only real and legitimate constraint on academic freedom is the truth that our research and teaching ought to serve.  Where there are contrary positions, both cannot be true, but to decide between them generally requires argument.  Argument is not ad hominem insult; criticism is not dogmatic rejection of whole fields of social and cultural research.  Moreover, truth is not the preserve of the natural sciences.  To be sure, natural scientific understanding of the elements and laws of material reality are of essential importance, both as intrinsically valuable achievements of the human mind, and also as essential contributors to collective health and well-being.  But science does not exist in a Platonic realm of ideas free from political and economic power.  Nor are the laws of material nature sufficient to understand human history, society, and culture.  There is no value free way to study values, and no way to fully understand human history, society, and culture without studying values.  That ensures that there will be disagreement.  Academic freedom is essential to ensuring that those disagreements are resolved by superior evidence, reasons, and argument, and not by campaigns to de-legitimate those disciplines with the historical competence to compile, evaluate, and articulate the evidence.

Democracy, Religion, and Cultural Difference

Anyone who has been to Montreal will have seen the giant crucifix, shining as a beacon unto the lost, on top of Mount Royal.  It is not a public geometry lesson, not an art installation, it is a very large and very obvious religious symbol, testimony to the outsized role that the Catholic Church has played in Quebec’s history.  France’s revolution of 1789 did not instill “secularism”  at the heart of la nouvelle France but hived it off from history as a bastion of ancien regime Catholic power.  Quebec’s embrace of secularism took place during the Quiet Revolution, some two hundred years after the original.

Yet, even after the happy rejection of Church power over daily life, the giant cross still shines every night from the highest point of the city.  Notre Dame Cathedral has not been turned into a Temple of Reason, nor L’Oratoire St. Joseph expropriated by the nearby Université de Montreal to house its science faculty.

If  Quebec is now the national bastion of “religious neutrality”  and “secularism,”  then I submit that the cross should be removed and the two great monuments to Catholic power and the credulity of true believers re-purposed.  Believing that an old priest can cure the afflicted is surely at least as great a threat to democratic and scientific values as a relatively few women covering  their faces in public in obedience to certain minority strains of Islam.

But it is only these women who will be obligated to conform to government dress code.  Sorry-  I forgot that worshipers at the Church of the Holy Sunglasses and members of the Sacred Order of Balaclava Wearers will also be be forced to partially disrobe before they can take the bus.  Not a word have I heard about priests in collars or nuns in habits.  Do these overt signs of religious authority not violate the supposed principle of “religious neutrality?”

The face! There is something about the face.  What is it?  According to Phillipe Couillard, Premier of Quebec, democracy requires face to face encounters.  “Public services should be given with an open face,” he said. “Why? Not because of religion but because of issues related to communication, safety, and identification. It’s the characteristic of any society that when we talk to each other I see your face, you see mine. This is something that is very distinct from religion.”  If this claim is true, that the bill is about safety and identification, why does the bill include the phrase “religious neutrality” at all?  “Bill 62’s … English title is “An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies.”  Yet, the only supposedly religious garment the act would ban are the variety of face coverings worn by some Muslim women.

Hence it is clear and indisputable that whatever the framers’ intentions, its only effect will be to further stigmatize and demonize Islam and in particular Muslim women.  Ostensibly, the law derives from the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on cultural accommodation in Quebec, although the co-chairs, sociologist Gérard Bouchard and Philosopher Charles Taylor have criticized it.  As have the Parti Quebecois and the Coalition Avenir Québec, but in their case for not going far enough.

Although there can be little doubt about the real implications of the law, can one not argue that the value of liberal-democratic equality demands it?  On the surface, religious-cultural traditions that demand any mandatory form of dress for women seem themselves stigmatizing and oppressive.  If a tradition is rooted in patriarchal power over women, then it is hardly compatible with the idea of democratic equality, in which every member of the polity is assumed free to choose their political and religious beliefs, as well as the way they will present themselves in public.  If the tradition to which the woman belongs requires her to cover her face, and imposes sanctions if she does not, then her power to choose is compromised, and she is oppressed.  A law that opposes that tradition therefore opposes oppression, and should thus be defensible on grounds of liberal-democratic equality.

This argument has some merit.  It rests on the Enlightenment view of religion as irrational superstition.  It rejects pure tolerance in favour of critical evaluation of traditions on the basis of universal human interests in freedom of self-presentation.  Values which claim the authority of history but are manifestly rooted in rationally indefensible hierarchies of power are judged illegitimate. The public realm is treated as a space for the harmonious interplay of differences, but only legitimate differences, ones that do not depend upon the marginalization and domination of others. In its liberal-feminist form, it rejects all  paternalistic arguments that women must conceal themselves from the male gaze for their own good.

As I have argued in more detail in past posts, (How do You Like the End of the Enlightenment Now? February 22nd, 2017)) the so-called age of “post-truth”  politics that we find ourselves has had the one salutary effect of reminding us of the political importance of these Enlightenment values.  Frightening displays of far right violence have been encouraged by false historical narratives and empirically untrue social theory (e.g., that the Confederacy was the legitimate product of honourable Southern culture, or that immigrants “steal”  “our”  jobs).  In the face of false and invidious ideologies, a dose of truth is most necessary  (as are reminders about the  value of liberal-democratic equality in the face of far right, exclusionary violence).

However, choice and liberal-democratic equality produce sometimes paradoxical results.  When they do, contextual political intelligence is required to decide the paradox in favour of one or the other doxa in tension.  Contrary to the expectations of radical Enlightenment critics of religion like the Baron d’Holbach, one of the first openly atheist philosophers and a determined anti-clericalist, whose System de nature mocks the hypocrisy of priests and demolishes all “proofs”  of the existence of God, history has proven that religious belief is not rooted in rationality, and is therefore impervious to rational-empirical criticism.  As Feuerbach and Marx understood, religious belief stems from deeper felt needs:  to belong, to feel loved, to feel protected in a world that exposes us on every side to uncaring deprivation and violence.

While I would argue that it is the community that believers form that satisfies the needs (if they are in fact satisfied) and not the always absent, other-world God, this need is a powerful social bonding force.  While the belief in a caring and protective other-world being is irrational, superstitious, and sure to be disappointed by the void which death no doubt is, the demand that the need be satisfied is rational, in the sense of essentially important for a good human life.  I have tried to provide a secular-materialist explanation of this need and how it might be satisfied outside of religious systems elsewhere. (See Can Only Religion Save UsThe European Legacy:  Towards New Paradigms, 15:1, 2010).  So long as billions of people reject my argument and maintain their religious cultures, democratic societies are going to have to contend with the existence of communities some of whose members choose to belong even though the choice entails commitments which, on the surface, seem to limit their own rights in oppressive ways.

Here we have a paradox of self-determination and choice: rational people choosing to follow irrational belief systems to live in ways that appear oppressive from an abstract liberal-democratic perspective.  Laws like Quebec’s Bill 62 claim to want to resolve the paradox in favour of abstract liberal-democratic equality.   Given the reality and the power of peoples’ religious commitments, and the value of satisfying the needs for belonging and love that these commitments serve, this and similar laws end up being more oppressive and paternalistic than the practices they try to eliminate.

When it comes to oppression we must always listen to the voices of those who appear to be oppressed.  If Muslim women who cover their faces say that they choose to do so because they do not want to be ostracized from their communities, then those of us who do not share those beliefs, indeed, even those who regard them as both irrational and oppressive, need to listen.  Self-determination, the most essential democratic value, means that people can choose paths that might not be fully consistent with liberal-democratic conceptions of equality, but which cannot be uprooted without destroying the all-important democratic commitment to coherently inclusive social institutions.  If there are groups who will not abandon certain practices which are in tension with some aspect of liberal-democratic equality, but which otherwise leave members free to change their mind and reject the practices at some future point, then the policy most consistent with democratic equality and freedom is to leave the people free to choose, trusting that they are capable, as mature, rational adults, of understanding what they are doing and accepting of the consequences.

That said, there is always room for argument:  No group, religious or otherwise, has the right not to be criticized, and has a duty to respond the criticisms.  If some members find their group’s answer lacking, eventually they will choose to leave, as many millions of people in Quebec chose to leave the Catholic Church to build a new secular Quebec.  No one compelled them to do so, they decided collectively that they wanted a different avenir for Quebec.  Unless we think Muslim women are a species apart, incapable of changing their individual and collective future for themselves, then we have to conclude, with Trudeau the elder, that the state has no more right to rifle through the closets of the nation than to police what goes on in its bedrooms.

Readings: David Camfield: We Can Do Better

In We Can Do Better:  Ideas for Changing Society, David Camfield presents his “reconstructed historical materialism”  as the theoretical key to practical social transformation.  It is both concise and wide-ranging, but never becomes so dense that it ceases to be accessible to non-experts.  Camfield avoids academic jargon and pecayune analysis in favour of readable prose and familiar, effective examples.  At the same time, the book engages with complex philosophical problems and challenging impediments to socialist political organization with enough sophistication to engage the attention of academics and seasoned activists.  Philosophically, his reconstructed historical materialism retains the core strength of the original theory while providing novel solutions to older problems of misinterpretations like economism and mechanical theories of historical causality.  By stressing collective agency as the driving force of history, Camfield’s reconstruction prepares the ground for a new politics of struggle from below in which class, race, and sex-gender are intertwined rather than set against one another.  Camfield thus manages to develop a theory which coherently informs practice, and theorizes a practice that could plausibly produce the sorts of unified and global movements that progress towards socialism will require.

In the first part of the four part book Camfield examines three alternatives to historical materialist explanation:  idealism, biological determinism, and neo-liberal market fundamentalism.  According to the first, history is driven by ideal entities of some sort:  divine will, Platonic forms, or values that exist independently of the people who hold them.  According to the second, social history is determined by natural history.  Humanity’s genetic structure essentially programs certain forms of behaviour which recur in different forms in different societies.  According to the third, human beings are programmed to compete, which means that history is dominated by various forms of market relationships.  Capitalism is the final form of society because it perfects and universalises market relationships. Hence, it is both in accord with our competititve nature and the most efficient and just way of utilizing resources.

Camfield shows that each of these alternative explanations  fails as a coherent explanation of historical development and social dynamics.  Idealists beg the question, asserting that ideas determine historical development but unable to explain how the ideas arise in the first place.  Biological determinists have an account of where ideas come from, but their mechanistic and reductionist explanations cannot account for how a more or less identical genetic code can give rise to wildly different societies, cultures, and symbolic beliefs.  Market fundamentalism provides sound explanations of prototypical behaviour in capitalism, but cannot explain the dispositions, property forms, and social relationships that typified earlier egalitarian, non-market societies, nor the various forms of cooperation that underlie all forms of social life.  Of course people compete, but cooperation, not competition underlies all forms of society, because it is a presupposition of life itself.  The shared problem of all three approaches is thus that they reify and falsely universalise one aspect of human nature and society.

The great strength of historical materialism is that it exposes the problem of reification.  Reification refers to the process of turning a complex human practice or belief into an independent entity and then positing it as the cause of the practice.  Marx’s critique of reification has its roots in Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of religion.  Feuerbach argued that our idea of God is a reified projection of our own essential powers. Just as human beings are really the origin of the idea of God, so too are we the creators of economic value and the agents whose collective activity shapes the ideas according to which we act. Historical materialism can therefore do what none of the alternatives can:  explain the role of ideas, genes, and markets in historical context without according them independent existence and agency.

Camfield’s reconstruction of historical materialism is the content of Part Two.  He begins– as Marx’s original did– with the natural history of humanity.  We are  a mammallian species with definite needs which  force us to interact productively with the natural environment.  However, given our evolved neural architecture and social interdependence, we have developed forms of thought and communication that allow us to create what no other species can create:  a social-symbolic universe out of the giveness of nature.  History is thus always two-sided, a dialectical interaction between material production and symbolic explanatory reconstruction-justification of material production.  Ideas and values are thus interwoven with life-sustaining labour.  “Because humans create cultures, our context is never just a physical location.  It is always a cultural setting too.  The circumstances in which we find ourselves include ways of making sense of the world, giving it meaning and placing values on things. … Such ideas matter, but we must not make the idealist error of treating ideas as if they exist separately from people.”(p. 29)

We must certainly avoid the error of mechanical reductionism, but we also need to solve a trickier problem, (which Camfield’s reconstruction can help us solve, although I did not find myself convinced that the job is fully accomplished here), about the relationship between the ultimate material foundations of social life– reproductive and productive labour– and the histories of ideas, values, identities, and behaviours that develop out of those underlying processes.  The problem for historical materialism is how much relative weight to assign to natural as opposed to cultural factors in our explanation of individual behaviour and belief.  As an example, consider Camfield’s discussion of gender.  He quotes Connell in support of the view that gender “is not an expression of biology, nor a fixed dichotomy in human life or character.  It is a pattern in our social arrangements, and in the everyday activities and patterns which those arrangements cover.”(37) On this view biology determines our sex, but gender is a cultural product which is not determined  by our biological sex characteristics.  While it is true-  as the creation of a variety of trans identities prove– that sex does not mechanically determine gender identity, does this mean that biological sex plays no role?  Are male and female irrelevant to the ways in which gender has been constructed across cultural time and space?

The point is not to argue that biology determines gender identity, or anything at all in any mechanical sense.  At the same time we have to avoid cutting culture off completely from natural and biological bases.  In the 1960’s the Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro (in On Materialism) warned against the naive optimism of culturalist interpretations of historical materialism which ignored the way in which our bodies and their infirmities act as frames that limit human possibility.  More recently, ecofeminists (for example, Ariel Sallehin Ecofeminism as Politics) have argued that women’s biology makes it possible for them to valorize nurturing relationships in a more profound way than men.  They do not thereby claim that women’s biology mechanically causes them to be nurturing, or that men cannot learn to be so, but they do argue for a closer relationship between biology and behaviour than Camfield seems to want to allow.  Camfield may not be wrong in his arguments, but there is more discussion to be had about this difficult issue than he is able to explore here.

Nevertheless, his stated position, read charitably, is the right one to take.  He argues that while productive and reproductive labour are foundational for human life and function as frames outside of which political, or religious, or artistic history could not exist, none of the forms those institutions and practices take are directly, mechanically determined by the economic structure, but have to be explained by concrete analysis of actual historical development.  Thus, from the fact that any capitalist society must exploit labour and create a political-legal structure that justifies and enforces it, no one can predict what state and legal form, beyond the generic necessity to justify and protect the exploitation of labour, any society will adopt.  Capitalism can be fascist or liberal-democratic, liberal-democrats can be nationalists or cosmopolitans; the law can enshrine formal equality between the sexes and gay marriage or it can enforce a sexual division of labour and demonize gays and lesbians.  The function of law is consistent, we can say, while is content differs given different traditions of struggle.

In this view, the key to understanding historical materialism is the dialectical relationship between context (the result of past activity) and action (interventions into the given reality which produce changes in it and generate a new context).  Camfield consistently affirms the agency of people:  we reflect, argue, and then act, and those actions are not, strictly speaking, predictable, but give rise to patterns from which we can learn if we study them. However, while the argument he wants and for the most part does make is dialectical and affirms human collective agency as the primary driver of history, there are moments where a more mechanical argument creeps in.

Take his unfortunate claim (which he derives from John Berger)  that “traditional Western European oil painting … is a “distinctively capitalist kind of culture.”(55).  This assertion seems to me like saying that  calculus is a distinctively capitalist kind of mathematics.  My point is not that art is an autonomous zone unaffected by social and economic forces.  There are social reasons why most known artists prior to the twentieth century were men, and we cannot explain art markets unless we understand how capitalism commodifies everything.  At the same time, art has its own history which a complete understanding of its value to human life has to examine, and which is not served well by overly general claims such as the one that Camfield makes.  From that sort of mechanical and generic claim no one can say whether “traditional” painting will take the form of Carravagio or El Greco, Rembrandt or Breughal the Elder, Gericault or Courbet, nor account for what is of permanent aesthetic value in them.  Clearly, any adequate historical materialist understanding of painting is going to have to actually study the history of painting as a practice, in the different contexts in which it developed, and include the aesthetic debates between artists as they continually pushed traditions in new directions.  Of course, these debates take place in a historical and political context, but they have an internal history too, and historical materialists, if they want to have anything to say about the practice, have to study the internal history and not just the social situation of artists.  The same would hold true of science, or religion, and other cultural-symbolic human practices.

However, for the most part Camfield avoids the error of mechanical determinism and provides as clear and accessible demonstration of what it means to think dialectically about society as one could hope to read.  There is no mystery to dialectical thought.  At root, all it really means is that one sees history as a process driven forward by struggles between opposed social forces.  Marx argued that the fundamental forms of opposition are between productive and appropriating classes.  Camfield does not alter this Marxist fundamental, but in Part Three makes clear, in a way that Marx occasionally noted but most often only implied, that the members of classes are not sexless and raceless abstractions but real people with definite sex, sexual, gender, and racial identities, with wider or narrow ranges of ability, with or without religious beliefs, and that all of these factors play into the contours of political struggle.

The real strength of Camfield’s book, its major contribution, is to provide a new theoretical and in practical  synthesis of the efforts of a number of thinkers over the past twenty years to develop a model of class struggle that is adequate to the real complexity of the working class:  the fact that most workers are non-white women, that class exploitation also exploits existing racial and gender hierarchies and any other means of dividing the working class that it can find or invent; that, therefore, anti-racist struggle, for example, is not some “extra”  outside of the main class struggle, but is class struggle, because white supremacy has been essential to capitalism from the beginning, and that the same can be said for patriarchy and struggles against all sorts of oppression.

Thus, if one wants to revive the old Marxist slogan that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, one must remember that this self-emancipation is not only from the capitalists, but also from sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on.  “The goal of a self-governing society could only be reached through a process controlled by the great majority of people acting in their own interests.  All the way along, such a transition would have to be a process of self-emancipation.  No minority, such as a party or armed force, could be a substitute for the democratically self-organized majority.”(126)  When we combine this principle with the concrete explanation that Camfield gives in the third part of the book of the ways in which class exploitation, patriarchy, and white supremacy have intertwined in the history of capitalism, we are presented with a hopeful program for movement building which respects the contextual need for autonomous organizing within a non-dogmatic commitment to ultimately unified struggle.

Camfield’s hopeful politics is never naive but honest about the real challenges this politics faces.  He concludes Part Three with a chapter whose title faces the problem squarely:  “Why isn’t There More Revolt.”  He answers the question with admirable candor:  “Because the working class has become more decomposed, collective action by workers to address their problems does not see very credible … ordinary people have become more prone to directing their anger against other people who suffer social inequality in one way or another.  Muslims, migrants, poor people, foreigners, women, people who face racism, Indigenous peoples– the victims of scapegoating are many and varied.”(107)  How far we travelled away from Marx’s belief that the dynamics of capitalism would themselves produce working class consciousness and that all workers would realize that they “have no country”  and that all that they have to lose in revolution “is their chains!”

False theory is false theory and it has to be rejected no matter who formulates it.  At the same time, one worries that Camfield is holding on to the goal of the theory– an ultimately unified movement against capitalism– without replacing the materialist foundation which provided the explanation of why that unity would happen.  What we have seen in the two major waves of revolt provoked by the 2008 crisis of capitalism, the Arab Spring and Occupy, is not ultimate unification but sudden mass mobilization followed by fragmentation and division,  The door was thus opened to reaction and repression.  This opposition was not only structural, as between Islamists and liberals in the Arab Spring, but also divided all variety of subfactions in Occupy whose members all shared broadly similar goals of resistance and anti-capitalism.

That division is worrying because it seems to suggest that the left faces a problem first identified by John Rawls with regard to liberal society in general:  that unanimity is impossible because of the fact of reasonable pluralism.  In modernity, Rawls argued, where people are educated and allowed to speak, they will do so, and they will disagree, and nothing can ever overcome the fact of disagreement about political issues.  The ease with which anyone can broadcast their voice on social media today has amplified the problem–if we want to call it a problem– of pluralism.  Marx’s structural theory of class consciousness could be read as one way of solving this problem:  capitalist crisis will awaken different workers to their shared objective interests.  I agree with Marx and Camfield that there are objective interests, but the facts from the most recent round of struggles suggest that these interests will always be interpreted differently by different groups, which means that the moment of unity may not arrive.

Or it could mean that it will arrive in a different form than the one that Marx expected.  The fact of reasonable pluralism on the left seems to rule out the possibility of reviving vanguard party building, and that is not bad, given its obvious failures.  At the same time, it poses a problem that the left has not thought through fully enough:  how does a unified movement allow the expression of different interpretations of objective interests and remain coherently unified?  Where there is a disagreement about particular momentary demands the problem is easy enough to solve:  take a vote and majority rules.  But when it is over deeper questions like the relative weight of different histories of oppression, for example, with the question of whether white members can adequately comprehend their own privilege, or whether Islamic dress codes are compatible with women’s liberation, final answers that will prove satisfying to all members might be more difficult to attain.

I would have liked to have seen more reflection on this sort of problem, because I think Camfield’s reconstruction might yield important insights about how it can be addressed.  He does not go far enough along that road here.  However, theory, like practice, is open-ended, and I look forward to further developments of his productive reconstruction of historical materialism and socialist practice.

Canadian History X

Fortunately for potential citizens, I lack ego on the scale that would make me want to name an imaginary city or country after myself.  Noonanville?  Noonania?  The “oo”  sound encourages comedic exaggeration.  Others would not take the city or country seriously, undermining the self-esteem of the citizens.  I couldn’t bear their shame.

Sadly, others lack my humility.  The history of colonialism is a history of expropriation and violence, but also of renaming.  Europeans relied upon the doctrine of terra nullis (empty land) to justify their colonies, in bold contradiction of the obvious fact that there were people and civilizations already here, in the “new” world.  The new world soon began to spawn “new”  European names:  New France, New England, and within them, settlements that took their names from European cities (Halifax, London) or the names of colonial military and civic leaders (Brockville, Amherstburgh).

Names confer identity.  When a place is identified by its European name, the implication (if not always the explicit intention of the user) is that there was nothing of value there before colonization. When it happens in that manner, naming is a form of cultural erasure.  That fact explains why anti-colonial struggles always involve de-naming and re-naming.  Zimbabwe was re-named Rhodesia after Cecil “I would colonize the stars if I could”  Rhodes; the victorious ZANU-PF forces de-named it and returned to Zimbabwe.  We used to call the islands off the coast of British Columbia the Queen Charlottes.  Today they are more properly referred to as Haida Gwaii.  Half of the Northwest Territories became Nunavut in 1999.

Re-naming happens for other reasons too.  Port Arthur and Fort William merged to become Thunder Bay.  Ruling powers and dominant languages change, leading to changes of name: “Istanbul was Constantinople,”  They Might Be Giants sang, “and even old New York was once New Amstersdam.” The point:  naming is political and historical, names change as history and politics change.  Re-naming is not a particularly rare event.

Intensifying debates over the legacy of Canadian colonialism are exposing uncomfortable truths about the racist beliefs of key figures from our history.  These debates have led some to argue that places and institutions named after these figure be re-named.  The mere suggestion has  provoked outrage from the guardians of the nation’s morals and Britishness.   When an Ontario teacher’s union voted to demand that Sir John A. MacDonald’s name be removed from Ontario public schools because he supported residential schools, a thousand sermons about the greatness of the country he founded were launched.  “Yes yes, he was a racist, yes yes, he supported the planned destruction of indigenous cultures and languages in the residential schools, but look at the country he helped found:  Beauty, eh!.  And besides, everyone had those racist beliefs at the time.  Water under the bridge people, lets move on.”

It takes awhile for the national debate to make its way down the 401 to our little Windsor-Essex peninsula, but it arrived with a crash last weekend, when, in a double-barrelled editorial attack, stalwart local reactionaries Lloyd Brown-John and Gord Henderson vilified as “historical revisionists”  those who demanded that the town of Amherstburgh (named after British General Jeffrey Amherst)  be re-named, in light of revelations that he wanted to exterminate the indigenous population by spreading small pox amongst them.    I want to carefully examine the three central arguments that they advance:  a)  that the demand to change names amounts to “historical revisionism,” b) that indigenous warriors were also violent and committed atrocities, (turn about is fair play, in essence), and c)  that people are “products of their times,” those times were racist, therefore everyone was a racist.

Historical Revisionism?

Let us deal with the charge of historical revisionism first.  Henderson writes that politicians should “tell these historical revisionists to take a hike.”  The substance of his editorial is a discussion with Parks Canada historian Ronald J. Dale, who argues that Amherst never advocated genocide against indigenous people as a whole, but only directed targeted vengence against specific tribes who had risen against the British is 1763. For the sake of argument, I will take Dale’s position as veridical. Even if critics are wrong about the details, they are not, as Henderson implies, historical revisionists.  Historical revisionists re-write history to suit an ideological agenda.  Most often the re-writing involves denying that known state crimes ever happened.  What is at issue here is not re-writing history but an argument over the extent and meaning of Amherst’s and other British and Canadian politicians’ policies towards indigenous people.  The issue is not whether the crimes happened,  but whether they amount to genocide or genocidal intent.

If there is a problem of revisionism it does not lie on the side of the critics, but with those who constructed the ten cent tour version of Canadian history that is typically taught in secondary school.  It consists of little more than Confederation, Vimy Ridge, and the repatriation of the Constitution.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for the inclusion of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit perspectives on Canadian history, and that is what we are getting with criticism of figures like MacDonald and Amherst.  That is not revisionism but just better history that is more inclusive of the perspectives of those who were also actively involved  (First Nation’s people, the Métis, and Inuit), but from whom we have rarely heard.

2) Savages, not Saints?

The second problem concerns Brown-John’s claim that indigenous people were also violent, also committed atrocities, and that their contemporary supporters are trying to paper over this truth by putting all the blame on colonists and colonial authorities like Amherst.  He writes: “What I find fascinating about some of the contemporary opposition to names of historic figures is that often those promoting the change are remarkably selective about their own interpretations of historical records.”  He then adds some lurid detail to support the main claim:  “To some extent, Indigenous people were mercenaries and were allies as long as there were rewards.  After one British defeat, for example, a dozen or so British captives were turned over to French Indigenous tribes at Quebec City. One of the British captives was boiled alive and the other captives were forced to eat his remains.”  One can agree with Brown-John’s historical claim (indigenous people employed violence)  without having to accept the political implication he wants us to draw (that therefore criticism of colonial authorities is one-sided and ideological).  Had there been no colonial project, there would have been no mercenary alliances, because there would have been no need for any of the First Nations to ally with one or the other major colonial powers as a means to maintain what land and autonomy they could.  Nor would there have been massacres of settlers had there been no settlers.  The violence that arises in resistance to invasion is morally distinct from the violence that arises from invasion.  If someone storms your house, the law recognizes your right to protect yourself.  It would be better if we lived on a planet where one could peacefully persuade the  invader to leave, but that is not this planet, as Brown-John well-knows.  We might moralistically lament all violence, but the job of historians is to understand it.  Clearly, indigenous violence towards colonialists was caused by colonialism:  had their lands not been stolen, there would have been no armed struggle against it.

3)  But Mom, Everyone is Doing It!

The final argument against the critics is the claim that what they call racist crimes are not really racist crimes, because everyone at the time shared the belief that indigenous people were dangerous savages.  People are products of the time, the argument runs, and it is anachronistic to judge them on the basis of more morally enlightened contemporary sensibilities.  Henderson quotes Dale again in support of this position: “Dale, in an interview, said the 18th century was an incredibly brutal period, by our standards.  To modern eyes these were all terrible people. But that was the temper of the times.”  The first thing that must be said in response is that although it is true in general that those were brutal times, every historical period contains opposition and contradiction.  Thus, while the prevailing ideology equated indigenous people with savages, it is not true that this view was universally shared.  From the beginning there were European critics of the colonial doctrine that the colonized were subhuman and thus without rights or moral standing.

The first such critic that I know of was Francesco de Vitoria, a Spanish Jesuit who argued against the dominant justification of the conquest of the New World.  Drawing on Aquinas’ view of natural law, (a law ‘written’ by God which directed each species towards the means of its own survival and flourishing) Vitoria argued against the dominant defense of colonialism.  Instead, he maintained that since the indigenous people were human, they were created by God as self-governing agents.  He thus rejected the view that indigenous people were incapable of self-government– natural slaves with which the Europeans could do as they please.  It is true that he then found other ways to justify colonialism. (See the discussion in Annabel S. Brett, Changes of State, p. 14) Nevertheless, his defense of the humanity of indigenous people puts paid to the myth that all Europeans took positions that were mechanically determined by “the temper of the times.”

More decisive challenges would arise in France.  In the 18th century, Condorcet, Diderot, and the Abbe Raynal would all condemn French and English colonialism and call for its revolutionary overthrow, and French sailors arriving in the 1790’s what is today Haiti helped inspire Toussaint L’Ouverture to lead just such a revolution, the first successful anti-colonial uprising in history.  (See C.L.R. James’ unmatched history of that revolution, Black Jacobins, for the detailed account of the complex relationship between the French Revolution and anti-colonial struggle). So it is completely untrue to say “everyone thought like that.”  Everyone did not think like that, and the ideas needed to construct solidarity, rather than domination, existed.

The deeper problem concerns the principle that this one-sided and inadequate view of history is supposed to support.  If we say “people are functions of the social and historical context, they just believe whatever was believed at the time”  it becomes impossible to explain how those beliefs arose.  Societies are not just given artifacts, they are the products of the combined activity–including thought– of the people who live within them.  There is no “society”  on one hand and “individuals”  on the other, the latter programmed by the former somehow to believe according to the “temper of the times.”

Marx understood this point very well.  Confronting this mechanical materialist philosophy in the 1840’s he responded that “the materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing … forgets that it is men who make circumstances.”  (Third Thesis on Feuerbach).  His point is that the historical times (their “temper”) are not fixed and given realities external to the activity and beliefs of people but are the product of social interaction.  These interactions give rise to institutions and forces that must be justified.  The justifications do influence people’s consciousness, but we are still agents even as we are shaped by historical context:  we are capable of changing our ideas and our circumstances.  Thus, to dismiss racist attitudes as “a product of the times”  fails to explain why the times were racist.

The most important issue here is not the moral blameworthiness of individuals like Amherst in the abstract, but understanding the forces that structure society and belief systems.  Why would Amherst and others believe that the First Nations were savages who needed to be suppressed?  The answer “that was the way things were”  is not an answer, because the question asks why things were the way they were.  People like Amherst thought the Natives were savages because they stood in the way of a colonial project that they were trying to administer.  This fact is crucial to understanding the attitudes that guided their action.  I agree that there is little to be gained from abstract criticisms of long dead people, but the political criticism of colonialism is of a different order.  It exposes to view the real forces that drove European expansion across the world from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.  Amherst and others had to justify the drive for territory and resources, and they accomplished this task by reducing the people who originally lived in those territories to the status of mere things to be removed.  As the brilliant critic of colonialism Aimé Césair wrote in his short classic Discours sur la colonialisme:  “Colonisation =  chosification.” (colonisation equals thingification, p. 23).  Since this process continues today in other forms, it is crucial that we understand its history.  If, in the process of understanding this history some are moved to demand that colonial names be changed, we should understand the demand as an attempt to respect the living and change the future, not to moralistically condemn the dead and re-write history.

Summing Up

Still, I do not think that changing names on its own accomplishes much of real political or social value.  Opinion within indigenous communities is mixed (Murry Sinclair argued against removing MacDonald’s name, urging instead that it be used to spur a more complex understanding of Canadian historical realities).  I think the best way forward lies in listening to the complex array of indigenous voices and using the ideas that emerge as the centre around which political argument develops and as the leading edge of practice.  As I was reminded recently when reading a collection of essays  by the American historian David Roediger, solidarity is risky.  Allies can unwittingly substitute their own voices for the voices that most need hearing:  those of the historically oppressed group.  We stand in the shadow of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at a critical moment where the complex and contradictory history of Canada is being re-thought.  This re-thinking opens the possibility for radical change to address the on-going harms caused by the history of colonization.  The worst outcome would be that this deeper and longer-term project gets sidelined or silenced by moralizing criticism on the one hand and apologies for colonial violence that they provoke in response on the other.

I Can’t Stand Up For Kneeling Down

The highly cultured amongst us sometimes sneer at sport.  I have never understood why. Athletic excellence is better regarded on analogy with artistic beauty.  Like dance, athletic expression involves supreme physical discipline, economy of gesture, singular concentration, and breathtaking control over the body, all realized with electric speed or terrifying power.  Sports are competitive, it is true, and there is an instrumental purpose– winning– that art transcends, but the art world is hardly free of competitive dynamics and is every bit as much integrated into market relations as sports.

It is true, on the other hand, that art tends to value and cultivate the idiosyncratic and iconoclastic, while sports– especially team sports–  are schools of hyper-masculinity and conformity (women’s sports increasingly mirror men’s in these regards).  So it was more than surprising last Sunday to see over 200 players in that most militaristic and jingoisitic of sports– American football– rise up by refusing to stand for the national anthem.  The players were responding to President Trump’s racist attack on the trend toward kneeling instead of standing during the national anthem.  In a speech in the always racially progressive state of Alabama, he demanded that owners fire any “son of a bitch”  who refused to stand for the anthem.

The movement began last year with then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.   Responding to police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson Missouri, as well as the longer history of racism in America, Kaepernick argued that he would no longer stand for the anthem of a country that “oppresses black people.”  His was a mostly lonely protest until last Sunday.

Even though the NFL is dominated by African American athletes and has suffered for most of its history from a clear division of racial labour (the “thinking”  position of quarterback was reserved until very recently for white players), there has been little in the way of politicized protest.  Jim Brown in the 1960’s was a notable exception.  The intensification of official racist pronouncements streaming from the White House since the election of Trump is rapidly changing this quietude.  It is spreading, too.  Arguably the biggest sports star in North America today, Lebron James, has been the most vocal critic of Trump, dismissing him as a “bum” .  He was responding to Trump’s attacks on The Golden State Warriors, last year’s NBA champions, and their star forward, Steph Curry, who have refused to visit the White House, as the champions of all four major sports leagues typically do.

(Shamefully, the Pittsburgh Penguins, last year’s Stanley Cup Champions, led by Cole Harbour Nova Scotia’s Sidney Crosby, are still planning to attend their scheduled visit, wasting an opportunity to stand with their brothers in the NFL, not to mention a chance to give voice to the long history of oppression of Canada’s oldest African Canadian community in Crosby’s home province).

Why does this protest matter?  For three reasons.  First, Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 was razor thin in the key battle ground states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  He won the working class white vote in those states, but by tiny fractions.  For better or for worse, sports fans look at sports stars differently.  Recall one of the most politically telling moments of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where the white protagonist was confronted by his black customer who asks him how he can spout racial epithets and love Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson.  White people who cheer for black athletes can still be racists, but their love for their sports stars is an entry point for political argument against that racism, a basis in their own experience to challenge them to think about the coherence of their views.  If even a relative handful change their minds, Trump will not be back in 2020.

Second, the militancy of the movement is building.  Until now, Kaepernick has been isolated. Indeed, he has, literally and figuratively, been blacklisted and is without an NFL job.  On Sunday, The Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers both refused to take the field during the anthems.  The Steelers are an iconic team who embody the working class ethos that Trump pretends to honour.  Their fan base is exactly the demographic base that voted so narrowly for Trump.  Of even greater symbolic and political value, many players gave the Black Power salute, fists raised, instead of merely kneeling.  Symbols matter in politics.

Finally, the politicization of Black athletes, fed initially by movements like Black Lives Matter, has the potential to strengthen those movements by further radicalizing young people, giving them the inspiration from which the courage to confront the day to day racism of life in America and its deeper structural bases derives.  If even the wealthiest and most respected Black Americans feel racism’s sting, it is clear that its source is not just bad attitudes, but is rooted in the heart of American (and, more broadly, Western)  history.  Its solution will require widespread social change and not just education.

Of course, this movement, like all social movements, comes with its contradictions.  Once again it has provided a platform for the “good capitalist”  to pontificate.  Owners-  some of whom, like Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, are friends with Trump– have, predictably, defended their players’ right to protest.  Moreover, there are no saviours in politics, and a movement led by stars always runs the risk of overshadowing older movements with organic connections to oppressed communities.  Overcoming structural problems is a collective effort.  The media, by contrast, needs heroes, and they will ignore the more important street and community level activism in favour of air time for the famous, who they will portray as responsible yet committed, measured, yet determined, role models to temper the anger of more militant activists.   Anger alone cannot win, but it is crucial fuel.  This week’s protests are an encouraging sign of widening opposition, but they are not a substitute for community level organization.

Pub Poem

Can live without:

padded banquettes/gilded signs/

union jacks/football/

prints of mutton-chopped lords/fox hunters.

I come for worn hardwood


between bar and gents

and pints of bitter,

hard to get now,

being crowded out

by beards,

and over-hopped

craft beer.


Old guy at bar’s

eyes say: “Aye,

Its maker’s culture now, mate,

gettin’ too late for what you want.”


So far I have seen:


indonesian street food/jerusalem street food/

saigon street food/thai street food/

viet namese street food/mexican street food/

Have been to mexico/jerusalmen

ate  food

but no signs assured authenticity,

maybe because in jerusalem/mexico

street food sold on streets,


not in

polished glass boites

at creative capitalism prices.


Worry my fun license at risk

for pointing this out.


He’s young

only has eye for

end game, so misses

the tiny tear

in her stocking

dot of white thigh

shows through

the run.

Sexiness in the subtleties,


pressing finger into rip,

delighting in contrast

between flesh and fabric.


On train to Brighton,

Battersea power station


being condo-ized,

emptied of history,

filled with money,

and authentic people

who need to be seen

and think

they are getting in on

the ground floor of something.


Must everything old

be wrong

and love of it nostalgia?


In Brighton, better pints,

warm oak panelling,

plaster ceiling

invites late afternoon drink,

and thinking.

Old people, pissed,

make naughty jokes,

laugh:  death one day closer,

one less thing to worry about.


Wandering through

hushed halls,

leading from Ain Ghazal’s

lime plaster eyes,

and pursed lips,


to Giacommetti portraits,

brother and lovers,


awaiting the inevitable,

faces lost in grey,

save the eyes,


an aesthetic history

of dread and resoluteness.


40 years on,

last punk standing

sits in camden town pub,

sips guiness,

but all-consuming time

has last laugh.

Looks like

what it would sound like

to say:  “hep cat,”

or “daddy-o.”



no longer needing to be seen.

Getting old,

so I’ll drink old