Dilemmas Of Non-Ruling Socialist/Communist Parties: The Case Of The SACP

by Mphutlane wa Bofelo

Aug 28, 2023 – In his examination of why despite their meagre results at the polls, nine non-ruling communist parties in Europe continue to have sporadic participation in multi-party coalitions in government, Sidney Tarrow indicates that communist parties enter governments during perceived socioeconomic or political crises or as a left-wing of a multi-party coalition in which the communist parties occupy a central position within the left coalition while the centrist parties and republicans holds a centre stage within the opposite conservative pole. (Tarrow, 1982).

Tarrow (1982) delineates the motivation for the participation of communist parties in such coalition governments or alliance politics as the perception of the communist parties that a crisis situation prevails and a fear of being absent during a critical period. He concludes that the need not to be isolated or marginalised within the political arena cause communist parties to actively or passively support moderate policies and to form alliances with normally anti-communist elements. This implies the belief that communist parties have the theoretical and practical acumen that can take the country out of a crisis but either lack the courage, will and capacity to take the reins of political power or believe that the balance of forces don’t allow them to do so on their own.

The observations of Tarrow (1982) correlates with the proposition that though the political cooperation between the African National Congress (ANC), Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the South African National Civics Organization (SANCO) has historical and ideological roots, their alliance in the post-1990 dispensation is a product of coincidence of political interests. (O’ Malley, 2000). On the eve of the first national democratic elections in 1994, the ANC sought organizational skills, material support, membership and votes or electoral support from COSATU, SACP and SANCO. On other hand, COSATU and SANCO needed a political organization that can win elections, hold political power, and advance a progressive agenda and safe-guards labour and civil society interests in parliament.

At the same time, the ANC had the need to enlist seasoned strategists, tacticians, organizers and campaigners from its alliance partners. Its electoral prospects depend highly on the numbers that the constituencies of its alliance partners added to its membership and support base. Furthermore, the reputable political militancy, organizational skills and ideological insights of the SACP gave it a powerful base within the constituency of both the ANC and COSATU. However, the SACP did not have enough popular support to be a political force on its own in parliamentary politics where numbers are important. Therefore, the SACP had to remain a partner of ANC to try to get the ANC to incorporate its social objectives and agendas. (O’Malley, 2000).

The SACP did foresee that once the ANC is in political office ,it would be tall order to mediate and harmonise the latter’s multi-class and centrist politics with the former’s professed working-class and leftist politics. In lieu of this eventuality, the SACP opted to use as its key tactical device the notion of its members and that of COSATU and SANCO swelling the ranks of the ANC with the aim of populating ANC spaces and platforms with communist ideas and the party-line.

The other tactical devices it utilised are (1) intensifying efforts to influence the political perspective of COSATU unions and education and research labour service organizations such as Ditsela and the Workers College of South Africa, (2) deploying some of its seasoned cadres to take up leadership and influential positions within COSATU and the labour service organization, (3) lobbying and campaigning for the leading activists of SACP, Cosatu and SANCO to have fair representation in the parliamentary and ministerial list of the ANC, and (4) pushing for extensive consultation and engagement of alliance partners on significant policy and programmatic issues relating to both the ANC and the government.

The unintended and negative consequences of this strategy was a brain drain within the leftist component of the alliance (i.e COSATU, SACP and COSATU) as the result of an exodus of its seasoned leaders and activists to government. This also created the problematic situation where these members found themselves bound by both the oath of office and ANC processes. This compelled them to implement policies and programmes of the ANC even when they were at odds with their own personal values and the principles of COSATU, SACP and SANCO. The other challenge that this arrangement created is the political careerism tendency whereby individuals perceive and use their positions of leadership and influence within COSATU, SACP and SANCO as a social currency and stepping ladder to access deployment into government or business with the government.

This opened the allies of the ANC prone to being enmeshed in internal factional divisions of the ANC as they had to be in the good books of whatever faction of the ANC that would become victorious in the contest for control of the government. This is reflected by how the SACP and COSATU threatened to pull out of the alliance in 2006 but backtracked after former President Jacob Zuma emerged victorious at the Polokwane conference, and religiously defended Jacob Zuma throughout the so-called nine wasted years until the dying hours of the second term of Zuma in office.

As for the ANC, its enlistment of leading and experienced activists of its alliance partners in its election list and subsequently the legislature and the executive, and various provincial and local government structures meant that it hit three birds with one stone: ( 1) acquire the votes of constituencies of its alliance partners, (2) acquire the political and technical skills of the leadership and activists of these alliance partners, and (3) put them in a situation where they are obliged to implement co-opt them to neoliberal -capitalist policies and programmes. The ANC has realised that the fact that it is the de facto leader of the alliance and that leaders and activists of its partners are deployed in government or to the business sector on its ticket , reduces their capacity to deviate from ANC policies or to shape its social policy and political economy trajectory.

As soon as serious differences on policy occurred, the ANC flexed its muscles and openly told the alliance partners that if they want to pursue a socialist, communist or social democratic agenda , they must do so on their own and not expect the ANC to do so on their behalf. A telling example is when the late President Mandela read the riot act to COSATU at its own congress, telling them that they can’t dictate ANC policies. Mandela rebuffed COSATU’s opposition to GEAR with a resonant declaration that GEAR is and shall remain ANC policy. Another example is the statement of the former President Thabo Mbeki when he ejected SACP leading activist, Madlala- Routledge from his executive for daring to challenge government policies. Mbeki remarked that as member of the executive Madlala-Routledge was bound to the policies and programmes of the ruling party and that she cannot serve in the executive whilst criticising government policies. Read More


Real News Network, SEPTEMBER 21, 2023

On the occasion of the republication of ‘Return to the Source’ by Monthly Review Press, a panel of long-serving Pan-Africanists reflect on the life of Amilcar Cabral and the relevance of his teachings to current liberation movements.

Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973), Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean political revolutionary, the founder and president of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, and leader in the war of independence in Guinea-Bissau. at P.A.I.G.C. headquarters, Algiers, February 1967

During his life, Bissau-Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral co-founded the PAIGC and dedicated his life to the liberation of his native Guinea and Cape Verde from Portuguese colonialism and capitalism-imperialism. One of his most celebrated works, Return to the Source, has recently been republished by Monthly Review Press. To mark this occasion, Bill Fletcher Jr., a member of The Real News Board of Directors, hosts a panel on the life and teachings of Cabral and his relevance to political movements today.

Polly Gaster began to work for the Mozambique Liberation Front, FRELIMO, in Dar-es-Salaam in 1967. She organized and ran the Committee for Freedom in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea from her home in the UK. Since Mozambique’s independence in 1975, she has lived and worked there in a variety of sectors

Craig Howard has more than 25 years of nonprofit experience, most of them in workforce and community economic development, designing and implementing replicable programs that create jobs and opportunities for disadvantaged people in the U.S. and abroad. Until his retirement, he served as a program director for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Rozell “Prexy” Nesbitt was born and raised on Chicago’s West Side. A lifetime activist and intellectual, Nesbitt has lectured both in the United States and abroad, and has written extensively, publishing a book and articles in more than twenty international journals. Over the course of his career, Nesbitt made more than seventy trips to Africa, including trips taken in secret to apartheid torn South Africa; his work has garnered him numerous awards throughout his career.

Stephanie Urdang was born in South Africa and immigrated to the United States at the end of the 1960s. She became active in the anti-apartheid and solidarity movements in the late 1960’s onwards. She is a journalist, author of several books, and the co-founder of the NGO Rwanda Gift for Life.

Post-Production: Cameron Granadino

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Bill Fletcher Jr.:

Hey, I’m Bill Fletcher and welcome to the Real News Network. We have a wonderful panel here. A panel constituted to commemorate the republication of a major book Return to the Source, a book of selected writings of the late Amilcar Cabral. Before we get into that, the morning, early morning, October 15th, 1972, I and a guy named Steve Pitts jumped into a Volkswagen Bug in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We were both students at Harvard, and we had heard that Amilcar Cabral was going to be speaking at Lincoln University. There was actually a group of us that were going to go down, but one person after another dropped by the wayside. And so it was left to me and Steve to drive all night to see Cabral. Which we did that afternoon, when he addressed a very large audience in a very hot room, delivering his presentation where he was receiving an honorary doctorate. None of us could have conceived of the idea that we were going to be among the last people to see Cabral alive, because in early 1973 he was murdered.

Cabral had a very, very important significance throughout the world, throughout the global left, in the movements of people of African descent. And this book, Return to the Source, when it came out, was very, very important in helping a broad audience get an appreciation of Cabral’s significance. Well, we’re going to talk about that today, and we have an opportunity with four wonderful guests. So we have joining us, Stephanie Urdang, who’s a South African-American. She was active in the US anti-apartheid movement and has worked for over two decades as a gender specialist for the United Nations. As a freelance journalist, she has published three books with Monthly Review Press, which is the publisher of this new edition, the most recent of hers being a memoir, Mapping My Way Home: Activism, Nostalgia, and the Downfall of Apartheid South Africa.

Also, joining us is Craig Howard, recently retired as program director at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Earlier in his career, Craig was a member of the African Information Service in New York. Also, Prexy Nesbitt is a college professor and former union organizer. He was active in the anti-apartheid movement and African solidarity movement on several continents, and comes from Chicago.

Finally, in an unplanned way, Polly Gaster started to work with the Mozambique Liberation Front, FRELIMO, in Dar es Salaam in 1967. Back in the United Kingdom, she organized and ran the Committee for Freedom in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea, during which time she met Amilcar Cabral. Since Mozambique’s independence in 1975, she has lived and worked there, mainly in various sectors of information and communication. And I want to welcome our guests and welcome you, the viewers. So I want to start with a question for all of you, and just think about this as a sort of living room discussion. Who was Amilcar Cabral, and why does he continue to have significance? And in answering this question, I’d like you to answer it as if you were speaking to someone who’s in their 20s or 30s, who may not be as well versed in the liberation struggles as we are. So who would like to start with this?

Polly Gaster:

Okay. Can I?

Bill Fletcher Jr.:


Polly Gaster:

Let’s see. Well, Amilcar Cabral described himself in the quote on the cover of the book, least if it’s still there, which is something to the effect of, “I am a simple African man doing my duty in the context of my time.” And I think that is a good starting point because from that starting point, he became a leader of the liberation movement for the country that he was born in and grew up in and studied in, mostly. Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Cape Verde is an archipelago of islands, just off Guinea-Bissau on the West Coast of Africa. And he had a big advantage, I think, because he was an agronomist and he worked firstly in agronomy, he worked in a big colonial administration. And of course, both of those countries, both Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau were Portuguese colonies at the time, when he was a young man and beginning to work.

And from there he moved, through discussions and learning and enjoying and learning about resistance in Portugal and reading, he and some comrades established the Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Liberation Movement, PAIGC, and developed it. I think maybe I have just said enough. And he became a very well known leader, and he was part of a staggeringly good generation of African independence leaders in the Portuguese colonies, in Ghana and in Tanzania and other countries. And it was a generation that Africa was very lucky to have.

Bill Fletcher Jr.:

Prexy, same question.

Stephanie Urdang:


Bill Fletcher Jr.:

No, Prexy.

Prexy Nesbitt:

If I jump into this, I was really lucky, because I’d seen and met Cabral, at the very sad occasion of Eduardo Mondlane’s funeral in Dar es Salaam. And I think that was in February of ’69. And I met him there, I then think I saw him after that, if my memory serves me correctly, at the big conference that was held in Rome to support the peoples of the Portuguese colonies. And I was there and working and volunteering. And much to my surprise, I arrived the same day he showed up. And as he walked into the room, he saw me and he said, “Hello, Prexy.” And I was just shocked, that this man would even remember me at all. So that was something that I learned was a very powerful aspect of him. And then finally, just to kick this off and show what a human being he was, maybe Craig remembers this too, we met him at the airport to drive him to the Lincoln speech in Lincoln, Pennsylvania.

And I remember his getting into the car, and he was sitting directly in front of me. I was in the back, Bob Van Lupe was driving. And he went to get a cigarette, and he didn’t have his seatbelt on and the alarm went off. And Cabral jumped and he said, “What? What’s happening? What’s happening?” And we said, “You have to have your seatbelt on.” He said, “You all are in slavery. In this country, every aspect of you is in some kind of slavery all the time.” But what I found just wonderful about him, and would later have this borne out when my sister goes to hear him speak in New York at Jennifer Davis’s house, and I asked her to follow him to every speech he gave, and he finally noticed her writing with this weird handwriting she had. And this wonderful characteristic he had, of noticing people and remembering details about them, I think was one of the sources of his greatness.

Bill Fletcher Jr.:

Thank you. Stephanie, same question.

Stephanie Urdang:

I mean, he was a great leader, as Polly said. For me, one of his strengths, or one of his number of strengths that I want to point to, was his ease in turning complex ideology and political analysis into simple words. So there wasn’t the sort of sense that you had to understand the great Marx’s analysis or something, you just really understood. And some of the things he would refer to was, “People are not fighting for ideas, they’re fighting for material benefit and we’ve got to be able to provide that, otherwise the revolution fails.” He also was not essentially a violent man. He did not think that violence was something that the revolution should follow, except that it had to, because of the violence of the Portuguese colonialism. I mean, as far as I know, there were no blowing ups of cafes or buses in Lisbon or Portugal. READ More

Woodrow Wilson Was Even Worse Than You Think

It’s said that the South lost the war, but won the peace, but it was Wilson’s presidency that sealed the victory.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, served two four-year terms from 1913-1921. Among his accomplishments was the establishment of the Federal Reserve banking system and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission. He declared war on Germany in 1917, during World War I, and attended the Versailles Peace Conference ending the war. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his Fourteen Point peace plan and his work toward establishing the League of Nations.   (Photo by Oscar White/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, served two four-year terms from 1913-1921. Among his accomplishments was the establishment of the Federal Reserve banking system and the creation of the Federal Trade Commission. He declared war on Germany in 1917, during World War I, and attended the Versailles Peace Conference ending the war. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his Fourteen Point peace plan and his work toward establishing the League of Nations. (Photo by Oscar White/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
An incorrigible white supremacist, Wilson’s racism was fundamental even to his “idealistic” plans for a peaceful post-WWI world order.

By Colin Woodard

Taking Points Memo

June 29, 2020 – This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

Princeton University’s decision this weekend to strike the name of its former president — and ours — from its public policy school for his “racist thinking and policies” was long overdue. Woodrow Wilson was in wide company in being a white supremacist at the turn of the 20th century, but he stands apart in having overseen the triumph of this ideology at home and abroad.

Son of the Confederacy’s leading cleric, apologist for the Klan, friend of the country’s most prominent racist demagogues, and architect and defender of an apartheid international racial order, the amazing thing is that Wilson’s name was ever associated with idealism or respectable statesmanship. In fact, delving deeply into his life to write “Union” — a book on the battle over whether the United States was to be defined by adherence to “natural rights” ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, or to Anglo-Saxon bloodlines — I came away wondering how any institution would have wanted to be associated with his name at all, even in the 1920s or 1940s.

Wilson was raised in Augusta, Georgia during the Civil War, the son of Joseph Ruggles Wilson, leading light of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy who made his name through the publication of his popular sermon arguing for the Biblical sanction of slavery. After the war the slaves who served the Wilson family in the Rectory became wage laborers, but little else changed until the elder Wilson relocated the family to South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, a city that remained half-ruined after a fire spread during General Sherman’s advance five years earlier. Under the protection of the U.S. Army, South Carolina’s African-American majority had sent a 78–46 Black majority to the lower chamber of the State House, just four blocks from the Wilson’s Greek Revival home, and ten to the 21-seat senate, where Republicans — then still very much the party of Lincoln — also enjoyed a majority. As an academic and president, Wilson would later reveal just what he thought of these developments.

After dropping out of Davidson College (he had a “cold”) and loafing about his parents’ home for a year, Wilson’s father enrolled him at another Presbyterian, Southern-friendly college in Princeton, New Jersey which, unlike Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, or Brown, refused to admit African-Americans. Two thirds of Princeton’s students came from the former Confederacy, but Wilson was confronted with non-Southerners for the first time, an experience that bolstered his reactionary politics and Southern identity. He took up the secessionist side in debates with classmates, and nearly came to blows with some Northern students during the contested 1876 election. He fumed over Rutherford B. Hayes’s ascension to the presidency — “How much happier we would be now if [we] had England’s form of government instead of the miserable delusion of a Republic” — and was outraged by the prospect of universal male suffrage, which he called “the foundation of every evil in this country.”

He graduated from Princeton, but dropped out of University of Virginia’s law school after a year, again alleging a cold, and spent another sixteen months at his parents’ home, writing articles nobody would publish. “The determination of the Saxon race of the South that the negro race shall never again rule over them is, then, not unnatural and it is necessarily unalterable,” one concluded, arguing that Southern whites must maintain “united resistance to the domination of an ignorant race.”

He eventually wound up at Johns Hopkins University to study history, but was soon annoyed by his professors’ insistence that he do archival research, “digging … into dusty records” and “other rummaging work of a dry kind, which seemed very tiresome in comparison with the grand excursions amongst imperial policies which I had planned for myself,” as he put it to his fiancée. He made friends with a fellow Southerner, Thomas Dixon Jr., and wrote a book about the “living reality” of U.S. government without once visiting D.C., a short train excursion south of Baltimore, and then dropped out, believing he did not need a doctorate to pursue an academic career. Discovering otherwise, he convinced his former mentors to let him submit his book as his dissertation and stand for oral exams specially devised to ensure his success. In June 1886, he was awarded a PhD he hadn’t really earned.”

He condemned Reconstruction — the effort to enforce the civil and political emancipation of African-Americans in the occupied South — and said allowing Blacks to vote was a ‘carnival of public crime.’ “

He ultimately taught at Princeton, where he made his mark with a compact textbook, “Division and Reunion,” about the Civil War and postwar reconciliation. Contained within was an outline of the post-Confederate vision of a nation reunited based on shared Anglo-Saxon interests. He declared the “charges of moral guilt” leveled against Southern slave lords were unjust because slaves “were almost uniformly dealt with indulgently and even affectionately by their masters,” who themselves were the beneficiaries of “the sensibility and breeding of entitlement.” He condemned Reconstruction — the effort to enforce the civil and political emancipation of African-Americans in the occupied South — and said allowing Blacks to vote was a “carnival of public crime.” The mass slaughter of Black people by white terrorists in Hamburg, Vicksburg, Colfax, New Orleans and other cities went unmentioned, as did attacks occurring in dozens of South Carolina towns right under Wilson’s nose the whole time he was coming of age.

“Division and Reunion” was met with mixed reviews, but was a commercial success, as it embraced an account that let white Americans put the Civil War and civil rights behind them. And it inspired Wilson to write “A History of the American People,” a poorly written and shoddily researched five-volume, illustrated tome published in 1902. (“A disappointment after the pleasure of examining the pictures is past,” a leading journal wrote of it.) It furthered the white supremacist arguments in “Division and Reunion,” calling freed slaves “dupes” and the KKK a group formed “for the mere pleasure of association [and] private amusement” whose members accidentally discovered they could create “comic fear” in the Blacks they descended on. Immigrants were a problem because they were no longer “of the sturdy stocks of the North of Europe” but contained “multitudes of men of the lowest classes from the South of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland” and Chinese people, “with their yellow skin and strange, debasing habits of life,” who seemed “hardly fellow men at all, but evil spirits” and who provoked understandable mass killings by white mobs.

Then he went into politics, swapping the presidency of Princeton for the governorship of New Jersey by convincing the Democratic Party bosses of that state that he would be their puppet, but backstabbing them once he achieved power. After his 1911 inauguration, he did little governing, as he was soon laying groundwork for a presidential campaign. With the Republican vote split between incumbent William Howard Taft and the third party candidacy of former president Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson won the 1912 election with less than 42 percent of the vote, becoming the first Deep Southerner to hold the presidency.

It’s said that the South lost the war, but won the peace, but it was Wilson’s presidency that sealed the victory. Wilson presided over the segregation of the federal government, with Black civil servants directed to use only certain bathrooms and to eat their lunches there too so as to not sully the cafeterias. At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, makeshift partitions were erected in offices so white clerks would not have to see their Black counterparts. Dozens of prominent African-American officials were replaced with whites, which came as a shock to many African American leaders who’d supported Wilson because he’d promised to treat Blacks “fairly.” When the (white) head of the NAACP, erstwhile Wilson ally Oswald Garrison Villard, begged the president to reverse course, Wilson told him it was all being done “in the interest of the negroes.” The president famously ejected Black civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter from the Oval Office for having temerity to tell him that his delegation came to him not as “wards” but as “full-fledged American citizens” demanding equality of citizenship.”

Wilson has been described as ‘idealistic’ because of his efforts to create an international governing order at the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I. But his plans for the world order presided over by the League of Nations paralleled his vision of the United States. “

The first Hollywood blockbuster was released in 1915, “The Birth of a Nation,” an epic film celebrating the KKK’s reign of terror against African-Americans in the South Carolina of Wilson’s adolescence and denigrating the black majority legislature that convened in his hometown with crude racial stereotypes. Co-produced by Wilson’s friend from Johns Hopkins, Thomas Dixon Jr., who wrote the novel it was based on, it contained numerous quotes from Wilson’s “History of the American People” substantiating its point of view. Massive protests broke out in cities across the country, seeking to have it censored, a common occurrence in the years before the Supreme Court ruled that artistic productions were protected speech. Threatened with bankruptcy, Dixon turned to his old friend to intervene. Wilson screened the film in the White House for his Cabinet, and the following day Supreme Court Justice Edward Douglass White — whose statues in Louisiana and the U.S. Capitol are also subject of current protests — agreed to show it to the other justices and congressional leaders because he himself had been in the Klan and loved the film’s message. These tacit endorsements from the highest levels of power turned the tide and the film went on to be a massive financial success and was until very recently celebrated as a great work of art.

Wilson has been described as “idealistic” because of his efforts to create an international governing order at the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I. But his plans for the world order presided over by the League of Nations paralleled his vision of the United States. He promoted the principles of democracy and national self-determination, but only for European nations and Anglo-Saxon settler countries like the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Czechs, Romanians, and Serbs deserved their own national states, African, Arab, Indian, and Pacific Island peoples did not. Those living in the Axis powers’ former colonial possessions were sorted into a racial hierarchy of League mandates — Class A, B, and C — based on the level of tutelage they required.

Japan, an allied power in the war, introduced a measure to include the principle of racial equality in the League’s mandate. Wilson opposed it because it would have compelled the U.S. to ensure equal treatment to Japanese, Haitian, or Liberian citizens in hotels, restaurants, and transport across the Jim Crow South. The measure passed anyway, 11-5, but Wilson, who chaired the proceedings, unilaterally and arbitrarily declared the measure had failed because it was not unanimous. He also refused to meet Trotter, who had arrived with a petition for African-American equal rights, and a 29-year-old Vietnamese man seeking self-determination for his French-ruled people, who would later take matters into his own hand under his nom de guerre, Ho Chi Minh.

Princeton’s school of public service was reorganized in 1948, eighteen years after its creation, to add graduate education and a new emphasis on training the governmental experts the U.S. was thought to need to win the developing Cold War. “Many problems must be solved at home if our democratic institutions are to flourish,” the New York Times paraphrased Princeton president Harold Dodds as saying at the time. Having named his institution for someone opposed to the ideals of human equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence seems a straightforward problem for Princeton to have finally solved.

Colin Woodard is the author of six books including “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood” and “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.”

Quantum Hype: A Review of Quantum Supremacy by Michio Kaku

By Ivan Handler

Special to the OUL

June 16, 2023 – There has been a continuous stream of extremely impressive technical advances in the world ever since the closing days of WWII. The invention of the computer was in many ways the most significant since almost every other advance has depended on the computer and its amazing evolution post war. But add to the computer, nuclear weapons, the transistor, the discovery of DNA, the Internet, CRISPR and you see how completely scientific discoveries have profoundly impacted society.

It looks like quantum computers are going to be the latest advance with many far flung applications that are just starting to appear.

But along with new technology comes a lot of speculation and especially hype. Hype plays a special role since it takes lots of resources to develop technology which means investors need to be convinced of its profitability and government agencies need to be brought onboard the bandwagon. Hype generates excitement, and in the US, excitement appears to have magical powers over investors. For example, remember “Pets R Us” and the thousands of failed, ridiculous internet startups in the late 90s.

The new book, Quantum Supremacy, fits into this scenario neatly. It is written by a prominent physicist who is an excellent expositor of both the technical details behind quantum computing as well as someone with broad knowledge of many areas of science and engineering. This allows him skillfully to hype the implications of quantum computing (QC) to the public, especially potential investors.

First of all, despite the hype, a reader will learn a lot about quantum mechanics, quantum computing, and many other areas of science when reading the book. The writing is clear, concise, and enjoyable. It is worth reading for those reasons alone. Kaku isn’t that clear about how these computers function because, at this point, you need to know a lot about quantum mechanics to understand much more. That really shouldn’t be a problem for the average reader.

The problems I have with the book are with Kaku’s unfortunate ignorance of what is happening in agriculture and the relationship with many of the technologies and projects related there, such as the invention of fertilizer and the green revolution. It is significant that Kaku mentions global warming and a bunch of possible technical approaches to reducing greenhouse gasses and ignores the crisis in biodiversity[1] which includes warming and much more and is far more serious.

In general, there is a difference between what we can do with technology and what we should do. Kaku is high on the former and human survival depends on the latter.

Chapter 1

Kaku starts with some announcements of quantum computers that have accomplished remarkable results: Google’s ‘Sycamore’ quantum computer could solve a mathematical problem in 200 seconds that would take 10,000 years on the world’s fastest supercomputer. The Quantum Innovation Institute at the Chinese Academy of Sciences went even further. They claimed their quantum computer was 100 trillion faster than an ordinary supercomputer.”

This chapter touches on the themes in the book without much detail. While Kaku mentions that quantum computers are not like the current programmable ones, he gives the reader the impression that quantum computers will replace current computers because of their computational abilities. This is not true. So far, quantum computers are attacking many problems. But it is not at all clear that there aren’t many problems that can’t be solved by quantum computers that are solvable by traditional ones. This is an aspect of the hype that continues throughout the book.

The heroes of this chapter are Big Tech: Google, Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Rigetti and Honeywell. This excites Wall Street and someof its projections: “… that the market for quantum computers should reach hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2020s and tens of billions of dollars in the 2030s.”

He does mention on page 6 that: “Despite the impressive technical achievements made by Google and others in recent years, a workable quantum computer that can solve real-world problems is still many years in the future.” Kaku probably should have put this disclaimer in each subsequent chapter.

He then mentions that Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate, wrote a groundbreaking paper in 1959 that directly led to quantum computing. He then sketches the idea of a qubit and how it replaces the ‘bit.’ The ‘bit’ in standard computing has a value of ‘one’ or ‘zero,’ the basis of binary coding. The qubit, drawing on the varying states of atoms and their electrons, can have vastly more values than ‘one’ or ‘zero’ on the quantum level. Hence the ‘q’ is added to ‘bit,’ making the qubit. Thus, the phenomena of numerous superpositions on the atomic level make using qubits in calculations quite powerful. The rest of the chapter previews how Kaku sees quantum computing impacting other areas of society. Each description of a fantastic outcome comes with little else than his enthusiasm.

On the other hand, on page 18, under his Feeding the Planet headline, he lauds the green revolution as well as Microsoft’s attempts to improve fertilizers with quantum computing. This is quite sad since the green revolution did more to feed dogs and cats than it ever did to feed people – see How The Other Half Dies by Susan George published in 1977. The environmental damage done by fertilizers is well known and is one of the main reasons people turn to organic agricultural practices.

Chapter 2

Here Kaku does a great job recounting the development of computing technology from the Ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism (and the thinking behind its calculations) through the work of Alan Turing on the formalization of computing. Even here, there is a certain amount of hype. “While the Antikythera represents the beginning of computer technology, the quantum computer may represent the highest stage of its evolution” Too bad he didn’t add the word ‘today’ at the end of that quote. It should be clear reading this chapter that the quantum computer, for whatever its promises and perils, is just another step down the road of scientific innovation. (CONTINUED)

Global Post-Fascism and the War in Ukraine

After the Russian invasion in Ukraine, life in both countries will never be the same. But to be able to live and act further we need to find answers to some crucial questions. Why did this war begin? Why is it so hard to stop? What will the future look like after the war?
Posle (‘after’ in Russian) is an attempt to answer these questions. As a community of like-minded authors, we condemn the war, which has unleashed a humanitarian disaster, wrought colossal destruction, and resulted in the massacre of civilians in Ukraine. This same war has provoked a wave of repression and censorship in Russia. As part of the left, we cannot view this war separately from the immense social inequality and powerlessness of the working majority. Naturally, we also cannot look past an imperialist ideology that strives to keep the status quo intact and feeds on the militarist discourse, xenophobia, and bigotry. 
Our platform sets out to examine the structure of these problems and imagine the way out. Posle welcomes and is open to scholars, journalists, activists, and eyewitnesses – everyone, who seeks to understand the present and to think through the future.  

Here is the first piece in the “Unordinary Fascism” series: a conversation between Ilya Budraitskis and historian Enzo Traverso about the global rise of post-fascism, Putin’s Russia, and the war in Ukraine

Ilya Budraitskis: A few years ago, you wrote The New Faces of Fascism, where you defined post-fascism as a new threat that is simultaneously similar to and different from classical fascism of the 20th century. Post-fascism, as you describe, grows out of the fundamentally new soil of neoliberal capitalism, in which labor movements and forms of social solidarity have been attacked. You emphasize that post-fascism grew out of post-politics as a reaction to technocratic governments that ignore democratic legitimacy. At the same time, your analysis is limited mainly to the European Union and the United States, where fascism results from liberal democracy. Can this approach be expanded to the transformation of authoritarian regimes like the one in Russia, especially after the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine? In Russia, the regime in the first decade of its existence in the early 2000s also presented itself as a technocratic post-political government. It was based on mass depoliticization and lack of political participation in Russian society.

Enzo Traverso: Well, it’s important to emphasize that “post-fascism” is an unconventional analytical category. It’s not a canonical concept like liberalism, communism, or fascism. It’s rather a transitional phenomenon that has not yet crystallized or clearly defined its nature. It can evolve in different directions. Nevertheless, the starting point of this definition is that fascism is trans-historical, transcending the historically framed experience of the 1930s. Fascism is a category that can be useful to define political experiences, systems of power, and regimes that take place after the period between the two world wars. It’s common to speak about Latin American fascism during the military dictatorships of the 1960s and the 1970s. 

“Global post-fascism is a heterogeneous constellation in which we can find shared tendencies: nationalism, authoritarianism, and a specific idea of ‘national regeneration’”

That said, when we speak of democracy, it is worth noticing that although Germany, Italy, the United States, and Argentina share this label of liberal democracy, this does not mean that their institutional systems are the same. Nor does it mean that they correspond with Pericles’ democracy in Ancient Athens. So, fascism is a generic term that takes a trans-historical dimension. You are right to say that my book on post-fascism primarily focuses on the European Union, the United States, and some Latin American countries. When I wrote it, Bolsonaro had not yet come to power in Brazil. However, I also wrote that post-fascism could be considered a global category, which tendentially includes authoritarian political regimes such as Putin’s Russia or Bolsonaro’s Brazil. I am not sure that this category can be used to define Xi Jinping’s China, simply because this regime was created by the communist revolution of 1949 (I similarly do not think we could describe Stalin’s Russia as “fascist”). Maybe this category can be used to depict some tendencies that shape Modi’s India or Erdogan’s Turkey and raise legitimate worries. But I do not suggest extending or transposing my analysis of Western Europe to other continents and political systems; I would rather say that Western European post-fascism can be located into a global post-fascist tendency, including regimes with entirely different historical trajectories and pasts. Otherwise, it would be a very problematic way of creating for the umpteenth time a Eurocentric paradigm of fascism, which is not my approach.

The problem of how to define post-fascism, however, still remains after these considerations. Global post-fascism is a heterogeneous constellation in which we can find shared features and tendencies. They are nationalism, authoritarianism, and a specific idea of “national regeneration.” Within this constellation, these tendencies might appear differently combined and in varying degrees. For instance, Putin’s Russia is much more authoritarian than Meloni’s Italy. In Italy, we have a chief of government who proudly claims the fascist past (her own and that of her country), but Italy’s dissident voices are not censured, persecuted, or put to jail like in Russia. There are no Italians who are exiled because their lives are threatened in Italy. This is a significant qualitative difference. Another relevant difference is the relationship to violence. We are speaking about Russia, which is a country involved in a war. The violence displayed by this variety of post-fascist regimes cannot be compared.  

There are a lot of relevant discrepancies distinguishing all these forms of post-fascism from classical fascism. Their ideologies and their ways of mobilizing the masses are not the same… The utopian dimension, for instance, which characterizes classical fascism, is utterly absent from current fascism, which is very conservative. We could mention other cleavages.

“Italian post-fascists do not wish to install a dictatorship or to dissolve the parliament, but emotionally and culturally they remain fascist”

Ilya: I would like to go through these features of post-fascism. If I understand you correctly, after reading the book and some of your interviews, you stress that post-fascism came from the crisis of democracy. Democracy not as a normative term, but electoral politics, to be more precise. The difference between classical fascism and post-fascism is that the latter does not challenge democracy. Classical fascism had the task of overthrowing democracy. Post-fascism still tries to use electoral mechanisms. The transformation towards an openly fascist dictatorship should take place through legal institutions. I am interested, in particular, in this moment of transition. You also write in your book that post-fascism can be understood as a stage for the new quality of political regimes with authoritarian or dictatorial features. How do you think this transition differs in different regions? I believe that in Russia fascist tendencies developed from the top. Twenty years ago, elements of the authoritarian regime were already installed, and since then Russia has been transformed into some kind of fascist dictatorship.

Enzo: A straightforward historical overview shows that many authoritarian regimes with fascist features have appeared without mass movements, but were introduced through a military coup, for instance Franco’s regime in Spain or Latin American regimes in the 1960s and the 1970s. They were not supported by a mass movement unlike the canonical examples of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Both Mussolini and Hitler were appointed to power by the King (of the Italian monarchy) and by the President (of the Weimar Republic) respectively, according to their constitutional prerogatives. I don’t think that we can create a compelling or normative fascist paradigm. It is a large category including different ideologies and forms of power.

“Post-fascists win elections because they oppose neoliberalism, but when they come to power, they apply neoliberal policies”

An enormous difference that separates post-fascism from classical fascism is the huge transformation that has taken place in the public sphere. At the time of classical fascism,  charismatic leaders had an almost physical contact with their community of followers. Fascist rallies were liturgical moments that celebrated this emotional communion between the leader and its disciples. Today this connection has been replaced by the media, which create a completely different kind of charismatic leadership, at the same time more extended and pervasive, but also more fragile. Nonetheless, we cannot avoid the fundamental question: What does fascism mean in the twenty-first century? All observers constantly face this question: Is Trump/Putin/Bolsonaro/Le Pen/Meloni/Orban fascist? The simple fact of putting this question means that for us it is impossible to analyze all these leaders or regimes without comparing them to classical fascism. On the one hand, they are not fascist tout court; on the other hand, they cannot be defined without being compared with fascism. They are something between fascism and democracy, oscillating between these two poles according to the changing circumstances.  

There are also contradictory dynamics. Russian nationalism is going through a process of radicalization, reinforcing these post-fascist tendencies. In Western Europe, the Italian case is emblematic of the opposite tendency. Until very recent times, Georgia Meloni was the only political leader who shamelessly claimed her fascist identity in the Italian parliament. In this she differed from other far-rights in Europe, for example Marine Le Pen, who had explicitly abandoned the ideological and political models of her father by changing the name of her movement (Rassemblement National replacing Front National). Marine Le Pen claimed her belief in democracy, affirming her support to the institutions of the French Republic, and so on, when Meloni celebrated the accomplishments of Mussolini’s Italy. The latter won the elections — thanks to a favorable electoral system and the division of the center-left — not because of her ideological references but rather because she appeared as the only and most coherent adversary of Mario Draghi, the chief of a governmental coalition supported by the European Union. 

However, since she came to power, Meloni is conducting the same policies of her predecessor and no longer criticizes the EU institutions. As chief of government, she celebrated the anniversary of the Liberation, the anniversary of the triumph of democracy over fascism that took place on April 25, 1945. Meloni reminds me of those paradoxical figures that, in the 1920s, were called in Germany Vernunftrepublikaner (“republicans by reason”). After the collapse of Wilhelm’s Empire at the end of 1918, they had accepted — by reason — the democratic institutions of the Weimar Republic, but their heart still beat for the empire. Italian post-fascists are a similar case, one century later. They do not wish to install a dictatorship or to dissolve the parliament, but emotionally and culturally speaking they remain fascist. Their fascism requires many adjustments to a changed historical context.

There is also the case of Trump. In 2016, he was a worrying and enigmatic political innovation. During his presidency, and particularly on January 6, 2021, we experienced a significant political turn that revealed a clear fascistic dynamic. Today I am not sure that the Republican Party, that was one of the pillars of the US establishment, can be defined any more as one of components of the American democracy. It is a political party in which very strong post-fascist or even neofascist tendencies have become hegemonic, a political party that puts into question the state of law and the most elementary principle of democracy: the alternation of power through elections.

Ilya: I hypothesize that in countries with a limitation of political power because of oppositional political movements or various state institutions which reduce the power of the president or prime minister, the transformation towards an authoritarian state is more complicated. Whereas in Russia, all the political institutions have lost any source of independence (no parliament, no court, no serious political opposition), and there are no limitations to the actions of the president, the only sovereign. In countries like the US, the president has many obstacles to his independent decision-making and setting of policies, and the president’s decisions are not totally decisive. 

Enzo: I agree with you. I am far from idealizing liberal democracy and market society, but there is undoubtedly a difference between the United States, where democracy has existed for two and a half centuries, and Russia, where it has almost never existed. We do not need to mobilize Tocqueville to explain this. In Russia, democracy is the legacy of a few years of Glasnost and Perestroika, at the end of the USSR, as well as a byproduct of the resistance of civil society against an oligarchic power that managed the transition to capitalism three decades ago.

“Post-fascism is reactionary, and as such it is a reaction to neoliberalism”

However, there remains a cleavage between the new radical right and classical fascism that should also be considered: the relationship of post-fascism with neoliberalism, as you said at the beginning of our conversation. My book suggests that one of the keys to understanding the post-fascist wave in Western Europe is its opposition to neoliberalism. Of course, as the case of Meloni proves, it is a very contradictory opposition. They win elections because they oppose neoliberalism, but when they come to power, they apply neoliberal policies. Italy is a great example. Neoliberalism is embodied in Western Europe by the European Union, the European Commission, the Central European Bank, etc. Those institutions are trusted interlocutors for the financial elites, who can (also?) find a compromise with Marine Le Pen, Giorgia Meloni or Victor Orban, without trusting them completely. Emmanuel Macron, Mario Draghi, and Mark Rutte are much more reliable and trusted leaders.

In the US, one key to understanding the Trump election in 2016 was his opposition to the establishment. Hilary Clinton embodied the establishment much more than Trump did, despite the obvious fact that a powerful section of American capitalism supports the Republican Party. Nonetheless, there is an evident tension between Trump — sometimes an opposition — and the most significant elements of neoliberalism. Think of the very bad relationship between Trump and California’s multinational companies, new technologies, and so on. There is also an almost “ontological” or constitutive discrepancy between neoliberalism, which works through the global market, and post-fascism, which is deeply nationalist. Post-fascists demand state interventions and protectionist tendencies that contradict the logic of financial capitalism. 

Ilya: My next question is related to what you just said about current capitalism’s neoliberal transformation. You mention in your book that one of the differences between post-fascism and classical fascism is the lack of a project for the future. While classical fascism was a modernist project with a vision of another society (opposite to any emancipatory socialist perspective), post-fascism has no consistent project, only a no-horizon view. There’s an idea that we have to go back to some beautiful past without any vision of the future. This reminds me of one of the main features of neoliberalism. There’s no future, no alternative. Capitalist realism is dominant, as Mark Fischer once pointed out. Another feature is the temporal experience of the post-fascist leaders. People like Putin and Trump are older people. Classical fascism was mostly the movement of the young. Do you think this lack of the future and retrospective, nostalgic element of post-fascism somehow relates to the neoliberal lack of view on the future?

Enzo: You point out some relevant issues. Classical fascism possessed a powerful utopian dimension. It wanted to be an alternative to both liberalism and communism, but it even strived to be a new civilization, something related to a different conception of existence itself. They launched very ambitious projections of society: the myth of the new man, the myth of the “thousand-year Reich,” and so on. This utopian dimension was rooted in the depth of the European and international crisis of capitalism. It does not exist today because capitalism in its neoliberal form appears as an insuperable and indestructible framework. Between the two world wars, there was an alternative to capitalism, created by the Russian Revolution, and communism as a utopian project was able to mobilize millions of human beings. This is a huge difference. Contemporary post-fascist currents are extremely conservative. They wish to save traditional values. They want to return to the traditional idea of a nation, conceived as a cultural, religious, and ethnically homogeneous community. They wish to restore the Christian values on which the history of Europe was built. They want to defend national communities against the invasion of Islam, immigration, etc. They wish to protect national sovereignty against globalism. This does not remind us of the fascist utopianism or Nazi Germany, much more of the German “cultural despair” (Kulturpessimismus) of the end of the nineteenth century.

“While post-fascism opposes neoliberalism, it is simultaneously rooted in its social structure”

Post-fascism is reactionary, and as such it is a reaction to neoliberalism, which does not wish to come back to national borders and sovereignties. Neoliberal historical temporality is “presentist,” not reactionary. It posits an eternal present that absorbs both past and future: our lives and society must run and can be destroyed if they don’t fit the compelling rules of capital development, according to a temporality rhythmed by the stock exchange, but the general framework of capitalism is immutable. Capitalism was “naturalized,” and this is probably the major achievement of neoliberalism. Post-fascism is an illusory alternative to neoliberalism,  just as fascism often depicted itself as “anti-capitalist”; but the difference is that today the ruling classes do not choose this fake alternative. Their institutions are not so deeply unsettled to accept such an option. 

The same can be said about its expansionism. Italian fascism wished to conquer new colonies; Nazi Germany wanted to conquer the entire continental Europe. Today’s post-fascism is very xenophobic and racist, but its xenophobia and racism are defensive. They say: we must protect ourselves against the threat embodied by the “invasion” of non-white and non-European immigrants. We are not going to conquer Ethiopia; we are going to protect ourselves from Ethiopian immigration. The comparison between Putin’s aggression of Ukraine and the fascist or Nazi conquests in Europe does not work because Putin’s expansionism wishes to recreate the Russian Empire in Central Europe by reintegrating a country that Russian nationalism has always considered its own vital space, culturally belonging to Russian history. But the Ukrainian war, if we can make a counterfactual comparison, is as if the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 had been stopped in two weeks and the Wehrmacht had to give up occupying Warsaw. 

Ilya: I agree that Hitler was much more successful than Putin.

Enzo:The nature of expansion is not the same. The Nazi aggression against Poland was imperialistic and expansionist; the Russian aggression of Ukraine is revanchist and “defensive,” especially considering Kiev’s goal of joining NATO. There are also some relevant demographic differences. In the 1930s, Nazi Germany had, like Russia today, suffered a significant loss of territories and population, but its population was dramatically growing. As for Italy, its population grew despite a structural emigration that weakened its economy. If today Putin embodies an illusory nationalist response to the collapse of 1990, it is also because his defensive expansionism is not supported by a powerful demographic dynamic. Russia is declining and struggling to preserve its status as a superpower. Of course, it has some advantages: nuclear weapons and so on. But economically and demographically speaking, its radicalized nationalism is defensive. 

But let me add a last consideration on neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is not only a set of economic policies: free market, deregulation, global economy. It is also an anthropological model, a conduct of life. It is a philosophy and a lifestyle based on competition, individualism, and a particular way of conceiving human relations. In the twenty-first century, this anthropological paradigm has been imposed on a global scale. This means that all post-fascist movements are rooted in this anthropological background. This explains why there are so many significant changes compared with classical fascism. First, we have powerful post-fascist movements led by women. This would have been inconceivable in the 1930s. Second, the movements must accept certain forms of individualism, individual rights, and freedoms. Their Islamophobia, for instance, is sometimes formulated as a defense of Western values against Islamic obscurantism. This way, while post-fascism opposes neoliberalism, it is simultaneously rooted in its social structure. 

“The Ukrainian Resistance is conducting a national liberation war that is forcefully plural and heterogeneous”

Ilya: You have mentioned that one of the primary emotions of post-fascism is the defensive line. 

In fact, the whole war in Russia was presented by the official propaganda as a defense not just against NATO but also fake values, especially the infiltration of LGBT and gender politics. In this sense, one can say that in this kind of regime, the borders between international politics and domestic politics are blurring. However, we can also see that the neoliberal mindset you have just talked about dominates all explanations of the international situation. Of course, Putin is very much preoccupied in his political imagination with the role of Russia in the global arena. Still, Putin and other Russian officials explain that international relations are a kind of market where you have competition, where the same self-interest paradigm is defining the position of states, where the multipolar world that they advertise instead of American hegemony is the true free market against monopoly. They see the world as the US’s monopoly, which should be challenged by true, honest, fair competition of multiple strong players. How do you see these relations?

Enzo: I am not well equipped to answer this question satisfactorily. Of course, the tenacious and admirable resistance of Ukraine against Russian invasion deserves to be supported, both politically and militarily. I don’t agree with the currents of Western left that denounce Russian aggression and simultaneously refuse to send weapons to Kiev. This seems to me a hypocritical stance. The Ukrainian Resistance is conducting a national liberation war that is forcefully plural and heterogeneous. Like all Resistance movements in Europe during the Second World War, it includes right- and left-wing currents, nationalist and cosmopolitan sensitivities, authoritarian and democratic tendencies. Between 1943 and 1945, the Italian Resistance gathered a large spectrum of forces, going from the communists (the hegemonic tendency) to the monarchists (a small minority), and passing through social-democrats, liberals, and Catholics. In France, Resistance had two souls — De Gaulle and the communists — beside which there were also fighting Catholics, Trotskyists, and a constellation of small (but very effective) organizations of anti-fascist immigrants from Central Europe, Italy, Spain, Turkish Armenia, etc. This diversity is inevitable in a national resistance movement.  

Having said that, I am quite pessimistic about the outcome of this conflict. If Putin wins, which is improbable but not impossible (particularly in case of an involvement of China on his side), this will have tragic consequences not only for Russia and Ukraine but also on a global scale. Fascist and authoritarian tendencies will be reinforced in Russia; post-fascist tendencies in Europe and internationally will strengthen equally. On the other hand, a Russian defeat, which is desirable, would mean not only the affirmation of a free and independent Ukraine but also, very probably, an extension of NATO and the US hegemony, which is much less attractive.

The Ukrainian war is often depicted as an entanglement of conflicts: a Russian invasion which is an inacceptable aggression; a self-defense war of Ukraine which wants to be supported; and a Western indirect military intervention which the US aims at transforming into a NATO proxy war. Ten years ago, there was a civil war in Ukraine, which created some premises for the current conflict. This is a very complex situation, in which the left needs to be nuanced. Whereas in Russia we must struggle against Putin and in Ukraine we must struggle against the Russian invasion; in the US and the EU countries we cannot support an extension of NATO or the increase of our military budgets.

 “The Western left should prove that it is possible to fight against the neoliberal order without being the friends of Putin”

This situation is not completely new. During the Second World War, the Resistance movements and the Allied armies fought together against the Axis powers, but their convergence was limited, and they did not share the same final goals. This became evident in Greece, where the collapse of German occupation threw the country into a civil war in which the British army helped to repress the communist Resistance. Tito and Eisenhower struggled together against Hitler, but their objectives were not the same. Today, we are in this whirl of contradictory tendencies: on the one hand, we must support the Ukrainian Resistance, as well as the dissident voices in Russia; on the other, we must be able to say that a neoliberal order is not the only alternative to post-fascism. The left should be able to speak to the non-Western countries that did not condemn this invasion. The Western left should prove that it is possible to fight against the neoliberal order without being the friends of Putin.    

Ilya: My last question is about anti-fascism. You wrote that anti-fascism as a tradition and a view, was lost in recent years, and you believe that the re-establishment of the anti-fascist tradition could be the only proper answer to the rise of fascism. However, this also means that the anti-fascist tradition should be reinvented, it cannot be the same movement it was in the middle of the twentieth century. Of course, there are a lot of difficulties with this tradition. For instance, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was also labeled as anti-fascist (against the Ukrainian “Nazis”) by Russian official propaganda. Of course, the idea of anti-fascism was devalued from various sides. What can this reinvention of anti-fascism look like? 

Enzo: Again, it is difficult to answer this question. I depicted post-fascism as a global phenomenon, but I am not sure we can speak of global anti-fascism. It depends on contingent circumstances. Of course, we can say that fascism is bad everywhere at any time, but anti-fascism does not have the same meaning and political potentialities everywhere at any time. I do not know how anti-fascism can be perceived today in Russia, India, or the Philippines. Different countries have different historical trajectories, and anti-fascism cannot be understood and mobilized in the same way everywhere. In Western Europe, anti-fascism means a specific historical memory. In Italy, France, Germany, Spain or Portugal, in countries that experienced fascism, with shared collective memories, it is impossible to defend democracy without claiming an anti-fascist legacy. In India, for instance, the relationship between the struggle for independence and anti-fascism is much more complex. During the Second World War, being anti-fascist meant renouncing, at least for a while, to the struggle for independence. In Russia, Putin endorses a demagogic rhetoric by depicting the invasion of Ukraine as the final stage of the Great Patriotic War. Of course, demystifying this lying propaganda and re-establishing the true significance of anti-fascism is crucial for Russian democrats and dissidents. In Ukraine, things are more complicated because the fight against Russian oppression is older than anti-fascism and was not always anti-fascist. The history of Ukrainian nationalism includes a fascist and right-wing component which cannot be forgotten. At the same time, the memory of anti-fascism is that of an anti-Nazi war — as epic and heroic as it was tragic — that Ukrainians fought as part of the USSR. Therefore, being anti-fascist means claiming a tradition that is not consensual in Ukrainian history. It means to defend a certain political identity within a plural Resistance movement. Things are incredibly complicated. Roughly speaking, we could say that anti-fascism means a free and independent Ukraine not opposed to but rather allied with a democratic Russia. Unfortunately, this will not happen tomorrow.

The Failure of Reconstruction Is to Blame for the Weakness of American Democracy

Review of Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy by Jeremi Suri (PublicAffairs, 2022)

By Matthew E. Stanley

A new book argues that the American right emerged out of a backlash to multiracial democracy following the Civil War. This is only partly true: reactionaries did not just fear democracy, they feared the economic redistribution former slaves associated with it.

In August, a poll conducted by YouGov revealed that 40 percent of Americans believe it likely that a civil war will take place within the next decade. That same poll showed that an even larger number, 62 percent, think that levels of political violence will increase within the next few years. Undeniably, there seems to be a sense among Americans that our democratic system is not robust enough to deal with the conflicts it generates. Moments of episodic crises, such as the January 6 insurrection, would then seem to be symptomatic of the broader structural problems with American democracy. But what is their cause?

In Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy, historian Jeremi Suri argues that the failure of Reconstruction, the ambitious post–Civil War project to create a new social order in the US South, explains not only the existence of a conspiratorial right but the January 6 insurrection too. Suri maintains that the world’s first experiment in genuine multiracial democracy inspired a long, violent resistance, not only against the progressive state governments of the 1860s and 1870s but against the very idea of a multiracial body politic. The effects of that backlash have reverberated for a century and a half, Suri argues, culminating with the ransacking of the US Capitol.

Suri’s study is thoughtful and deftly written. Its premise — that the January 6 attack, like Donald Trump himself, was far less a sudden, singular rupture than the predictable culmination of long-standing political currents — is indisputable. But by limiting its understanding of democracy to struggles for the franchise, Civil War by Other Means obscures what was at stake for former slaves and working-class whites during the Reconstruction era. Both groups were not simply concerned with the right to vote but in securing economic freedom for themselves after the dispossession of the planter class.

Ignoring these facts leads Suri to wrongly identify culture and constitutional encumbrances, rather than concentrated wealth under capitalism, as the primary obstacles to political self-determination.

A Splendid Failure
Suri begins by excavating the roots of white Southern anti-government resistance after slavery. In one chapter, he explores the power of martyrdom, including how the memory of John Wilkes Booth bolstered defenses of local white power, as anti-black collective violence surged throughout the former Confederacy. In another, he recounts how roughly fifty thousand white Southerners, mostly Confederate officers and Southern gentry, went into self-exile after Appomattox in the hopes of recreating their slave empire in Latin America.

These exiles, whom Ulysses S. Grant considered “a part of the Rebellion itself,” developed identities of resistance to multiracial democracy on both sides of the Rio Grande: against liberal reformers in Mexico and Radical Republicans in the United States. Suri views all of them — Lincoln’s assassins, Klansmen, and Confederate expatriates — as ideological ancestors of the January 6 insurrectionists.

Meanwhile, ex-slaves worked to realize their own understandings of democracy in the postwar South. The governments they created along with their allies, white Southern Unionists and black and white Northern “carpetbaggers,” were some of the most progressive in US history. In addition to universal male suffrage, the most reform-minded of those governments championed public education and infrastructure, women’s property rights, child labor laws, and new systems of credit that allowed poor people to buy land.

The result was, according to Suri, a “Second American Revolution” that made good on the promises of the Declaration of Independence. In some cases, Southern Republicanism was even more radical than Suri acknowledges. In New Orleans, for instance, the Republic Club sent a message of solidarity to the Paris Commune and applied for membership in the First International.

The book’s primary focus, however, is not grassroots radicalism but high politics. And it is here, in examining the nuances and limitations of the Republican Party, that Suri’s analysis is strongest. Considering how the party legislated and implemented policy to protect (or not) multiracial democracy in the South, he views Northern Republicans as necessary but cautious allies who were pushed from below.

Suri’s narrative is insightful but familiar: Andrew Johnson’s intransigence expanded and emboldened the Radicals in Congress; the Civil Rights Act of 1867, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Reconstruction Acts opened democratic possibility in the South. Believing the Fifteenth Amendment to be “the most important event” in the nation’s history, President Grant proved an ardent defender of civil rights laws, and his use of military occupation largely worked against rising white violence. However, time, expense, political fatigue, and economic panic fed growing indifference in the North. With no popular base to support them, the gains of Reconstruction teetered on collapse.

The Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield presidencies had their opportunities to protect multiracial democracy, Suri argues, but were plagued by tepid leadership, constitutional crisis, corruption, and assassination. By the summer of 1877, Northern Republicans had acquiesced to “local self-government” (white rule) in the South while deploying federal forces against striking industrial workers in the North, facilitating their turn from “a party of money rather than a party of morals,” as Frederick Douglass put it. Associating “big government” with black rights, white reactionaries fomented a violent overthrow of what W. E. B. Du Bois termed the “abolition democracy,” ushering in home rule and eight decades of Jim Crow. The death of Reconstruction was the dawn of a new tradition of racialized anti-government activism.

Suri’s version of Reconstruction celebrates the inclusive, democratic possibilities of US politics while offering a broader critique of the US election system. Its riveting narrative offers a powerful warning against Whiggish conceptions of the past. Suri convincingly argues, for instance, that the presidential election of 1872 was the fairest and freest election in the nation’s history until the 1960s. This is a story of revolutionary conditions and remarkable multiracial advances leading to backlash, violence, and the deterioration of political and social rights. Rather than a march of progress, this analysis of American democracy is that of an ongoing project — one that is long, arduous, uneven, and woefully incomplete.

A Flawed Democracy
Suri maintains that the problems of Reconstruction and of Republican efforts to protect multiracial democracy are the problems of our time, too. Since its inception in the early nineteenth century, mass democracy in the United States has always been contested, its expansion predicated on hard-fought struggles for rights. There was never a golden age of American democracy. Indeed, the scope of disenfranchisement is even wider than Suri lets on. Enormous blocs of should-be voters have been — and in many cases continue to be — restricted by gender, race, servitude, the absence of property, age, ethnicity, literacy, criminal record, ability, or national origin. In many ways, the American ballot box has merely registered political outcomes that were largely determined before voting even began.

We still carry the US election system that Suri characterizes as arbitrary and contentious, and it has contributed to the nation’s current status as a “flawed democracy,” according to the Democracy Index. As Suri notes, the Constitution’s minoritarian elements — including the document’s strong protection of property rights, emphasis on capital mobility, and relative difficulty to amend — were designed by slaveholders and an ownership class that was deeply suspicious of, if not actively hostile to, popular democracy. Even for white male property owners, the system was mediated through a convoluted network of electors and representatives. Other features of US politics that structurally assist the forces of white democracy, according to Suri, include rampant gerrymandering, various forms of voter suppression, the nondemocratic nature of the US Senate and the Supreme Court, and the disenfranchisement of US citizens in the non-state territories of Washington, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Mariana Islands (whose residents are principally, and not coincidentally, non-white people).

It was not simply multiracial democracy per se that white reactionaries of the Reconstruction era found so offensive; it was the threat that mass democracy posed to material as well as racial status.
Suri reserves his greatest ire, however, for the Electoral College, which he identifies as an archaic, elitist, antidemocratic, and deeply unpopular relic of the eighteenth century. To be sure, Reconstruction-era Republicans benefited from that outmoded system, as Hayes won the Electoral College but not the popular vote in 1876. At the same time, white Southern fears of government unleashed during Reconstruction have helped sustain this undemocratic system ever since. Further, the Electoral College would for decades afford disproportionate power to the segregationist South, since black people counted as full persons for purposes of electoral representation after the Fifteenth Amendment but were disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws.

These weaknesses in our constitutional system and the absence of a direct popular vote continue to enable right-wing authoritarianism, Suri contends. Today’s Republicans are generally hostile to voting rights because they view them, understandably, as more likely to check than augment their power. Some party leaders, including senator Mike Lee of Utah, have gone so far as to openly celebrate the Constitution’s lack of democracy. In his book’s final chapter, Suri makes several recommendations about how to stave off this antidemocratic momentum and ostensibly “save our democracy.” He proposes a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote, the abolition of the Electoral College, the legal prohibition of partisan gerrymandering, and a new and more democratic presidential line of succession.

This focus on formal politics, intriguing though it is, nevertheless offers an incomplete portrait of the Reconstruction era. And Suri’s emphasis on technocratic fixes also skirts vital questions about securing, maintaining, and leveraging power. (How will these laws come to pass without a mass movement?) In other words, Civil War by Other Means falls short not in its diagnosis of problems but in its identification of causes and solutions. In Suri’s telling, Radical Reconstruction was hindered by anti-black violence, shifting public opinion, and the constraints of the political system. It was not hindered by class conditions. Similar to the mono-causal “whitelash” theory that gained traction after the 2016 election, Suri views racial resentment, rather than white supremacy bound to political economy, as the principal explanatory factor for Reconstruction’s failure — and for the precarious state of US democracy.

In truth, it was not simply multiracial democracy per se that white reactionaries of the Reconstruction era found so offensive; it was the threat that mass democracy posed to material as well as racial status. Anti-black collective violence was not identical to class violence, but the two were inseparable. Suri too often overlooks this fact. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan was not just a violent hate group; it was also effectively, as Chad Pearson argues in the book Capital’s Terrorists, a business owners’ organization. The white counterrevolution was not merely a racial project; it was also, as Du Bois argued, a conflict among classes, with former slaveholders using race hatred to “achieve economic security and restore fatal losses of capital and investment.”

Insurrectionist Workers?
Suri’s misapplication of class begins in the book’s introduction, which profiles insurrectionist Kevin Seefried as emblematic of those who stormed the US Capitol. A white worker and Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Sussex County, Delaware, Seefried supports Suri’s long Civil War thesis. After all, Seefried is an avowed anti-government white nationalist who forced a Confederate flag into the congressional chambers. But while Suri explains that the grievances of insurrectionists like Seefried may have stemmed in part from being “left behind” by the nation’s move toward a “multiracial meritocracy,” he marshals no evidence that Seefried was representative of the pro-Trump mob.

In reality, Seefried was a typical rioter only in that he is a white male who holds far-right political views (the January 6 insurrectionists were roughly 86 percent men and 93 percent non-Hispanic white). Few (about 14 percent) were members of militias or other hate or extremist groups. Far more (around 20 percent) were former military, offering further evidence that “the bombs explode at home.” Nor did the insurrectionists simply hail from rural America. They also came from the nation’s largest metro areas: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and Houston. Rather than urbanity or rurality, the common-origin denominator among the rioters involved demographic trends. Most came from counties that are trending rapidly toward racial pluralism and majority-minority status, and where the share of the white population is declining at rates well above the national average. This, no doubt, speaks to the valence within their ranks of a “Great Replacement” theory, one promulgated by conservative media personalities.

Most critically, the January 6 insurrectionists were not downtrodden workers, unemployed and uneducated, as Suri’s portrait of Seefried suggests. The vast majority were, like Trump’s base, professional-class, with disproportionate numbers of deeply conservative provincial elites from midsize cities, small towns, and retirement enclaves. Some were the bourgeoise that Patrick Wyman terms the “American gentry” — business and property owners who sit atop local hierarchies, and who “see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.” Fearful of wavering influence in their own (typically racially and socioeconomically segregated) communities, they equated Trump’s “Make America Great Again” with protection of both their financial assets and racial identities.

In fact, the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats obtained employment data for 501 of the 716 people arrested or charged for their role in January 6. The vast majority were either business owners, self-employed, or white-collar professionals, including doctors, lawyers, bankers, architects, and accountants. Only 22 percent of the sample held what the compilers described as “blue collar” jobs, as either wage-earning or salaried workers. Only 7 percent were unemployed. Even relative to other right-wing extremist groups as compiled by the FBI, the January 6 insurrectionists were strikingly well-off. After all, partaking in a prearranged government takeover in one of the nation’s most expensive cities requires time off work, as well as travel, airfare, and hotel expense. Many of the rioters dined in gourmet restaurants the night of January 5. Others stayed at the posh Willard Hotel, where rooms will cost you over $300 per night. Some even flew to the “Stop the Steal” rally on private jets.

Among both white and black Radicals, phrases including ‘better classes,’ ‘most respectable,’ and ‘best men’ were code for the class difference between free men of color and recently freed slaves.
The depiction of Kevin Seefried as a typical insurrectionist reinforces Suri’s idea of the roots of racial repression as primarily cultural, based on “habit and tradition,” rather than material, in the service of profit and class hegemony. However, belief in the Big lie, and the willingness to act violently on its behalf, is dangerous not because it holds sway among relatively powerless citizens like Seefried. It is dangerous because it is mainstream among relatively affluent members of a particular social class, the vast majority of whom, yes, are white, and who wield white nationalism in the service of class politics, as well as class power in the service of white nationalism. This is not to downplay the obvious role that white identity played in both Trump’s election and January 6, only to highlight that it is not fringe bands of neo-Confederates but acute inequality, engendered by the basic machinations of capitalism, that poses the greatest threat to American democracy.

Democracy on the Land
For a book about the long struggle for democracy, Suri’s study contains surprisingly little about contests over the meaning of democracy. His emphasis is on electoral democracy, or the processes by which enfranchised people vote for political representatives in periodically held elections. Yet more than any period of US history, Reconstruction demonstrates how this definition of democracy is necessary but insufficient. Although Suri characterizes Reconstruction as “a struggle over conflicting conceptions of democracy,” his core question is “democracy for whom?” and not “democracy of what kind?” Put another way, Suri’s notion of democracy pivots entirely on race — white man’s democracy vs. multiracial democracy — while obscuring intraracial distinctions and calls for economic democracy.

Former slaves did indeed see voting rights and ballot inclusion as fundamental rights. However, Suri’s claim that blacks recognized “representation in politics” as “the basic foundation of democracy” requires further context, and the book’s fixation on voting rights gives the impression that land ownership was of secondary importance to former slaves. It was not.

Although Suri’s flattening of critical class differences prevents him from exploring such issues, countless ex-slaves prioritized rights in land as equal to or above voting. This was especially true of newly emancipated people in rural areas, most of them landless and illiterate, whose demands tended to be more material than their free counterparts in the urban South. One freedman prefigured Martin Luther King Jr’s pithy critique of civil rights devoid of economic justice: “What’s the use of being free if you don’t own enough land to be buried in?”

The story of “Forty acres and a mule” as a dream deferred, though largely absent from Suri’s account, is essential to any materialist interpretation of Reconstruction — or of US history for that matter. Eager to kickstart the South’s cash crop economy, Southern planters and Northern capitalists each had a vested interest in opposing both communitarianism (democratically owned property) and independent proprietorship (small-scale privately owned property) for former slaves. Some of the latter feared that land redistribution in the South would lead industrial workers in the North to challenge other forms of property. Countless Northern industrialists, philanthropists, and politicians supported black political rights out of either sincere egalitarian impulses or an opportunity to grow their political party in the South. But many also feared alliances between former slaves and poor and middling white agrarians in the North and West. Even free blacks, white reformers, and Freedmen’s Bureau agents, most of them well-meaning, sincerely believed that the dependency of wage labor was the surest way to self-sufficiency for former slaves.

While Reconstruction represented an exceptional — and in many ways revolutionary — reallocation of power toward working people, property confiscation constituted what historian Michael Fitzgerald calls a “wartime vogue,” far less a result of ideology than of military necessity. By 1866, the idea of land redistribution for ex-slaves was a nonstarter. Allies of the former slaves, including the Freedmen’s Aid Association, the American Missionary Association, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, called for education, thrift, and land purchase through savings as substitutes for land reform. As time wore on, Southern state governments and most congressional Republicans exhibited what historian Claude Oubre terms only a “meager effort” to provide economic security for blacks. The democratic visions of these institutions were limited somewhat by the economic concepts of the time and the political constraints of the moment. But they were also limited by their class positions.

Of course, there were also black intraracial class tensions, particularly in urban centers. While the postwar South held a broad range of black voters, leaders, and convention delegates, contested definitions of democracy, including which of its elements should be emphasized, tended to break along class lines. Among both white and black Radicals, phrases including “better classes,” “most respectable,” and “best men” were code for the class difference between free men of color and recently freed slaves — and also served as indicators of democratic prerogatives. In his study of Reconstruction-era Mobile, Alabama, historian Michael Fitzgerald argues that “class divisions within the black community were so urgent that factional conflict could not be contained.”

As early as the state black conventions of 1865, Eric Foner observes a striking divide between more prominent leaders who pushed “political equality and self-help formulas,” and rural freedmen who possessed above all a “thirst for land.” Demanding “land or blood,” ex-slaves in the countryside decisively favored assembly delegates who called for plantations to be broken up. Yet convention leaders rarely highlighted such views. “By and large,” Foner contends, “economic concerns figured only marginally in the proceedings, and the addresses and resolutions offered no economic program, apart from stressing the ‘mutual interest’ of capital and labor, and urging self-improvement as the route to personal advancement.” Describing this gulf between ex-slaves and free blacks (the self-described men of “intelligence and wealth”), historian Ted Tunnell argues that the type of civic rights prioritized by free blacks, notably equal access to public spaces such as theaters, saloons, and steamboats, were “remote from the needs and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of ex-slaves who lived hard lives on toil and ceaseless anxiety.”

In his 1935 Marxist masterwork, Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois characterizes Radical Reconstruction as a “dictatorship of labor” and acknowledges that the failure of land reform had far more to do with white than black opposition. Yet he also maintains that black leadership during Reconstruction skewed petite bourgeois, its members steeped in an individualistic, capitalist ideology (which was by no means unique to the black middle class).

In other words, former slaves who desperately needed land were too often represented by conservative white Unionists and free blacks whose class statuses and interests disinclined them from supporting large-scale material redistribution, which raises the question: Were Reconstruction governments truly a “dictatorship of labor,” or were they liberal and multiracial bourgeois alliances sustained by the votes of black and a minority of poor whites?

The book’s key shortcoming lies in its failure to address the full spectrum of Reconstruction-era democracy and to foreground the materialist nature of its social and political conflict.
In either case, former slaves constituted a distinct and especially radical social class. They envisioned self-ownership as a right, viewing it not as apart from, but essential to and often ahead of, voting. Most understood that political democracy would be limited — and even be turned back altogether — without control over the land that their labor had made productive. And they perceived this issue as both a matter of justice and, in many cases, precedent. As Du Bois points out, “The German and English and French serf, the Italian and Russian serf, were, on emancipation, given definite rights in the land. Only the American negro slave was emancipated without such rights and in the end this spelled for him the continuation of slavery.” Writing on Louisiana’s 1867 Radical convention, Tunnell explained that although civil rights were a monumental achievement, they did not directly address “fundamental economic problems.” “More than anything else,” he insists, “ex-slaves needed land.”

Democracy, in other words, was a contested concept in the Reconstruction South, not only between black and white but within the Radical movement. While Radicals shared common commitments to civil rights and state building, they were not a class coalition. And when the interests of Northern capital, the Northern voting public, and former slaves no longer intersected, as was the case by 1874, the coalition broke down. Despite populist economic programs and the workerist orientation of some party leaders, the absence of a working-class movement rendered social democracy unachievable, and the lack of social democracy in the South — the failure of land reform specifically — made the counterrevolution of property almost inevitable.

Beyond Political Democracy
As a history of Reconstruction, Civil War by Other Means is a brisk, engaging, and often penetrating read. Suri imposes a degree of continuity sure to give some historians pause — drawing a rather straight line between the Union Leagues and Black Lives Matter, between the Klan and QAnon, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman and Donald Trump, white hoods and red hats. Yet the book’s premise, that “the Civil War never fully ended” and that its pronounced divisions related to race and anti-statism have been festering in US politics since Reconstruction, is unquestionable. Although his frequent use of Trump-era media language — “disinformation,” “white privilege,” “treason,” and “insurrection” — seems like an appeal to the incrementalist MSNBC crowd, Suri makes bold constitutional proposals and shows an uncommon commitment to representative government, multiracial political democracy, and majority rule, which he views as the solutions to the stubborn problem of white nationalism. In that regard, Civil War by Other Means is superior to other post-2016 studies of race in America that paint whiteness more as a timeless feature to be condemned morally and “worked through” by self-help-oriented individuals than a manifestation of social conditions to be overcome through mass politics.

But the book’s key shortcoming lies in its failure to address the full spectrum of Reconstruction-era democracy and to foreground the materialist nature of its social and political conflict. Suri hopes Americans will safeguard their democracy by digging up the roots to “remove the rot,” but his vision, which would no doubt remake US politics for the better, never transcends technocratic proceduralism. Skipping over the vital question of movement building, Suri is most concerned with what to do with power once achieved rather than how to achieve it. Accordingly, he views white nationalism as a cultural and political problem to be curbed through constitutional change rather than a question rooted in material relations to be solved through social transformation. In other words, Suri’s “democracy” is neither social democracy nor economic democracy. It is certainly not democratic socialism, with its emphasis on democratic participation beyond the political arena and a more equal distribution of resources through worker control.

Ultimately, Suri fails to answer a basic question: Is it even possible to possess and express equal political rights — to, in effect, “do” political democracy — in a profoundly materially unequal society devoid of economic rights? That question, too, is a legacy of Reconstruction, and part of our long and unfinished fight.

Matthew E. Stanley teaches in the department of history and political science at Albany State University.

‘Everything That Is Human Is Ours’

Posted by carl4davidson


The political and cultural vanguardism of Antonio Gramsci and José Carlos Mariátegui

By Christian Noakes 

Class, Culture, Ideology, Marxism

Within the heterogenous tradition of Marxism there are two diametrically opposed conceptions of popular culture: the elitist and vanguardist. The former is far from unique to Marxism, and it could be argued that such positions are antithetical to the popular sentiments of Karl Marx’s revolutionary thought. Such an orientation represents a dominant intellectual trend more generally, wherein the popular culture of the masses is considered devoid of positive value and categorically distinct from so-called high culture.1 Within Marxism, this elitism tends to assume that the ruling class has an absolute monopoly on popular cultural production. This position is perhaps best represented by Theodor Adorno, who categorically dismisses popular culture as insidious and debased. In his analysis of popular music, he goes as far as to distinguish between popular and “serious” music.2 Such positions overlook popular agency and the need to combat capitalist ideology on a social, rather than individual, level.

In contrast, vanguardists consider popular culture as a fundamental vehicle for mass education and the propagation of a particular worldview, in concert with a corresponding and underlying socioeconomic order. Proponents do not dismiss popular culture outright or conceive of it as inherently “bad” or “low,” but instead ask: popular culture for which class and toward what ends? Vanguardist praxis treats popular culture as “a terrain of contestation.”3

Another distinguishing characteristic of vanguardism is the belief in the intellectual capacity of the populace. Vanguardism is not simply a matter of being the most advanced. It also implies the ability to lead or give direction to the masses. On the intellectual field of culture, this entails a raising of consciousness. In response to the critique that ideas put forward in socialist publications were too complex for the working class to grasp, Antonio Gramsci observed the following:

The socialist weeklies adapt themselves to the average level of the regional strata they address. Yet the tone of the articles and the propaganda must always be just above this average level, so that there is a stimulus to intellectual progress, so that at least a number of workers can emerge from the generic blur of the mulling-over of pamphlets and consolidate their spirit in a higher critical perception of history and the world in which they live and struggle.4

Gramsci, therefore, rejects the extremes of both infantilizing anti-intellectualism (i.e., tailism) or isolated elitism. This is illustrative of how vanguardists can meet the people “where they are,” so to speak, and then work to move them to higher levels of class consciousness.

Gramsci and the lesser-known Peruvian Communist José Carlos Mariátegui—who is himself often compared to Gramsci—were not merely theorists of vanguardism. They actively practiced it and indeed, led this aspect of the class struggle in Italy and Peru, respectively. Both treated cultural and political issues as being deeply intertwined and sought to promote politically and intellectually developed popular culture for the working class and oppressed peoples in order to counter the dominant popular bourgeois culture. Their revolutionary praxis materialized in publications such as Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo and Mariategui’s Amauta.

Gramsci looked with admiration at the strides made by the Soviet Union in making the arts accessible to the working class and the proliferation of revolutionary cultural institutions such as the Proletkult. The revolutionary fervor in the Soviet Union and the increasing militancy of Italian workers inspired Gramsci to create an institution for the development and propagation of proletarian culture in Italy. Out of this desire came the newspaper, L’Ordine Nuovo: Weekly Review of Socialist Culture, which Gramsci founded in 1919 with a group of intellectuals and revolutionaries that would later become a core group in the Communist Party of Italy. In its pages, readers found works of political prose alongside theater and literary criticism. The paper also introduced many to Communist artists and intellectuals from abroad, such as Anatoly Lunacharsky, Maxim Gorky, Henri Barbusse, and Romain Rolland. Reflecting on the initial impetus for the publication, Gramsci said,

The sole sentiment which united us… was associated with our vague yearning for a vaguely proletarian culture.5

The June 21, 1919, edition marked a significant shift in the publication from this somewhat eclectic initial phase into an organ for a concrete political program. Ordine Nuovo became not only a publication, but a core group representing something of a tendency or faction within Italian socialist politics—with a particularly heavy influence on labor struggles in Turin. Central to this solidification of political purpose was the factory council movement, which Ordine Nuovo fueled with its program to turn internal commissions of Turin factories into Italian soviets or councils. By directly empowering the workers to manage production themselves, Gramsci asserted that the councils would prepare the working class of Italy to take power and provide them with the competence to build and maintain a socialist society. The Ordine Nuovo group put its energies toward fostering a culture, by means of the councils, in which the workers would see themselves as producers within a larger cooperative system of production, rather than as atomized wage-earners.6 This culture was organically fostered through direct dialog with the workers themselves. With an air of satisfaction, Gramsci remarked that “To us and to our followers, Ordine Nuovo became ‘the newspaper of the factory councils.’ Workers loved Ordine Nuovo… [b]ecause in its articles they found part of themselves.… Because these articles were not cold, intellectual architecture, but were the outcome of our discussions with the best workers. They articulated the real feelings, will, and passion of the working class.”7

At the request of the workers, Gramsci and other members of Ordine Nuovo spoke regularly at council meetings. In September 1920, the revolutionary potential of the councils reached a high point when workers occupied factories and took direct control over production. At this time, the publication ceased, and Gramsci and the other members joined the workers in the factories “to solve practical questions [of running a factory] on a basis of common agreement and collaboration.”8

While the editorial line of the newspaper became more defined and motivated by concrete political goals, it still focused on fostering an organic popular culture of the working class, which it treated as an integral part of building socialism. This included the creation of the School of Culture and Socialist Propaganda, which was attended by both factory workers and university students. Among the lecturers were Gramsci and the other members of Ordine Nuovo, as well as several university professors.9 Such efforts were vital in the intellectual and ideological preparation for the establishment of an Italian socialist state, at which time “[b]ourgeois careerism will be shattered and there will be a poetry, a novel, a theatre, a moral code, a language, a painting and a music peculiar to proletarian civilization.”10 While Italy would soon see the horrors of fascism—rather than the establishment of this proletarian civilization, and thus the full development of a national proletarian culture—the militant working class culture fostered by Gramsci and Ordine Nuovo could never be fully snuffed out by the Mussolini regime. The cultural politics of Gramsci would also have a lasting influence beyond Italy.

Such influences are apparent in the works of José Carlos Mariátegui, who had been in Italy at the time of the founding of its Communist Party and identified most closely with the Ordine Nuovo group. After returning to Peru, Mariátegui put his newfound Marxist convictions to use in a variety of endeavors, including the production of the journal, Amauta, which was heavily influenced by Gramsci.11

Published from 1926 to 1930, this groundbreaking and visually stimulating journal was Mariátegui’s primary vehicle for uniting the cultural and political vanguards of the time.12 In his introduction to the inaugural issue, Mariátegui states: “The goal of this journal is to articulate, illuminate, and comprehend Peru’s problems from theoretical and scientific viewpoints. But we will always consider Peru from an international perspective. We will study all the great movements of political, philosophical, artistic, literary, and scientific renewal. Everything that is human is ours.”13 Along these simultaneous lines of inquiry into Peruvian society and internationalism, Amauta brought together leading artists, intellectuals, and revolutionaries of Peru, Latin America, and Europe. In addition to featuring much of Mariátegui’s most enduring works, it featured other key Peruvian figures, such as the feminist activist and poet Magda Portal and leading indigenist artists José Sabogal and Camilo Blas. Reaching beyond Peru’s borders, the journal also featured contributions by Diego Rivera, Pablo Neruda, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, and Georg Grosz. Likewise, its readership was also international. In addition to being available throughout much of Latin America, it was also distributed in New York, Madrid, Paris, and Melbourne, Australia.14

Mariátegui was at the center of the vanguardista movement in Peru. This youthful and creative movement concerned itself with the creation of a “new Peru,” which would break from the prevailing oligarchic traditions inherited from Spain.15 While diverse in focus and orientation, vanguardistas sought to create new social, political, and cultural forms. According to Mariátegui,

A current of renewal, ever more vigorous and well defined, has been felt for some time now in Peru. The supporters of this renewal are called vanguardists, socialists, revolutionaries, etc.… Some formal discrepancies, some psychological differences, exist between them. But beyond what differentiates them, all these spirits contribute to what groups and unites them: their will to create a new Peru in a new world.… The intellectual and spiritual movement is becoming organic. With the appearance of Amauta, it enters the stage of definition.16

For its part, Amauta promoted anti-imperialism, gender equality, and internationalism as core principles of its national vision.

A new Peru would have to resolve the “Indigenous question”—the most pressing issue for Mariátegui. To aid in this endeavor, the journal laid bare the semi-feudal/semi-colonial nature of Peru’s economy, which relied on the socioeconomic subjugation of the country’s Indigenous population, and acted as national forum and network for otherwise regionally isolated Indigenous peasant organizing.17 Every issue also promoted a plurinationalism that included Quechua and Amari people in the Peruvian identity and body politic. In stark contrast to the national bourgeoisie, which saw Spain as the source of Peruvianness, the journal promoted a national identity and culture centered around the country’s Indigenous population, as was reflected by the majority of its content. This included articles analyzing racialized relations of production, Indigenous-centered art, and even the very name of the journal, Amauta being Quechua for “wise one” and a title given to teachers in the Inca Empire. As Mariátegui states in his introduction of issue 17 (September 1928), “We took an Inca word to create it anew. So that Indian Peru, Indigenous America might feel that this magazine was theirs.”18 Previously excluded and infantilized, Indigenous people were central to the pages of Amauta, and to the national culture it fostered.

Amauta aimed to polarize Peru’s intellectuals and bring readers under the banner of Marxism-Leninism.19 Its content was particularly important in organizing and providing direction to the country’s rural and Indigenous populations.20 It also helped to establish Indigenismo as Peru’s dominant school of art, thereby fostering a national culture in opposition to the colonial culture inherited from Spain.21 As the most popular Latin American journal of its time, it was central in the propagation of an Indigenous and peasant-centered Marxism that would come to characterize socialist movements throughout Latin America.

The works of Mariátegui and Gramsci were instrumental in the development and dissemination of popular subaltern culture. Through dialog and collaboration, Amauta and L’Ordine Nuovo would come to be leading outlets in the education of the masses along explicitly revolutionary lines. In contrast to both anti-intellectualism and elitism, the cultural projects of Mariátegui and Gramsci represent the vanguardist conviction that the masses are capable both of understanding complex or advanced ideas and of developing their own organic culture divorced from the ruling.


  1.  Peter McLaren, “Popular Culture and Pedagogy,” in Rage and Hope: Interviews with Peter McLaren on War, Imperialism, and Critical Pedagogy (New York: Peter Lang, 2006) 213.
  2.  Theodor Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2006).
  3.  McLaren, Rage and Hope, 214.
  4.  Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, ed. David Forgas and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 33.
  5.  Quoted in Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (New York: Schocken 1973), 118.
  6.  John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967), 95.
  7.  Quoted in Antonio A. Santucci, Antonio Gramsci (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 68.
  8.  Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, 139.
  9.  Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, 81.
  10.  Gramsci. Selections from Cultural Writings, 50—51.
  11.  Marc Becker, Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1993).
  12.  David O. Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930), A Source of Peruvian Cultural History,” Revista Interamericana de Bibliografia 29, no. 3—4 (1979): 299.
  13.  José Carlos Mariátegu, “Introducing Amauta,” in “The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism”: Selected Essays of José Carlos Mariátegui, 75—76.
  14.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930),” 293.
  15.  Kildo Adevair dos Santos, Dalila Andrade Oliveira, and Danilo Romeu Streck, “The Journal Amauta (1926—1930): Study of a Latin American Educational Tribune,” Brazilian Journal of History of Education 21, no. 1 (2021).
  16.  Mariátegu, “Introducing Amauta,” 74—75.
  17.  Mike Gonzalez, In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019).
  18.  José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance Sheet,” in José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 128.
  19.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930)”; Jesús Chavarría, José Carlos Mariátegui and the Rise of Modern Peru, 1890—1930(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979).
  20.  Harry E. Vanden, National Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Mariátegui’s Thought and Politics (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1986).
  21.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930),” 295.

About Christian Noakes

Christian Noakes is an associate editor at the journal Peace, Land, and Bread.