A review of the book Alienation Spectacle and Revolution A Critical Marxist Essay by Neil Faulkner.
The flames are licking at the walls of the fortress of the spectacleMichael Löwy, Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situationism, utopia (2009)
Firstly, it is grounded precisely in the present moment, what we used to call the ‘current conjuncture’. This is a moment of profound existential crisis for humanity. There is an ecological catastrophe, driven by accelerating climate change. We have a global pandemic. Finally, despite the unprecedented potential to meet human need, there exists eye-watering inequality, social breakdown and suffering for the overwhelming majority. All of these features of our times are exacerbated by the most rapacious capital accumulation. The interests of transnational capital are protected by the global police state and an increasing movement towards new authoritarianism and totalitarianism. So, whatever else it may say, this book speaks to our times. And it does so with lucidity, with urgency, with impatience!
Secondly, it is no mere contemplative exercise in analysis and theorising about where we are, not at all. Neil powerfully and passionately makes the case for international revolution from below and how that international revolution from below can be made. Neil underlines the point with the famous quote from Goethe, ‘theory is grey and the tree of life is green’…
Thirdly, too rarely do we see works where the Marxist method is integral to what is being presented. Yes, there are plenty of books on Marxist Philosophy, but here, however, the dialectical approach, the process of cognition, of ‘comprehending holistically the fluid, shape-shifting, eternally evolving nature of social reality in all its complexity, its contradictory interconnectedness, its dynamism’ (p23/24) is front and centre and runs like a red thread throughout.
But in the process of cognition, of penetrating from appearance to essence, Neil explains that, ‘(the) world is ‘contradictory unity in motion’ and warns us that in understanding, grasping, it in its totality, ‘the whole ensemble of social relations preclude cognitive grip’. Therefore abstraction and dialectical one-sidedness are ‘inescapable parts of the analytical process’ (p26/27).
Neil’s exposition of alienation and the spectacle in the prologue are not only remarkably clear and cogent but richly layered and sophisticated too. Let me summarise the key points. Marx used the term alienation to describe how, given the reified nature of capitalist social relations, human beings are, ‘alienated from nature, from each other, from the products of their labour, from their species-being’ (p7).
Highlighting the work of Marcuse, Neil goes on to explore the creation of false needs in the post-war consumer society. The production of commodities was now increasingly not about use values to satisfy real needs, but of consumer goods and services. ‘Holidays in the sun’ ‘fostered a world of atomised individual consumption….a retreat into a realm of false consciousness’ (p10). These false needs are the basis for a second layer of alienation.
Turning to the work of Debord, in particular, his ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ (1967), Neil identifies a third layer of alienation. This is one where we are no longer active creators of our world, but have become ‘passive spectators of a constructed world of images….(of) spectacles in the context of growing atomisation, privatisation, and passivity’ (p11). And it’s here that Neil’s conception of ‘the Wall’ comes to the fore, ‘a virtual Wall formed of billions of screens projecting billions of spectacles’ (p11). So we are no longer talking about actual commodities, even those which meet false needs, ‘but of representations of commodities (emphasis JR), as aspirations, hopes, yearnings, neuroses, fantasies are sucked into a vortex of electronic spectacles’ (p12).
This is all superbly summed up by Neil: ‘First we made things. Then we only consumed things. Now we merely observe things. From producer to consumer to spectator: this is the anthropological history of human alienation under the domination of capital’ (p15).
It is, of course, for these reasons that the Situationists did not simply focus on the ownership of the means of production, but explicitly talked about life as a whole, as is wonderfully shown in this famous quote from Raoul Vaneigem:
‘People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth’Raoul Vaneigem , The Revolution of Everyday Life’ 1967
So our revolution must be all-encompassing, passionate, creative, ludic – an outrageous and explosive festival of the oppressed, the ultimate response to the Situationists’ call to, ‘create situations!
I do not have the space to cover the ground here (and understandably neither did Neil in his book!), but we really should situate Debord’s Marxism in relation to Hegel. Debord was a Marxist, but undoubtedly a Hegelian Marxist! Indeed his writing is replete with détourned passages from Hegel and Marx!
I have also not commented here on excellent summaries of revolutionary struggle from the Paris Commune through to the Spanish and Portuguese Revolutions and, more recently, Rojava; the analysis of fascism; the commons, the ‘Rebel City’; and capitalist crisis. Suffice to say, the reader will find all of these sections immensely rewarding!
The problem of substitutionism
I want to briefly take issue with his reference to the ‘destruction of the last vestiges of the Russian revolutionary movement by Stalinist counter-revolution in the winter of 1927/8’ (p82). For a long time, I subscribed to the orthodox Trotskyist position on the USSR – it was a degenerated workers state, to be defended from capitalism and in need of a political revolution to restore Soviet democracy (I understand that Neil holds a State Cap position)”
It seems to me that this is no longer tenable. Samuel Farber’s ‘Before Stalinism: The Rise & Fall of Soviet Democracy’ (1990); Ron Sakolsky’s (Ron is a surrealist comrade) impressive, ‘Dreams of Anarchy& the Anarchy of Dreams (2021); Serge writings on Kronstadt; the important collection edited by Sean Matgamna, ‘The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism Vol 1’ (1998); and many others all powerfully demonstrate that the Bolshevik record, even in the so-called healthy period, was far from revolutionary. To cite but a few examples, one thinks of the suppression of the Factory Committees, the militarisation of labour, the fate of the Trade Unions, the ‘indelible stain’ (Breton) of the crushing of Kronstadt, attacks on left social-revolutionaries, Menshevik Internationalists, left-communists, anarchists and so on! The revolutionary gains of October were, tragically, eradicated far earlier than 1927/28.
Conceptually, a key pillar of this Bolshevik counter-revolution was the notion of substitutionism. In the so-called workers’ state, the working class, already a small minority decimated by imperialist and then civil war could no longer exercise its class rule through soviet power. Instead, the Bolshevik party, the conscious proletarian vanguard, stood in for the class and ruled on its behalf, and the party itself was substituted for with the crystallisation of a new counter-revolutionary state/party bureaucracy. It is this idea of substitutionism which leads to my final comments on Neil’s book – the discussion of revolutionary organisation, autonomism and the vanguard.
Neil sets out his position on, ‘the nature of mass revolutionary movements, and therefore about the nature of revolutionary agency’ (p98) with the utmost clarity. Profoundly democratic, inclusive, active and participative, he argues that the democracy and power of the working class must be centralised to defeat the centralised power of capital and its state. He critiques the autonomist form of organisation as it, ‘eschews centralised organisation and makes a virtue of fragmentation and small group independence and initiative’ (p106). Arguing that it disempowers the mass of protesters. An alternative point of view can be found in the surrealist Ron Sakolsky’s valuable, ‘Dreams of Anarchy and the Anarchy of Dreams’, (2021) which I commend to readers and especially, in relation to this issue, the section, ‘On the Spontaneity of Organisation and the Organisation of Spontaneity’ (p412 – 420).
With a near détournement of Trotsky’s famous opening to the 1938 Transitional Programme Neil writes, ‘The crisis of the early 21st century is the crisis of revolutionary organisation’ (p107). So, as someone once said, ‘What is to be done?’. Indeed! And, in his final chapter, Revolution from Below (p108-120) Neil addresses this.
In describing what is required I find much that I can readily agree with. But I am troubled by the many references to ‘vanguards’, which, for me, is inevitably linked with the Leninist model of the Party and the Toy Town Bolshevism which has sadly characterised much of the Trotskyist experience. I find it troubling precisely because of the argument made above in relation to Stalinism and counter-revolution: it is inherently substitutionist! That said, in a section which begins, ‘The recovery of revolutionary agency will involve a long process of building new class based forms of organisation and resistance’ (p116) examples are given ‘of straws in the wind’ in Spain, Rojava and Sudan which provide instances of, ‘popular power and participatory democracy’ (p118). Examples that are certainly non-Leninist!
And to be fair to Neil, his description of a revolutionary organisation as, ‘broad, inclusive, open, tolerant of difference and debate’ (p119) is one with which I can happily concur. So maybe the problem is mine or one of definition of what we mean by ‘vanguard’. Perhaps the terminology itself is a problem, a word that cannot shed its history? Either way, the question posed – autonomism v.s vanguardism – is the important one and, prompted by writing this review, is one which I acknowledge that, must be resolved, if only for my own clarification!!
And to finish…
But let us draw to a close with a couple of quotes from Debord:
‘Spectacle is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity’, and ‘The spectacle is a social relation between people that is mediated by an accumulation of images that serve to alienate us from a genuinely lived life. The image is thus an historical mutation of the form of commodity fetishism’.
Neil, of course, is absolutely right. We must ‘end the rule of capital…The alternative is barbarism and extinction’ (p120). In June 1935 André Breton, the founder of surrealism, wrote, ‘Transform the world,’ Marx said; ‘change life,’ Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are one for us’ (p241, Manifestoes of Surrealism).
Despite the victories enjoyed by the forces of reaction since then, contemporary capitalism – the Society of the Spectacle, of Miserabilism – which unhappily confronts us each and every day, can and must be overthrown. There is no need for us to see it ‘their way’, with the greatest possible impatience a different world can and must be imagined. Again from Breton:
‘The imaginary is that which tends to become real’André Breton, Once Upon a Time To Come, 1932
I titled this review with a line from a song (and an unlikely Christmas No.1!) from Pink Floyd’s 1979 album ‘The Wall’, Roger Waters’ opera about alienation, so I will finish with another song that seems apt to me, one that joyfully celebrates revolutionary change:
You see things can changePaul Weller, Walls Come Tumbling Down, 1985
Yes and walls can come tumbling down
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