Joan Didion vs. mythic America

The evolution of a literary legend

Biographer Tracy Daugherty tells Salon about Didion’s political transformation during the Reagan era

Joan Didion vs. mythic America: The evolution of a literary legend
(Credit: AP)

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

These were the words Joan Didion famously wrote in her seminal 1968 essay, “The White Album.”

But as the emerging counterculture of the late 1960s gave way to the hedonism of the 1970s — where rising crime rates, violence and the darker side of drug culture began to rear its ugly ahead in American public and private life — Didion pretty quickly began to doubt all the stories she had ever told herself.

If Didion began her career as a journalist who, rather naively, placed her trust in the power of American mythologies — namely, American exceptionalism with the west as the final frontier. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, she began to distrust those fairy-tale fables entirely, searching instead for meaning that was hidden underneath complicated political power games, which increasingly began to resemble a television soap opera rather than an egalitarian democratic process.

As Didion began to write about politics from outside U.S. borders, she started to understand that much of the public rhetoric from American politicians was camouflaged in the cosy language of symbolism, where the cold-hearted reality of murder, bombing and ongoing war — conducted in the name of so-called American freedom — was the very thing that made affluence and prosperity within the United States’ own borders possible.

In her essays especially, Didion works out of a classic European tradition that is highly influenced by Montaigne and others. In this discursive and personal literary style she is able to admit her limitations to readers: attempting to figure out how the society she is living in is constantly evolving. For Didion, honesty, truth, language and authenticity are just as important in making a journalistic piece work successfully as winning an argument is.

In “The Last Love Song,” author Tracy Daugherty gives us a meticulously researched biography of Didion that functions as both an exploration of late 20th century America cultural values, as well as an incredible insight into the life of an extremely talented woman of letters.

Despite attempting to get Didion’s cooperation and approval for the book, Daugherty had to approach his subject in complete isolation. I caught up with the biographer to discuss the paradoxes of Didion’s writing, why she feels so at home in the essay genre and why her journalism is far more compelling than her prose fiction. 

Did Joan Didion believe that language gave her a certain amount of power in life?

Yes. Didion once said the only time in her life when she feels in control is sitting at the typewriter, because then she can control the story. And her language is so tight, powerful and direct that you can see on the page how hard she works to maintain that control. For Didion, whatever happens in life, you can always form it into a narrative which you can control.

Something seemed to change in Joan Didion as a writer during the 1980s: what was it?

She became more politically aware. Earlier on in her career she had been asserting the loss of narrative. By the 1980s, however, Didion believed the collective mythology that many Americans had bought into was a bit of a distraction. And that it doesn’t tell us what is really going on beneath the surface, which is people in political power involved in covert activities.

Didion began to find in her writing a more accurate way to describe the political culture. 

Can you talk about the paradoxes in Didion’s writing? You suggest her real interest is language: its inaccuracies, illusions and the way words imply their opposites? In this sense, was she influenced by the work of Orwell ?

Very much so. That is what is at the heart of Didion’s writing; it’s always about language.

She believes we have to use language that is accurate and true. Otherwise our politics will bamboozle us and get us in deep deep trouble.

Would you agree that the honest nature of Didion’s writing where she seems to admit her limitations as a writer is why readers feel so at home with her work?

I think so. It’s disarming and even charming when she begins by admitting her own confusion, saying, “I don’t know what this is about.” And we get to see the movement of her mind on the page.

This is another attractive quality to her work. She doesn’t begin with a fixed answer and say, “Here is my thesis and I will prove it.” It’s more her saying, “I don’t know what is going on here so let me talk about it for a while and figure it out together.” That really draws readers in.

Also, I don’t see her as a confessional writer. She is certainly confessing on the surface: to her confusion, neurosis and faults. But she withholds as much as she reveals. She is a candid writer, but definitely not a confessional one.

Is this the tradition of the essay, where a writer is allowed to kind of wander off and just think about things, rather than try to provide answers?

Yes, I see Didion in the same tradition as, say, Montaigne, in that essays tends to meander and go off on tangents rather than hammer home a specific argument. Which is not to say that she doesn’t have judgments and ideas that she wants to get across. But she is more interested in exploring the side path. And that draws readers in: allowing us to participate in her thinking process rather than be lectured.

Didion claims that her politics have never changed. Would you agree with this?

It certainly appears at first glance as though she began as a conservative and ended up as a liberal. She claims that actually, she hadn’t changed, but the world changed. In the 1980s what really galvanised her [to move towards a more liberal persuasion] was the rise of Ronald Reagan in California. She had interviewed Nancy Reagan, and knew the Reagans. She thought they were not real conservatives: that they were false and manipulated their image. And that’s why she became politically concious. She was watching the image-making: how politicians manufacture an image of themselves that’s not true to life.

But Didion was part of that world herself. Was there a sense of personal guilt from her side?

I think so. Her critics charge her with living in a world of privilege, and it’s certainly true. That is part of who she is. So she really does know the world she is writing about. For Didion, it’s not so much that she dislikes privilege, it’s that she wants people to be honest and authentic. She bristles at people who try to manufacture a false image.

You write in the book that blind romanticism and political realism are two extremes in Didion’s life. Was it a juxtaposition between these two things that made her work so great?

Well, Didion romanticized where she came from. She also romanticized certain types of people.

It really goes back to this notion of myth-making. And as a young child she really bought into a lot of the American myths. Then during the 1980s, when she began covering the political campaigns for the New York Review of Books, she saw through a lot of the myths, into the realities of how power worked. So she made the shift from being a blind romantic to being a very pragmatic political thinker.

Can you talk about Didion’s relationship with the New York Review of Books, and how it sparked perhaps the most productive phase of her career? What did Robert Silvers, her editor there, intuitively grasp in her as a great writer and social commentator?  

He saw that Didion was not ideological in her writing. And also that she was willing to take an argument and consider it from different points of view. That appealed to him, as did Didion’s desire for authenticity. And whatever a person’s political persuasion was, Didion would always try and hold that person to a principled truth. She would puncture any mythologies that they would try to create. Robert Silvers was probably her most astute editor. And Didion credits him for her political education. Didion always looks for the contradictions and wants to get beneath the spin and beneath the surface. So she says, you look at the official record, and then you start to take it apart. That’s where the story is for her.

It’s almost like deconstruction theory?

Yes. This goes back to her university eduction, which meant reading a book very closely and analyzing it, sentence by sentence. That was the way she learned to read literature. And then she turned around and said: that is the way I read everything. She read journalism, fashion, people’s facial expression, even all of life that way.

Everything for Didion becomes a text, and she analyses it. That’s her way of approaching most stories.

During the 1980s when Didion travelled and reported from outside of America, did her political outlook shift, particularly spending time in Latin America?

Well, her fiction during this period is a good way of getting into her non-fiction, because she starts setting her fiction in hotels. But yeah, she did begin to look at America from a different angle.

She begins to think, once you get outside of these borders, you start to look back at it. Those hotel settings are fascinating because they are very public places, but where intimate activities take place too. This is really the intersection where Didion’s work becomes interesting: where a private life interacts with a public life. And she has become that figure. She is very public but also very private. So those hotels are perfect settings because the public and private overlap.

You seem to imply in this biography that Didion has a kind of distance from grief, after both the death of her husband and her daughter. Why do you think this might be?

Shock was certainly part of what she was experiencing. But it may also go back to this idea that Didion is a candid writer but not a confessional one. She has a reputation of being a confessional writer, but really, she is not. She confesses only what she needs to in order to set up an intellectual argument. In this way, she tends to approach the world intellectually rather than emotionally.

Her first response is to analyze, and not to wallow in the feeling of it. So when she feels grief or shock, she is partially protecting herself by putting on this aloof persona. Her natural inclination is not to say, “What am I feeling?” but instead to say, “What does this mean?” I think she wants to analyze things rather than experience them. 

If we are to rate Didion the novelist vs Didion the social commentator/journalist, what kind of comparisons do you think we can make?

Well, her journalism is her real strength. The fiction is just not as strong as the journalism.

This may be because Didion doesn’t really delve into the emotional lives of her characters so much, so her novels are very much intellectual constructs. And that is appealing to certain readers.

But many other readers want to read a novel so that they can think emotionally into another world. And Didion doesn’t offer that. Her best fiction is a rare thing in American literature, in that it is overtly political — particularly her novels of the 1980s.

For example “Democracy,” which is about the fall of Saigon, and “The Last Thing He Wanted,” which is about the last years of the Iran Contra scandal, are both icy books, emotional speaking. But they are very sharp politically.

The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and their Battle for Freedom, by James Green

Book review

By Tom Mackaman
18 August 2015

The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and their Battle for Freedom, by James Green. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2015. ISBN 978-0-8021-9209-7.

Workers in Appalachia are maligned. The myth has it that for generations, past and to come, they gladly endure poverty in the name of God and country. The history of the class struggle in America shows how false this portrayal is.

Labor historian James Green’s new volume The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and their Battle for Freedom, documents the bloody struggle to establish the United Mine Workers union (UMW) in West Virginia from the 1890s through the 1930s. The book demonstrates the role of socialists in leading the struggle for industrial unionism, and the solidarity among white, black, and immigrant coal miners. It is not Green’s intention, but he also illustrates some of the fatal limitations of trade unionism in workers’ “battle for freedom.”

The book’s most important—and timely—contribution is its revelation of the startling level of violence that characterized class relations in an earlier period. Today, the repeated exoneration of police who brutalize and murder workers should be taken as a warning that the old methods of class rule are being revived.

It is not possible in a short review to convey what took place in West Virginia in the decades of Green’s study, but the book meticulously catalogues dozens and dozens of murders and false imprisonments of miners, instances of the imposition of martial law, as well as numerous examples of miners arming themselves and resisting the repression. It was, in the words of President William Taft, a “state of industrial war.”

Coal mine owners—“operators” they were called— insisted that miners were individuals freely entering into a contract that handed to the employer the right to hire, fire, determine conditions, and set coal tonnage rates. West Virginia miners responded by attempting to build the UMW, which had by the first decade of the 20th century successfully organized the vast bituminous “soft coal” fields stretching from western Pennsylvania to Iowa, and the anthracite “hard coal” mining area of northeastern Pennsylvania. To protect its gains in these regions, the UMW was compelled to organize the southern West Virginia fields and their superabundance of cheap and high-quality bituminous coal.

Kempton, a West Virginia company town.

The operators ran the coalfields like dictatorships, a state of affairs abetted by judges and politicians, who bestowed on them virtually unlimited control of mining towns “owned” by outside capital interests. A mine operator could, Green explains,

[s]ummarily evict families [and] inspect miners’ houses without a warrant… He hired and fired his hands at will. He built the schools and selected the teachers, built the churches and selected the ministers, built the store and selected the store manager. He owned or leased every acre of land… He controlled access to the town and all activity within it, and hit down with a heavy hand on any activity that might menace his business… West Virginia mine managers issued their own private currency, called scrip, redeemable only at the company store.

Green notes that these company towns housed 79 percent of West Virginia coal miners, as opposed to only 24 percent of coal miners in neighboring Ohio. Coal miners who sought to organize faced summary firing, eviction, and beatings and even murder at the hands of private mine guards and Baldwin-Felts “detective” agents.

A Baldwin-Felts Detective

On top of this there was the brutal work itself. Every day underground brought the threat of death or maiming through cave-ins, explosions, and other accidents. For those miners who avoided these, and large-scale disasters like the Monongah explosion of 1907 that killed at least 361 men and boys, there awaited a retirement of chronic pain and ailments including “black lung” or coal pneumoconiosis.

Coffins line the street after the Monogah disaster

It was in response to these conditions that West Virginia coal miners banded together and took up arms. Green documents numerous examples of this, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, in which some 10,000 armed coal miners set out to free miners who had been imprisoned in Mingo County under a martial law decree. The miners were dispersed under attack by the US Air Force, “the first and only time,” Green notes, “American citizens were subjected to aerial bombardment on their own soil.”

Guns seized by National Guard from miners in Paint Creek and Cabin Creek mine war, 1912

A component of the portrayal of Appalachian workers as backwards is the claim that the white workers among them are racist. Yet Green documents many instances of interracial cooperation among coal miners, and there is nothing in the volume to suggest unbridgeable barriers.

There were, first of all, the native West Virginians, who were drawn from the state’s poor rural population and were the grandchildren of the generation that separated from Virginia when it seceded from the Union in 1861 and joined the Confederacy to preserve slavery in the Civil War. There were also a large number of African Americans, drawn out of the Jim Crow South to the state’s mines, many recruited by mine operators hopeful of fomenting racial divisions among the miners. Finally there were eastern and southern European immigrants, especially Italians and Hungarians.

Their shared exploitation fused the miners. Green notes that although coal firms attempted to segregate workers to promote racial divisions, “African Americans, Italians, and Hungarians never lived more than a few hundred yards ‘up the hollow’ from native born whites, with whom they worked every day in close proximity and mutual dependency.”

Three coal miners of the Lorain Coal Dock Company in Lorado, West Virginia in 1918

It is noteworthy that the word “redneck,” a derogatory term usually reserved for poor and rural whites, emerged in the West Virginia mine wars, where it was first used to describe the red bandana worn by armed coal miners to differentiate their own from detectives, mine guards, and strikebreakers. Green further notes, “the fact that many of these workers were socialists probably added meaning to the epithet.”

Green’s focus is not on socialism among the workers, but neither does he elide it. If the volume has protagonists, they are Fred Mooney and Frank Keeney, who rose to be the leading union figures in the southern West Virginia coalfields. Both drawn from rural West Virginia families, for the first decades of their careers they believed that the struggle of the coal miners required a break with both capitalist parties.

Green also notes that Eugene Debs drew large crowds on his campaign visits, and the Socialist Party managed to win some local elections in West Virginia, including in 1912 when its “candidates swept the Cabin Creek district, outpolling the Democrats and Republicans combined.” Mary “Mother” Jones, a socialist and another central figure in the book, earned her moniker “the coal miners’ angel” on her trips to the state. Green alludes to the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) and its revolutionary syndicalism, especially among Italian miners.

Fred Mooney, left, and Frank Keeney

American socialism before WWI was, to be sure, not the socialism of Lenin and Trotsky. It was socially and politically undifferentiated. The Socialist Party was heavily influenced by reformist and middle-class layers, though its healthiest elements were among the industrial working class in the factories, mills, and mines. Here Green’s book adds still more evidence pointing to the immense influence of socialists in the struggle for industrial organization among America’s workers. In West Virginia’s coalmines, just as was the case among the garment workers of New York City and Chicago, it was socialist workers that led in the building of the first unions.

Green has not set out to critically analyze trade unionism, though he does acknowledge the national trend towards the bureaucratization of the unions in the period:

During the early 1900s most American trade unions were democratic institutions governed by officers elected by their fellow workers; but as these unions became formal organizations dedicated to institutionalized bargaining with employers and to the thankless task of “policing” no-strike contracts, a cadre of career-minded officials emerged. Once elected or appointed to office, many ambitious workingmen clung to their positions, isolated their critics and assembled political machines to ensure that they would not have to return to the drudgery of wage labor… In most cases, discontented members could be silenced or co-opted, and internal movements for union democracy could often be Red-baited and defeated.

Here Green is juxtaposing figures like Mooney and Keeney to national bureaucrats such as John Mitchell, a famed early president of the UMW, and John L. Lewis, who consolidated his hold over the union during WWI. Yet in spite of their self-identification as socialists and their militant tactics, both Mooney and Keeney supported American entry into WWI and the de facto no-strike pledge given the Wilson administration by the AFL and its head, Samuel Gompers.

This was no mere personal failing. Mooney and Keeney, in spite of their democratic and socialist sympathies, behaved as nearly all union officials did in WWI, in the US and Europe. They broke with the most basic of socialist principles and fell in line behind their “own” capitalists in the fratricidal conflagration that killed millions.

Acting on behalf of the no-strike pledge and believing that they would be rewarded after the war for their efforts, Mooney and Keeney critically undermined the necessary organization in southern West Virginia at great cost to the UMW and the coal miners.

After the war mine operators refused all concessions—part of a massive antiunion and “open shop” campaign in the wake of the first Red Scare. Mooney and Keeney felt betrayed, Green shows. The union cause for which they had fought was thrown back years, and reaction prevailed in West Virginia as it did throughout the US in the 1920s.

Historians take on risks in choosing when they begin and end their studies. Green sensibly begins his volume in the 1890s, with the rapid growth of West Virginia’s mining industry, its domination by finance capital, and the emergence of class conflict in the coalfields. His choice of an ending, however, serves an interpretive agenda that would be undone had he gone farther. Green’s final chapter deals with the establishment of the UMW in the 1930s after the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In this he would have it that the miners’ “battle for freedom” had finally been won.

The victory of the UMW in southern West Virginia no doubt led to improved conditions and better wages for a time. But it in no way resolved the oppression of the coal miners and the poverty of West Virginia.

The industry’s decline in the wake of World War II accelerated and Appalachia remained one of the regions largely passed over by the limited gains of the long post-World War II boom.

The UMW, which like the rest of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) embraced anticommunism after WWII and subordinated the workers it represented to the Democratic Party, had no answer for the decline of coal. John L. Lewis declared there were “too many mines and too many miners” as the union rejected any call for the nationalization of the industry and accepted Depression-like mass layoffs due to mechanization in the 1950s.

The 1960s and 1970s saw repeated rebellions by the coal miners against Lewis’s successors, culminating in the 110-day strike in 1977-78 when miners defied UMW President Arnold Miller and the Taft Hartley back-to-work order by US President Jimmy Carter.

The 1980s—a decade of union busting and mass layoffs—culminated in the betrayal and defeat of the 1989 Pittston strike in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. The UMW bureaucracy, led then by current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, collaborated with the coal interests and Democratic politicians to isolate and crush the Pittston miners and the tens of thousands of miners who came to their aid in wildcat strikes in defiance of the UMW.

The history of this betrayal and the decades-long degeneration of the UMW leading up to it, is told in the volume Death on the Picket Line: The Story of John McCoy by WSWS writer Jerry White. The defeat of the last major coal strike led to a further attack on miners’ jobs and their conditions, which today increasingly resemble the type of exploitation seen in the first years of the last century. The UMW today is nothing but a hollow shell—which “represents” a mere 20,000 workers in 2014, and few, if any, in its former strongholds of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

What is thus revealed by the long struggle of the West Virginia coal miners—including the history brought forth in The Devil is Here in These Hills, in spite of Green’s own conceptions—is that their “battle for freedom” is not to build trade unions, but for a movement that articulates their class interests, that is, the fight for international socialism.

What is the pseudo-left?


30 July 2015

The events in Greece over the past several months constitute a major strategic experience of the Greek working class and youth that is having a significant impact on political consciousness around the world.

The so-called “Coalition of the Radical Left” (Syriza)—despite its use of radical-sounding phraseology and its nominal opposition to austerity—has capitulated entirely to the European banks and institutions. The Syriza government is now implementing policies that will dramatically increase social inequality and turn Greece into a virtual colony of German and European imperialism.

These developments are a striking confirmation of the analysis made by the WSWS over several years, going back well before Syriza was elected in January of this year. In a resolution adopted at the Socialist Equality Party (US) Congress in July of 2012, for example, it was noted that “as soon as Syriza was faced with the possibility of coming to power, its leader Alexis Tsipras rushed to Germany to assure the banks that his party had no intention of withdrawing from the euro zone. It has sought nothing more radical than the renegotiation of the European banks’ austerity program.”

Throughout the spring of this year, the WSWS organized a series of meetings in which the nature of Syriza was analyzed and warnings were made of its plans to fully accept the austerity demands of the European banks.

In the aftermath of Syriza’s final capitulation, many readers have asked how it is that the WSWS was able to predict so precisely the course of events. This experience is a vindication of the Marxist method, which analyzes political tendencies not on the basis of what they call themselves, but on the basis of their history and program and the social interests they represent.

Over the past several years, the WSWS has developed the conception of an international political tendency that we have described as “pseudo-left,” of which Syriza is only one example.

We would like to call our readers’ attention to the analysis made by WSWS International Editorial Board Chairman David North in the Foreword of his newly-released book, The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique. North includes a concise and more detailed “working definition” of the “pseudo-left” that will help provide an orientation in the struggle against the influence of these reactionary movements. He writes:

* The pseudo-left denotes political parties, organizations and theoretical/ideological tendencies which utilize populist slogans and democratic phrases to promote the socioeconomic interests of privileged and affluent strata of the middle class. Examples of such parties and tendencies include Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany, and numerous offshoots of ex-Trotskyist (i.e., Pabloite) and state capitalist organizations such as the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in France, the NSSP in Sri Lanka and the International Socialist Organization in the United States. This list could include the remnants and descendants of the “Occupy” movements influenced by anarchist and post-anarchist tendencies. Given the wide variety of petty-bourgeois pseudo-left organizations throughout the world, this is by no means a comprehensive list.

* The pseudo-left is anti-Marxist. It rejects historical materialism, embracing instead various forms of subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism associated with existentialism, the Frankfurt School and contemporary postmodernism.

* The pseudo-left is anti-socialist, opposes class struggle, and denies the central role of the working class and the necessity of revolution in the progressive transformation of society. It counterposes supra-class populism to the independent political organization and mass mobilization of the working class against the capitalist system. The economic program of the pseudo-left is, in its essentials, pro-capitalist and nationalistic.

* The pseudo-left promotes “identity politics,” fixating on issues related to nationality, ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality in order to acquire greater influence in corporations, the colleges and universities, the higher-paying professions, the trade unions and in government and state institutions, to effect a more favorable distribution of wealth among the richest 10 percent of the population. The pseudo-left seeks greater access to, rather than the destruction of, social privilege.

* In the imperialist centers of North America, Western Europe and Australasia, the pseudo-left is generally pro-imperialist, and utilizes the slogans of “human rights” to legitimize, and even directly support, neo-colonialist military operations.

North concludes the Foreword to his new book by noting, “The analysis and exposure of the class basis, retrograde theoretical conceptions and reactionary politics of the pseudo-left are especially critical tasks confronting the Trotskyist movement in its struggle to educate the working class, free it from the influence of the petty-bourgeois movements, and establish its political independence as the central progressive and revolutionary force within modern capitalist society.”

The publication of the Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique marks a significant step toward this goal, and the volume will serve as a valuable aid in the coming struggles of the working class.

The WSWS Editorial Board

Post Capitalism


Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.

Samuel Kassow’s “Who Will Write Our History?”

By Clara Weiss
25 July 2015

Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto, by Samuel Kassow, Indiana University Press 2009, 523 pages.

It is rather unusual for a book to be reviewed several years after its first appearance. However, Samuel Kassow’s Who Will Write Our History?, which first appeared in 2007, is a major work of historical scholarship that should be welcomed by readers of the WSWS. Kassow’s history of the Oyneg Shabes underground archive in the Warsaw Ghetto combines remarkable objectivity with a deep compassion for the tragic fate of Warsaw’s Jewry during World War II.

“Who will write our history”, © Indiana University Press

The Oyneg Shabes [Joyful Sabbath] was the largest underground archive in Nazi-occupied Poland. It was set up by a group of Jewish teachers, writers, rabbis and historians under the guidance of the Jewish-Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum. Between the beginning of the war and the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, the Oyneg Shabes collected thousands of documents on the Nazi persecution of Polish Jewry. It gathered diaries and essays, conducted thousands of interviews with prisoners of the ghetto and collected several surveys about the composition of the ghetto population. Of the three hidden caches of the archive, only two could be found after the war.

Nevertheless, the 6,000 documents (comprising between 25,000 and 30,000 pieces of paper) to this day remain the single most important documentary basis for any historical study of the annihilation of Polish Jewry. As of yet, very little of it has been published, and most of it only in Hebrew, Polish or Yiddish.

Hersh and Bluma Wasser, surviving members of Oyneg Shabes, with a portion of the secret archive © The Ghetto Fighters Museum Israel

In Who Will Write Our History?, Samuel Kassow, professor of history at Trinity College, Connecticut, presents not only the history of the archive and some of its key documents, but also tries to outline the cultural climate and political convictions of the pre-war period that underlay the heroic efforts of the Oyneg Shabes during the war.

Ringelblum and the Left Poalei Tsiyon

Emanuel Ringelblum was born in 1900 to an impoverished Jewish family in the Galician town of Buchach, then part of the Habsburg Empire (today it forms part of Ukraine). Since Jews in Galicia, unlike in the Russian Empire, enjoyed access to higher education (they were restrained only by their financial means), Galicia was home to a relatively well-educated Jewish intelligentsia that was at the same time fervently nationalistic. After the foundation of the Second Polish Republic, Ringelblum left Galicia for the new Polish capital, Warsaw, to study history.

Emanuel Ringelblum

The Warsaw of the 1920s was a politically tumultuous city and home to Europe’s largest Jewish community. Here, Ringelblum emerged as an important figure of working class politics and historiography in inter-war Poland. In a detailed, objective and complex chapter, Kassow describes the left-wing Jewish politics that shaped Ringelblum’s outlook as a historian.

With its large Jewish population—which included not only the most oppressed layers of the working class, but also many different petty-bourgeois layers—Poland became the center of a variety of Jewish political organizations.

Next to the Bund, which split from both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903, the most significant Jewish organization was the Poalei Tsiyon. The party was founded in the early 1900s. Its chief ideological influence was the Labor Zionist Ber Borochov. Attacking the Bolsheviks’ position on the Jewish question, Borochov argued that the Jewish proletariat needed its own nation-state in order both to conduct the class struggle against the bourgeoisie and to fight national oppression.

After the seizure of power by the working class in October 1917, the Bolshevik government for the first time granted full civil rights to a substantial part of Eastern European Jewry. (See also: Anti-Semitism and the Russian Revolution). In response to these developments, the Poalei Tsiyon split into a left and a right wing in 1920. (Borochov himself had turned against the revolution before his early death in December 1917.) The right wing opposed the Revolution and was oriented toward gathering support from British imperialism for the foundation of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. In Palestine, the Right Poalei Tsiyon became the basis for David Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut HaAvoda (Labor Unity), the predecessor of the Israeli Labor Party, which played a major role in the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

By contrast, the Left Poalei Tsiyon (LPZ), whose own members in Russia supported the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, defended the Soviet Union and advocated world revolution. The LPZ’s claim to admission to the Third International (Comintern) was rejected by Lenin, however, as the party refused to break with the ideology of Ber Borochov. The Left Poalei Tsiyon continued to support the foundation of a Jewish nation state in Palestine, albeit on a “socialist basis.” Central to the organization’s political and cultural work was its emphasis on the significance of Yiddish culture, based on the language of the impoverished Jewish masses of Eastern Europe.

Overall, the LPZ stood significantly to the left of the better known and larger Bund, which opposed the seizure of power by the working class in 1917 and continued to work within the Second International. Many members of the LPZ and its youth organization, Yugnt (Youth), defected to the Communist Party of Poland in the late 1920s and early 30s, and both organizations often worked together closely.

Given the extraordinary impoverishment of substantial sections of Jewish workers and intellectuals and the growing anti-Semitism under the regime of Józef Piłsudski in Poland, both left-wing organizations enjoyed significant support. The Bund and the LPZ oversaw impressive networks of newspapers, ran their own schools and were active in numerous self-help organizations and trade unions. As Kassow points out:

For a young person who lived in a cellar in Lodz’s impoverished Balut or Warsaw’s Smocza Street, groups like the Bund and the LPZ were far more than mere political parties. They represented a road to self-respect and human dignity, a way to strive for ‘something better.’ (p. 35)

However, the LPZ politically did not survive the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Kassow only hints at the impact of the changing nationality policies in the Soviet Union; the Moscow Trials; the murder by Moscow of the entire leadership and most of the membership of the Polish Communist Party, whom Stalin suspected of sympathizing with his main political opponent, Leon Trotsky; and then the dissolution of the Polish Communist Party by Stalin in 1938. One could add to this list the anti-Semitism that was used by the Stalinist bureaucracy in its struggle against the Left Opposition from the mid-1920s onward. Facing a deep political and financial crisis that began in the early 1930s, the LPZ rejoined the World Zionist Congress in 1937, on the eve of World War II.

Ringelblum became a member of the Poalei Tsiyon shortly before the party split, and then joined the left faction. He remained within the party until the end of his life. During the 1920s and 30s, Ringelblum played a leading role in the party’s youth organization, Yugnt, and focused much of his work on the education of poor Jewish youth in the LPZ’s Ovnt kursn far arbiter (Evening classes for workers).

As Warsaw was gradually replacing St. Petersburg as the center of Eastern European Jewish scholarship, Ringelblum, along with historians such as Isaac Schiper and Bela Mandelsberg, founded the Yunger Historiker Krayz (Young Historians’ Circle). Influenced by both Marxism and Zionism, these historians emphasized that historical research was a weapon in the national struggle for emancipation of the Jewish people and for combatting the growing anti-Semitism in inter-war Poland.

Emanuel Ringelblum with his son Uri in the 1930s, © Yad Vashem

Ringelblum stressed the significance of zamling (collecting material). In his opinion, the study of history had to be a collective project, engaging as many people as possible. In fact, the Jewish historians were so poor and politically isolated that they relied to a great extent on the Polish-Jewish community in order to continue their work. Ringelblum also worked as a community organizer in collaboration with the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization headquartered in the United States, trying to help impoverished Polish Jews who came under increasing political and economic pressure during the 1930s.

The Oyneg Shabes in the Warsaw Ghetto

Ringelblum’s convictions as a politician and a historian underlay much of his work during the war, when Poland, with its Jewish population of over 3 million, became the main site of the annihilation of European Jewry.

In November 1940, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of its kind in Eastern Europe. Over 400,000 people (around 30 percent of the city’s population) were crowded into just 1.3 square miles (2.4 percent of the city of Warsaw). The meager food rations (184 calories per day) forced the great majority of the population to starve. Typhus and other diseases spread under conditions of extreme overcrowding and a lack of hygienic facilities. An estimated 80 percent of the many children in the ghetto were poor. By July 1942, before the beginning of the Great Deportation, around 100,000 people had died of hunger and disease.

To ameliorate the deplorable conditions and poverty, numerous political and social activists founded the so-called Aleynhilf (Self-Help). The different political parties that supported the Aleynhilf set up their own soup kitchens, many of which became sites of the ghetto’s underground press. The Aleynhilfsoon also came to play a major role in the house committees that had initially been formed spontaneously. Ringelblum was a leading figure in the Aleynhilfand, under the cover of the self-help organization, established the Oyneg Shabes in early 1941. (The term Oyneg Shabes means Joyful Sabbath in old Hebrew; the name signifies that in the beginning, the staff always met on the Sabbath.)

The Oyneg Shabes consisted of some 60 members with very different professional, political and personal backgrounds. Kassow introduces some of the outstanding representatives of the Oyneg Shabes in brief biographical sketches. They included the important Yiddish writer Gustawa Jarecka (1908–1943); the teacher Abrahm Lewin (1893–1943), like Ringelblum a member of the LPZ; the businessman and Yiddishist Shmuel Winter (1891–1943); Yitzhak Giterman (1889–1943), a left-wing Zionist and head of the Joint Distribution Committee in Poland; the writer and journalist Peretz Opoczynski (d. 1942); as well as the economists Menakhem Linder (1911–1942) and Jerzy Winkler (d. 1942). Only three members of the Oyneg Shabes were to survive the war.

In late 1942, Ringelblum wrote about the staff of the Oyneg Shabes:

Each member of the Oyneg Shabes knew that his effort and pain, his hard work and toil, his taking constant risks with the dangerous work of moving material from one place to another—that this was done in the name of a high ideal.… The Oyneg Shabes was a brotherhood, an order of brothers who wrote on their flag: readiness to sacrifice, mutual loyalty, and service to [Jewish society]. (quoted, p. 145)

Abraham Lewin with his daughter Ora before the war. Both were murdered in early 1943, © Yad Vashem

The staff of the archive collected thousands of documents about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Striving to present as complete a picture of Jewish society in the Ghetto as possible, they investigated, among other things, the role of smuggling for the economy of the ghetto and of Poland. They also organized essay contests to gather material about the destruction of shtetls (traditional small Jewish villages) by the Nazis and on Polish-Jewish relations during the war.

The economist Menakhem Mendel Kon (1881–1943), also a member of the archive, wrote:

I consider it a sacred duty for everyone, whether proficient or not, to write down everything he has seen or heard from others about what the Germans have done.… It must all be recorded without a single fact left out. And when the time comes—as it surely will—let the world read and know what the murderers have done. When the mourners write about this time, this will be their most important material. When those who will avenge us will come to settle accounts, they will be able to rely on [our writings]. (quoted, p. 154)

Another major motif for the work of the archive was to preserve documents of Jewish life and resistance, and the legacy of the Jewish intellectual elite. As Kassow notes:

Only twenty-five years separated the birth of modern secular school systems in Hebrew and Yiddish from the Nazi onslaught. Yet this short period had produced a new intelligentsia of East European Jewish writers, teachers, economists, and journalists—an intelligentsia cut down so quickly, exterminated so totally, that Ringelblum feared that it would be totally forgotten. (p. 366)

Basing himself on the work of the Oyneg Shabes, Kassow paints a complex picture of Ghetto society with its massive social inequality and different political tendencies. He analyzes different positions on the Judenrat (Jewish Councils), as well as the behavior of the Jewish policemen and the population’s attitude toward them.

Kassow also describes the different moods within the ghetto’s population by providing numerous quotations from diaries and other testimonies. Witnessing the stunning brutality and barbarity of the Nazis—whom Abraham Lewin aptly called “twentieth century Huns”—many inhabitants of the Ghetto became deeply demoralized and pessimistic. In light of this unprecedented break-down of civilization, they started questioning the viability of the values and convictions of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

Ringelblum, too, struggled not to succumb to despair. Like many, failing to understand the impact of Stalinism in the 1920s and 30s, he struggled to comprehend the total collapse of the German working class in the 1930s. However, despite relapses into despair, Ringelblum until the end retained faith in the world revolution and human progress. In a conversation with Hersh Wasser, one of the three survivors of the archive’s staff, Ringelblum stated:

I do not see our work as a separate project, as something that includes only Jews, that is only about Jews, and that will interest only Jews. My whole being rebels against that. I cannot agree with such an approach, as a Jew, as a socialist, or as a historian. Given the daunting complexity of social processes, where everything is interdependent, it would make no sense to see ourselves in isolation. Jewish suffering and Jewish liberation and redemption are part and parcel of the general calamity [umglik] and the universal drive to throw off the hated [Nazi] yoke. We have to regard ourselves as participants in a universal [almenshlekher] attempt to construct a solid structure of objective documentation that will work for the good of mankind. Let us hope that the bricks and cement of our experience and our understanding will be able to provide a foundation. (quoted p. 387)

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Nazi regime escalated its anti-Jewish policies throughout Eastern Europe. In early 1942, the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Łódz Ghetto to the death facility Chełmno. Soon, major deportations started in Kraków. Shtetl after shtetl was wiped out and its population murdered. The scale of the Nazi murder of Jews was difficult to comprehend even for Ringelblum, who had access to much information from all across Europe.

On the basis of material forwarded to the Polish underground by the Oyneg Shabes, the BBC broadcasted in late May 1942 one of the first major news accounts of the evolving genocide. Soon thereafter, on July 22, 1942, the Great Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began. Within months, most of the ghetto’s population was rounded up, brought to the notoriousUmschlagplatz and deported to Treblinka, where they were all gassed. The Oyneg Shabes analyzed the impact of the Great Deportation in a break-down of the ghetto’s population by sex and age from November 1942. It found that 99 percent of the children between the ages of one and nine and almost 88 percent of the population over 50 had been murdered. Before the deportation there had been 51,458 children. By November 1942 there were only 498. In total, an estimated 265,000 Warsaw Jews were murdered between July 22 and September 21, 1942.

Warsaw Jews at the Umschlagplatz during the Great Deportation, © Yad Vashem

The archival material hitherto collected was buried in three milk cans in the first weeks of the Great Deportation. Several staff members, including Abraham Lewin and Peretz Opoczynski, nevertheless continued writing their diaries, even as their own families were at least in part sent to their death in Treblinka.

After the deportations, the mood within the ghetto changed dramatically. With almost everyone having lost much of their family, there were not only marked signs of social disintegration but also an increasing determination to offer resistance to the Nazi murderers. Many of the Oyneg Shabes members were involved in the preparations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April-May 1943. In its Polish and Yiddish bulletins (Wiadomości and Miteylungen) the Oyneg Shabes warned Polish Jewry about its impending annihilation, calling upon the Jews to fight against the occupiers.

In response to the uprising, which was spearheaded by 200 youths, the Nazis set the ghetto on fire and razed it to the ground. Ringelblum and his family managed to escape before the destruction of the ghetto and eventually found refuge in a bunker (Krysia), where a Polish professor Wolski hid them along with over 30 other Jews. In March of 1944, the hide-out was discovered by the Germans (presumably because Wolski’s girlfriend betrayed him). Wolski himself and several of his family members were shot. Ringelblum was most likely tortured by the Gestapo and then taken to the ruins of the Ghetto with his family and other prisoners. When offered a way out of Poland by the Yiddish writer Yekhiel Hirschhaut without his son and wife, he refused. A few days later, Ringelblum was shot together with his family, Hirschhaut and all other prisoners in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto.

A patrol of SS men during the uprising marching through the burning Ghetto

Even in the last months of his life, Ringelblum continued his work. Kassow highlights the enormous achievement of Ringelblum’s essay on Polish-Jewish relations. Although written under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, the essay is impressively objective—Ringelblum’s credo was to write “sine ira et studio” (without hate and zealousness)—and remains one of the most important works on this subject. It tackles questions such as the anti-Jewish pogroms by sections of the Polish population that were not to be raised by historians after 1945 for many decades.

Samuel Kassow deserves great credit for bringing the history of the Oyneg Shabes and several of its towering figures to the attention of a broader, international audience. Meticulously researched and consistently objective in its account, Who Will Write Our History? is an important scholarly achievement.

One of its chief merits consists in the detailed description of the political and intellectual culture in pre-war Poland that shaped Ringelblum’s concern for historical truth. In contrast to the embittered anti-Communism among historians of 20th century Poland in particular, Kassow takes a serious and objective approach toward the politics and ideology of the Left Poalei Tsiyon and its members. If anything, one might object that Kassow’s account puts too little emphasis on the devastating impact of Stalinism on the labor movement in Poland.

While Kassow himself clearly sees Ringelblum’s orientation toward Marxism to be his greatest weakness as a historian, this book shows that it was largely the impact of Marxism and the Russian Revolution that inspired the impressive objectivity, honesty and also the optimism which marked Ringelblum’s work.

That it took more than six decades for the first comprehensive history of the Oyneg Shabes to be written and published says a lot about the political and intellectual climate following the re-stabilization of capitalism after the defeat of the German Reich in 1945. (One might also mention that, to this day, little original research into the Holocaust in Poland has been put forward by non-Jewish German historians.) Emanuel Ringelblum, in particular, has gained far too little attention from scholars and among a broader readership, both in Poland and internationally.

Upon its publication in 2007, the book met with well-deserved critical acclaim. Indiana University Press and its main editor, Janet Rabinowitch, are to be credited with producing a meticulously edited work. By now, it has been translated into several languages, including German and French. Moreover, a film based on the book is currently being planned. The volume’s success shows that the subject matter and the manner of its presentation are striking a deep chord.

Who Will Write Our History? stands out all the more in an ideological climate where, under the impact of post-modernism, the rejection of historical truth and the study of history as a science are all too prevalent.

Asked about the main message of his work, Samuel Kassow stated in a radio interview from 2009:

I think the legacy [of the Oyneg Shabes and Ringelblum] is that in times of disaster one can resist not only with guns but also with paper and with pen. Ringelblum and many other Jews understood that if the Germans would win the war, they would determine how the Jews would be remembered, that they would control the sources, they would control the memory and the image. Jews in the Ghetto, historians in the Ghetto, even if they understood that they would probably not survive … still believed it was important to leave time capsules, to leave sources, so that posterity would remember Polish Jewry, its last chapter, on the basis of Jewish sources. The real message is that history is important. It’s important to conserve documents, it’s important to conserve a record. It’s not just for antiquarians, it’s not just for librarians, but it’s really about the future of an entire people. And on a more general level, it instills a healthy respect for preserving the sense of the past.

It speaks to the great legacy of the Oyneg Shabes that, on the basis of their work, Kassow was able to bring to life in his book political and intellectual traditions and figures that fascism sought to obliterate. On many levels, Who Will Write Our History? is one of the most significant history books of recent years and deserves the broadest possible readership.

An introduction into some of the material from Oyneg Shabes is provided online by Yad Vashem.

Works by Emanuel Ringelblum published in English:

Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, Ibooks 2006.
Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War, Northwestern University Press 1992.

The diary by the Oyneg Shabes member Abraham Lewin, covering the months April 1942 to January 1943, is also available in English:

A Cup of Tears. A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto, ed. by Antony Polonsky, Basic Backwell 1989.


False Flag Change: History, the Confederate Flag, Obama and the Deeper American Racism


As the reigning corporate United States media and politics culture responds to a terrible racist atrocity by questioning the political correctness of the Confederate Flag and logo across the South, it is a good time to reflect on the different levels at which race and racism operate in post-Civil Rights America. One level appears at the nation’s discursive and symbolic surface. It is about language, imagery, personnel, and representation. It has a lot to do with the color of faces in high and/or publically viewed places and positions.

Recent calls and acts to remove the Confederate Flag and emblem from public and commercial spaces in the U.S. South are excellent examples of race running at this surface level. The flag and logo have long been seen by many Americans, including now (in the wake of the Confederate symbol-waring Dylan Roof’s murder of nine Black parishioners in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina) the nation’s first technically Black president, as too undeniably connected to slavery and Jim Crow oppression to keep a respectable place in mainstream U.S. culture.

The Deeper Racism Lives On

A different level of race and racism has to do with how the nation’s daily capitalist institutions, social structures, and ideologies function. Here we are talking about how labor markets, the financial sector, the real estate industry, the educational system, the criminal justice complex, the military state, the corporate system, and capitalism more broadly capitalism work to deepen, maintain, and/or reduce racial oppression and inequality.

At the first, surface and symbolic level, racism has experienced significant defeats in the United States since the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the middle and late 1950s. Public bigotry has been largely defeated in the nation’s corporate-crafted public culture. Prejudiced whites face public humiliation when they voice openly racist sentiments in a nation that took “Whites Only” signs down half a century ago. Favorably presented Black faces are visible in high and highly public places across the national media and political landscape. The United States, the land of slavery, put a Black family in the White House six years and eight months ago. The new attack on the Confederate Flag is another moment in this long Civil Rights revolution over public-symbolic racism.

At the deeper, more covert institutional and societal level, however, racism is alive and well. It has not been liquidated beneath the public and representational surface – not by a long shot. It involves the more impersonal and (to be fair) the more invisible operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce Black disadvantage in the labor market and numerous other sectors of American life. These processes are so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional sinews of capitalist America that they are taken for granted – barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. This deeper racism includes widely documented racial bias in real estate sales and rental and home lending; the funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth; the excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian “drill” and grill curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black public schools; the concentration of black children into over-crowded and hyper-segregated ghetto schools where a highly disproportionate share of the kids are deeply poor; rampant and widely documented racial discrimination in hiring and promotion; the racist “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of racially hyper-disparate mass black incarceration and criminal marking. The technically color-blind stigma of a felony record is “the New N word” for millions of Black Americans subject to numerous “new Jim Crow” barriers to employment, housing, educational and other opportunities.

A Card Table Analogy

A critical and underestimated part of the grave societal racism that lives on beneath the selection of a Black Supreme Court Justice or a Black Secretary of State, the election of a Black U.S. President, or the taking down of the Confederate Flag from a Southern state capitol is the steadfast refusal of the white majority nation to acknowledge that the long (multi-century) history of Black chattel slavery – the vicious racist and torture system the Confederacy arose to defend and that the Confederate Flag celebrates – and its Jim Crow aftermath are intimately related to the nation’s stark racial disparities (see below) today. The refusal stands in cold denial of basic historical reality. Consider the following analogy advanced by the Black American political scientist Roy L. Brooks nearly two decades ago:

“Two persons – one white and the other black – are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player – the white one – has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: ‘from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.’ Hopeful but suspicious, the black player responds, ‘that’s great. I’ve been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you have stacked up on your side of the table all these years?’ ‘Well,’ said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, ‘they are going to stay right here, of course.’ ‘That’s unfair,’ snaps the black player. ‘The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where’s the equality in that?’ ‘But you can’t realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone,’ insists the white player. ‘And surely,’ he continues, ‘redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!’ Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, ‘but the innocents will reap a racial windfall.’”

Seen against the backdrop of Brooks’ living “racial windfall,” there is something significantly racist about the widespread mainstream “post-racial” white assumption that the white majority United States owes Black American nothing really in the way of special, ongoing reparation for the steep and singular Black disadvantages that have resulted from centuries of overt, explicitly racist, and truly brutal oppression and exploitation.

Forget for a moment that American capitalism is still permeated with institutional and societal (and still no tiny degree of cultural) racism. Put aside the basic and important fact that the game is not being played fairly, with genuinely color-blind, “post-racial” rules. As Brooks’ card table metaphor reminds us, even if U.S. capitalism was being conducted without racial discrimination (as both players in Brooks’ analogy seem to falsely assume), there would still be the question of “all those poker chips” that whites – yes, rich whites in particular – have “stacked up on [their] side of the table all these years.”

Brooks’ surplus “chips” are not quaintly irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” They are living, accumulated weapons of racial inequality in the present and future. As anyone who studies capitalism in a smart and honest way knows, what economic actors get from the present and future so-called “free market” is very much about what and how much they bring to that market from the past. And what whites and blacks bring from the living past to the supposedly “color-blind” and “equal opportunity” market of the post-Civil Rights era (wherein the dominant neoliberal authorities and ideology purport to have gone beyond “considerations of race”) is still and quite naturally and significantly shaped by not-so “ancient” decades and centuries of explicit racial oppression.

Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, the very distinction between past and present racism ought to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy.

Priceless: The Half Barely Told

There’s no way to put a precise dollar amount on the value added to American capitalism by the Black human beings who provided the critical human raw material for the giant whipping machine that was British North American and US chattel slavery. Their blood-drenched contribution was, to quote the old MasterCard commercial, priceless. As the historian Edward Baptist has suggested in his brilliant volumeThe Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014), Americans’ tendency to see slavery as a quaint and archaic “pre-modern institution” that had nothing to do with the United States’ rise to wealth and power is deeply mistaken. Contrary to what many abolitionists thought in the 19th century, the savagery and torture perpetrated against slaves in the South was about much more than sadism and psychopathy on the part of slave traders, owners, and drivers.  Slavery, Baptist demonstrates was an incredibly cost-efficient method for extracting surplus value from human beings, far superior in that regard to “free” (wage) labor in the onerous work of planting, tending, and harvesting cotton. It was an especially brutal form of capitalism, driven by ruthless yet economically “rational” torture along with a dehumanizing ideology of racism.

It wasn’t just the South, home to the four wealthiest US states on the eve of the Civil War, where investors profited handsomely from the forced cotton labor of Black slaves. By the 1840s, Baptist shows, the “free labor North” had “built a complex industrialized economy on the backs of enslaved people and their highly profitable cotton labor.”  Cotton picked by southern slaves provided the critical cheap raw material for early Northern industrialization and the formation of a new Northern wage-earning populace with money to purchase new and basic commodities. At the same time, the rapidly expanding slavery frontier provided a major market for early Northern manufactured goods: clothes, hats, cotton collection bags, axes, shoes, and much more. Numerous infant industries, technologies and markets spun off from the textile-based industrial revolution in the North.  Along the way, shipment of cotton to England (the world’s leading industrial power) produced fortunes for Northern merchants and innovative new financial instruments and methods were developed to provide capital for, and speculate on, the slavery-based cotton boom. All told, Baptist calculates, by 1836 nearly half the nation’s economy activity derived directly and indirectly from the roughly 1 million Black slaves (just 6 percent of the national population)  who toiled on the nation’ southern cotton frontier.

Geographical section aside, The Half Has Never Been Told shows that “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich” decades before the Civil War. The US owes much of its wealth and treasure precisely to the super-exploited labor of Black chattel in the 19th century. Capitalist cotton slavery was how United States seized control of the lucrative the world market for cotton, the critical raw material for the Industrial Revolution, emerging thereby as a rich and influential nation in the world capitalist system by the second third of the 19th century:

“From 1783, at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation…white enslavers were able to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key material during the first century of the industrial revolution.  The returns from cotton monopolypowered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization.” (emphasis added)

After short-lived and half-hearted reformist and democratic experiments under northern Union Army occupation during the Reconstruction era (1866-1877), Black cotton servitude was resurrected across what became known as the Jim Crow South. The last thing that Black ex-slaves wanted to do after slavery was go back to work under white rule in Southern cotton fields. But, as the historical sociologist Stephen Steinberg noted thirty-four years ago,

“Though the Civil War had ended slavery, the underlying economic functions that slavery had served were unchanged, and a surrogate system of compulsory paid labor developed in its place…ex-slaves…were forced to struggle for survival as wage laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers in southern agriculture. Once again, black paid the price and carried the burden of the nation’s need for cheap and abundant cotton.” Untold thousands of Black Americans died at the hands of white terrorists and authorities, both private and public, to keep Black lives yoked to cotton toiling for a pittance or worse under white owners during the long Jim Crow era – this for the sake of national U.S. capitalism, not just regional exploiters. With all due respect to that great Canadian Neil Young, it was never just about “Southern [white] Man.”

Speaking of Symbols…

Perhaps people who care about racial justice should talk about down the United States Flag as well as the Confederate one. As the Black historian Gerald Horne has shown in his provocative book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States (NYU Press, 2014), the nation that invented the Star Spangled Banner (SSB) broke off from England largely because of its propertied elite’s reasonable fear that North American Black chattel slavery could not survive and expand under the continued rule of the British Empire. The Declaration of Independence contained no criticism of North American slavery (though it did accuse King George of “excit[ing] domestic insurrections amongst us”). The U.S. Constitution sanctioned and defended the vicious institution of slavery. Exactly 76 years after U.S. independence was declared and 9 years before the Confederate Flag was first flown, the great Black escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass reflected on “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”As Douglass answered in the shadow of the SSB:

“a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Reading Douglass’s famous and bitter oration again as I do each year on July 4th, I was reminded of Patrick Campbell’s painting New Age of Slavery, which was inspired by the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and went viral last December:


Thin also of the millions of Native Americans and persons abroad who have died and suffered subjugation under the “hollow mockery” of the SSB.

At the same time, if the Confederate Flag is going to come down, should Confederate names and symbols perhaps also disappear from other public spaces in the region? As the New York Times noted recently, “Black people across the South live on streets named for heroes of the side of the Civil War that opposed the end to slavery.” The region is rife with Confederate war memorials, along with numerous public and private buildings, parks, and other places bear the names of former rich slave-owners and Confederates. What about the offensive presence of that vicious Indian-killer and southern slaver Andrew Jackson on the U.S. $20 bill, or for that matter the wealthy slave-owner George Washington on the $1 bill and the liberal slave-owner Thomas Jefferson (the great revolutionary who worried about “domestic insurrections” in North America) on the $5 bill?

“History Belongs in a Museum”

Symbols aside, Baptist’s book and other recent volumes documenting the centrality of cotton slavery to the United States’ emergence as a powerful player in the world system raise the question of what Black America is owed today for the richly capitalist crime of slavery. What sort and amount of reparations are due in light of the fact that the United States owes its rise to wealth and power to Black slaves who suffered unimaginable misery and ordeal under the torments of cotton slavery between the American Revolution and the American Civil War?

As Baptist muses with irony, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of citizens, one must merely offer them the title of citizen – even elect one of them president – to make amends.  Then the issue will be put to rest forever.” If we look honestly at the scale and (more importantly) the pivotal historical significance of the wealth stolen from African Americans, we are talking about reparations and that is something that America appears to be institutionally and ideologically incapable of addressing in a forthright and substantive way. We raise the question of reparations – yes, the “R word” that can’t be uttered in polite “post-racial” company.

Take down the Confederate Flag? “Fine. Should have been long ago.” Deal truthfully and significantly with – and advance compensation for – the profits made, the crimes committed, and the long and living price imposed on Black Americans by the multiple-centuries system of Black chattel slavery that the Confederacy fought to defend and indefinitely prolong? “Forget it. Get real. Get over it. Move on. Nothing more to see here. Put the flag in a closet and stop whining.”

Driving in my car a couple weeks ago I heard some white authority in Charleston say (in a very deep South Carolina accent) that the flag should come down because it’s a piece of “history and there’s a place for history, History belongs in the museum.” For some folks, taking down the Confederate Flag is a way of pushing Slavery and Jim Crow yet further down Orwerll’s memory hole. And for many liberals, it’s an all-too welcome diversion from taking on the killer racist police and mass incarceration state.couple of weeks ago I heard some older white authority figure (I did not catch his name or title) in Charleston say (in a deep South Carolina) accent that the Confederate banner should come down because “it’s a piece of history and there’s a place for history. History,” the elite Caucasian intoned, “belongs in the museum.”

For some right-wing folks, taking down the Confederate Flag is a way of pushing the all-too living historical relevance of slavery and Jim Crow further down Orwell’s memory hole. That history is too transparently related to contemporary racial oppression in a time when Black Americans are locked up en masse and murdered by police on an all too regular basis.

For many milquetoast liberal and progressive civil rights sorts (including Black middle- and upper-class Urban Leaguers and NAACP members), it should be added, the flag issue is an all-too safe and welcome diversion from the difficult grassroots struggle and work required to take down the contemporary racist police, apartheid, and mass incarceration state – living and substantive legacies of chattel slavery.

Symbolic Change, Cloaking, and White Self-Congratulation

It is tempting, perhaps, to see contemporary America’s split race decision – progressive victory on the surface level of race and continuing defeat on the deeper societal, institutional, and historical level of race – as a case of glass half-empty versus glass half-full. “Let’s celebrate the victory on Level 1 racism and build on that triumph to move forward against Level 2 racism”… right? Not so fast. It’s more complicated than that. For, perversely enough, the deeper level of racism may actually be deepened by Level 1 Civil Rights victories insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the great toxic illusion that, as Derrick Bell once put it, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.” It’s hard to blame millions of white people for believing that racism is dead in America when U.S. public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration and equality ideals and paeans to the nation’s purported remarkable progress towards achieving it and when we regularly celebrate great American victories over Level 1 racism (particularly over the open racial segregation and terror of the South). As the black law professor Sheryl Cashin noted in 2004, five years before the existence of a first black U.S. president, there are [now] enough examples of successful middle- and upper-class class African-Americans “to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity…The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; [that] the issue now is individual effort . . . The odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect — examples of stratospheric black success,” Cashin wrote, “feed these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own standing.” One of the many ways in which Obama’s presidency has been problematic for the causes of racial justice is the way it has proved to be something of a last nail in the coffin for many white Americans’ already weak willingness to acknowledge that racism is still a major problem for Black Americans.

This is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated to some degree. “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves,” King noted in 1967, “on what little progress [black Americans] have made. I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” King added, “here has been little to challenge that assumption.” (Note the importance of segregated experience in the observations of both professor Cashin and Dr. King. The media image of black triumph and equality trumps the reality of persistent racial inequality in white minds so easily thanks in part to the simple fact that whites have little regular contact with actual, ordinary black Americans and little understanding of the very different separate and unequal ways in which most Blacks’ experience life in the United States. This is one of many ways in spatial and residential segregation – still quite pronounced in the U.S. – matters a great deal.)

“A Reminder of Systemic Oppression and Racial Subjugation”

Like the election and re-election of President Obama, the takedown of the Confederate Flag carries with it the risk of providing deadly “post-racial” cloaking for the nation’s deeper societal, institutional, and ideological racism. How appropriate in that regard it is to hear the deeply conservative and neoliberal Obama (for whom the notion of reparations is both ideologically and pragmatically unthinkable) call in his funeral oration at the stricken Charleston church for the final takedown of the Southern slave confederacy’s flag and symbol:

“For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens. (Applause). It is true a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, including [South Carolina’s right wing and objectively racist] Governor [Nikki] Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise…(Applause)…as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always been represented more than just ancestral pride (Applause). For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression (Applause)…and racial subjugation (Applause). We see that now. Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong (Applause). The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong. It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace. (Applause)”

In his oration, Obama said that the murdered minister and state senator Clem Pinckney “embodied the idea that Christian faith demands deeds and not just words.”

Obama was right, of course, to observe that the Confederate Flag represents slavery, Jim Crow, and opposition to the great Civil Rights Movement that arose more than half a century ago. But what, really, are the “amazing changes” that have pushed the U.S. towards a “more perfect union,” racially speaking, in recent decades? Obama was referring mainly to the rise of a certain number of Black faces into high and public places, none more notable than his ascendency into the White House. But beneath the surface change, as Obama knows all too well, the Black poverty and unemployment rates remain double that of the white rates and Black median household wealth has fallen to less than one twentieth of white media household wealth. Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s globally and historically unmatched population of prisoners and a third of Black men are marked with the crippling lifelong stigma of a felony record. A shocking 38 percent of Black children are growing up at less than the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. The poverty rate among Black children is more than twice as high as that of white children.

White America repeatedly congratulates itself over its readiness to shed open public bigotry and make symbolic statements against racism like electing a Black president (though it should be noted that Obama has never won a majority of the national white electorate despite his best efforts to not seem “too Black” and concerned with racial justice) and taking down the Confederate Flag. Meanwhile, these savage racial disparities persist and even deepen thanks to the underlying societal, institutional, historical, and political-economic racism that churns on behind the curtain of an officially color blind and, yes, politically correct media and politics culture.

In her speech calling for the removal of the Confederate Flag (which she called “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past” for “many”) from the grounds of the South Carolina state capital, that state’s right wing Republican Governor Nikki Haley said that “we have made incredible progress in South Carolina on racial issues.” There is surely some basis for that statement at the surface level, in the racial composition of the state’s legislature and evening broadcast news teams and the like. But underneath all that, damn near half (44%) of South Carolina’s Black children are growing up in officially poor families, compared to roughly a sixth (16%) of the state’s white children. While Blacks make up 28 percent of South Carolina’s population, they comprise 62% of the state’s 22,000 prisoners. The state’s Black poverty rate (28%) is nearly three times as high as its white population’s poverty rate (10%).

Such glaring racial disparities reflect the long living legacy and price of chattel slavery, inextricably intertwined past and present with the nation’s amoral profits system. Slavery may perhaps qualify as the nation’s “Original Sin,” as Obama called it from the pulpit in Charleston, but it was, as Baptist shows, an integral, highly profitable, and driving force in the so-called free market system – capitalism – that Obama has upheld as the source of the United States’ supposed “unmatched prosperity.” And today, as in the nation’s early development, America’s not-so “color blind” capitalism remains inseparably bound up with deeply entrenched and egregiously under-acknowledged structures, institutions, and ideologies of racial oppression and inequality.

Obama’s Curious Case for Keeping the Confederate Flag Flying

Listening to Obama’s Charleston speech and hearing my fellow Caucasian Americans talk about the supposed over-ness of U.S. racism and the purportedly ancient and “long ago” nature of slavery and Jim Crow – and hence about the supposed personal and cultural responsibility of Blacks themselves for their position at the bottom of the nation’s steep class hierarchies – I almost wonder if the Confederate Flag ought not stay put. After all, the President says the flag is “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.”   He says that taking it down is a “modest balm for unhealed wounds.” Constantly barraged with reactionary neoliberal messaging on how poor and working class people and especially poor and working class people of color supposedly created their own difficult situations in the “land of the free” (the ever more savagely unequal and openly plutocratic nation that happens to be leading prison state and military force in world history), Americans of all colors could use some good reminders of “systemic oppression and racial subjugation.” They need to be reminded of such oppression both in the past and in the present – and of the intimate relationship between past oppression and racial subjugation and present systemic oppression and racial subjugation.

The Real Issue to be Faced

When it comes to “deeds and not just words,” moreover, they don’t need a symbolic “modest balm.” “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years,” the great democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in 1967 (as violence erupted across the nation’s largely jobless northern ghettoes) “will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.” That all being no less true 48 years later, and with capitalism now bringing livable ecology to the edge of ruin, the people need deep systemic change along the lines of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters (like the color or gender of a president): “the radical reconstruction of society itself.”


Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Love and Revolution: an interview with Srećko Horvat

By Srećko Horvat On July 10, 2015

Post image for Love and Revolution: an interview with Srećko HorvatCreston Davis, Director of the Global Center for Advanced Studies, interviews the Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat about his forthcoming book on love.

Editor’s note: The 32-year-old Croatian philosopher and activist Srećko Horvat has been described as “one of the most exciting voices of his generation.” Last year, he published a political tract, co-authored with Slavoj Žižek, What Does Europe Want? His new book, The Radicality of Love, is forthcoming from Polity Press. Here, Srećko is interviewed by fellow philosopher Creston Davis, who is the founder and director of the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS), as well as the organizer of this month’s Democracy Rising conference in Athens.


Creston Davis: Thank you so much for being willing to talk. I had the opportunity to read your forthcoming book, The Radicality of Love. My first question is a seemingly simple one: why love?

Srećko Horvat: When I was flying over to London these days I encountered a rather bizarre advertisement in the British Airways’ inflight magazine High Lifeunder the title “Till Death Do Me Part”. The title was already pretty weird. And I started reading and it said, “Solo weddings offer women their ideal wedding day without the hassle of actually getting married.” So, a travel agency from Kyoto has launched a two-day package that allows women to choose the dress, have their hair and make-up done and undertake a bridal photo-shoot in a traditional Japanese garden. Plus, at around £1,700 it’s far cheaper than an actual wedding. Of course, the first question I asked myself was: why would anyone make a solo wedding? But it perfectly fits into our current narcissistic culture, in which the image of yourself is more important than anything else.

Why love? Because it is in our contemporary “selfie” pandemic that people lost the capability to see another person, to relate to another being, and vice versa, to relate to themselves meaningfully through the other person. Why a book about love? Because it is love that is missing today, not sex. People are more and more in fear of falling in love. This is one of the reasons why, beside phenomenon such as the Kyoto “solo-wedding”, we recently have a new word called “masturdating”.

[Laughs] I haven’t heard of this? What’s this?

It’s coined from masturbating and it means going alone to a restaurant, going alone to cinema, enjoying reading a book on a bench in a public park; it actually means spending time with your, what they would call, “incredible self”. And you could say, wow that is cool, people are not afraid anymore to spend time alone, but, on the other hand, I would say what we have today — and that is the reason why I think we should rehabilitate love — is a depressing narcissistic culture.

Both examples, the Kyoto solo wedding and “masturdating”, are perfect embodiments of narcissism. And it is here that we should recall the fundamental lesson given by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan from his first seminar on “Freud’s Papers on Technique”. Speaking about narcissistic love (or what Freud would call Verliebtheit), Lacan shows that “falling in love” is a phenomenon that takes place on the imaginary level.

What is the exact moment when, for instance, Werther falls in love with Lotte? It’s when he sees her for the first time and she is cuddling a child. It is a moment in which the object coincides with Goethe’s hero’s fundamental image that triggers off his fatal attachment. In Lacan’s words, in falling in love “it’s one’s own ego that one loves in love, one’s own ego made real on the imaginary level.” And this is the sort of narcissistic love that is prevailing today, and the Kyoto solo wedding or “masturdating” are just radical consequences of ego’s realization on the imaginary level.

In the book you develop something of a cartology of love, and one could say a dialectic between two things. This falling in love, on the one hand, and on the other, there is “love” as such. What is the difference between the “falling in love” and love as you describe it?

I would say falling in love is the first step, but it doesn’t have to be the first step. People still believe that love on first sight is the only possible way of falling in love. But I would say that even “love on first sight” is always already a construction. It also happens on an imaginary level. Of course, everyone likes to fall in love since there is nothing more fatal than that. And we need fatalism today. We need something we are ready to die for. And in this sense, yes, we need falling in love — but, on the other hand, this is not the end of the story. This is the very beginning. Getting out of narcissism begins when a relationship is being constructed.

There is, of course, a beautiful characteristic of falling in love. When you close yourself with your partner in crime in an apartment and don’t open the doors, when you don’t answers calls to your family or friends; when you stay in bed with your lover the whole day; when you are ready to move your life from one country to another just because of her or him, etc. This is fatalism. However, love is something more.

It’s kind of like the anecdote that you offer in Radicality of Love, that you have to come out of the apartment, come out of Descartes’ “cogito”, or what Peter Sloterdijk refers to as the “cell-egg”  that embodies in contemporary urban architectural space the desire to return into a reptilian “egg”, or even the mother’s womb. A space of the “real” before the symbolic risk.

Srećko: Yes, it’s best embodied in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. You have Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider falling in love in an empty apartment. So each time they are at the apartment no names are allowed. Marlon Brando says to Maria: ‘I just don’t care about your career if you have a boyfriend or if you don’t have a boyfriend. When we are in this apartment it is just the two of us.’ It functions for several weeks and it’s a beautiful love affair and everyone likes theLast Tango in Paris because you can inscribe your own fatal relationships inside the movie.

But what happens at the end of the movie? I think it is precisely the end of the movie that gives us the true meaning of the whole story: they come out of the apartment and during the whole movie Maria Schneider was very curious about the background story of Marlon Brando, she wanted to know who he really is… Does he have a wife or not? What is his career? Etc. So she is very curious and that is a normal feeling. And Brando finally admits: “I’m 45. I’m a widower. I own a little hotel. It’s kind of dump, but not completely a flop house. Then I used to live on my luck and I got married, and my wife killed herself.” And what does she do? She kills him.

I would add the truly tragic character of the movie is not her, but it is actuallyhim. He was ready for love — she wasn’t. For her it was just a narcissistic affair. In order to be ready for love, you need to have the guts to eat, to swallow, more than just your narcissistic image in the mirror. The first test of love is not whether you’ll answer the phone or not while you’re having sex with someone. The real test of love is when, for instance, your grandmother is very ill and she ends up in hospital but your partner is completely focused on her career and she just doesn’t care. This is one of the tests of love: what the other does in such a situation. In this sense, love is work, it is something that is built. It is not something just given on the table. I think that this is the true radicality of love. The beauty of it actually lies in the hard and difficult work.

And you also, in the very beginning of the book, talk about the difficulty of the subject itself, and in fact you say something like a paradox, perhaps it’s not, in the end one. To write about love, you say, requires a certain solitude. How is it that reflecting on love in your book requires this solitude?

Well, solitude is necessary not only for writing but for love as such. I strongly believe only in love where you can preserve your own solitude. Rainer Maria Rilke has a beautiful definition of such kind of love, when he says that love consists in this: “that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” There is no radical love without solitude.

Okay, that’s why I asked the first question, why love? Was it something that you were inspired to write in the context of recent uprisings? In your book, you carefully weave the subject of love and revolution together. Can you talk a little bit about this?

This actually brings us back to solitude in a way. I tried to dispute the thesis that love and politics are opposites, or oppositions. That, on the one hand, you have solitude of the lovers who are isolated from society, and that, on the other hand, you have social upheavals, millions of people protesting on the squares and on the streets. We know very well that people who fall in love tend to escape into isolation or solitude. Take another Bertolucci’s movie, this time The Dreamers. It perfectly illustrates that point. You have a trio, two French youngsters joined by an American and the whole movie is about their sex triangle. But at the same time, a revolution is going on. It is, of course, the French ‘68. Bertolucci shows this as an opposition: on the one side there is their isolated fantasy world, and on the other there is revolution. What I attempted to show in my book is that it doesn’t have to be an opposition.

But first let’s try this: just put “career” into the sentence instead of “revolution”. There are certain people who still believe that love can be an obstacle to their careers: they have to choose between their partner or their career. Some people even split because the other person was only focused on his or her career. And the same happens in revolution, when someone is completely committed to a cause. What I tried to develop with the Radicality of Love was a sort of roller coaster ride through the revolutions of the 20th century in order to examine this fundamental dilemma: love or revolution? Either I will be completely committed to revolution or committed to love: this happens quite often. But I think instead of love or revolution, we should insist on love and revolution.

Yeah, too often loving relationships — whether romantic or familiar — are dictated by the framing of the economic, or by a desire for social justice that emerge in exclusive terms: ‘You must love or you must be a revolutionary, but not both.’ Or even: ‘You must work on a career or be part of a family, but not both.’

There is a well-known anecdote about Lenin told by Maxim Gorky, which is a nice illustration of this false dilemma “love or revolution”. Lenin was listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata at Gorky’s home and he remarked: “I know nothing that is greater than the Appassionata. I want to say gentle stupidities and stroke the heads of people who, living in this dirty hell, can create such beauty. But it is necessary to beat them over the head, beat without mercy, even though in our ideal we are against the use of force against people.” In other words, Lenin had problems with emotions. And what if the Appassionata really stands not only for the “terrible beauty” of the music but for Lenin’s mistress, Inessa Armand, who beautifully played his beloved Beethoven and died just before Lenin visited Gorky?

This is not just speculation. If you do serious research on the October Revolution, you will find very interesting stuff. For example: did you know that just before the revolution there was a discussion between Lenin and his fellow communists on whether it is allowed to have flowers in communist offices? The thesis of the contra-flower communists was that if someone has flowers in an office it is directly linked to emotions and you can easily end up as a typical British gardener who just cares about flowers.

And if we go on, you will see that this is not only something on the anecdotal level, such sorts of discussions — from flowers to “free love” — were part of the revolution. At the very beginning of the October Revolution you have an incredible figure like Alexandra Kollontai, who was the first woman minister in Europe ever, she was the minister of welfare where she administered the most radical laws. It was during the October Revolution, already in December 1917, that the Bolsheviks implemented laws permitting gay marriage or laws permitting divorce. In other words, an inherent part of the revolution was sexual emancipation.

But then, already at the beginning of the 1920s, a counterrevolution started, with the thesis that sex and love are dangerous. Already in the early 1930s, the laws against gays are once again reinforced. And what I try to show is that Engels was right when he said that “it is a curious fact that with every great revolutionary moment the question of ‘free love’ comes to the foreground.” Maybe this is the measure of a “great revolutionary moment” and a possible answer to why today the question of love is missing: is it because there is no great revolutionary moment today?

Why? Because in your view, love and revolution are bound up together?

Yes, because love and revolution have something in common. The first thing which happens in revolutions is very similar to what happens when you fall in love. You find yourself at a public square and you experience an intense moment which is very specific, because it happens only in that precise moment, maybe only once in a lifetime. But in a way, this very special moment is already universal. And the same happens in falling in love: you can, of course, only fall in love with a person who is very specific, special and unique, but at the same time this is precisely the moment when you enter universality. And to truly arrive to the level of revolution or love, after the fatal Event, there is something Alain Badiou calls Fidelity. The true test of a revolution is the day after, and not the day in which the occupation is happening. The true test of a one-night stand is always the day after, or even the very moment after orgasm. The true value of love is to endure.

Right. I am going to shift a bit and talk about your writing style. Your writing style is kind of a mixture between two things, it seems to me. On the one hand, you have a very clear analysis — you are following a thread, a hypothesis that you are chasing after — yet on the other hand the way that you flesh it out is through examples. For instance, religion often appears in your work: religion of culture, film, and so on.

So I guess my question then is, which comes first for you: the example or the analytic hypothesis? Do you think of these examples and then relate them to the curiosity thread that you’re chasing after? Or do you have an analysis first in place and then you look for examples of how to flesh out that analysis?

That is a good question. Let me first answer through something which might sound like another “example”, but you will see it is much more than that. I’m quite often in Vienna, but this April, for the first time, I went to the Leopold Museum because of an exhibition about the fatal relationship between the Austrian painter Egon Schiele and Wally Neuzil, a woman he met in 1911 when she was only 17 years old. She was the model for Schiele’s most striking paintings and at one point he dumped her. He just married another women, out of the sky. And although Wally was still very young at that time, she wasn’t devastated; she became a nurse for the Red Cross and ended up in the country where I come from, in Croatia, Split. There she caught scarlet fever from one of her patients and died at the age of 23.

Schiele died only three years after his breakup with Wally, in 1918. What you could see at the exhibition in Leopold Museum is that he was, all the time, haunted by his first true love. And I was dwelling through the museum until — I don’t know how or when it happened — I found myself in front of a painting called Death and Maiden (Man and Girl), standing there for half an hour or so. The man is completely sucked up, he doesn’t have a face anymore; he looks inward, but he is still embracing her. She hangs onto him as if he were her final anchor. They feel themselves to be a couple, while each of them is simultaneously driven into inner loneliness by the course of events. And it is a fatal separation of two people who know they must let go of each other, but they just can’t.

The painting actually represents the fatal break-up of Schiele and Wally — and I think it was the first time in my life that I started crying in front of a painting. Why? Was it because a suppressed feeling of one of my own fatal separations, in which we just couldn’t let each other go, arrived to my consciousness? Or was it because my last separation wasn’t fatal at all, and there wasn’t this feeling that we can’t let go? A stupid kiss on the cheek and that’s all. It was Schiele who unexpectedly gave me the answer that you usually get at a psychoanalytic couch.

Now, if you want, you can interpret this encounter with Schiele’s painting as an “example”, but for me it is much more — it was really an Encounter. And if I succeed to weave such Encounters into my own theoretical work, then it is much more than pure “theory”. Theory is always experience as well. And love is always already political. The way you treat your partner, the reason why you choose this particular person and not some other, the kind of sex or the kind of love only the two of you can construct. Love is always political.

Creston Davis is Director of the Global Center of Advanced Studies.

Srećko Horvat is a philosopher and activist. He is co-author, with SlavojŽižek, of What Does Europe Want? (Columbia University Press, 2014) and author of The Radicality of Love (Polity Press, forthcoming).