Revolution #262, March 11, 2012

Four Questions for David Graeber

David Graeber is an anarchist theorist influential in the Occupy movement. Here we pose four questions to Graeber, particularly in response to the section, “a fairly brief manifesto concerning the concept of revolution,” from his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.

1. You say: “… Totalities, in particular, are always creatures of the imagination. Nations, societies, ideologies, closed systems … none of these really exist. Reality is always infinitely messier than that—even if the belief that they exist is an undeniable social force.”

If nations and societies are “creatures of the imagination” what about the U.S.-Mexican border—the radical difference of being born on opposite sides of this border, and lifetimes spent and lives risked by Mexicans trying to cross to El Norte? Mere “belief” or harsh social reality—of an imperialist world divided into oppressor and oppressed nations?

2. You say: “…unless we are willing to massacre thousands of people (and probably even then), the revolution will almost certainly not be quite such a clean break as such a phrase implies.” [phrase referring to “after the revolution”]

Who massacred whom during past proletarian revolutions? It was the reactionary regime of the French ruling class that carried out the slaughter of the defenders of the Paris Commune in 1871. It was the Western imperialists and their reactionary White Army allies who instigated counter-revolution that led to massive death and destruction in the Civil War of 1918-1921 following the Bolshevik Revolution. It was German imperialism that “massacred” over 20 million Soviets during World War 2.

Second, your notion of “clean break” raises a specter of erasing the past and starting from scratch. We ask: which communist leader—from Marx onward—has ever claimed revolution as such a “clean break”? Yes, socialist revolution is a radically different political, economic, and social order. But it emerges bearing the birthmarks of thousands of years of class society, and overcoming this is a crucial part of the historic world process of transition and transformation in getting to communism, to classless society.

3. You say: “… stop thinking about revolution as a thing—‘the’ revolution, the great cataclysmic break…revolutionary action is any collective action which rejects and therefore confronts some form of power or domination…[it] does not necessarily have to aim to topple governments…[but establishes] autonomous communities. And history shows us that the continual accumulation of such acts can change (almost) everything.”

Was it the “the continual accumulation of such acts” as the Underground Railroad and the Maroon communities, important as they were, that were decisive in the abolition of slavery in the Western world—or did it take such cataclysmic ruptures as “the” Haitian Revolution, the massive slave insurrections of the British West Indies, and “the” American Civil War to finally abolish slavery in these societies?

Capitalism grew in the pores of feudalism. But even for capitalism—with its exploitative mode of production—to decisively establish dominance, this required “the” English Revolution of the 17th century, “the” French Revolution of 1789 and “the” bourgeois revolutions of 1848.

And in moving beyond exploitation, how can a liberatory economy be established without seizing the means of production now owned by the capitalist class? How is this going to occur without the “cataclysmic break” of defeating and replacing the state power that protects and reinforces these ownership and production relations (as was done in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917-56, or the Chinese Revolution of 1949-76)?

How can “autonomous communities” within the current overall framework—or their “continual accumulation”—address the lopsidedness in the world, a global environmental emergency or overcome the great social inequalities?

4. You say: “... utopianism has led to unmitigated horror, as Stalinists, Maoists, and other idealists tried to carve societies into impossible shapes, killing millions in the process” (from Against Anti-utopianism).

David Graeber, we defy you to produce evidence that Mao Tsetung “killed millions.” If you are referring to deaths during the weather and food crisis of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), you might as well accuse Woodrow Wilson of “killing” hundreds of thousands during the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918.

Stalin fought to defend the Soviet revolution in the face of monumental threats from within and without. There were real errors and serious shortcomings in how this was done, but the historical truth/fact is that Stalin did not murder or execute “millions.”

Where is the “unmitigated horror” in the Soviet Union creating the world’s first multinational state based on equality of nationalities, recognizing the right of self-determination for former oppressed nations of the old Tsarist empire—while the U.S. practiced Jim Crow segregation? Where is the “utopianism” of the Chinese revolution, when it put an end to foot-binding of women and child marriage, when it raised the slogan “women hold up half the sky” and struggled against patriarchal relations?

Soon online, at A Fairly Brief (but Polemical) Rejoinder to “a fairly brief manifesto concerning the concept of revolution” by David Graeber.


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