commies for crude associationism

I like Seth Ackerman and his work, but this is a particularly, and peculiarly, poor effort. I’ll expand on this, but I think essentially everything it argues can be rejected with a simple point: it is not required for political actors to be perfectly righteous in their beliefs or associations for them to contribute to righteous political action, and it is profoundly perverse for Marxists to argue so, given the history of American communism and the ways in which it has been oppressed.


Frase quotes “libertarian-ish” blogger Will Wilkinson making a point similar to his own — that “it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false.” But the only named person to whom Wilkinson attributes that fallacy is … Sean Wilentz.

At this point, I’m not convinced there actually are any left-wing apologists for rampant NSA spying.

I would counsel not just Ackerman but anyone who wants to write about politics to stop arguing that an argument need not be rebutted because that argument isn’t held by anyone. For one thing, because bad arguments need to be rebutted regardless if they are believed by one person or by one million. And Wilenz argument was a horrific, massively dishonest piece of propaganda that should be rebutted regardless of how many fellow-travelers he has. For another: I just find this a flatly inaccurate representation of the current state of the American left-of-center. Is Ackerman unaware of the Josh Marshalls of the world, with their straightforwardly partisan embrace of state overreach when committed by Democrats? Certainly other people at TNR believe what Wilenz believes, and presumably many in his audience do as well. It’s odd that a writer at Jacobin would dismiss an argument as obscure when that argument appears at a magazine with a far larger readership than Jacobin.

Is it simply that Democrats like Josh Marshall and the TNR crew aren’t really on the left? Then I assure you: there are plenty of soi-disant radicals who are following the invisible line of conspiracy from Snowden to the Koch brothers and using that as an excuse to agitate against Snowden, even to wish for his capture. I argue with them all the time. Many of them are a particular flavor of post-activist, people who I knew from the antiwar days who allowed themselves to become enchanted by Obama ’08, grew disgruntled by Real World Obama, but ascribe his failures to the recalcitrance of congressional Republicans. Many are the conspiratorial flavor of leftist who think that there is a money trail that leads directly from Freedom Works to the pockets of literally every person with whom they disagree. They might be a narrow slice, you might argue that they are irrelevant, but they do exist. The fact that certain arguments may not enter your orbit does not mean that those arguments don’t exist or don’t deserve rebuttal.

And Ackerman’s piece badly needs an injection of the anti-statist history of the radical American left-wing. So much of this debate is actually about culture, rather than actual politics. It’s easy for Ackerman or others to attack Glenn Greenwald or Edward Snowden for appearing to flirt with the Rand Pauls of the world. But the anti-statist rhetoric that is the actual target of both Ackerman’s essay, and the wedge through which Wilenz would like to reject all whisleblowers, has a long, proud lineage on the radical left. Would Ackerman lump the Black Panther party in with the Rand Pauls of the world? Malcolm X? Eugene Debs? Each of these expressed anti-statist rhetoric so intense that it would make Rand Paul blush. That Ackerman indicts resistance and fear towards the state by associating it with Ron Paul merely speaks to the cultural and social milieu in which his argument is heard.

It’s like I said before: I’m left-wing like Fred Hampton, not left-wing like Mayor Daley. I’m with the people who get hit with nightsticks, not people who do the hitting. Resistance to government violence is not some contradiction with left-wing practice. It is left-wing practice. The day-to-day interactions the poor have with the state are dominated by fear, threat, and actual violence. That’s reality. A movement that prides itself for speaking for the dispossessed can’t run the risk of romanticizing the state that might help them, as it is precisely that same state that enforces the condition of their immiseration. Left-wing struggle, rightly theorized, is the struggle against illegitimate power by oppressed peoples. The evolution of that power is an increasing inseparability between the corporate and the governmental. The state and corporations are not in conflict with each other, but are instead in a deep and loving symbiosis. This is why the dissolution of the state, as a fundamentally illegitimate and repressive structure, should be a goal of the left-wing, even as we acknowledge it will take a thousand years.

This is frustrating:

Hence Greenwald’s tirade against the Latin American left’s “crazed enthusiasm for worn-out, socialist/collectivist policies” and his opposition to “unmanageably endless hordes” of immigrants who “ pour over the border in numbers far too large to assimilate.”

The link, if you care to follow it, is to a 9-year old piece which Greenwald has explicitly expressed regret over. Greenwald himself now lives in a South American country, which has a left-wing government, with a native of that country as his husband. Ackerman’s failure to locate those quotes in context might not qualify as active dishonesty, but it’s a hell of a sin of omission.

The nut of all this is here.

Henry Farrell rendered just the right verdict on the Wilentz thesis in the Crooked Timber piece that inspired Frase’s original sally:

If imaginary-Edward-Snowden were running for the Senate, and I was thinking about whether to vote for him, I’d find his views on welfare very, very relevant. Since actual-Edward-Snowden is running from the government for leaking security information … not so much.

Snowden is not running for Senate. But he is an object of adulation from the progressive left — for good reasons, mostly — despite his association with a noxious ideology inclined to comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted.

This is a very weird passage: Ackerman identifies the most important argument from Farrell’s piece, praises it… and then ignores its message completely. The entire point is that because he isn’t running for office, his association with a noxious ideology is entirely irrelevant. That’s exactly what Farrell is arguing. Who cares what Edward Snowden’s thoughts on domestic policy are, given that he has no ability to influence that policy in any meaningful way? I don’t understand why it should be hard to say “I agree with Glenn Greenwald on the topics he focuses on almost to the exclusion of all others, but not on everything.” That is and has been my position for as long as I’ve been reading him, and I find that a natural stance in a rhetorical environment in which we will always substantially disagree with most people on at least some points. And this is where I think this debate is of existential importance  to the American left: because the politics of conspiratorial association are an enormous threat to all left-wing practice.

Jacobin, after all, is a Marxist magazine, or a magazine which publishes a lot of Marxists, anyway. What killed American communism? It wasn’t merely the efforts of an American state that sought to crush communism and utilized its enormous capacity for violence and espionage to do so. It was also because American communism ate itself from the inside. The state’s efforts to delegitimize and undermine the efforts of communist and socialist organizations from within led many to turn on each other. The result was a litany of deeply unhealthy organizational practices: redbaiting, purity tests, loyalty oaths, splinter groups, secret meetings…. The conspiratorial reflex, which seeks to always find out some disfavored person’s “secret allegiances,” has done more damage to American radicalism than any libertarian writer alive. That tendency didn’t die with Joe McCarthy. It’s a recurring aspect of political organizing to this day. I know because I endured it during my antiwar days in the first half of last decade. I personally experienced every one of those bad habits I named above, and I witnessed them result in my own expulsion from antiwar groups and the dissolution of groups entirely. Anyone who doubts the capacity for conspiratorial accusations of bad associations to ruin radical politics has only to get acquainted with our history to be disabused of that doubt.

There’s a line of thinking that’s ascendant within the radical left today that imagines all of us to be little lefty Woodward and Bernsteins, “following the money” to see why we can judge others by our perception of their associations and allegiances rather than by what they actually say and do. “Hey, so-and-so might seem to be a good ally, but did you know he spoke at a Cato event in 1994?” That’s ruinous, particularly for a movement that needs friends.

Which brings us to the headline, and the triumphalist attitude it suggests: uh, actually, we don’t got this. We in the post-capitalist left, I’m sorry to say, don’t got much, at this point. I don’t know who wrote the headline, but I would ask that person: on what planet do we got the omnipresence of state violence, exactly? I would say that, quite on the contrary, the state’s got us, and until that changes, maybe we should take what allies we can get.

Update: Here’s Ackerman’s response.


  1. I suspect Pete Seeger, given his experiences with the HUAC, might recognize Snowden as a “fellow traveler” where he might not recognize Ackerman as such.

  2. Well, as you might imagine, I more or less completely agree with this, against Seth and my other co-editors at Jacobin who are pushing this particular line. Thanks for articulating it well, so I didn’t have to continue down this increasingly tiresome line of argument. The “left like Fred Hampton” bit is particularly important, since it draws attention to just whose struggles and repression are being elided by the cavalier embrace of the American state. I also really appreciate the dig at vulgar “follow the money” conspiratorial materialism.


    Freddie, the argument of my piece was right at the top – “let’s have a debate over the left and state, but not on the libertarians’ distorted terms.” I’m glad you wrote this response, because it represents just the kind of debate I was calling for — but also because it’s a good illustration of what I meant by arguing on libertarians’ terms.

    You write: “It’s like I said before: I’m left-wing like Fred Hampton, not left-wing like Mayor Daley. I’m with the people who get hit with nightsticks, not people who do the hitting.” That’s a fine sentiment, and I’m 100% behind it — as long as we stipulate that it’s a bumper-sticker slogan and not anything resembling a theory of the state.

    You come closer to formulating a real argument when you say: “A movement that prides itself for speaking for the dispossessed can’t run the risk of romanticizing the state that might help them, as it is precisely that same state that enforces the condition of their immiseration.”

    I agree with that sentence too. It’s perfectly true as far as it goes. But logically, you could flip it around and it would still be true. In other words, you could also write: “A movement that prides itself on speaking for the dispossessed can’t run the risk of anathematizing the state that enforces the condition of their immiseration, as it is precisely the same state that might help them.”

    If the original statement is true, then the inverted version can’t be any less true.

    So we haven’t gotten very far. That’s why I’d like to focus particular attention on the way you – and Peter, I think — use the term “anti-statism.”

    You write:

    “The anti-statist rhetoric that is the actual target of…Ackerman’s essay…has a long, proud lineage on the radical left. Would Ackerman lump the Black Panther party in with the Rand Pauls of the world? Malcolm X? Eugene Debs? Each of these expressed anti-statist rhetoric so intense that it would make Rand Paul blush.”

    Is that true? Would the Black Panthers’ anti-statist rhetoric make Rand Paul blush? I guess it depends on what you mean by anti-statism.

    Let’s look at the Panthers’ 1966 Ten Point Program. Point Two, the first programmatic point, after a general statement calling for black self-determination, was: “We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income.”

    Point Four was a demand for the construction of housing cooperatives, “so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing.” Another point demanded that the perceived promise made by the Civil War-era Congress, of forty acres and a mule to all freed slaves, be redeemed and paid out to black citizens in currency.***

    So I agree with you: Rand Paul would certainly “blush” at the Panthers’ type of “anti-statism.” But above all, he would vigorously deny that it represents anti-statism of any kind.

    And here is the crux of my argument: he would be right, and you would be wrong.

    “Anti-statism” is a term and a concept that rightly belongs to Rand Paul. It’s useful to him and his ilk because they are trying to promote a vision of politics in which the central question is “how much state?” or “how big a role for government?” That vision of politics is, as I tried to argue in my piece, an “irrelevant monomania at best,” and at worst a rhetorical trap. I’m saying that you have fallen into the trap by accepting the libertarians’ conceptual apparatus.

    You perceive our disagreement, I think, as me being “less anti-statist” whereas you’re “more anti-statist.” Is that really the case? I can’t claim to know your opinions on every issue, but I suspect that on most concrete questions we agree. Certainly we agree about NSA spying or whether Edward Snowden should be sent to jail. Like you, I’m sure, I was one of those people cheering on Snowden, hoping Russia would give him a visa, fretting he was about to get handcuffed on a plane in Bolivia.

    The real nature of our disagreement is more subtle. Unless I’m wrong, it really stems from the fact that you have – erroneously in my opinion – chosen to acquiesce in a vision of politics as being, in some important way, about “good state” versus “bad state,” and perhaps therefore “more state” versus “less state.” In other words, you’ve accepted the framing of libertarians (and some anarchists).

    And that’s led you to think that there’s a great “anti-statist” tradition on the left running from Debs to the Panthers to Glenn Greenwald. Freddie, I certainly understand what you’re getting at when you say that, but I don’t think that your formulation is the right one.

    Go back to the Panthers’ program. In addition to calling for a federal jobs-or-income guarantee and government housing aid, the program also called for an end to police brutality, the freeing of black prisoners, and an exemption for blacks from military service. In other words, it demanded both that the state stop doing things that were oppressive and start doing things that were emancipatory.

    You can call that “anti-statism” if you like. But you’d be rendering the term meaningless if you did. It can’t be true that an “anti-statist” is someone who wants the state to do things they like and not do things they don’t like. If that were the case, almost everyone would be an anti-statist.

    Now, an anarcho-capitalist, or a “minarchist,” or a certain type of anarchist — or a libertarian – might be an “anti-statist.” That’s because, in theory, those positions are supposed to be grounded in some systematic opposition to all forms of state activity, some version of “that government governs best which governs least.” Those are genuinely “anti-statist” positions.

    But my argument is that those positions have no basis in the left — or at least not in the socialist left. Now, there is a long socialist tradition of critiquing the class character of the state. That tradition comes in many versions and all of them have pictured the ruling class as having some privileged relationship to the state. While some make that relationship simple and absolute (the state is “ultimately,” or “at bottom,” nothing more than the instrument of the oppressors), others see the relationship, while still privileged, as being much more qualified and contradictory.

    The point, though, is that none — or at least only the crudest — have simply concluded “state = bad, less state = good.” That would be the truly “anti-statist” position.

    To me, you seem to be arguing for that mistaken anti-statist position. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve misread you, and it’s the socialist tradition that better represents your thinking, not the “anti-statist” one with its “more state vs. less state” framing.

    In that case, all I’m trying to say is that this difference is fundamental, not incidental, so that when we talk about the state — and when we talk about various “anti-statists” — you, we, should make that difference clear.

    That’s the kind of debate I’m talking about.

    *** Speaking of the Civil War, you might want to look up the incident Eric Foner has called the worst episode of racial violence in all of Reconstruction — the Colfax Massacre. It was a battle over physical control of a county courthouse between the Louisiana state militia, controlled by black Union veterans, and white anti-incumbent insurgents. In other words, in that particular case I think that you, Freddie, would have been *against* the people getting hit by nightsticks, so to speak, and *for* the people doing the hitting.

  4. “The day-to-day interactions the poor have with the state are dominated by fear, threat, and actual violence.”

    In between picking up their checks.

    I think at root, that’s what this is about: anxiety that anti-statist feelings over the security state spill over too easily into support for anti-statist positions that torpedo government safety-net, welfare and social-justice programs. See, for instance, “Do you want Obama’s IRS to have your healthcare history???” as an anti-universal-health-insurance “argument”.

  5. “Ackerman’s failure to locate those quotes in context might not qualify as active dishonesty…”

    I don’t know. It’s right out of the (completely weird) Ames/Levine-UniteBlue axis. Lazy or evil I give up…

  6. “a 9-year old piece which Greenwald has explicitly expressed regret over.”

    Is there a link to said regrets?

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