The Bleak Left

On Endnotes

Mark Klett, Border fence separating the United States and Mexico. 2015, pigment print. Courtesy of the artist.

Endnotes 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the 20th Century, 2008.
Endnotes 2: Misery and the Value Form, 2010.
Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes, 2013.
Endnotes 4: Unity in Separation, 2015.

Endnotes 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the 20th Century, 2008.

Endnotes 2: Misery and the Value Form, 2010.

Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes, 2013.

Endnotes 4: Unity in Separation, 2015.

It’s no secret that the collapse of international communism from 1989 to 1991 forced many Marxists into defensive positions. What’s less well understood is why so many others took the opportunity to abjure some of Marxism’s most hallowed principles. Perry Anderson, in a surprisingly admiring review-essay on Francis Fukuyama from 1992, concluded by soberly assessing what remained of socialism. At the center of socialist politics, he wrote, had always been the idea that a new order of things would be created by a militant working class, “whose self-organization prefigured the principles of the society to come.” But in the real world, this group had “declined in size and cohesion.” It wasn’t that it had simply moved from the developed West to the East; even at a global level, he noted, “its relative size as a proportion of humanity is steadily shrinking.” The upshot was that one of the fundamental tenets of Marxism was wrong. The future offered an increasingly smaller, disorganized working class, incapable of carrying out its historic role.

In 1992, calling oneself a “socialist” was an anachronism. Today it is a label with which millions of Americans identify. A self-described “democratic socialist” came agonizingly close to winning the Democratic Party primaries in 2016. And the premise that Anderson felt we should abandon has been nonchalantly reassumed. Articles in Jacobin, the most popular socialist publication to appear in the United States in decades, routinely conclude with a reaffirmation of the place of the working class at the center of socialist politics.

But lost in the heady rush of leftist revival is the still-nagging problem of agency. The fortunes of the organized working class have never been more dire. In the advanced capitalist core, unions have recovered some prestige but not even a fraction of their midcentury power, while the historical European parties of the Socialist International continue their slow collapse. In the Global South, the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) and South Africa’s ANC–Communist–trade union alliance, rare bright spots after 1989, are losing credibility after decades of accommodation to private economic prerogatives. There are, in absolute terms, more industrial workers than ever, and probably as much industrial conflict. But there is no sense that as the working class becomes larger, it is becoming more unified. The end of the end of history has not seen the resumption of the forward march of labor.

In fact, Marxists have been worried about workers for a long time. After 1917, workers tried to take power in Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Spain; their defeat led to fascism. Beginning with Antonio Gramsci, Marxists outside the Soviet Union tried to understand what went wrong. As fascism and armed resistance gave way to social democracy and a moderated capitalism, some radicals consigned the working class to history altogether. It was harder, though, to discard the idea that someone, somehow, would bring socialism to the world. Peasants, national-liberation movements, students, and the incarcerated all provided substitutes. With the emergence of movements like environmentalism and gay liberation after the 1960s, many decided that the whole idea of a revolutionary subject was misguided. Why not recognize a plurality of movements, emerging unpredictably and united not by objective interest but by creative alliances? Today, even as discussions of economic inequality abound, this pluralism remains common sense in activist circles.

But this solution has not satisfied everyone. In 2008, a slim journal published by an anonymous collective began to circulate within the thinning ranks of the revolutionary left. Its cover was solid green except for the journal’s name, Endnotes, in white, and a subtitle, “Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the Twentieth Century,” in black. The text was produced by a discussion group formed in Brighton, UK, in 2005 with origins in long-running debates in the German and French ultraleft. (Over time the group broadened to include participants in California.) Authorship wasn’t really secret; you could find bylined references scattered across CVs and footnotes. But collective authorship was key to the distinctive voice, something like the crossfire of an unusually well-prepared reading group recollected in tranquility. The essays run on, sometimes more than ten thousand words, to simulate the modulations of conversation. Disciplinary specializations sit side by side, with notes on Kant and Schelling following graphs of employment patterns in UK manufacturing. The style is by turns earnest (“The communisation of social relations among seven billion people will take time”), bleak (“There is always someone more abject than you”), and droll (“Proletarians do not have to see anyone they do not like, except at work”). It is a journal whose scope, rigor, and utter lack of piety make it one of the consistently challenging left-wing periodicals of our time. In 2014, Anderson himself called it one of the “most impressive publications to emerge in the Bush-Obama era.”

Endnotes emerged from narrow Marxist debates, but in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, the journal supplemented theory with exhaustive analysis of social movements. For the editors, our current age of riots and occupations demands that we confront again the unfashionable question of the revolutionary subject. The editorial collective describes itself as “communist”; its members want the abolition of capitalism, which because of its powerful self-reinforcing tendencies can only be overcome by a coherent social force. But what group of people has enough in common to imagine itself as a social force and also has the strategic leverage to change the world? Unlike many socialists, the editors of Endnotes do not reflexively answer, “The working class.” They ask the question in order to show that this cannot possibly be the answer.

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