Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 30, 2020

Are riots revolutionary?

Filed under: Academia,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

About a week ago, someone posted a link to a Verso book by Joshua Clover titled “Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings” that I took a quick gander at on the Verso website. It stated that “Political theorist Joshua Clover theorizes the riot as the form of the coming insurrection.” I didn’t pay that much attention to it except to note that insurrection is a problematic term if you are a Marxist, at least if it is understood as anything like October 1917. There wasn’t much that was violent about the takeover of the Winter Palace or for that matter neither was there much rioting going on in Russia. Mostly, there were mass protests demanding peace, bread and land.

It turns out that Clover, an English professor and poet, is something of an ultraleft jackass. Like many others in the academic left, he is steeped in the kind of cultural theory-mongering that made Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler superstars. I guess that Clover is not in their league, but in the minor leagues. Here’s a sample of his jive:

Thus we might come to understand the tactic of the black bloc, which has achieved such infamy these last years, as itself a kind of pop culture. Not because those who don the anonymizing balaclavas are famous, or believe in a struggle in the realm of images, but because this is an inevitable position within the universalized fame of surveillance. It is Warhol’s wig in negative. From the moment that daily life becomes a screen test, the black mask is inevitable. Every surveillance camera makes anarchy more compelling, more joyous. Pussy Riot’s Day-Glo glory adds a flourish, but the logic is impeccable.

In a discussion with fellow poet Anne Lesley Selcer about the Nation article that generated some controversy, she offers this observation: “If the sixties were about bending the politics of representation toward leftist aims, this tactic [black bloc] embodies a pure, active antagonism.” Jeez, I had no idea that I was involved with the representation toward leftist aims. That almost sounds like I was doing water-colors or something. Clover responded:

It wants to move toward the condition of being numerous, so much so that masks become unnecessary, at which time we will see that the black bloc comprises neither “outside agitators” nor some specially privileged bunch of white boys — as the dovetailing stories of right media right and left counterrevolutionaries have it — but is everyone.

The black bloc wants to be everyone? Really? Did that include the people who came to Washington on inauguration day in 2017 and began breaking bank windows? I imagine that the unmasked bystanders who got gathered up the cops and who left the masked rioters alone would ever bond with them after facing sentences of up to 10 years for felony rioting charges.

You don’t have to read Clover’s garbage book to figure out what he stands for. In an interview with “The Rumpus”, he offered up one stupidity after another. He starts off drawing an equation between the protests that Martin Luther King Jr. led and the riots. MLK Jr. adopted a posture “that is media-friendly, a version of respectability politics.” On the other hand, the riots were taking care of certain practical goals, things like “destroying the power of the police, or making your neighborhood uninhabitable for people you don’t want there.” Since Clover was six years old in 1968, he probably had no direct knowledge of riots making any neighborhood uninhabitable for the cops. On the other hand, MLK Jr. led protests that helped to put Jim Crow in the grave. Toward the end of his life, he was moving toward eliminating de facto segregation once de jure segregation had ended. He was also putting forward a more explicitly anti-capitalist message that clearly made him a target of reactionary elements. That Clover can dismiss King as involved with “respectability politics” shows what an ivory tower dick he is.

Since he attached the label “practical” to riots, Rumpus asked him to explain how it was since it will “just get you thrown in jail or killed, none of which sounds very practical.” To save you the trouble of reading his book, his words tell you all you need to know:

Often people read Riot.Strike.Riot as advocating riots rather than strikes. That is not the case. The book is simply trying to understand what it has meant that people fight where they are, and to grasp shifts in forms of struggle as a story about where people are. It’s also about a great restructuring of what gets called “class composition” at a global level. When people are in a workplace where it’s possible to organize and engage in labor actions, that’s how they fight, and it can be very effective. When people are not in that situation, they fight in other ways. They fight in the marketplace. They gather in the street, the square. One need not prefer one or other. One need only notice that there’s been a meaningful shift in where people are over the last thirty, forty, or fifty years from traditional productive industries—which are easier to organize—toward a kind of work that involves circulation of capital and products, and toward unemployment. People who are in that situation are unlikely to fight somewhere else. They’re going to fight in that space.

He, of course, is missing the entire point. We understand that there is a need to fight. Most fighting in fact is defensive in nature. The real goal, however is how to win. That’s something the clueless professor has nothing to offer. Right now the left is faced with major challenges on how not only to defend the meager conditions of life during economic depression and a plague but how to finally defeat the capitalist class and take power in the name of socialism. Thus, it is imperative to think through tactics that the labor movement can pursue, just as it did in the 1930s when there were very few riots—come to think of it.

In 2018, Kim Moody reviewed “Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings” for Jacobin. The review takes Clover far more seriously than I ever would, trying to engage with his stupidities as if they were on a Historical Materialism Conference panel together, with lots of references to Marxist value theory, his theoretical debts to Brenner-Wood’s political Marxism, etc. The conclusion, however, strikes a fatal blow:

In Clover’s analysis, the rise and convergence of riots, occupations, and other actions in the streets, squares, and highways are to culminate (inevitably?) in the commune — the society that transcends capitalism, the wage relationship, and consumption as a source of profit. Unlike the riots in the streets and squares, however, the commune, Clover says, is “not a place” like the Paris Commune, but a “social relation.”

One doesn’t have to be David Harvey to understand that, even in the internet age, human beings and their societies are spatially as well as temporally rooted even if their places multiply, expand globally, and their inhabitants migrate from one place to another. Place is integral to the human condition.

The problem here, however, is bigger than this idealized commune. Any change in social relations and economic systems requires human “agency.” If the employed core of the working class is no longer in the running for this position, what social force or forces are?

Clover is, of course, clear throughout that the racialized surplus population is the major candidate for change in the new era of circulation. The full answer, however, the culmination of 180 pages of often wordy if well-crafted discourse, is found in the following exceptionally succinct third of a paragraph:

The shape of the double riot is clear enough. One riot arises from youth discovering that the routes that once promised a minimally secure formal integration into the economy are now foreclosed. The other arises from racialized surplus populations and the violent state management thereof. The holders of empty promissory notes, and the holders of nothing at all.

While Clover acknowledges the difficulties of bringing these two elements together, that isn’t the major problem. The major problem is that while both participants in the “double riot” may disrupt society for a time in one or more places and play a role in broader movements for social change, neither group has much social power, or indeed staying power, over the long haul. Their very separation from production underlines their relative social weakness.

Furthermore, youth are divided by class with different aspirations and possibilities even today. Are frustrated graduate students with diminishing prospects for university tenure, or those seeking their MBA, in the same position as the less-educated youths trapped at McDonald’s or worse?

More importantly, even together youths and those in the active reserve army are a minority of the broader proletariat, even of the racialized proletariat, and even insofar as young people as a generalization are part of the proletariat at all or share its experience.

Is Clover looking at revolution won or a commune realized by and for a minority? Is this a First World urban version of Regis Debray’s 1960s guerrilla “foco,” albeit writ large and minus the central discipline? What about the democratic majoritarian political vision of socialism from below, the political form of which was suggested to Marx by the place-specific Paris Commune?

As a suffix to this article, I want to cite some Facebook posts by FB friend Rick Sklader, who experience on the left is considerable, going back to the 1960s, followed by one by David Miller, another Minneapolis resident. They make it clear that the left has to grapple with the problem of riots from now on since the capitalist class and its cops are now calculating that its goals can be met by sacrificing a few buildings. A Target store can always be reconstructed but once socialist ideas are implanted in person’s mind and he or she begins acting on them, there’s no turning back. Take it from me, I became a socialist in 1967 and am more convinced on the need for revolution than I have ever been:

Rick Sklader:

MORE BREAKING NEWS Wells Fargo Bank in Uptown neighborhood of. Minneapolis currently on fire. There’s been a lot of needless destruction and mindless vandalism, with a US Post Office now on fire. Minneapolis Police nowhere to be seen.At least two neighborhood restaurants on fire with additional stores being attacked. This has nothing to do with Floyd’s Murder. There appears to be no politics being articulated here, which will likely have negative consequences.

12:06AM Massive show of force used solely to disperse crowd and to allow firefighters in to do their jobs. According to WCCO (CBS affiliate) no arrests made. Police cars leaving Nicolett area with reports Mayor has police moving downtown to next hotspot. Additional reports of multiple fires throughout the city and that the Black barbershop owner called Fire Department and was told they’d put him on their list. Three hours later no business left to save.

Someone burned down a Black Barber’s Barbershop on the near NorthSide the oldest Black neighborhood in the city of Minneapolis and the only place Black people could buy houses for the longest period of time. This used to be a predominately Jewish Area until around 1950. This is the kind of mindless anti-social behavior I have been referencing. This is not nor has anything to do with fighting institutional racism.

BREAKING NEWS assholes set 2nd Library on Fire in Uptown at 28th and Hennepin Avenue. This is fucked up

Neighborhood grocery store also set on fire as well as Minneapolis’ oldest White Castle Restaurant.

1:50AM Governor Walz reported shots exchanged with cops and improvised munitions used as well. Governor is increasing National Guard troops by adding an additional 1,000 soldiers.

David Miller:

5/30/20 South Minneapolis:

While there is legitimate anger and rebellion against the Minneapolis Police Force and the City Government of Minneapolis, most people I know who live in and around Lake Street on the Southside, and in and around Broadway on the North Side were out trying to help people last night.

Help calm things down, doing mutual aid, like getting people and their animals out of burning buildings.

And they did this, heroically, in a situation where armed White Terrorists from out of State rode around in out of State Cars/Trucks (looking at YOU Texas) shooting people.

We are under attack by right wing forces who are burning post offices (we would not do that/trust me) and beloved community institutions (Gandhi Mahal/Migizi Communications).

They are taking out whole blocks with military level training arson tactics in under an hour.

While protesters target major corporate chains, these guys reduce everything to ash.

Last night it got real personal, because they started burning residential homes, over here on the Southside.

Their goal is to push us all over the edge where this spirals into an actual war.

Where people feel so abandoned that we all start shooting at each other. Where the chaos grows so great that Trump has to send in the army and declare martial law, and start shooting.

And guess who they will be shooting? Not the heavily armed White Guys from Texas. No it will be who they always shoot…Black, Brown, Native, PoC…our neighbors.



  1. No, riots aren’t revolutionary, but they must never be detracted by a revolutonary. It sounds like you would rather sit and hide, “analyze” how ultraleftists turn a rebellious fever wrongly. Indeed the right wing has entered into Minneapolis, and Detroit, and likely everywhere else. But there are also young Blacks and Chicanos, Somalis and Mexicans, young White women and men who are coming to show solidarity and to stand. What we do, right now, will not really change how things may advance. But it will determine what our revolutionary mettle is really made from. No, these are not the times of Russia, 1917. You, of all people, Louis, always knew that was never going to be. “Drawing lessons” has long past been lost on those young militants out there, in the wind twixt anger and the machinations of the Left and Right.
    Stop cowering in your correct analysis of riots and deal, Now, with what is happening. You can either nod and agree with Rick and David, focusing on “calm[ing] things down” or you can stand with the oppressed and hope that they will want to hear what we may have to say.

    Comment by mtomas3 — May 30, 2020 @ 8:22 pm

  2. How did I “detract” riots? I am making an entirely different point focused on the ravings of an asshole poetry professor. Don’t go hunting for straw men, comrade.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 30, 2020 @ 8:41 pm

  3. Not hunting, Louis. But your comments come in a context. Right now, what we say has everything to do with the situation we are in. Both Rick and David report what is likely happening here in Minneapolis. Making an “entirely different point” about an ultraleftist isn’t beside the point. The National Guard and MPs are likely about to engage in quashing the uprising (or at least to try). They aren’t likely to go after the rightist thugs (the actual ones), but may use the Black Bloc to drown the actual rebellion. These young fighters out there have had no real experience but their anger and frustration. We can only hope, I know you feel the same, that rebellion can be turned into a mass movement, something that almost happened after Ferguson, which was largely subverted by the “experienced” left and the Democratic Party. I think your voice can be a powerful one among the largely disoriented, staid, “old guard” who really should be engaging not with advice but with solidarity, listening, and learning. In that process, we may have something that we can say. And be heard.
    Solidarity Always, Comrade

    Comment by mtomas3 — May 30, 2020 @ 8:55 pm

  4. Since I have a copy and hate myself, here is a scanned excerpt from the book, specifically its 2019 Afterword that I would love to hear your take on.

    Riot.Strike.Riot Pages 195-198 (Only one reference included, ask for the other two)

    The skeptical responses to the book, often appearing in legacy socialist journals, have been magnetized without fail according to the principle that the strike must be defended. Some fraction of these defenses have been little more than oaths of fidelity to what C. Wright Mills called sixty years ago the “labor metaphysic.” They are regularly compelled to remind us of the truism that capital remains vulnerable at the point of production. These readings have often required the misapprehension of arguments in the book, imagining nonexistent claims that production has come to an end and that we are in an era of “pure” or “autonomous” circulation (as if such a thing were possible). Or it is imagined that the book rejects class as a decisive category; in fact it argues the opposite, though it asks us to recognize the political self-activity of those excluded from the formal wage as itself a form of class struggle (given the racialization of these class actors in the west, the blindness toward this fact takes on rather dire significance). These responses occasionally provide the self-evident point that riots are not always emancipatory, rarely noting the same of labor actions. They regularly tut over the assured political inefficacy accompanying a failure to “organize” in the manner with which they are familiar, seemingly incognizant of the fact that this opinion too has a racial history. As Alys Weinbaum notes about Black Reconstruction, “Du Bois shows us that slaves need to be neither consciously nor collectively organized in the traditional Marxist sense to make history.”: Du Bois’s “black general strike” of slaves during the Civil War designates an ensemble of events that were, per Cedric Robinson’s summary, “a consequence of contradictions within Southern society rather than a revolutionary vanguard that knit these phenomena into a historical force.”4 On this basis, lacking party or movement, Du Bois famously concluded that the slaves freed themselves. This is not, however, a verdict on Marxism but on a thin stratum within it, blessed to recognize one concrete and historical mode of organization, damned to treat it as abstract and universal. Of course we are not in the era of chattel slavery anymore; neither are we in the era in which formal employment is centered by industry and manufacture, and those unable to reckon with its waning and all that has waned with it should not detain us.

    Several responses, however, have offered nuanced and serious engagements, ones able to engage the dramatic transformations in the composition of class and capital on which the book is premised.[1] Investigating the shifts among employment sectors, particularly in relation to logistics and transport, they conclude that strikes in those sectors are still viable, necessarily powerful, and therefore highly desirable (these proffers periodically add the suggestion that these sectors are themselves part of production, abandoning the distinction between productive and necessary labor and, intentionally or not, abandoning a Marxist framework in the process; it bears repeating that were these growing sectors generally productive labor, we would have seen a concomitant growth in accumulation which has been by any measure decisively absent). The attention to logistics and transport expresses a burgeoning common sense among that portion of the labor left attentive to structural changes: in the face of postindustrial labor markets, we have over the last few years begun to see advocacy for a shift away from classical point of production struggles and toward what we might call the “point of circulation.”

    These arguments fundamentally concede the book’s analysis, accepting that global capital, at the far end of the long twentieth century, after the collapse of profits in manufacture and industry around the seventies, has shifted its center of balance into circulation in search of profits to be found there (with logistics/transport being one fulcrum, finance another)—and that with capital’s shift to circulationist strategies, employment has followed.

    This reduction of circulation to the logistics and transport sector risks obscuring the character of circulation itself, which like production is a complexly variegated category. It includes formal circulation (the transfer of ownership); the physical circulation of commodities already valorized in the production process and now in search of that value’s realization as price; labor toward these ends; the space of the marketplace where these things happen; and the consumption of goods and services. Most of all, an account focused on how formal employment has followed capital’s movements tends to neglect the ways that informalization and unemployment have followed: the ways in which capital’s shift to circulation indicates discumulation and the end of an adequately expansive labor market able to absorb within the service sector those dropped from manufacture and industry, assuring in turn an increase in those lacking formal access to the wage and left shipwrecked in Marx’s “noisy sphere of circulation” which is above all, like the sphere of production with which it is conjoined, a social relation rather than a technical activity.

    [1]See for example Kim Moody’s “Organize. Strike. Organize,” Jacobin, May 22, 2018, jacobinmag.com. The title gives the programmatic game away with its abandonment of historical actuality for the imperative mode, but his approach is serious, full of both care and thought, and I count him as a comrade.

    Comment by :-l — May 31, 2020 @ 5:37 pm

  5. Great reading during troubled times. Amazing fb posts. I was thinking of this review, and you, when I read this. a master piece of gobblygook way passed my pay grade. I would love if you could make coherent head or tales of it…


    Comment by mike — June 1, 2020 @ 8:29 pm

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