Practical & Philosophical Perspectives on Organization

Jens Johansson

Summary: A report presented at the 2022 IMHO Convention discussing the need for, originality of, and activities by the International Marxist-Humanist Organization – Editors.

During this weekend we will hear many reports on how far right-wing forces around the world have organized in recent years. Lots of the reports will focus on the US, central Europe, Brazil, and India. However, in this report, which is an account of and reflection on our organizational activities, I’ll start from a more remote area: the north of Scandinavia, where you see a somewhat similar development of the right wing as well.

But first, what has overshadowed the situation in Sweden this spring, as in many other places as well, is Putin’s imperialist ambitions resulting in his decision to brutally attack Ukraine. The Steering Committee of the IMHO quickly, just days after the February 24 attack, put together a statement authored mainly by Richard Abernethy denouncing Russia’s attack and at the same time not taking the side of bourgeois forces in Ukraine or its Western allies. We rejected a campist position and argued that we do not take a stance in inter-imperialist wars. This was then approved as a statement of the organization by a majority vote. By my count, we published 10 articles on the war in Ukraine. In addition, we also organized a public meeting with Paul Mason, Gilbert Achcar, Chris Ford, Ruben Markarian, Rocío Lopez, and Richard Abernethy (to see a recording of the meeting, click here: https://imhojournal.org/articles/video-international-marxist-humanist-organization-friends-the-russian-invasion-of-ukraine-our-response/). That meeting was recorded and is currently accessible on YouTube. Try to name one organization of our size that succeeded in doing something similar. Richard has also represented the IMHO on the Ukraine Solidarity Committee in the UK. Our engagement on this issue has resulted in us being invited into a network of critical journalists affiliated with the journals Commons and Politychna Krytyka in Ukraine to help circulate, translate, and further advance an analysis of the war (this network is still in an early phase and details of how it will function are still being worked out).

Back to Scandinavia. Sweden is right now at a point, which is the culmination of an absurd development during the last year. About a year ago, the Social Democrats teamed up with the market-fundamentalist Centrist party to break up the rent control system. Around 3 million people, circa 30 % of the population, live in rental housing and would face increased rents. While the attack on the rent control system was hindered by the Left party, the Social Democrats and the Centrist party succeeded in bringing down LAS, the laws that control workers’ rights, and thus substantially changing the power dynamics on the job market for everyone (!) employed in Sweden. And this spring, just after having promised to stay out of any military alliance, they decided to apply for membership in NATO. Turkey opposed the application but in June, after a month of negotiations, prime minister Magdalena Andersson shook hands with Turkey’s Erdogan. Erdogan was the one who looked happy in the photo. And rightly so. He had made the last country in Europe that openly criticized his policies promise to start to cooperate in the “fight against terrorism,” i.e., to hand over 73 Turkish dissidents living in Sweden, to never again support the Kurdish organizations PKK and YPG, and to lift the embargo prohibiting the selling of weapons to Turkey.

Just think about this last thing for a minute, the Swedish Social Democrats have been negotiating a deal with authoritarian Turkey, which is terrorizing the Kurds. I believe that the disappointment that we on the Left in Sweden feel is probably a bit similar to what Lenin felt when the German Social Democratic Party of 1914 voted in approval of War Credits for the First World War. Although, a difference here is that what we see in Sweden now is the culmination of a process that has been going on for several decades.

One of the things I find most alarming among the Social Democrats, and the Left party, and in many social movements in Sweden as well, is the lack of a genuine imagination of a qualitatively different alternative society. And this is when the objective situation points toward a disastrous future. Climate scientists say that the planet might not be habitable for human beings a hundred years from now. Income inequality is increasing; gender inequality is increasing; shootings, mental health problems, housing prices, queues for hospital care, racist attacks, and food and gas prices are all increasing. No one can deny that standards of life are decreasing and that the burden put on the unemployed, the working class, and the lower middle class has increased. An example of this crisis of imagining an alternative is in how a section of the Swedish right and others, fortunately, they do not yet make up a majority, are pushing for the legalization of drugs. They argue that a sober life is so boring that it is not worth living anymore. Thus, the only alternative they see is to withdraw from reality. While there always have been a handful of individuals around who have espoused similar thoughts, it is an indication that something today is really bad when these ideas are gaining momentum.

It is in this situation that our politicians are talking about politics as only a technical issue. Utopian ideas and visions of radical alternatives are ignored, or at best met with someone saying it is irrational, but most often with someone saying it is impossible.

I don’t accept that a world like this is the endpoint of human society’s development. I want a new society where capitalist relations of production no longer dominate social relations, and where all forms of oppression have been overcome. Here, I am thinking of the kind of non-compromising attitude Marx showed in a passage that Dunayevskaya quoted in Marxism & Freedom (p. 53 in the Humanity Books edition of 2000). Marx declared:

We must not be afraid to criticize the existing world ruthlessly. I mean ruthlessly in the sense that we must not be afraid of our own conclusions and equally unafraid of coming into conflict with the prevailing powers… The world has long had the dream of something and must only possess the consciousness of it in order to possess it actually.”[1]

The IMHO is the only organization I’ve found that seriously, without any irony at all, puts the challenge of developing a notion of what a new human society is, and how to reach it, at the center of its activities. I remember how this attempt was what attracted me to the organization. A couple of years back I had been admitted to a year of exchange studies in California. I had a professor there who spoke about a woman with a Russian-sounding name I had never heard of before. I went up to his office hour after one class with some questions. While entering his office I saw a book on his bookshelf with the title Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism. Of course, I thought, that is what it is all about. Analysis for analysis’s sake is meaningless unless it doesn’t aim to help guide us in our struggle toward an emancipated existence. Suddenly, I forgot my questions and instead spent the time with my professor talking about that book, and that was how I first got in touch with Marxist-Humanism and the IMHO.

Later on, I learned that what was unique with the IMHO was that it was an activist organization where the role of reason and theory was so central. I tried to explain to friends at home that it was not an academic organization. We have several of those kinds of academic networks at home, where they publish journals where they, for example, can talk about one section in Hegel’s Science of Logic and explain it by referring to another section in Phenomenology of Spirit, and often in the original German. Kind of hopeless for someone trying to get into it. But neither was IMHO like one of those activist organizations where theory was regarded as a secondary issue. Instead, theory and philosophy were something central that guided the activities of the organization.

This difference manifested itself in how the IMHO organized public meetings outside the university, on every day topics that departed from daily struggles and lived experiences of racism, gender, and class oppression. I learned that the very method of developing a Marxist-Humanist analysis starts with daily lived experiences. Thus, it was not for a reference to an abstract principle of equality, or only as sympathy, that News & Letters, when Raya was around, had a weekly column entitled “Voices from Below,” but for the reason that these voices are those who know how capitalism develops. They are on the front line, so to say. Denby’s Indignant Heart is a masterpiece and a pioneering work in this tradition. As a Black man coming from the South, he wrote in a kind of diary format about his experiences on the plantations in the South, the factories in the North, his meetings with the political parties at the time, but also about when going to Saturday night dance halls, and about his personal relations to family and friends (indeed important moments of a human’s life). Denby didn’t write his book without assistance from other comrades who helped edit it and put it together. The book forced many to rethink the relationship between capitalism and racism and to further develop their analysis. It is hard to say if it is a historical book, if it is literature like a novel, or if one should think of it as a longer political pamphlet. I think it is all of those at once. It’s easier to say that it is, as mentioned, a masterpiece. I encourage everyone to have a look at it.

The focus on grounding an advanced philosophical analysis in concrete daily experiences has thus been characteristic of our brand of Marxist-Humanism. It was part of the roots of this organization which was formed in the mid-1950s. In addition, when Dunayevskaya and Charles Denby split apart from CLR James and Grace Lee Boggs, one of the issues Dunayevskaya and Denby fought for was the need for an organization focused on developing a philosophy of liberation that can guide the masses in their struggle for freedom. The organization, they thought, should not be another variant of a vanguard party. But there still had to be some form of discipline and some form of organization, rather than just spontaneity or horizontalism. The answer they came up with was an organization based on democratically elected committees. Such an organization of committees is not an absolute opposite of a vanguard party, they thought. Instead, a Marxist-Humanist influenced organization of democratically elected committees should work against the kind of division between worker and intellectual, mental and manual labor, hierarchies, and the undemocratic nature you found in organizations structured as a vanguard party.

When you hear older comrades talking about how the organization was structured and what it demanded of its members back in the 1960s, -70s, and -80s, you realize that it was quite different from today. And it is hard to not get impressed by how dedicated it seems that many members were back then. Peter Hudis once told me that “back then” there was a monthly printed journal that was made and sent out to subscribers. There were meetings every week that were mandatory for members to attend, and if you missed three meetings in a row you were no longer considered a member. Thus, if you were going to leave town you had to discuss that with the local organizer (admittedly, I am happy that nowadays the organizer is relieved from having to keep track of members’ travels).

But then one shouldn’t forget that the 1960s-80s was a very different time compared to the 2020s. That means that an organization like the IMHO can’t uphold all principles and ideas developed in one context, as if they were an abstract absolute set of ideas of how an organization should be organized. Instead, we must work out a new notion of how the IMHO should work, based on our context and the issues we face today.

That being said, there are continuities in the functioning of IMHO that have stayed intact since the foundation of our tendency in 1955. That is for example the Convention form, which is a unique feature and characteristic of IMHO. The uniqueness of it consists in that we write a Call that is sent out to all members at least ninety days ahead of the Convention. In this Call, we bring up a few important questions to start a conversation (however, we can’t cover everything in the call). The draft reports are also provided to members before the Convention starts, so everyone can get the chance to have a little time to read them closely and reflect upon the material. This is done so that everyone can be as prepared as possible when we meet.

Moreover, at the Convention, everyone is allowed to bring up any question they think is important. Thus, the discussion does not usually take the form of a debate around one question and then a back and forth between the audience and the presenter. That way we believe we make room for more voices, and more stimulating ideas that can contribute to developing the organization and our analysis of present-day capitalism. Again, I don’t know of any other organization that has Conventions like this for their members.

Now I’ll give you a quick overview of what we have done during the last two years.

During the year 2021-2022, we have published no less than 102 articles. Of those, about 25 % of the authors are women, 3 % non-binary, and around 10 % are written by a group. The division between global North and global South is that around 80 % of the authors are based in the global North, 20 % in the Global South. Please, take this with a grain of salt, as it is not easy to know exactly where the border is and not all authors identify where they are from.

The three most read articles during the last 12 months were “Covid-19 and Social Inequality: How Poor Filipinos Suffer More During Pandemics” by Regletto Aldrich Imbong, “Tangping: The Latest Rallying Call of the Chinese Workers?” By Nina, and “The Originality of Marx’s French Edition of Capital: An Historical Analysis” by Rodrigo Maiolini Rebello Pinho.

We have done 28 public meetings, that is a little more than one every other week. And we have published several books as well. The new edition of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program and Marxist-Humanism in the Present Moment are creations of the organization (a very positive review appeared just the other day in “Marx & Philosophy Review of Books” on the latter, here https://imhojournal.org/articles/review-of-marxist-humanism-in-the-present-moment/ ). The new translation of the Critique of the Gotha Program is a great achievement by us. It has been a project that has taken several years and hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work from those involved. It is a text that I believe perhaps speaks to our generation more than anyone before us. We are the ones who have seen how Social Democratic tendencies have broken up and, as for example in Denmark, incorporated xenophobic policies from the far-right, instead of fighting against them. We are now also in a time when poststructuralist and postmodernist ideas are being questioned and are no longer as dominant as before. Indeed, when the Critique finally becomes available through PM Press, we certainly have a reason to celebrate and to make a public event of it.

Moreover, during the last year, members and friends of the organization have also published books that are important Marxist-Humanist works, for example, A Revolutionary Subject by Lilia D Monzó; Raya Dunayevskaya’s Intersectional Marxism edited by Heather A. Brown, Kevin B. Anderson, and Kieran Durkin; Dialectics of Liberation by Kevin Anderson; and Social Media & Capitalism by Suddhabrata Deb Roy. Marx at the Margins has also during this time been translated into Arabic, Korean, and Tamil, and Marx on Gender and the Family has been translated into Turkish and German.

Speaking of works in other languages, by my count we have published 13 articles in languages other than English. The three most common are Portuguese, Hindi, and Dutch. And in addition to that, we have a handful of reviews of books in other languages. The pandemic has hindered face-to-face events, and at the moment it unfortunately again seems like there is a potential risk that the pandemic can hit us again.

The website has had 24,496 unique visitors during the last 12 months. 28 % of those are based in the US, but the second most typical reader of our website is based in the Philippines, 22 % according to Google Analytics. Then comes folks from Britain, Canada, and India.

In addition to our regular public meetings in Chicago and LA, and our international mini-conferences, the European group has switched from having reading groups to holding regular public meetings. In the fall they finished up a reading group on Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism with several non-members participating, and during the spring organized a series of public meetings under the topic “Socialism Reimagined.” The organization has deepened contact and cooperation with public intellectuals like Paul Mason, Gilbert Achcar, Barbara Epstein, and Lewis Gordon, to name a few. And we’ve been able to set up a hybrid Convention, for which Ali and Peter deserve great thanks from all of us for making it possible.

 

For a revolutionary future!

In solidarity,

Jens Johansson, Communications and Outreach Coordinator of the IMHO

 

Footnotes

[1] Letters: Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge (marxists.org)

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