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Playing Cat and Mauss: The Historical Crisis of Socialism

All this talk about Marx lately had me returning to a passage in David Graeber’s book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology pdf here. I’ve mentioned the book before, and though I find something of its writing style and organization a bit jarring, I would recommend it for its perspective. There is much to harvest from there. David Graeber had recent (in)famy for being involved in a contract dispute at Yale, his contract failing to be renewed for any formally given reasons, a dismissal others claim to be politically motivated (2006). Here though he sets out an interesting micro-history, the way in which Mauss attempted to address the possible future of socialism in view of the failures of Lenin in Russia, yet still abhorant the vanguard and pro-violent thinking of Sorel. Outlined, it seems, is a path forward, though stillborn in history, which concerns itself with immanent, anarchist-like principles of organization (I am no anarchist), which reject the kind of violenced, intellectual elitist thinking that sometimes tugs at the theorizing of the academic Left. Graeber here suggests that the tendency toward the vanguard and its heirarchies is something that directs itself both Right and Left, (likely with the university system of text-producing intellectually playing their suitably scholastic role). The call for intellectual, ideational rupture, followed by violenced rupture and reframing of society is revolution in the dream of the elite.

Mauss was a child of Orthodox Jewish parents who had the mixed blessing of also being the nephew of Emile Durkheim, the founder of French sociology. Mauss was also a revolutionary socialist. For much of his life, he managed a consumer coop in Paris, and was constantly writing screeds for socialist newspapers, carrying out projects of research on coops in other countries, and trying to create links between coops in order to build an alternative, anti-capitalist, economy. His most famous work was written in response to the crisis of socialism he saw in Lenin’s reintroduction of the market in the Soviet Union in the ’20s: If it was impossible to simply legislate the money economy away, even in Russia, the least monetarized society in Europe, then perhaps revolutionaries needed to start looking at the ethnographic record to see what sort of creature the market really was, and what viable alternatives to capitalism might look like. Hence his “Essay on the Gift,” written in 1925, which argued (among other things) that the origin of all contracts lies in communism, an unconditional commitment to another’s needs, and that despite endless economic textbooks to the contrary, there has never been an economy based on barter: that actually-existing societies which do not employ money have instead been gift economies in which the distinctions we now make between interest and altruism, person and property, freedom and obligation, simply did not exist.

Mauss believed socialism could never be built by state fiat but only gradually, from below, that it was possible to begin building a new society based on mutual aid and self-organization “in the shell of the old”; he felt that existing popular practices provided the basis both for a moral critique of capitalism and possible glimpses of what that future society would be like. All of these are classic anarchist positions. Still, he did not consider himself an anarchist. In fact, he never had anything good to say about them. This was, it appears, because he identified anarchism mainly with the figure of Georges Sorel, an apparently quite personally distasteful French anarcho-syndicalist and anti-Semite, now mainly famous for his essay Reflections sur le Violence. Sorel argued that since the masses were not fundamentally good or rational, it was foolish to make one’s primary appeal to them through reasoned arguments. Politics is the art of inspiring others with great myths. For revolutionaries, he proposed the myth of an apocalyptic General Strike, a moment of total transformation. To maintain it, he added, one would need a revolutionary elite capable of keeping the myth alive by their willingness to engage in symbolic acts of violence – an elite which, like the Marxist vanguard party (often somewhat less symbolic in its violence), Mauss described as a kind of perpetual conspiracy, a modern version of the secret political men’s societies of the ancient world.

In other words, Mauss saw Sorel, and hence anarchism, as introducing an element of the irrational, of violence, and of vanguardism. It might seem a bit odd that among French revolutionaries of the time, it should have been the trade unionist emphasizing the power of myth, and the anthropologist objecting, but in the context of the ’20s and ’30s, with fascist stirrings everywhere, it’s understandable why a European radica l- especially a Jewish one – might see all this as just a little creepy. Creepy enough to throw cold water even on the otherwise rather appealing image of the General Strike – which is after all about the least violent possible way to imagine an apocalyptic revolution. By the ’40s, Mauss concluded his suspicions had proved altogether justified.

To the doctrine of the revolutionary vanguard, he wrote, Sorel added a notion originally culled from Mauss’ own uncle Durkheim: a doctrine of corporatism, of vertical structures glued together by techniques of social solidarity. This he said was a great influence on Lenin, by Lenin’s own admission. From there it was adopted by the Right. By the end of his life, Sorel himself had become increasingly sympathetic with fascism; in this he followed the same trajectory as Mussolini (another youthful dabbler with anarcho-syndicalism) and who, Mauss believed, took these same Durkheimian/Sorelian/Leninist ideas to their ultimate conclusions. By the end of his life, Mauss became convinced even Hitler’s great ritual pageants, torch-lit parades with their chants of “Seig Heil!,” were really inspired by accounts he and his uncle had written about totemic rituals of Australian aborigines. “When we were describing how ritual can create social solidarity, of submerging the individual in the mass,” he complained, “it never occurred to us that anyone would apply such techniques in the modern day!” (In fact, Mauss was mistaken. Modern research has shown Nuremberg rallies were actually inspired by Harvard pep rallies. But this is another story.) (17-19)

Now Mauss’s essay is well-known and actually quite influential in a shadowy way. It provided an alternate conception of ways that primative cultures, and even modern cultures negotiated their identies and exchanges. No longer does the Marxist/Capitalist mythology of universal barter sit well as the necessary ideological underpinning of justice. The point here though is that in Mauss were some historical doubts that we today might well retain, in particular as we contemplate the recent discourses of the academic Left, dreaming of radical breaks with what is possible in society. It seems to me that in particular his distrust of vanguardism, his first hand view of top-down historical failures when coupled with a differential notion of human bonding through gift, and incorporated into a cybernetic conception of the post-human, provides us a view forward, through the mechanisms of Capitalized communication. This, instead of any dying attempt to reformulate the intellectual elite through the full reanimation of Marx’s corpse. The only choices are not some essentialized and projected Capitalism and a not-yet-attained Marxist Communism.

Click here for a nice interview of David Graeber by Charlie Rose (roughly 20 minutes), wherein he addresses the principles of his proposed anarchism. Warning for Badiouists: do not compare this interview, and David’s substantive articulation, with that of Badiou’s recent prevaricating discussion at Hardtalk.

Quote from the Interview: “In academia there is a hierarchy, and…you’re supposed to be scared, you’re supposed to be, um,  sort of cowering before people. And I was never disrespectful before people, but I didn’t cowar.”