December 2021

Asad Haider is a founding member of Viewpoint Magazine and the author of Mistaken Identity from Verso. He has written for publications such as the Point, Salon, and the Nation.

The interview was originally conducted through the Negation Nightly Radio Hour, which you can listen to here. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

Cam W: Here at Negation, our magazine revolves around young people participating in revolutionary change, as the members of our editorial board are on the younger side, while our audience is generally younger students. As someone who co-founded a popular magazine, Viewpoint, and who has been active in organizing, do you have any advice you would like to share with young revolutionaries and intellectuals?

Asad Haider: That's a very interesting question, because most older revolutionaries were once younger revolutionaries, and growing up can take many forms. There’s no shortage of young revolutionaries who grew up and decided that they had been swept up by the passions of youth and came to repudiate their former politics. What leads to that, I think, is a mistaken association of revolutionary politics with the passion and romance of youth. If you have a “Peter Pan” conception of revolution, then eventually you will have to deal with life outside of Never Never Land. 

The other side of infantile ultra-leftism is senile conservatism. And so those who are older may imagine that they have the solutions that young people don’t, that they know things that young people don't and are qualified to speak on this basis rather than on the basis of the validity of their claims. This generational division is in itself damaging. 

One lesson from the history of youth movements, for example, from the US to China, is that this generational division brings out the worst features of the human personality at its different stages of development. To be young and to be swept up in the energy of proposing new ideas, of trying new things and challenging received wisdom can be balanced, or should be balanced, with a recognition that we are operating on a longer time frame than one can envision after only a decade or two of being. Older people are not authorities to be obeyed or followed, but collaborators who may bring something to young people that will enhance those energies rather than contain them, just as young people may teach those who are older about a world that becomes incomprehensible to them at an ever more rapid pace.

Andrew McWhinney: I was reading through Rodrigo Nunes’s new book, Neither Vertical or Horizontal, and a big thing he talks about in that book is this division of a left melancholia of a pre-May ‘68 and post-May ‘68, which is a kind of a generational division. I think that's relevant and helpful for thinking through questions of being able to learn from each other. We cannot just simply cast off ‘dusty old people’ for their ‘dusty old thoughts’ that they wrote back in the 1920s or whenever, but also we cannot chide younger folks for having certain ideas or insights. 

AH: The increasing popularity of socialism and Marxism has brought with it the Dunning-Kruger effect, and this is not necessarily attached to age, though for basic practical reasons it often is – it simply takes time to study, more time than one has had available at the age of 15. I don’t know that I’ve had enough time 20 years later. The problem is that a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. It is disastrous to think that once you have read a sentence declaring that all of history is the history of class struggle, for example, you have solved, or even actually posed the most important questions of revolutionary politics today. Actually, such sentences – perhaps that sentence in particular – usually launch us into an even larger series of questions that get more and more difficult as you go. A modesty and humility in learning is necessary, and those who age well are the ones who are aware that, as you learn more, there is even more left to learn. The worst scenario is when young people become  convinced that by reading one notorious sentence of the Communist Manifesto, they have grasped the essence of politics, and butt heads with old people who say “well, I've read the complete works of Trotsky, and so on that basis, I can tell you that you're wrong.” Nothing good comes out of that encounter. In this sense there is both a humility and an openness to experimentation that is required on all sides.

CW: I think about my own experience, and when you finally read a really important, canonical book like Capital, I’ve always had this experience where I'll finish something like that and then have so many more questions, and then I have more stuff to read and it's this constant process. I think there's this idea that once I read a certain text, then I'll be kind of set. I will have attained absolute knowledge. But you kind of realize that there's always more to read and learn, which I guess is the whole point of knowledge. 

AM: Yeah, if you try to just pretend that you're not left with any other questions after that, then I don't know, did you really read? Especially Capital. Did you really read the book and take the lessons of that book to heart, and are you trying to think critically about them? Or are you kind of just taking the easy way out by saying, “now that I've read this thing that is supposed to signify that I am a good Marxist, I can then move on with my life and just quote from it now and again?”

You've written quite a bit about the concept of depoliticization, often in description of contemporary left-wing organizing. For those who haven't had a chance to read your work, what would you say depoliticization describes as a concept, and what's its relevance for contemporary organizing today?

AH: You could start by looking at what practices are most prevalent in the culture and discourse of the left, in media, organizations, and so on. What are the elements there that have taken on such an intense affective investment that they have come to be understood as the definition of politics, and to what extent do they present the possibility of actually transforming the world? We could list many practices which revolve around forms of personal self-expression and self-actualization paired with the denunciation and destruction of others. All of these things are sort of a default by which we understand politics today, but I think that they are actually precisely symptoms of the fact that there is very little politics to be seen. 

My argument is based on an underlying perspective which may be counterintuitive, and that people on the left often find quite objectionable, which is the idea that politics is not something that's happening all the time. As we learn about the power relations that permeate every aspect of our daily lives, and how the organization of life around commodity exchange has affected everything down to our most minute interactions with each other, we may come to the conclusion that “everything is political.” Now, it is certainly true that power relations and commodity exchange constitute our everyday lives and even our most basic thoughts, but to what extent does that mean that we are in the presence of politics, in the sense of an emancipatory politics, which means a politics that is an exception to what already exists, or something that goes beyond what already exists? I suggest that in fact this is an indication of the absence of politics. 

Another objection which argues that “everything is political” is that there's always resistance, that any time you see domination, you see resistance, that there is always the possibility of changing the way we act, as a way to lead towards changing society. But we have to pose ourselves the question, in an earnest rather than glib way, of why all this everyday resistance does not result in the overturning of state power or the expropriation of private property. The point is not that any action short of such events is futile, the point is to say that these kinds of change do not happen frequently and we need to frankly acknowledge this and try to understand why. We need to be honest with ourselves about that and we need to ask ourselves whether what we do in the meantime on an everyday basis is preparing us for events, whether we are laying the groundwork for that exceptional moment of politics to take place, or whether we’ve ended up doing precisely the opposite, preventing ourselves from making emancipatory struggles possible, and from being able to participate in them and intervene in them when “the time is ripe” and “the crisis has matured.”

AM: Some people, maybe on the Marxist-Leninist side of things, would maybe say that those who emphasize depoliticization are those who want to pursue horizontal forms of organizing, and they do not have enough discipline to turn politics into something longer term. This horizontal-vertical dichotomy is, I think, a false dichotomy. I think there’s a general sentiment I've seen across some parts of the internet, or at least circles that I'm in, where people ask: What actions are we taking? Are they actually meaningfully political? Do these things that we do that are political actually lead us to the ends that we want, or do they siphon off energy? 

AH: If you start from the premise that politics isn’t always taking place, that it’s something infrequent with a beginning and an end, that means it takes specific forms in specific situations. And if you’re in a situation in which you don't know what form politics is going to take, you can't just copy and paste any kind of particular organizational structure or program onto the present. If you can't grasp the specificity of your actual situation, then politics is not available to you. This is very much a part of the problem of depoliticization. It’s something that happens at a “micro” level when people who are participating in movements find themselves unable to determine how to proceed. There is always a point at which there's a kind of crisis of the existing way of thinking and acting, when people stop and ask themselves: “What is the strategy? Do we have a program? What is the most effective way for us to organize, and what will the process of organization achieve?” And this doesn’t just come in moments of defeat; in fact, it may be because you win a major victory, and that victory now makes the way that you achieved that victory obsolete. And so you will have to figure out what comes next.[1]

But it isn’t easy to “keep going,” because there is not only the “micro” level of our personal disorientation and exhaustion, but also the “macro” level — we are situated in the period which comes after the exceptional interruptions of the stasis of history by the great twentieth-century revolutions. We live in the world after that sequence has come to an end, so it becomes very difficult to imagine now what kind of action would be even close to approximating the kind of social change that happened in the 20th century. Even when you look at the history of the uniquely reactionary and anti-communist United States, if you look at the 1960s you see young people who are seriously considering going to join the National Liberation Front in Vietnam and fight their own government. I mean, people were seriously thinking about things like that, they formed hundreds of Marxist-Leninist groups – many of which didn’t produce much beyond pamphlets denouncing each other, but which did in certain cases organize wildcat strikes, lay the groundwork for militant minorities in labor movements, maintained a continuity of anti-imperialist politics, and so on. But even considered independently from an assessment of their achievements, the fact that people thought these things were possible, or even that thinking this way itself was possible, indicates a very great distance from our moment now. And so that is the global level of depoliticization.

CW: In the article on depoliticization that was published in Viewpoint, you mention “mechanically imposed organizational forms.” How would we go about establishing organizations “naturally” as opposed to forcing an organizational form based on our own values? For example, trying to build a Leninist style party in our conjuncture. 

AH: One thing I would say is that an organizational form won't happen naturally. First of all I agree that it’s a non-starter to simply repeat previously existing organizational forms, which would be the approach that associates Leninism with some kind of blueprint for a vanguard party that you would repeat now. I would say the insight of Leninism is distinct from this. When I hear the word “forcing,” I think immediately about moments of depoliticization, crises for mass movements in which there was an attempt to “force” a resolution of their crisis through a shift to armed struggle precisely when the actual base for such an intensification had drastically declined. This “forcing” was pretty much always a symptom of the collapse of mass movements. 

On the other hand there’s the so-called “horizontalist” position which would say that organization is a kind of organic development of movement. But in a way this is just a repetition of an article of faith of orthodox Marxism, which would say that organization emerges naturally from the laws of history and the development of capitalist society. The process of all historical development leads to a situation which puts workers together in factories, they form associations, and before you know it, the expropriators are expropriated. Literally no revolution has happened this way. 

Forms of organization have to be constructed, they have to be actively constructed, and they can't be just schematically and dogmatically imposed. This means a complicated process of understanding how people are acting politically already, how they are trying to, within their own situations, contest the reality that exists and point to something else that's possible, but then also understanding that there has to be some kind of break from that situation. That will require this balance between developing and cultivating people's practices as they already exist, and generating something that is new, so that it can go beyond what already exists. 

This was actually the point of a category like the party, which is what I was referring to earlier as the real insight of Leninism. Class struggle is always going on in capitalist society, and to simply say that we need to fight the class struggle doesn't answer the question of how this class struggle goes beyond the capitalist system. The workers are always engaged in class struggle, and the capitalist class is certainly always engaged in class struggle, and in many respects capitalism is a system which incorporates class struggle: the struggle of workers is something that drives capitalists to find new ways of organizing the production process, by increasing the productivity of labor and reducing the value of labor-power. It increases the consumption of capitalist commodities and the realization of surplus value. In this sense class struggle operates within the system and is internal to capitalist development. It’s part of the sense in which the fact that resistance is always taking place doesn’t mean that politics is always taking place.

Now let me be clear that I’m not making some kind of sneering and cynical argument that the capitalist system will always recuperate every kind of struggle, and only my special blend of Bordigism and Wertkritik can possibly understand this [laughs]. Rather, there is some extra condition that's required for this class struggle to go beyond the internal dynamics of the capitalist system to something that can actually proceed toward its destruction.

CW: You wrote an article at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, in Salon, arguing that a general strike was on the horizon. You argue that the COVID pandemic left many people questioning the fundamental logic of capitalism. Towards the end of the essay, you say, “for the refusal of work to actually change the underlying structure of society, there has to be a passage to the political level of organization. There has to be some kind of independent organization which challenges the existing structures of political power and channels the refusal of work into the demand for an entirely different system.” And obviously since writing this, many more significant things have happened with the rebellions over the George Floyd murder in the summer of 2020, the election of Joe Biden, and now the increased class conflicts with the strike wave over the last few months. What do you make of these events and have you seen any passage into the political level of organization you argued was necessary back in March?

AH: I didn't pick the headline, but it does give an interesting illustration of this point, which is that in certain circumstances public health measures can just impose a “general strike.” But this kind of “general strike” would not necessarily mean any kind of step beyond capitalism. Nothing precludes the possibility that a capitalist society will submit to a state rationality to manage its crises; in fact, this is Marx’s point about factory legislation, capitalists who compete with each other are never going to take measures to protect the health of their workers, and they run the risk of annihilating the working class through 18-hour days and industrial accidents and malnutrition. So the state steps in, independent of the irrationality of market competition, in order to protect the conditions for the market. Something that resembles a “general strike” could simply be a way of restoring the health of capitalism, if the capitalist state figures out how to deal with the fact that people aren't going to work through planning and top-down coordination. I guess we've had some aspects of that and some aspects of an uneven process of equilibrium, which appears to be fairly precarious. Certainly, we've seen different kinds of social movements pop up. I don't know whether they've yielded any new organizational structures or any lasting institutions. It's probably premature to determine that.

At the time, I had a feeling that there are so many instances in history when something spontaneous results in something that's durable and organized, contrary to the idea that you have to choose between one or the other. But now I’m not sure either is the right way of looking at things. I think the choice between spontaneity and organization is a false choice, but I also don't think that there is a necessary passage from one to the other. It's extraordinary when a movement is massive, when there are crowds of people on the street that you couldn't have imagined before. But part of what that means is that twenty seven million people who came out on the streets in the summer of 2020 did not want to engage in a revolutionary reorganization of the whole society. Passing towards organization, and this is also a counterintuitive point that is contrary to much of what I myself have argued in the past, may not primarily mean building alliances or expanding on a mass scale. It may also mean a contraction and concentration around a specific emancipatory politics that has to be very firmly defended, and that there has to be a consistent and committed core of people who are committed to that kind of politics.

AM: Yeah, just because a movement is mass doesn't mean that it has the particular kind of structural position or power to have the same kind of political effects of something that is smaller, and has a different kind of political orientation that has a direction towards rupture. Some people, specifically those with a left-populist orientation, will make an argument that, if we just get enough people kind of vaguely agreeing that we have a common enemy to fight, then we can change the way things are. The problem with some of that construction, at least from my perspective, is that if you focus too much on constructing a common enemy without thinking about the political form that your resistance takes, then you end up with a kind of depoliticization. I see that as a contemporary political problem, and when I read authors who were super optimistic in the 80s or 90s about building a left-populism in response to what they consider a failed Marxist politics, you see that as kind of a hangover from things that are not very helpful to today’s work. 

AH: Certainly politics, or more precisely “the political,” has been understood in terms of enemies, just as I suggested earlier that it has been understood in terms of power relations in everyday life. Carl Schmitt wrote an essay in which he argued that we have a condition of depoliticization because the mortal struggle with the enemy is being replaced by the technical administration of society. My conception of depoliticization is very different. Both the theory that “everything is political,” and the definition of “the political” as some invariant aspect of human existence, like the decision that makes friends and enemies, are contrary to the idea that politics is exceptional, that it interrupts the continuity of domination, the continuity that characterizes what we know of human history. And so from my vantage point politics is this exceptional interruption. And when the possibility of these interruptions is displaced by ideas of power relations or the struggle with the enemy as an ongoing aspect of human life, that’s part of what I’m calling depoliticization.

Sean Alderson: At Negation, we are preparing a dossier on the party form and discussing the issue as it relates to contemporary politics. Many of our writers pull ideas from you and other Viewpoint contributors like Salar Mohandesi and Rodrigo Nunes. What do you make of contemporary attempts to re-establish socialist working class parties? Would you consider this a ‘mode of politics specific to a historical situation that no longer exists’?

AH: I don't know, because the situation that we're in right now is one in which there is no universal reference point for what kind of organization is attached to emancipatory politics. There is no clarity even about whether such a thing is possible, or whether there's even enough time left for the human species to accomplish such a thing. I don't know if the same assumptions that we may have had before apply. In a previous period, we might have said that without something like a political party, there's no way to make the passage from the everyday class struggle towards the political struggle. But we might have made just as convincing an argument that the structure of the party led to a bureaucratic containment of the kinds of struggles that would be able to go beyond the political organization of capitalist societies. I don't know that either of those positions is necessarily more compelling than the other today, and throughout the advanced capitalist world, even in places where social democracy has not been decimated the way that it has been in the United States, the existing forms and practices don't have any clear inherent meaning. I don't know that we can take a position now for or against “the party,” as if it were self-evident what that even is. Are we talking about an illegal organization whose leaders are running from the police in entirely different continents? Or do we mean a group of men in suits who proudly negotiate “compromises” in bourgeois parliaments? Right now, in the U.S, with its incredibly low level of union organization, the absence of any political party that advocates for basic social programs even Margaret Thatcher couldn’t get rid of, except for the most minuscule bandage measures which were imposed by a world-historical disease (and initially implemented by Donald Trump). In this situation maybe labor organization and electoral campaigns will change the field in which we operate. But that’s only as long as we don't convince ourselves that they’re intrinsically the correct practice based on some kind of social analysis guaranteed by the laws of history. Their meaning results from the way they’re organized into a broader emancipatory politics.

SA: When we did newsletters for the party form subject prior to developing this dossier, one thing I felt very self-conscious about in my newsletters was that I never really wanted to take the step towards saying ‘this is exactly how we need to organize’. That this is the next step we need to take in our particular situation, and this is how we do it. This is just how emancipatory politics needs to be done for the twenty-first century. I have mixed feelings about giving that as an answer, because in some ways it does feel like a cop out just to say “I don't know,” but in some ways it is probably the safest answer and more correct than trying to just impose something and say that we have to do it this way or another.

AH: Yeah, I don't think it's a cop out. When you're writing a newsletter – or, let's say, when you've just given a talk about the concept of “identity” – you can be pretty confident that someone is going to ask you, “what is to be done?” The question has an illustrious history, but it’s completely meaningless without explaining who is doing the doing, what they want to do, why they should do anything at all. You could say that the original answer to the question “what is to be done” ultimately turned out to be a single sentence giving a definition of a “party member.” When revolutionaries in the past made concrete proposals, it wasn’t to answer a purely abstract and general question, but to figure out, for example, what you should do when the Belgian police show up to break up your party congress, so you have to run away to London to finish your debate about the definition of a party member. That’s a pretty concrete set of questions that are getting covered up by the abstract and general question of “what is to be done,” and this makes the question unanswerable.  

AM: I think I understand the desire to ask what is to be done in general. It's an important question to orient yourself around. But to be always demanding that of everything, and especially in a context where it's not exactly going to be helpful, then the answer that you get from asking that in certain contexts isn't going to be helpful. It's good to be able to know the right time to ask what is to be done. There's a time and a place to ask that question.

Some of the work that you have written in Viewpoint and elsewhere has been informed by the work of Sylvain Lazarus. Would you be able to talk a little bit about who Sylvain Lazarus is, and how his work informs some of the work that you've been doing in terms of thinking about the questions of politics and organization? 

AH: He's known mainly through his association with Alain Badiou. He, Badiou and Natacha Michel were the core figures of the group that was called ‘Political Organization’ in France, which came out of the Union of the Communists of France (Marxist-Leninist). These were major Maoist and post-Maoist organizations in France, and while Badiou became well known as a philosopher and commentator on politics, it’s often overlooked that his political theory was drawn from Lazarus. Since then they have diverged in various ways that are interesting to think about and discuss, but a bit technical and equivocal. In terms of my own reading, I had been familiar with Badiou’s work for many years, and there were aspects that interested me and others I found baffling. It was through reading Lazarus that I came to understand what was going on in Badiou, and what's distinctive about Lazarus, other than the fact of this political experience coming out of May ‘68 in France and working in the Maoist movement, and then coming to a break with Maoism that led to the formation of a new political theory and the idea of “politics without a party.” There's also the fact that he was studying workplaces by talking to workers about their workplace struggles and about their daily lives. The relationship between the two is a practice of a “worker's inquiry,” to which we had a big issue of Viewpoint, but in a different theoretical framework from the one the term is usually associated with, Italian workerism. Lazarus proposes a distinctive framework for understanding what, in his terms, “workers think,” rather than talking about their  “class consciousness.” How do you go from understanding workers as objects of sociological analysis to understanding them as subjects who are capable of thinking and acting politically? 

The other important insight of Lazarus for me was his approach to the history of emancipatory politics, focusing specifically on the “political sequences” that framed his own political standpoint. People like Ernest Wamba dia Wamba and Michael Neocosmos have taken the same approach to understanding political sequences in entirely different times and places. The importance of this kind of historical assessment is directly related to the question of depoliticization. Lazarus tried to come up with a way of relating to this history today which doesn't fall into either a kind of empty triumphalism, which says that we will continue to win based on all of these great achievements of the past, and then on the other side, a kind of quietist defeatism, which says that it was all a failure. Of course, beyond the question of success and failure is an equally difficult and perhaps more unsettling question, which is how we understand the fact that revolutions fought in the name of human emancipation and liberation ended up producing violent forms of coercion and domination? 

Here again there are polarized positions. The first is complete denialism, which was a default position for many Communists until Khruschchev’s Secret Speech. It resurged in the post-‘68 wave of anti-revisionism, and declined again after the end of the Cultural Revolution. For most of my lifetime I found it a very interesting position to encounter, a rare discovery like a dodo or a four-leaf clover. Now it is enjoying a remarkable internet revival, which is perhaps not surprising for a generation born decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, political convictions based on the denial of facts that were carefully documented by the state socialist regimes themselves are unsustainable. But just as unsatisfactory are the positions of moral indignation that are based on counterfactual standpoints: a world in which the revolution happened in Germany instead of Russia, or Anton Pannekoek was appointed Chairman of the Comintern.  These are ultimately fatalist positions, because they are projecting all contingency and possibility into an alternative reality, and can only understand the real outcomes as the inevitable realization of an originary error or evils. 

Lazarus presented this idea that he calls the “method of saturation,” which is to say that the fact that a political sequence has ended, that it ended in some kind of failure, does not invalidate what it invented. When we look back at these defeats and failures, we can still understand them on their own terms, in terms of what kind of politics was invented. It means that we can't just pluck these things out and drop them into our present, but it also doesn't mean that we have to view them as completely irrelevant to the way we conceive of politics today. All this may seem sort of abstract, but it's not, because this is actually the question of how you maintain a commitment to emancipatory politics after this sequence of not only victories, but also disasters. How do you maintain a politics in the aftermath of that history? And then how do you continue to affirm the possibility that there will be another politics, that there will be another political sequence that we can act within? I don't think that you can pose the question of a new form of organization unless you have found a way to look back at real history, not an imaginary history, to see how different forms of organization responded to their situations, and how there is still something that is valid within them, despite their closure.

CW: We actually had a similar discussion on our last episode about how there is this kind of false dichotomy between what can be called the “tankie” position of just saying everything that the USSR and China did was good, and then the opposite of just full anti-communism. It's funny how you bring that up too. 

For those who would be interested in reading the work of Lazarus, what would you recommend for that?

AH: There's two articles, one of which is on Viewpoint, called “Worker's Anthropology and Factory Inquiry,” and then another in Cosmos and History called “Can Politics be Thought in Interiority?” There’s also an article on Lenin in the book Lenin Reloaded and an anonymous article on Mao published in positions called “The Dialectical Mode.”  Finally there is the book, Anthropology of the Name, and that is a big undertaking, and it's the kind of text that a reading group could tackle over several months. I think that reading some of Badiou can also be helpful, and if you look at the book called Can Politics Be Thought? which presents Lazarus's argument about the history of socialism and state socialism, and more recently, The Communist Hypothesis, it will be clarifying. But, as I said, there are now significant differences in their approaches. 

SA: One of our previous guests actually studied under Badiou, Daniel Tutt, if you're familiar with him, and they did a reading group on the thought of Sylvain Lazarus earlier last year which I found pretty interesting. I think most people wouldn't recognize the name unless they were already interested in the academic thought of communism. 

AH: Yeah, and you know I tend to assign Anthropology of the Name in most of my graduate classes. Each time I do that, I think the number of people in the world who have read it increases by about two hundred percent. So now I think we may be up to like sixty, seventy people now [laughs].

CW: A lot of the discussion so far also ties into your work on Stuart Hall. In your most recent article on Hall, “Politics Without Guarantees,” you say: “For Hall, the yearning to recover unity and authenticity — to be the center of all phenomena, the origin and the end — was always an attempt to fix and stabilize what can never be fixed and stable. To follow through on Hall’s thought today therefore means to conceive of a political action which doesn’t rest on an already existing foundation, whether it is defined in terms of experience or identity. There’s nothing to guarantee that the historical process will proceed toward a predetermined goal. Political action is collective, organized and specific to its historical situation—made possible by the contingency of the conjuncture.” How has Hall influenced your conception of politics? How does the thesis of a politics without guarantees tie into your concepts of depoliticization and dismissal? 

AH: Interestingly, you will find the phrase ‘without guarantees’ in an anonymous 1967 article by Althusser on the Cultural Revolution. Given its publication history I can’t conceive of Hall being aware of it, but they were both working in the same direction. It's a consistent phrase throughout Althusser’s work, and in the passage you are citing, I was talking about Hall's interpretation of Althusser’s 1962 “Contradiction and Overdetermination.”[2] There is also, in Lazarus’s Anthropology of the Name, a short analysis of the text which is extremely unusual, and I recommend looking at it. 

Hall’s idea of a politics without guarantees is that politics is not determined by the laws of history and is not based on a stable foundation of some already existing object, like the sociological object of class, or the experience of identity. That's a very important critique of classical conceptions of Marxist politics that are based on the expression of a social foundation that are determined by the laws of history and result from the unfolding of history, but also a critique of what is now called “identity politics.” I wanted to take the step of bringing this together with the political theories of Lazarus and Badiou, which also share a point of origin in Althusser’s classic interventions, but went much further in order to address problems that had been left unresolved. What is the relationship between the idea of “politics without guarantees” and the severing of the link between politics and social foundations? However you define it, and however you analyze the social, it will not yield for you the forms of politics or the emancipatory character of a politics. That is not Hall’s own point, but I believe it helps us to elaborate the implications of Hall’s “without guarantees.” In the other direction, I think Hall helps us to understand, in a way that Lazarus and Badiou do not, how politics gets sucked back into the social, which is the problem of ideology. So I take responsibility for doing this from time to time, for staging missed encounters in my own elaboration.

AM: Yeah, you have to be able to infer a little bit of the logic out of what they have already written, and I think that's a helpful way, if you do it properly and rigorously, of being able to read, especially someone like Hall. He’s a great thinker. 

In your book, Mistaken Identity, you engage in a pretty sustained and productive critique of a kind of campus activist understanding of topics like intersectionality, for example. A lot of your work is about avoiding the transitivity of emancipatory political forms based on one’s social position. In thinking about race and class together, I've seen other folks try to think about it in reaction to some critiques that are levied against Marxism, rightfully or not, nuanced or un-nuanced, against its conception of class being able to encompass multiple kinds of forms of exploitation or oppression that aren't necessarily at the level of capitalism. Is there a form of an interaction between intersectionality and Marxism that's generative? Is it necessary to even bring them together to talk about what people would say class can or cannot do? 

AH: There is something that was never fully worked out within Marxism, which was how the analysis of the existing society leads to a strategy and program of transforming it. You will find moments in the work of Marx and Engels where there appears to be a solution to this, and they quickly abandon it, often on the basis of actual political experience. For example, the account that is presented in the Communist Manifesto is immediately shattered to pieces by the 1848 Revolutions, and the account that you get in Capital of this highly sophisticated social analysis of the capitalist mode of production presents no explanation for how this will result in a revolution. We know that the proletariat is the internal antagonist of capital, so we understand  why it is capable of destroying the capitalist system, but how that comes to be is not explained, except for a few sentences in which it seems to be a miracle. The instance that Marx identifies as communist politics after this is the Paris Commune, which follows nothing of the pattern that might have been extrapolated from either the Manifesto or Capital. It was not based on the labor movement of the industrial workers, it resulted from an accident that was the effect of the war and invasion of the Prussian Army, and it was based on the establishment of new political forms, rather than the further development of existing productive forces and institutions. 

So this problem was never solved, and I insist on facing up to the fact that this is a gap, and that the gap is not only theoretical, but real in the sense that you actually cannot derive politics from social analysis. Now, that means a position which some people may accuse of no longer being Marxist, but as I'm pointing out, it's a problem that is not resolved within Marxism, and the way that we deal with it now will not be one that is justified by the Marxist classics, because the problem only arose as a consequence of a history within which Marxism was an active, material force. The classic texts do not already contain solutions to the problems that were established by the revolutions that used them as guides. And before people dismiss me as a renegade and insist that since Marxism is all-powerful because it is true, I suggest they look at what Lenin said on this question at the Eleventh Party Congress. 

The reason I'm saying all of this is that from this vantage point, intersectionality has essentially the same structure as the Marxist orthodoxy that is supposed to be its opposite. It also is a manner of proceeding which starts with a certain kind of social analysis that guarantees a certain kind of politics. Advocates of intersectionality may claim that Marxism is reductionist, while Marxists may claim that intersectionality lacks the rigor and precision of its objective analysis. They could go back and forth about that forever, and while it is possible I would find one position more convincing than the other, there is “no exit” from that conversation. I avoid it entirely by questioning the shared assumption that any kind of social analysis can be expressed in a particular political practice. That's why when people ask me, ‘so what really is the relationship between race and class,’ and so on, I am opposed in principle to answering that question, because this is not really the question that is being posed. The question is, how can we formulate a social analysis that guarantees the correctness of our politics? There is no guarantee, and we should protect the capacity of people to invent forms of political thought and action that can’t be dictated from books or newsletters. 


[1] [Editor’s note: there are some points that Asad wished to add to the interview. We have included them here.] It was put beautifully by William Morris: “how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” And I find the same point in the Urdu poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “Subh-e-Azadi,” on the simultaneity of liberation from colonialism and the partition of India: this is not that “dawn of freedom” we set out to find, let’s go, let’s keep going, we haven’t reached our destination yet.

[2] This is the third chapter of For Marx by Althusser.