Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with Lucas Sutton (archive 2012)

Skepoet: You describe yourself as Neo-Marxist neorealist.  Do you see this in a similar vein to the old analytic Marxism a la G.A. Cohen?

Lucas Sutton:  My Neo-Marxism rejects determinism, it is a recurring and difficult criticism to rebut, so perhaps economic factors are deterministic, but often we only see these things a posteriori, moving to historiography, it is the same; my most realistic account of Hitler’s actions chime in with AJP Taylor’s, that he was an opportunist, a gambler who tried his hand, who waited until the other broke, and often succeeded.

WWII and the rise of the Nazis was not historically deterministic, and the same for in Economics, but actually less so than in Historiography, that is because indeed, Marx was right about the cycle of boom and bust (with bigger booms and bigger busts) and the law of diminishing returns, both of those and previous experiences and writings made me predict this current slump since 2004 and consistently, and funnily enough along with Greenspan.

So yes, Economics is often deterministic, but usually we can only explain the phenomena in hand adequately a-posteriori, no beforehand, even when one of my predictions was right, no one believed me until it happened.

I must declare though that I am methodologically opposed to determinism and often see this as the biggest stick being wielded against us by people that are methodologically and metaphysically aware, and therefore “dangerous” in debate against us. I find it easier to just not support it at all and say they are using straw men. I fully admit to leaning towards and using functional and structuralist arguments all the time, but put in deterministic caveats and try to guard against that in my internal and external thought processes.

Despite all the above I actually agree with more of what Cohen says than the economic determinism, with which I differ with (but slightly).

His moral narrative I absolutely agree with, sustain and argue for. The Marxian morality and ethics debate is often presaged by literal minded Marxists who slavishly quote from Marx and his idiosyncratic/positivist assertions that Marxism is above (bourgeoisie) morality, and yet, the moral tone, outrage and impetus in the writings is clear, as are the amount of chapters written on Marxist ethics, such as in “Companion to Ethics”  or the chapter in “A Cambridge Companion to Marx”.

I am also extremely grateful to Cohen for taking on Nozick and especially Rawls in those contexts and in sustaining the Marxist narrative in the modern era.

Finally and for reasons of brevity I completely agree about his attack of Lockean ideas, which I believe to be extremely pernicious and accepted by many int he developed world but without thinking, even highly abstract concepts like “your body is your property” is it? what about society or family if you choose to drink to excess, for example? Why would a Soldier or father sacrifice his life for his buddies or family for a result that he will not benefit from? Who said that everyone should make a profit, and how does it follow that this is good and if at the expense of plundering the planet and being “free” with innate rights while owning slaves?

Such ideas need to be challenged in the modern context.

I have also found useful in the specific admixture I mentioned would be Roy Bhaskar and the Critical Realists , one small methodological example of my admiration is how he separated Marx and Hegel, again most of the older style Marxists idolize and study both, whereas I’ve always found him to be extremely unpleasant an even bizarre (cunning of reason) in his thinking, Roy was the first person outside of my head who dared to separate the two at last, but there is much more in this 70s form for me which is deeply technical and in the writing and style too.

Suffice to say that CR is the best interface for me in that family. I also and returning to determinism try to use consequentialism and/or empiricism, but lean more towards JS Mill and NOT Hume (Naturalism and the fallacy associated with it), and like the way that Mill takes me back to Epicurus, and then I can go back via Stoicism to Realism via Kant.

Skepoet: How have the Marxist organizations you are linked with responded to Occupy in the U.K?

Lucas Sutton:  I am less active because of recent events, but I was involved in writing copy for a sticker campaign to go up in the East of London, funnily enough the sticker were to be put up by one of our most esteemed poets, who wanted to be active in a more direct way.

Some examples:

Slogan 1:

£1.5 Billion in Benefit Fraud for 2011

£102 Billion in unpaid taxes for 2011

You do the Maths. / All in this together?

Slogan 2:

Average percentage of taxes paid by UK workers; 20%

Average percentage of taxes paid by the largest UK corporations; 1%

You do the Maths. / All in this together?

Slogan :

Average worker’s pay rise in the UK for 2011: 2.2%

Average director’s pay rise in the UK for 2011: 20%

You do the Maths. / All in this together?

The Association of musical Marxists also staged an intervention early on in the Occupy St Pauls movement where once again. Adorno was discussed, but so were a lot of other issues based on what people asked us about, I was wrong in my predictions of apathy and we were well-received and interesting questions were asked.

I am still skeptical of the Occupy London group and do find them to be extremely bourgeoisie, I mean literally, they come from good homes and know the law and look and act like they are on their gap year (a year off from University Studies, the modern “Grand Tour”) or waiting to be post 25, so their trust funds can kick in.

I am not sure if their kind of organizing and vote taking is not vanguardism but a more bourgeoisie kind of control, the amount of collusion with the police seems to confirm this impression, and the same one of people grandstanding or “training” for a career in mainstream left politics.

Declaring an ideological interest like Marxism is akin to saying you believe int he resurrection sometimes, but in this sense the fact that this time there is no proper Marxist vanguard or Ho Chi Minh style Cadres is also down to the left wing too; we can only blame so much on the collapse of the Soviet Union and new academic consensii against the forms for the fact that this time the Marxist narrative is not as strong in these times of crisis than the other times since the 20th Century

Skepoet: What is your opinion on a Maoist trends in the current new left?

Lucas Sutton: another good question, and difficult to answer because of internal ambivalence.

I just don’t “like” Mao and see him again as a problem with advocating our views, especially to the mainstream Westernised populace, so I usually avoid under the “Marxist Leninist” and cult of personality banners.

That is an interesting question also, because that was one of my reasons for leaving the CPGB 5 or so years back. They had members of the DPRK Comsomol at my local and that was too much for me, I wrote and told them they were too grasping and desperate for money to have some poor kids dragged over scared half witless to tell us how good the DPRK is, and then the shame of being nice to them and asking them questions and indirectly supporting their oppression which has nothing to do with our ideas and constitutes a massive demerit to any splinter that associates in that way, regardless, they get more money from the PRC and the Chinese embassy in London, so they slavishly follow their master’s line, which manifests as sophisticated avocations of hoe achingly real and exotic Maoism is and why don’t we try organizing like that.

At grassroots, I get the impression that people mention it to be contraire, but they get instantly slammed by the “Free Tibet” Pinks, of which there are legion over here, and those Tibetans, again so exotic and blameless and Buddhist, more easily marketable at those events than the PRC.

I am not sure how this manifests with the RCP(USA), but I have read that they organize along similar lines, but am not sure if the relevant PRC embassy is involved in that too.

Clearly the answer lies in the middle, which is this; I prefer Ho Chi Minh’s Cadre model, which itself was a development of Mao’s ideas, and is manifested by the success of Vietnam today in steering their own path in Socialism with a market economy (it is also from a military science POV a masterstroke in successful insurgency, and therefore for revolution).

The Maoists have had recent successes to in the developing nations, this is more interesting to me, but I need a longer view of their policies in action to make a better judgment and distinguish the Neo-Maoists from the classical ones, but it is good to see Communists elected, whatever their stripe, and even better to see them do well, which recently in India, not so much so, but here’s hoping.

Skepoet: Have you kept up with the Kasama Project at all in the UK?

Lucas Sutton: Yes, I’m aware of them trying to cut through the apathy and the lack of a vanguard, but again over here, people just don’t like extreme views, as in you extremely believe, them, not that they are extreme per se.

People are so Trotskyite here, even without knowing it, they will always question stuff like that, so again, only hints of them at meetings, but no leads, and they would not be allowed to, which is what is frustrating about revolution in the UK, it is as oligarchic as anything else. So still at the fringes, in my opinion.

We need unity and a unifying text, both are conspicuously lacking right now.

Skepoet: It is interesting. Because I am not a Maoist, but Kasama’s founder has been encouraging me, and he often is in dialogue with many groups from different tendencies. He’s respectful and stands in solidarity but doesn’t water it down. I have noticed, however, the Kasama influence seemed very diminished in the U.K.   What are your thoughts on Trotsky and Trotskyists?  Your phrasing indicates some ambivalence.

Lucas Sutton: Mao has some good ideas, I am blessed like you with actually reading and comparing texts, so can be more objective. Mao and especially Neo-maoism has something to offer, we just need to be pragmatic as to what we take up.

This is me trying to be a Realist again, that we too often get caught out in being doctrinaire and in bounding our rationalities to ideas which, even if we don’t like the writer, might well be valid in the given context that they are evoked, nothing should be precluded out of hand.

I am though, very dismissive, it is cultural and academic, but in the context we are talking about, regarding activism and what is to be done, then again, we need to be more pragmatic and unified, like they are on the right, so I agree with the founder’s sentiments. It is good not to water things down, we need to be honest, with the people and with and among ourselves, it’s a shame that all too often in those contexts psychological insecurities come into play.

Yes, because of believing in something strongly, the British hate that, we/they are a nation that dabbles in things, no one is ever a professional at anything, and those that are, for example the Black Bloc, they are scary, and they are all undercover police, as far as I’m concerned. They are the ones that dominate meetings calling on people to smash things up, and they do if they are bored and because obviously they must be immune from prosecution and in need to give credentials to their revolutionary persona.

Facepalm, so the majority of people here are more interested if anyone has organised hot tea to drink, lots of playing up to the gallery and phone and real cameras thrust out, it’s all a bit naive. Kasama would be seen as outsiders, not as hardcore as the Black Bloc undercover policemen, not as cuddly as all the pinks in woolly hats and thermoses full of nice hot tea.

The British don’t like being organised, even though they are horribly conformist and hate controversy (allowing the false consciousness to flourish), in fact and again, the problems best summed up by this, which I often put up when people complain that I’m being a dictator on FB:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAaWvVFERVA

Which brings me to my ambivalence with Trotsky. 1. British leftists are Trots without even knowing it, like people in the US are Lockean without even knowing it. The epitome is in what Dennis the Peasant’s Mum says regarding “I never voted for you to be King”. So I’m tired of it after all this time, although I have done my time as a Trot in the SWP (now part of the ISO) and before finding my feet in Neomarxism 10 years back or so.

2. Trotsky met Lenin around the corner from me (Marx also lived in my Municipality of Camden Town before that) in King’s Cross. How nice, why does no one question that not many people get a warning that the Orkhana are coming to arrest you and that all passports were personally signed by the relevant minister at the time?

Not many people get tipped off, get a passport and have the money to slum it in London. Not many people get German Gold and a closed Train to go from Switzerland to Russia in.

3. My Trotskyite friends who insist that everything has to be exactly like 1919-24 and as if everything will be ok under such an incredibly rigid and quasi-religious mindset.

But admit this is a contempt bred from familiarity. I am also not personally sure of revolution from above and just thinking that is ok, I believe in educated cadres passing on the skills and knowledge, but not under the banner of revolution from above, which is a dangerous assumption to have about yourself as someone blessed with an education and the leisure to read certain texts, this is more of a duty to share and disseminate, or you are useless.

I am mixing Trotsky and Lenin here, I know, but about revolution and constantly I am more with Trotsky and love his intellect and writing, but slightly tempered with, dare I say it… realism. As best I can, of course.

Skepoet: What are your thoughts on Lenin then?  I find that we often read Lenin in light of later “Leninists” views, but his vanguard idea was from Kautsky of all people.

Lucas Sutton: Hah, things I’ve never really declared before in case I got declared an unperson, or something. Lenin, well it was reading about his life that sealed it.

Take it as read first and foremost, perhaps coming from a family of professionals on one half, that being a vanguard means a lot of responsibility and constant self examination and even revolution. There is a lot implicit in Lenin and ists that takes this for granted.

This is to me horrendously bourgeoise, and manifests often when the “lumpens” don’t think the way we “want” them to. As a realist they have an independent existence from us, and yes, I too have literally been working class. It was a disappointing experience, probably akin to going into some Frontier town, advocating Marxism, and going out riding a rail after being tarred and feathered.

The working classes and especially the underclass are separate from me, they have theior own existence, yes, I have been among them, talked like them, and drank like them, and the disjunct between “what must be done” and what the people we want to “save” want to be done are different things and the motivations the same.

So, do we adopt a Donkey to sum up this perennial problem, like the Democrats did?

No, we just have to be realistic about that and understand that what has to be done is in part relevant with that, it has to materially and ideologically be so. What we think and say is, as we know irrelevant. So we should not think that they are “wrong” and we are so right in saving them from themselves, even though the false consciousness and hegemony via the media are big issues, we need to avoid that intellectual complacency giving way to elitism leading to the bad things of the Soviet Union or some of them as a consequence, and populism.

So that was my other problem with him being a Social Democrat for so long. Was the Social Democratic Party just a simple vehicle to power, and should we worry about that? I know that there was an element of branding and idiosyncratic factors to account for in the choice of name for the party, but there was one of the most advanced anarchist movements in the world at the time there, and they were not scared to be such in the interests of freedom for all. I think that in Lenin I see things in me that I don’t like, and the same for Trotsky, but that was during his battle with Stalin and how he expected his sheer brilliance to get him through, how, at the last minute he could write an amazing text and win the day, whereas Stalin simply attended every single meeting and got more and more friends and appointees in, all to often I have seen me do that too, from exams to even recent events on an online forum.

So I should declare that final personal interest in those cases and why. How unfair of me to not correctly attribute Kautsky and give the received view, I again, blame Lenin and that “win at all costs” attitude I don’t like, being a fan of Stoicism, honor, decorum and modesty are more the thing, even in politics.

Skepoet: What is your working definition of neo-Marxism as I find the term to be used differently in different places? Clarify the definition and I’ll forgive the all Americans are Lockean remark

Lucas Sutton: I’m not surprised that the term is subjective. Back to basics and paraphrasing the Introduction to Theory and Methods in Political Science being a Neo- means that I have accepted some of the criticisms of the original form and have incorporated them into my own position. The salient things are Determinism and Positivism.

With determinism, like I said earlier, these have been the most withering and wounding attacks on our position. It is one of the salient reasons I became a Neo-Marxist and as I looked ahead metaphorically in the seminars and doing the readings and realised that this is a fatal blow if I try to sustain it in debate, because the other side just has to find onecounterexample and the entire deterministic thesis is invalidated. The deductive strength of the form is also it’s weakness, because with human phenomena, as my sociological methodology has taught, will always generate a counter-example.

Human behaviour is highly subjective, but not it is not, I am still a realist, human behaviour is highly contextual and normative, as Althusser has elucidated. But also methodologically the same can be said of relations to determinism, like functionalism, which also has the teleological problem and easy criticisms of it, we just need to be ready to account for these things when they are articulated by the other side in debate.

Returning to that intro in Theory and Methods, Realists differ from Positivists in that we believe that even though abstract and intangible things like “confidence in the market for Florida Oranges” do not materially exist, they do still exist and do manifest, if this intangible and unquantifiable thing causes a bubble and then pop in Orange prices in Florida.

However, as a good source in this, I would say Jon Elster, because he also applies rational choice theory, like the Realists do in other fields and pockets of the Pol. Sci. spectrum, and so do I and like and use Game theory a lot. I think the only “whacky” thing I do is throw in consequntialism into that mix and try to balance it all and not make it to rationalistic and rigid. I am now kicking myself for not mentioning Elster when you mentioned Cohen, of course, these are or would be common ground touchstones for thinker like us.

Regardless, I just want to give a true account of things, whatever it is; even a football match, once we have a true account of things and not a dogmatic and doctrinaire one, then we might be in a position to know what is to be done.

Realism is supposed to be some sort of unifying axiom or criterion for me personally, since it crops up in many places, even in the philosophy of Ethics as a distinct school of thought, but I also like Realism in Art and contend that skill is etymologically essential to the word art.

I throw in consequentialism to account for counter-examples and call that contextualization of the event in hand, which is usually some sort of sociological, idiosyncratic (historical) or cultural exception, although the material and external has an even stronger influence on those/that.

It is similar to how consequentialism manifests in the UK courts where aggravating and mitigating factors are looked at in judgment of any given crime as a criterion to avoid injustice or arbitrariness.

Oh, I hate it just as much when my British friends call themselves Socialist, but say that people have the “right” to make a profit? What? Bloody J. Locke again, the ghost at every dinner table feast. So excuse my lazy brevity, I should’ve said Anglo Saxons, but admire your Southern manners, as ever.

Skepoet: You’re correct, I am a Southerner by birth. Although living in Asia has also made me even more given to those traits. Anyway, back to the substantive part of the interview: How big of a “problem” is Stalinism in UK Marxism?   What are your thoughts on the problems around Uncle Joe?

Lucas Sutton: Yes, I’m a Southerner too by birth, South of the UK, which means that I am a tenderfoot to Northerners, or Southern Softie, but I like that about the south of the Us, the common cultural heritage of manners; I like seeing it manifest incidentally in films such as the original “Cape Fear”, although the good manners setting and the alienated convict are essential in building the fear in that film.

That is easy to answer. It’s not a problem, because of that Trotskyism I was so weary of earlier. Ironically enough and since the war many UK Marxists are shades of the 4th International after the great schisms to do with Stalin.

Even the most brief accounts of the CPs in the UK and various splinters all tell of the time of Stalin and how divisive he was. CCs and executives were all Stalinist and Centrist, because of funding as well as state persecution issues (even I remember calling my friends house in the 1980s and his father was a long time CP member and Morning Star Subscriber, and we used to hear the loud clicks when the phone was hung up by the police – that was the 1980s) probably drove leaders into the arms of the USSR, who invariably used them as useful idiots.

However and at grassroots, the people were always more Trotskyite, and this was reinforced by the continuing popularity of Orwell’s works. He, unlike Bernard Shaw (for example), refused to write jolly things about the Soviet Union as the worker’s paradise and because of hoping that one day it would be like that, just not now, but the message had to be got across.

Both books are deeply anti-Stalinist, and I don’t think I was the only UK subject to be introduced to the work as a child, so anti-Stalinism is deeply rooted here, even culturally so.

For me personally, and for accuracies sake, I swung from Trotskyism when youngest and in the SWP to then trying to be a pure Marxist. My annoyances with the SWP manifested in thinking that Stalin was ok after all, another Caudillo, a bastard, but a good one, a natural product of his environment and lots of lazy pub-talk like that. I used to get a bit of probably a trolling thrill from getting a Gramscian so exasperated by insisting on looking at Stalin in his own terms that he got a book out and got the photographs of cannibalism in the Ukraine and me saying “I’ve seen worse”, but I really have, because I am also specialized in WWII and the Nazis by selecting modules about those when getting my points for the History part of my qualification (only a BA in Philosophy, Politics and History). He was too liberal for me is the real cause of that after dinner awkwardness and in actual fact.

I then found after some serious study that original Marxism is unsustainable in the modern context, and was glad to not have to defend people like Stalin anymore either. However and in my defense, anecdotally for me in the former Soviet Union, people have agreed with my caudillo assessment of Stalin, and that he understood the Russians, even as a Georgian (and a third type of Southerner).

I forgot to mention that in practice regarding Neo-Marxism, that Theory of the mind and Psychology are also very important for giving more accurate accounts of human actions. Historical Institutionalism also has something to offer regarding accounting for unintended consequences, and of course Epistemics as well. All tall orders from a still not satisfied list that any modern Neo-Marxist should be armed with in this modern and highly metaphysical times we live in.

Skepoet: Can I get you to elaborate your Caudillo thesis on Stalin?

Lucas Sutton: Yes, it is another realist one in that I am again attempting to explain the given political “strong man” in their own terms and in their own sociological context, this is more important, what were the conditions that generated the given caudillo and got him to power?

Stalin, like the Argentine Caudillo Rosas was socially alienated as a young man, he had and was nothing in a harsh and repressive social reality where life was cheap. Stalin also for example with his Russophilia understood that nationalism was dangerous and un-Socialist, but also having gone to a Georgian seminary as a boy he also knew the dangers of nationalism from what the Priests taught there in defiance of the Russian Empire.

So he recognized that Russian could be the social “glue” of this new and non-nationalist empire, it worked, there was no more racism in that region until recently again and since the fall of the Soviet Union. This is an issue close to my heart, because my wife is Kazakh, and she told me that no one would suffer racism, but family and other people i know do get racially abused now and worse in the streets of Moscow or Petrograd.

I recently have re-read Seabag Monterfiore’s “Stalin, at the court of the Red Tsar” and the title gives away that Stalin in his way knew what the Russian people wanted, a sort of people’s Tsar. I have never seen this linkage written, but regarding a “People’s Tsar” I am of course alluding to the sentiment in Pan Germanism at the time of a People’s Kaiser, and something that Hitler believed in, but I can see a Totalitarian rebuttal ahead and deservedly so, no, I am only making a sociological linkage with a desire to have a people’s emperor, an Emperor of and for the people.

So I am not pro-Caudillo, I just want a more sociologically realistic account of why such people crop up in history and why than the one that they had a burning desire for power, which seems rather incomplete.

Skepoet:  What is your opinion on Orwell? And if you’re familiar James Burnham as well.

Lucas Sutton: Typical awkward, aloof and argumentative British intellectual who was appreciated after his own time, I think we are the same in criticizing and mocking the UK because we love it and we know it can do much better. His influence is not just political and literary, but it is also historical and parochial, he is another “local” and this is obvious during some of his best writings.

Skepoet: Would you be specific about the flaws you see in classical Marxism?

Lucas Sutton: I think in short that K. Popper’s attacks have been the most devastating, Nozick is like childsplay compared to that, however, in my opinion his reply to the Neo-Marxist reply that the social sciences are not falsifiable anyway (hence that’s ok for Marxism too) is not so devastating, central planning is a procedural argument after the adoption of the system, but his ones about determinism are valid, and that is why I mentioned that one earlier.

When I mentioned postitivism, this was not only methodological, but under the idiosyncratic to the 19th C. rubric, that implies a lot.

The modern economic theoretical attacks which point out internal inconsistencies and so on make the classical form also impossible to sustain in the very important field of Economic, of the classical modle is failing there, then it is in trouble, so again modern economics based accounts and theories have to be developed, and Neo-Marxist have, for example regarding accounting for globalisation and how for example the elites of all nations have something in common, but the working classes are all set against each other in a “race to the bottom” on all levels, work, housing, food production and procurement.

Skepoet: What of a return to the dialectic model of thinking?

Lucas Sutton: I am not sure, because this is anothjer devastating attack of Popper’s, that the dialectical method is used to not adequately address points and side-step them, I would personally prefer the flexibility too of format and writing what is most effective in the situation, it would again be stupid to tie your arm behind your back for doctrinaire reasons, but at the same time agree with Marx that “An end which requires unjustified means is no justifiable end.” to me of course, Marxism is deeply moral.

Skepoet: What have the Marxist groups done in the Occupy movement?

Lucas Sutton: Not enough. We are all nicely divided and marching little paper armies around, at occupy, it is a very knowing popularity context, these are neither democracy or revolution in action, I do not notice a groundswell of opinion, and see this as another missed opportunity, but a Realist would say that, so I should declare that interest.

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?Perhaps I’d interview you again. I found this enlightening.

Lucas Sutton: Thank you for the time and interesting questions, which I’m glad provoked interesting answers.

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