We're still drafting this. This is a why we are doing this and what we are thinking about doing and how you can help. Run on sentences ahead.
Marx is intimidating.
Years ago, in college, I was missing a math requisite and had to take a summer course to graduate. A handful of people in my boat and a bunch of incoming freshmen who were eager to get it out of the way. The teacher was nice enough, but one day, out of the blue, she went off on this weird anti-communist diatribe. She started telling everybody that math was important because you could prove things in math and that there wasn't a word of math in Karl Marx, just conjecture. Another kid in the class and I had hit it off over some shared political interests and we just started laughing at her. No math in Das Capital? At the time, I was having trouble with it because of the math. Her wisdom challenged in front of my fellow moldable minds, she doubled down. We asked her what Marx had she read. Whatever she stammered out, it seemed pretty clear that she hadn't read a word. Or seen a figure.
I couldn't entirely blame her, I was having trouble reading Das Kapital myself, but I trudged along. Volume One, and the books it inspired, contained a helpful set of tools to understand the world around us. Capitalism. Imperialism. Exploitation. Labor. Labor Value. Use Value. Read a little more and it began to get a little complicated. Hegemony. Commodity Fetishism. Alienation. If you kept reading, you'd find yourself in the world of Reification and the Ideological State Apparatus. Then there were the arguments. And party lines. Disagreements over the Spanish Civil War. What was happening in China. What IS happening in China. It could be incredibly intimidating.
But the tools themselves remain useful. In a confusing world, nothing can provide all the answers, but they can illuminate: where to inquire, what to look for, how to critically understand what is going on, why is it being framed in such a way and in whose interest?
There's a surplus of food but famine and hunger worldwide. There are more than enough houses but people sleep on the streets. Despite regular economic downturns that can close factories and destabilize countries, there's always a wealthy elite seems to float along just fine. How? Why? Who? Who's going to do anything about any of this?
If there is one constant in my life, it is that capitalism is the system of our time, predicated on exploitation, and it is destroying us. All of us. Individually. As groups. As a planet.
People are politically active today in a way that is refreshing. The comfortable are discomforted constantly in a panic about people being "woke," cancel culture, this idea that there is this mob of "social justice warriors" out ready at a moment's notice to go fight. It's comforting to know we're not alone in our frustration at a rigged system doling out tiered justice and diminishing returns.
But the protests are having diminishing returns as well. George W. Bush called the largest peace march in world history a "focus group," and went on to commit the crime of the Iraq war. We say Black Lives Matter, but the police are just getting more impunity, more weapons, more thin blue line punisher Iphone cases. Even when we get "progressives" elected, nothing seems to change for the better.
Since the Communist Manifesto was written over 170 years ago, the one constant has been that capitalists fear the threat of Communism. A hundred years ago, we had the Palmer raids where the U.S. government deported suspected socialists, anarchists, and communists. We had the Red scare of the 1950s with congressional hearings and "blacklists." We had COINTELPRO where the FBI spied on, sabotaged, and assassinated communists and suspected sympathizers (among others). And that's just domestically.
Internationally, the U.S. has been killing communists for a long time. We invaded Russia in 1918, fought China and Korea in the 1950s, overthrew the left-leaning government in Guatemala in 1954, organized an invasion of Cuba in 1961, invaded Vietnam in 1964, overthrew Chile's socialist government in 1973, organized and armed death squads across Latin America for decades, and threatened the entire world with "Mutual assured destruction" from the end of the Cold War to the fall of the Soviet Union.
People will talk with conviction about authoritarianism and political dogma. References to dictators, bread lines, and poverty abut heartfelt declarations about the sad state of human nature and sadly there is just no alternative to what we have now.
It's fantastic, really. Listening to working people, people who've worked their whole lives, some with only a glimmer of hope of retirement at the end, taught to fear themselves. Preaching now that working people should never be in charge. That if we are to read merely a word of Marx or Engels or Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin or Mao or Castro or Ho Chi Minh or Angela Davis or Mike Davis or Mark Fisher, well, then before you know it, we're all going to end up in Stalin's gulag before lunch. Prisoners of ourselves.
That is fear. Fear that was taught. Fear that was reinforced. Capitalist fear. In our minds. Sometimes coming out of our mouths. Fear of what we can do together, if we get organized and use revolutionary theory and practice to re-make this world for ourselves, with our hands. We are taught this for the simple reason that Communism is how we forcibly break apart the organized power of the capitalist class.
Marx is intimidating that way. But reading Left Theory doesn't have to be.
We're going to host a reading a day, 15 minutes or less, for a year. Something to get you thinking. You don't have to agree or pay or swear allegiance to anything. But there's a lot of work to be done. And as someone once said, forgive the paraphrase, "Thought without work is empty, work without thought is blind." Let's see what we can do.
Enjoy The Red Letter.
What we are currently thinking of doing
Oy. Currently is the key word here because this changes fairly frequently because we're spending
a lot of too much time thinking about it. Red Letter is designed to cycle after a year to get people acquainted with the ideas; if something piques your curiosity, go get the larger book. Currently, the idea is to go through the basic vocabulary (e.g., Proletariat, historical materialism, dialectic, alienation, etc), starting our our way through basic concepts. As more recent concepts are developed and explored, we go into those at the same time as we look into the revolutions that happen around the same time and thus alternate between these newer concepts and the contemporary revolutionary theory. Finally, as we get a little deeper into the year, we can begin to broach areas of study that have been developed outside of strict post-revolutionary theory (e.g., the lumpenproletariat and mass incarceration, Capitalism's deconstruction of the family from the apprenticeships of the English Working Class to the antebellum Black Codes, a communist feminism outside of motherhood, etc) that could be themed over a week. We finish up the year with some fine wine and coordinate an overthrow of the state or let the site cycle over and enjoy our armchairs.
Questions and concerns: If we frontload the year with the beginning vocab, does the site become less approachable to new people as the year progresses? If we keep remedial readings throughout, does it get repetitive and begin to bore people (or would people appreciate the regular refreshers?)? How long is too long for the readings? Do we add more notes, jokes, and personality to the daily readings to keep people interested? Should we make it more interactive and, if so, how? What readings should we include? If we post an index of all the readings from the year to date, does it destroy the form of the site? How much is too much Marx? How much is too much Stalin? Do we introduce revisionism as a site of exploration or do we become mired in left infighting? How do we avoid left infighting? What is to be done? Are we overthinking this? If you have thoughts, send them to email@example.com and we will read your thoughts.
How You Can Help
Besides buying a book through the daily link (zero pressure, but if you're going to get it anyway, get it there), we don't have an advertising budget. You reading this right now, you are the marketing department. If this was right wing nonsense, there'd be some supermarket heiress cutting checks so we could spam millions of people's emails and pay for atrocious website ads. We mentioned something about how we heard the capitalists will sell us the rope to hang them with and she is not returning our calls. Help. How do we get this out there? We have class formation and we need class consciousness. We are really trying to figure this one out. If you do something, let us know about it. If you help us spread the word, we will send you presents and buy you beers because this is not our strong suit.
Yikes. We forgot to post the reading. Quick, scan the news and see if the revolution broke out. We might be at the barricades.
If there is no mention of the impending fall of capitalism, send us an email saying something like "if a reading isn't up in ten minutes, you're getting an extra day in the re-education camp after the revolution, you armchair phony."
Meanwhile, enjoy yesterday's exciting reading.