Some Brief Theses on Chris Hedges, Paul Tillich, and the Struggles Ahead for the 99%

by Andrew Stewart on September 27, 2017


So he is at it again.

Chris Hedges, who very obviously fancies himself as a reincarnated Norman Thomas (the social gospel minister who took over the Socialist Party of America after the end of the First Red Scare), has written another column for TruthDig about how direct action tactics and those who engage in them are poisonous. A few years ago he was calling the black bloc elements in Occupy a “cancer”, now he is equating AntiFa with neo-Nazis.

This is not the first time Hedges has made such statements in public. In the past few years, when he delivered sermons on Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci at the Left Forum, he made such embarrassing mistakes that made people do nothing but laugh at. Lenin became a Luxemburgist and abandoned his opinions on the national question? Gramsci was not a Stalinist? News to me!

As I ruminate on these things, an extended diary quote from Alexander Cockburn’s A Colossal Wreck stirs in the back of my mind, not too different from a squeaking church mouse heard at the back of the nave:

May 17 [1995]

Detroit—The “Gun Stock ’95” rally held at Freedom Hill, in Macomb County, on a gusty Saturday in mid-May had been advertised to me by local leftists as a potential mini-Nuremberg of a far-right crowd. I drove north from Detroit expecting to find grim-jawed Patriots toting awesome armament and mustered in their camos in defense of the Second Amendment… Back in Detroit leftist friends berated me for taking too friendly an attitude to the afternoon’s proceedings. I told them we should have had our booths and literature up at the event, assuming the organizers would have let us. What’s always missing from the populist-right analysis is who actually runs the world. They say “the Masons,” or the “the Jews,” or some other preferred candidate. But they always miss out on the corporations. Show them the Fortune 500 and they look blank. But these young workers should be getting decent radical analysis and some respectful attention. Tell someone he’s a Nazi long enough, and he may just become one, just for the hell of it and as a way of saying F— you to the powers-that-be.

What would he make of the alt-right? How would he have responded to Paul Craig Roberts, who seems to be a bit infuriated by the idea of people pointing the obvious fact that the American white worker has always been prone to chauvinism as a result of austerity?

I’ve always been taken with his proposition that these poor white libertarian-leaning workers, left out in the cold by neoliberalism in the past several decades, are worth trying to educate and perhaps turn towards revolutionary politics. Partly it is from a Catholic guilt for the poor souls beholden to the heresy of whiteness. And partly it is because I am inclined to believe it is worth having that many people with guns on your side. Does Hedges look for this also?

At the outset, there are some basic points worth mentioning.

1) Hedges is circling around a kernel of truth (despite burying it in layers of bull) when he says that there is something similar between AntiFa and neo-Nazis. Some of the young white middle class men (and it it is totally just young white middle class men that I speak of here) who engage in these groupings do sometimes seem to be yearning for the praxis of Georges Sorel. That late 19th century Frenchman melded Marxism and syndicalism together with a pronounced and obvious brand of anti-Semitism to create a wholly unique psuedo-leftist brand of thinking that views the divinely ordained Event as a centrifuge of history. In many ways Sorel’s ideas do seem reminiscent of Luxemburg and perhaps CLR James’s ideas about spontaneity. Yet his bizarre mental somersault of being able to praise Lenin and Mussolini simultaneously in the 1920s made him a proto-fascist if there ever was one. Let’s not kid ourselves, there are men in activist spaces who make a habit out of utilizing the praxis and its space-time location to be creeps towards those they sexually desire. These creeps do find themselves magnetized towards black bloc and AntiFa because it gives them a venue where they can engage in a kind of beefcake posturing one encounters at the gym. And in those circumstances, they refuse to acknowledge that they are making a tactical decision that ends up being to the benefit of the right wing news media. In more concrete terms, they become performance artists before Fox News cameras. Again, I do not say these things about people of color or working class women, those are individuals who have a fundamentally different grasp on reality. White middle class men do not have that sort of consciousness unless they have gone through years of political education, which our culture is in short supply of these days.

2) If we want to be serious, AntiFa is not an organization, it is a tactic. Those who put forward the argument otherwise are feeding into a hard right narrative about how a congregation made up of Black Lives Matter, AntiFa, the Resistance, and George Soros are all coming to take their guns. This foolishness furthermore goes against the important guidance of Amilcar Cabral, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” The chaos wrought by this recent presidential election is going to ripple across generations unless we are engaging in a very longterm strategy that goes beyond street theater politics and into the realm of countering Trump’s policy efforts with genuine liberatory policies. Leftists have allowed the anti-state logic of anarchism, which does have some merit, to make them abandon important local electoral politics struggles that we need to be fighting. School privatizations nationwide under Obama and Trump have been allowed by abandoning races for city council and school boards. The Waltons and other education deformers have been contributing substantial sums of money in the past decade to municipal elections to actualize their goals while the Left has let anarchism’s proto-Foucauldian suspicion of state power to hinder creating opposition to the re-segregation of our public schools.

I would offer one major issue that we need to fight with nothing more or less than a full-frontal charge into the electoral realm. By now it is quite obvious that prison abolition and the fight against the so-called New Jim Crow is part of a major tide sweeping across the country. Michelle Alexander’s book and the documentary 13TH have shaped our discourse in the mainstream liberal media in a way that is undeniable. As a result, the Koch brothers and ALEC are throwing their hats into the ring so to make a profit off the effort and further extend the violence of the carceral state. Leftists need to be serious and run for offices in order to pass laws that prevent those things from being allowed to come to fruition. Anarchists who look down their nose at people entering electoral politics over such matters are profoundly wrongheaded and need to get a grip on reality. Which of course leads to:

3) While I respect the idea of harkening back to the AntiFa movement in postwar Germany, I have to admit that such logic is profoundly and totally at odds with reality. The postwar AntiFa movement was aligned with the state powers (such as they were) when these original activists were engaged in a campaign to help hunt down fugitive Nazis. The German people were living in a country that was occupied by four of the most violent and repressive state powers in modern history, France, England, America, and Russia. AntiFa was, for lack of a better term, a militia movement of the Left with quasi-approval from these state powers. In American contexts over the past quarter century, the militia movement of similar standing has been a right wing phenomenon. The leftists in the academy and other realms of discourse who overlooked that tiny detail, namely Mark Bray, really need to get a little clarity  with regards to how this stuff operated.

4) With these things in mind, the logical and tactical conclusion one is forced to dictates Leftists should not mimic AntiFa but rather Tito’s Partisan movement during World War II. That was a disciplined united front from below of communists, socialists, liberals, and all others who opposed the ascent of a vicious fascist movement across Europe. Its praxis was defined by internationalism, opposition to chauvinism, and gender equity. It had a long-term vision that extended into the realm of victory and creating a new social order once the Nazis were swept from power. Furthermore, Tito’s break with Stalin, which was partly due to the Greek civil war and partly due to a fundamental difference over what workers control of the means of production meant, demonstrates a precedent of independence and tenacity that is worth duplicating. Of course Hedges, with his crass anti-Communist view of history that in toto is derived from little more than things he gleaned from Noam Chomsky speeches, is incapable of articulating these things.

5) Hedges tries to foster through his work the growth of a new Left. He does articulate a tactical critique that is useful in some instances. Yet he fails to become a synthesis of two tendencies today that are absolutely necessary for any genuine liberation project. The first is the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, whose work says that a future socialism must come from a theological rather than secular position. The second is of course a solidarity with the Black radical tradition as articulated through the Black church, something described clearly by Du Bois in several chapters of his Souls of Black Folk. Hedges cannot take on the role that Cornel West can in this discussion. But Hedges can lead many Euro-Americans and other non-Africans living in America towards a Zizek-tinged demeanor of being a Fellow Traveler of the Black church. It is particularly worthwhile here to indicate that he is already halfway there. The lineage of contemporary Liberation theology is a fascinating history. It begins when Dietrich Bonhoeffer spends his seminary years studying in Harlem at the feet of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. before returning to Germany with a book of Black spirituals, what Du Bois calls Sorrow Songs, to create the anti-Nazi confessing church. The example of this church, along with his writings on the cost of discipleship, are in turn of great importance to Martin Luther King, Jr. It is tangible to query, though ultimately I am uncertain, if King discussed Bonhoeffer with Malcolm X on one of the many occasions their families spent time together, a fact just recently disclosed by their families, but one has to ask if it was an influence on el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. Either way, this back-and-forth between across the Atlantic, between the anti-Nazi church and Liberation Theologians throughout the Western Hemisphere, is something Hedges has a lot of insight on and where I would like him to speak from.

I try very hard to tolerate Chris Hedges. I actually do enjoy some of his television shows and find some insights useful.

Yet his praxis is effectively defined by something I understand quite well. The truth is that I in fact had a similar set of experiences with my own upbringing. Originally, Hedges was a seminarian who was alienated from Protestantism by its embrace of the heretical prosperity gospel in the 1980s. Likewise, I was raised as an Irish Catholic and found myself disgusted by the American church’s embrace of imperialism during the Bush-Cheney years. Both Hedges and I have an understanding of the basic theological matrix of Christianity, one which is informed by the existential thought of German exile Paul Tillich. He argued that God was something to be understood as the very experience of life itself, nearing a kind of pantheism, according to his detractors.

It is very clear that Hedges fails to understand the Marxian dialectic and where the philosophy of building a hegemonic proletariat converges with building what the great African Doctor of the Church describes as the City of God. Putting things into an extremely truncated and concise form, the logic of Marx and Augustine of Hippo are essentially and undeniably based around the doctrine of catholicism (in the true meaning of that word). Both thinkers saw history as a cyclical system of contradictions that would self-correct over and over until reaching a final end stage. The difference between the hegemonic world proletariat in pure communism and the communion of saints in the City of God is that one is seen as being only possible in the afterlife while the other says such is only possible in this life. Tillich’s theology, contra the classical theological discourse, sought to build a bridge between those two conclusions and actualizes such. Unlike the polytheistic gods, who can be equated with a potter and their created world with a pot on the spinning wheel, the existential Christian God is instead a dancer. God creates the dance, creation.

I mention all this because I think that Hedges needs to get some education. Very obviously he has allowed his views to be informed by the polemical and biased trilogy Main Currents of Marxism, three books by Polish dissident philosopher Leszek Kołakowski that presented themselves as a mature critique of the philosophy but were in fact a disingenuous Cold War rant. The books are on Noam Chomsky’s imperfect reading list for radicals and have been hailed by many social democrats like the late Tony Judt for decades.

In its stead I cannot recommend enough the brilliant and accessible Marxism After Marx by David McLellan, a catalog of major Marxist thinkers in the form of short 2-3 page essays with accompanying annotated bibliographies. It is a brilliant jaunt through the intellectual history of the Left that helps the reader see how and why mistakes were made in a fashion that is less polemical than what Hedges is trafficking in these days. Perhaps after reading this he will understand more clearly where his mistakes are being made. Corresponding with this I would suggest he consider the writings of CLR James and particularly the great collection A New Notion: Two Works by C. L. R. James: Every Cook Can Govern and The Invading Socialist Society edited by Noel Ignatiev. In these two works, James offered first a diagnosis of the nature of the Communist Parties and how they functioned in implementation of state capitalist systems that were not revolutionary. In the second, a rather short 1956 treatise on the Athenian democracy provides the ideal model that James saw as the desirable governance of the hegemonic proletariat.

Quite obviously both pamphlets, written during the epoch of Fordism and state capitalism, read as profoundly idealist in hindsight. The neoclassical economic effort to push human development back into a feudal state of affairs, with the aristocratic FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector forming a new aristocracy, pushes our society farther away from that finish line. Such a development is described by thinkers like Vijay Prashad, going off the writings of Prabhat Patnaik, as a reason why the state must be seen as a progressive force. Patnaik writes “[A]ny analysis that accords centrality to the alliance of workers and peasants as the means of embarking on an alternative strategy [against finance capitalism] cannot but see the struggle against imperialist globalization as being nation-based, with the objective of bringing about a change in the nature of the nation-State.” Predicting the obvious anarchist rebuttals, here he responds by saying “Isn’t a retreat to a national agenda against the march of history, an un-dialectical act of setting the clock back?  The answer to this question lies in the fact that the forward march of history is ensured by the lead provided by a force that comprehends “the historical process as a whole”, a force that brings the revolutionary class outlook to the working class and organizes the peasantry around it.  The march of history is not reducible to formulae about whether the terrain of resistance is national or international; it depends upon whether the leading force in the resistance is internationalist or reactionary.” I point to James and Patnaik here because they present two polarities, a short-term and long-term goal or, as Gramsci called it, the War of Position and the War of Maneuver.

In such conditions and at such a juncture in history, we need spiritual guides as Chris Hedges purports to be. But we need genuine socialist spiritual guides and not liberals who call themselves socialist. He has to make a choice with this one and learn something about what ministry actually means in terms of judging the sin and not the sinner.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

SocraticGadfly September 27, 2017 at 10:23 am

Cornel West has no claim on the black radical tradition. And, on some identity-type issues, the fact that African-Americans remain the most religious ethnic group in America is a problem. I’m referring primarily to gay, and beyond that, to transgender, rights.

And, speaking of that, the claim by Zizek that a new socialism has to come from a theological angle is simply wrong.

Andrew, maybe you haven’t exorcised your Catholic guilt enough yet.


Sheldon Ranz September 27, 2017 at 10:30 am

Hedges is also a follower of Gail Dines and the entire ant-porn/anti-sex worker faction of feminism. He approvingly cited Andrea Dworkin’s condemnation of the Left when she described the ‘new pornography’ as a place where ‘the Left has gone to die.’

If the Left is dead, what’s he still doing there?


Don Jordan September 27, 2017 at 11:07 pm

What source makes you say that Zizek says socialism must come from theology and, more importantly for me, do you believe this and, if so, why?


John Reimann November 12, 2017 at 4:06 pm

As in essence a defender of the Assad regime in Syria, and as a paid mouthpiece for Putin (via RT), Hedges has no credibility whatsoever.


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