By day, I’m forced to sell my time, making my living on a warehouse packing line. By night I find myself pouring countless hours—as often thankless as thrilling—into reading and writing and editing for a fringe communist discussion circle, which I’ve always assumed would be ignored. There’s thus not a single figure in the history of marxism I relate to more, in a more deeply personal way, than Paul Mattick (1904-1981). His extremely rigorous ideas, their passionate subjective motivation beneath the surface, his struggles and self-doubts as a proletarian autodidact with a tenuous and adversarial relationship to academic marxism who was nonetheless forced to befriend professors so he could engage with intellectual peers, and most of all the fundamental paradox of his whole brutally honest approach: he was a theoretical obsessive whose integrity would not let him compromise first principles in the slightest, and yet he was convinced that his own thought and writing and activity were basically insignificant drops in the surging sea of world history.1
Mattick had what could almost be termed a l’art pour l’art approach to critical social theory.2 He was driven by an urgent inner compulsion to reach a coherent understanding of the phenomena he scrutinised and the marxian conceptual armature he used to do so, but he really didn’t think it was very important if anyone else paid attention or understood him.3 What Mattick said of Marx was true also of himself: “he was not schoolmaster enough to sacrifice to propaganda the enjoyment of his intellectual caprice.”4 This attitude baffles almost everyone, but it’s what makes me feel such rare kinship with him. He truly believed that the emancipation of the working class must be the task of the workers themselves. He educated himself, wrote and thought for himself, and if the masses were truly going to be able to liberate themselves from the proletarian condition and reconstruct and administer every aspect of society themselves, they would certainly need to learn to educate themselves and think for themselves too. You can’t force self-activity on someone—then it’s not self-activity. Freedom can’t be given by a benevolent, enlightened steward, it must be taken by those who’ve enlightened themselves in and through the very process of the taking. This is what the great German tradition of Bildung from Goethe to Hegel to Adorno is all about, and proletarian revolution, if it is to be, will be its realisation on a global scale—the realisation of philosophy.5
Mattick was convinced his theories and analysis, building on Marx’s, were correct. Not in a dogmatic, invariant way—he was always open to honing and developing his ideas through discussion and self-reflection and the study of and participation in unfolding historical events—but in their essential insights into the fetishistic ‘laws of motion’ of capitalist society. I am convinced of this too. That’s ultimately why he thought his fellow workers would eventually, through historical experience of capitalist crisis conditions and their own efforts struggling within and against them, come to recognise the truth in front of their very eyes, just like he had. He could merely leave his ideas drifting out like a message in a bottle for those who went searching. And if they didn’t? A demagogue hawking ideological wares would, at best, not make a damn bit of difference, and at worst, would even reinforce the condition of passivity, intellectual retardation, and the authoritarian follower-mentality among the proletarians. A gut understanding of, and sympathy with, this kind of perspective drew me to anarchism at a very young age. But I soon learned6 that almost all anarchists are just as enraptured by vanguard-fantasies, just as quick to set themselves over and against the class, just as deluded as to the importance of their political sales-pitch and their paternalistic tutoring as any leninist,7 and often just as ready to get mixed up in odious populist and nationalist movements.
Capitalism inherently puts workers—and female workers doubly so—in the position of being treated like imbeciles, peons, dependent children. The ardent desire for communism is in many ways a desire for dignity, for mutual recognition, for the respect of a community of peers. I hate nothing more than to be condescended to and treated like a student. I am revolted at the most personal level by any conception of ‘radical politics’ that enshrines just this infuriating treatment as the proper and necessary attitude toward fellow proletarians. I suspect Mattick felt similarly, for similar reasons, and this feeling blazes through his writing, appearing to me in letters of fire, hot with truth and sincerity almost unparalleled in the whole of marxist literature. Only Guy Debord and Theodor Adorno are remotely comparably compelling to me—like I first fell in love with music and poetry, like Mattick the young fiction-writer, they also began with artistic pursuits, but were forced to take up theory because they had to understand why everything was so awful and unfree; they also cared nothing for demagoguery or pandering instruction. But Mattick struggled and suffered more, a brilliant individual who lived a life of getting shat on as a manual worker chained to the wage,8 scrambling to survive in stretches of unemployment, tussling with editors adept at a professional game the rules of which he’d never learned, or never accepted. However tightly reasoned and theoretically and historically well-supported his arguments, however reluctant he was to ever admit this publicly, there was clearly a deeply personal motive for him, just as there is for me. I see myself in his struggles and sufferings and humiliations, in the desert stretches of depression when he couldn’t write, convinced of his incompetence.9
The flies buzzing around the carcass of ‘the left’ are drawn there by an altruism stinking of noblesse oblige, a duty to seek justice10 for some virtuous victim somewhere else, a guilty conscience crying out to help the unfortunates, and in order to assuage it, they drum up something to do, busily repeating the tics and rituals called activism.11 My attitude, rather, is the one I discern in Mattick—the sheer fury demanding to become at last a human being, and to prove in every word I write12 that the philistine scum whose control of the means of production determines my miserable fate are, for all that, not my fucking betters. Or in Marx’s words: “I am nothing and I should be everything.13