Mailbag No. 5
You Ask, I Answer
This is the fifth mailbag post, which I will do every month or so. If you’re a paid subscriber, just respond to this email or leave a comment on a post and I’ll try my best to answer your questions. If I don’t answer, it doesn’t mean I thought your question was bad, just that I didn’t feel I had a thoughtful response.
Hi, I have a couple of mailbag questions, if it’s not too late.
1. On Twitter and elsewhere, you’ve described yourself as having Menshevik politics. Can you say more about what that means?
2. To what extent do you think it’s fair to characterize Arendt as a conservative thinker? To me, it feels uncomfortable. However, her division between polis and oikos, and her resulting real life political stances (e.g. on the civil rights movement), would seem to put her on the right.
Okay, so in terms of being a “Menshevik,” I mean it a little bit as a joke, but essentially I just mean that I’m a squishy believer in democracy rather than a fierce Bolshevik terrorist. As most of my readers probably know, in 1903 the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party split into two factions, the Bolsheviks, meaning the majority, and the Mensheviks, meaning the minority. Now, in actuality the Bolsheviks were the smaller faction, but let’s just leave that aside for now. The Bolsheviks believed that the party should be made up of a hardcore of professional revolutionaries dedicated to leading the working class to revolution as a vanguard. The Mensheviks believed in broad membership. After the Revolution, the Mensheviks opposed the authoritarian tendencies of Bolshevik leadership and favored more cooperation with other democratic parties. They also opposed the Bolshevik coup of October. It was of the Menshevik leader, Julius Martov, that Trotsky uttered his famous “dustbin of history” or “dustheap of history” remark, haranguing the poor old leader Martov from the rostrum of the Congress of Soviets as the Menshevik’s filed out out of the hall. Here is how the scene is recounted in Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky:
As Trotsky rose to answer Martov, while the latter was still standing opposite him on the platform, he could find in himself no softness, no lenity, not even charity for the vanquished— only gravity, exasperation, and angry contempt. The rising of popular masses, he began, 'needs no justification. What has taken place is an insurrection not a conspiracy. W e have hardened the revolutionary energy of the workers and soldiers of Petrograd. We have openly steeled the will of the masses for a rising, not a conspiracy. Politically this was true, although militarily the insurrection had in fact been conducted like a conspiracy, and could not have been conducted otherwise. ‘Our rising', he went on, '‘has been victorious. Now they tell Renounce your victory, yield, make a compromise. With whom? With whom, I am asking, shall we make this compromise? with those miserable little groups that have left or with those that make these proposals? But we have seen them in their full stature. Nobody in the whole of Russia follows them any more and is it with them as with equal partners that the millions of workers and peasants . . should conclude an agreement? You are miserable, isolated individuals. You are bankrupt You have played out your role. Go where you belong: to the dustheap of history.
The tagline of this newsletter is the “junkshop of history” and the name “Unpopular Front” has a certain echo of the Mensheviks being the "minority” faction. I did not make these connections consciously—although I must have been thinking about the dustbin of history remark when I wrote that tagline—but they seem fitting to me and I am pleased to discover the resonances. While politically defeated, the Mensheviks were right about the nature of the state the Bolsheviks were building and they were right about the continued need for democratic institutions. So to me, they represent an honorable tradition and I am happy to haunt the dustbin of history with them.
In terms of Hannah Arendt’s conservatism, this is a very complicated question, but I will give you some of my thoughts. First off, Arendt is an important figure in my intellectual development because, after the anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin, she was one of the first theorists I ever read. I still hold her work in very high esteem and often return to her, even though my perspective is quite different. I’m often frankly a little put off by the recent critiques of her from the Left or the reduction of her thought to a species of “Cold War Liberalism.” There’s a lot more to it than that.
The short answer is that Arendt can be read in a number of ways and there are quite conservative aspects to her thought and quite, if not left-wing exactly, quite radical or revolutionary aspects of her thought. In terms of her stance on the civil rights movement—or really her reflections on Little Rock essay—she wrote elsewhere in support of the civil rights movement, I think she justified that with her separation of public and private spheres, but it was based on her reading of the history of the European Jews. According to Arendt, it was the process emancipation and integration that brought Jews to peril, and I think her writing in that regard was out of a sense of anxiety that the black freedom struggle would repeat some of the same mistakes. You can see this in her letters to black intellectuals at the time. That being said, there is a slight condescension implicit in the whole conceit of “We Jews can show how it should be done,” which I can say frankly was not an unusual attitude of Jews towards blacks here in the United States. I think Arendt had certain prejudices, but her writing in this regard was done out of earnest but awkwardly expressed solicitude for the cause of civil rights. She basically owned up to not understanding the issues at play later.
If Arendt was a straightforward conservative I don’t think she could write so sympathetically about Rosa Luxemburg or what she called “the lost treasures of the revolutionary tradition.” She ended up very much impressed with the movements for Civil Rights and against Vietnam as an example of true democratic politics. She had a very favorable view of the worker’s councils that sprang up instantaneously during Europe’s revolutionary waves and to her they served as an almost utopian model. Her republicanism leans more towards this more radically democratic form of political organization than representative systems. It is true that she was in favor of private property, but her conception of property was different than that of a capitalist she understood property, places and things of one’s own, to allow for a space of human freedom not to make possible the further accumulation of capital. Like Marx, she thought the logic of capitalism on the whole was actually expropriative for the great mass of people. In her belief of the need to preserve a space of human freedom, she endorsed the welfare state. Here she is in an interview:
All our experiences-as distinguished from theories and ideologies-tell us that the process of expropriation, which started with the rise of capitalism, does not stop with the expropriation of the means of production; only legal and political institutions that are independent of the economic forces and their automatism can control and check the inherently monstrous potentialities of this process. Such political controls seem to function best in the so-called "welfare states” whether they call themselves "socialist" or "capitalist." What protects freedom is the division between governmental and economic power, or, to put it into Marxian language, the fact that the state and its constitution are not superstructures. What protects us in the so-called "capitalist" countries of the West is not capitalism, but a legal system that prevents the daydreams of big business management of trespassing into the private sphere of its employees from coming true.
Hannah Arendt grew up in a staunchly Social Democratic household, so it’s not shocking she would favor some version of social democracy. Under current conditions of surveillance capitalism and social media, we might do well to pay attention to her understanding of privacy and expropriation.
One final note.— In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt puts a lot of the blame for the rise of totalitarian systems on capitalism. This is missed by both critics and supporters of her thesis. The endlessly and ruthlessly acquisitive and politically irresponsible ethos of the European bourgeoisie comes in for devastating critique. One entire book—one of the sources of totalitarianism—is dedicated to imperialism, which Arendt makes clear cannot be separated from the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. This, along with the critique of bureaucracy, is probably why the great Trotskyist historian C.L.R. James found so much to like about Origins. (Both of them were enthusiastic about the councils that sprang up during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.) Aimé Césaire famously said that fascism applied to white Europeans “colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.” Arendt arrives at a not-dissimilar view in Origins.
Also, if you want to see a great application of Hannah Arendt to social democratic and socialist politics, please check out my friend Steven Klein’s book The Work of Politics: Making a Democratic Welfare State.
Mailbag question for you. Kind of boring maybe for the general audience but I used to write about the game so I'm curious -- what's your story as a poker player? I've seen you make mention on Twitter before of playing cash games but I don't know much else. Ever played in any interesting games, with anyone of note, lived off your winnings, used a big score to finance a project, maybe picked up on a Russian mobster's tell at the prefect moment and taken your winnings to "Vegas and the fucking Mirage" -- ??
Jason in WA
For those of you don’t know the end of Jason’s email refers to the 1998 movie Rounders, starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton, and John Malkovich, a film which helped kick off the poker boom of the early 2000s.
I’ve been playing poker off and on since high school at varying levels of seriousness and dedication. Until recently, I played twice a week. Now, I’m a little too busy with book stuff, but still try to get a game in once a week or every two weeks. I have never tried to go pro, but in good times poker winnings definitely supplemented my income. (As well as docking it in leaner times.) After I lost my job during the pandemic, I briefly tried to play online as my main source of income. Suffice it to say, this did not work out. It is incredibly stressful and difficult to make one’s living off gambling. I can’t play 12, 18 hour sessions; I seem to max out at about 8 hours and usually I play around 5 hour sessions. I work early in the morning, so poker, which tends to be a late night activity, so it’s a hard hobby for me to keep up with consistently. Still, I love the game and have no plans to quit. I study a little, watch videos, read books, etc. I like to watch live streams and I follow the sport as it were.
I think what made me fall in love with poker was the romance of the game as told by the old Texans like Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson, who just passed away. Spending weeks on the road, finding games, dodging the cops and stick up men, etc. They had this very dry and laconic sense of humor, an amiable stoicism, a kind of cowboy savoir faire, that’s very cool to me. I try to study all the new Game Theory aspects of poker, but the aesthetics of the game are truly shot. A lot of people who play poker, especially on these high stakes streams, are real scumbags and jerks. Adding to it the nerdy intellectualism of this mathematized style of poker, you have the nerdy scumbag, a truly despicable character, both a pedant and an asshole. When I was in young, New York was lousy with underground poker dens. Some of them were quite large, with dozens of tables running at the time. Being admitted to such places was the closest a person in the modern age could experience the excitement of going to a speakeasy. That’s all gone now. They represented such a harmless form of corruption that even tight-assed Giuliani (this was before his Batman villain turn) looked the other way. But there was a robbery at one and someone was shot and killed (by accident I think) and that was the end of that. I had played at this place a few times. Now games in New York tend to be little home games with one or maybe two tables. It’s not like in the movies. They are usually in crummy modern condos, brightly lit, so better as to see the sallow faces of the people at the table. You are more likely to be playing with these douchey-yet-polite young guys who work in tech companies than with Russian gangsters. Call it the “AirBnBization of Poker.” Recently, while walking to a game not far from my apartment, I passed site of an old club, long since shut down and allowed myself to think, “Those were the days.”