A Response to “Spontaneous Combustion”

from George Katsiaficas

Jason Del Gandio and AK Thompson, eds. Spontaneous Combustion: The Eros Effect and Global Revolution  (Albany: SUNY Press, 2017)


Hillary Lazar and Paul Messersmith-Glavin provide an introductory framing for this discussion here.


The publication of Spontaneous Combustion is a significant indication that popular uprisings are increasingly understood as vital to revolutions. Since the astonishing 1917 seizure of power in Russia by the Bolsheviks, the role of the “conscious element”—the Party—has been wildly overemphasized, while “spontaneity” was debased and ridiculed. Now that 20th century Soviet Communism is in the past, the time is long overdue to create social movements that can help to produce expanded freedoms, greater liberties, and joyful relationships—as well as to ruthlessly criticize tendencies within the movement that contribute to the deformation of freedom struggles and turn them into their opposite.

In the past century, while Leftists fetishized centralized organization, mainstream academia in the West, which had vilified social movements long before the Russian revolution, slowly moved toward rationalistic theories that prioritized resources in understanding a set of phenomena previously comprehended as seasonal fluctuations or short-circuiting electrical components of a smoothly functioning system. To make matters worse, copy-cat revolutionaries and tenure-seeking professors continually pour new wine into such old bottles, dutifully quoting fashionable theorists, often without bothering to have critically reviewed the practical implications of previously conceptualized frameworks.

The Eros effect was first uncovered in 1983. After five years of research on 1968, no academic theory could help me adequately understand what I was only beginning to comprehend as a world-historical wave of insurgencies. The global Sixties were neither a “moment in the movement of capital” nor the breakdown of a beneficent system. Since very similar movements simultaneously appeared in the Third World, the Second World controlled by the Soviet Union, and the economically developed countries, these popular revolts  were not mainly products of similar national economic and political conditions. Nor were they produced predominantly by urbanization, migrations from countrysides to cities, concentrations of university students, age cohorts or generational conflicts—variables often employed to explain them.

I suddenly realized that the energies generated in many countries were most related to simultaneous freedom struggles elsewhere. As I checked through my research notebooks, my question became: how are they connected? Despite the best efforts of the CIA, FBI, and KGB to invent a New Left international, an organization uniting all the various movements that emerged simultaneously around the world, there was no such animal. The heroic sacrifices and resistance of the people of Vietnam in the face of barbaric massacres certainly inspired all of us. Yet the shared imagination of millions of  human beings in 1968 was the dream of a global revolution, a vision much larger than ending one neocolonial war or racism in one country. All over the world, as we sang and danced our dreams in the streets, suffered police attacks and celebrated our resistance, put words on papers and sat through days and nights of endless meetings, we worked to actualize a world in which violence was made obsolete, where consumerism did not define the pleasures of life, where jobs did not dissolve the joys of labor, and where women and men could intertwine our lives in authentic and meaningful relationships liberated from patriarchal restrictions. How did such a unifying vision emerge simultaneously in such disparate places?

As I write today, the image that appears before me is a symphony orchestra achieving global harmony and synchronization without a conductor or concertmaster. Unlike a symphony’s music score from which each participant receives the timing and tonality of their contribution, the global movement had no structure, no set plan. There were no “receivers and transmitters.” More like improvised jazz, we blended with each other, simultaneously motivating each of us to find within ourselves talents and capability even we had yet to discover.

At that time, the sexual revolution was central to the Sixties’ counterculture—as was militant opposition to a genocidal system daily raining death on Vietnam. Domestically, as racial inequality and police murders became increasingly visible, many activists’ relationships to each other became experiences with wild sex and violent resistance.

Despite their synchronous emergence, the Black liberation struggle and countercultural peace movement had strikingly different trajectories: San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love was also the Long Hot Summer of riots in Detroit (43 people killed), Newark (26 dead) and more than 150 other cities. As the Beatles sang, “All you need is love,”  Eros’ inseparable twin Thanatos struggled to gain the upper hand.[1] In 1969, love at Woodstock turned into death at Altamont. Intense emotions engulfed society, mingling life-forces and death wishes in complicated tapestries of passion. Hatred of oppression was indistinguishable for many from love of freedom. An overly rationalistic orientation weakened Leftists’ capacity to navigate the emotional maelstrom. Under unrelenting attack from the forces of order, the movement abruptly imploded.

At their Flint, Michigan “War Council” at the end of 1969, Weather Underground Organization leader Bernadine Dohrn embraced the nightmarish Manson murders by calling for “Fork Power” and praising the callous killing of Sharon Tate. A few months later, the group’s leading bombmakers blew themselves up in a luxurious New York townhouse where they were assembling devices designed to kill as many police as possible. To this day, Bill Ayers continues to celebrate his belief that “Militancy was the standard by which we measured our aliveness.”[2] Of course, there were other voices. Audre Lorde beautifully distanced love from “abuse of feeling.”[3] Jessica Benjamin insisted that mutual recognition requires intimacy.[4] As Eros and Thanatos continually co-exist and even strengthen their opposing partner, many find it difficult to distinguish them from each other.

For all their faults, the beauty of the movements that crested from 1968 to 1970 remains their predominant feature for me. The defining moments of this period in the advanced capitalist countries were the massive uprisings of May-June 1968 in France and May-September 1970 in the United States. The emergent imaginations and daily realities of millions of people during these general strikes were unmistakably similar: international and interracial solidarity alongside grassroots self-management of institutions and communities. These moments of the Eros effect define what I called the global imagination of 1968.[5]

Spontaneous Combustion appeared half a century after the Summer of Love. Published three years before the largest uprising in the history of the United States, the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising, the book already understood BLM as a vitally important movement. From its first to last chapter, ten references to Black Lives Matter (and another ten to the Black Panther Party) are included. Massive participation in the 2020 uprising (estimates range from 15 to 26 million participants within a month of George Floyd’s murder)[6]  testifies to the ongoing relevance of the Eros effect, to global waves building with increasing numbers of participants with interracial solidarity at the core of their collective vision. Of course, no one can predict the exact timing of uprisings, insurrection and revolts, but the concept of the Eros effect at least gives us the expectation and foresight that such events will continue to occur. Indeed, if I am right, such sudden upheavals will continue to grow in global synchronicity and involvement of millions of people.

With each unfolding global wave of insurgencies after 1968, my motivation to clarify the Eros effect intensified. In 1986, People Power was born in the Philippines uprising that overthrew long entrenched dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In the following 6 years, nine Asian despots were overthrown. Beginning in 1989, as regime after regime was toppled in Eastern Europe. Around the world, People Power moved from triumph to triumph. On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista insurrection in Chiapas helped to spark an international uprising against capitalist globalization that reached its most visible moment in Seattle in 1999, when thousands of people from dozens of countries stopped the meetings of the World Trade Organization. In 2011, the Arab Spring suddenly broke decades of people’s silence in 14 countries. Almost overnight, Occupy Wall Street camps appeared in thousands of cities.

From the very beginning of their endeavor, Jason Del Gandio and AK Thompson,  the editors of Spontaneous Combustion, understood that the Eros effect had been “underscrutinized”(13)[7] in comparison to academia’s “diffusion,” Samuel Huntington’s “snowballing,” or the Left’s fascination with theories of Italian Autonomism. In Peter Marcuse’s words, this book is a “systematic attempt to clarify and extend” the Eros effect. Although full of praise, contributors were not hesitant to point out shortcomings. Jason and AK criticized me for only grounding the concept in history and psychology. They felt that I focused on one specific type of phenomenon—when millions of people go into the streets during brief moments in time. The collective wisdom of the 14 contributors advances our understanding beyond my initial efforts. I thank you all for your critical insights and for extending the concept of the Eros effect to the domains of the individual body, everyday life, and social disasters and emergencies. All of your efforts have led me to reexamine my own writing and those of my teacher, Herbert Marcuse.

The discourse in Spontaneous Combustion has heightened my awareness of the scope of the Eros effect. Contributors’ thinking does not jettison the original concept nor reject its philosophical foundations. In the best sense of the Hegelian dialectic, they use the power of critique to show the limits of my thinking and to preserve it at a higher level. For example, Nina Power grounds Eros in care (238). She treats it as “cause” rather than “effect” (249), and calls for exploration of love and intimacy. (248) Arnold Farr’s individual “democratic attunement” (88), and Jack Hipp’s notion of the “cognitive unconscious” both portray Eros on the individual level.  On a macro level, Emily Brissette and Mike King’s idea of a “transtemporal revolutionary consciousness” (172) and Doug Kellner’s praise of our “collective Eros” (293) formulate Eros in ways beyond my configuration. Gooyong Kim and Anat Schwarz found usefulness for the Eros effect during the heartbreaking disaster of the Seowol ferry sinking (197). Courageously emphasizing the perpetual presence of Thanatos, Sabu Kohso provides valuable insight into the Japanese movement’s suicidal termination when it transitioned from “Decomposing Universities” in 1970 to “Decomposing the Self” a few years later (224). In one of the world’s most nationalistic societies, he calmly portrays “Thanatos-inflected nationalism” as one of the main causes preventing Japanese people from finding their freedom (219).  Dialectically composing his thoughts, AK Thompson begins by maintaining that the Eros effect is “one of the most vital recent intellectual contributions to the Marcusean legacy” (269) before he resolutely criticizes my work (as I discuss below).

Reflecting upon my intellectual work over the past 30 years, I see two reasons that led me to ground the Eros effect in history, rather than more fully in analytical theory. First, my own activist orientation means that I refuse to bifurcate theory from practice.  For me, the praxis of thousands of people contains analysis within itself. Actions speak louder than words. By theorizing peoples’ actions, I facilitate their speaking for themselves. History is made and freedom is defined in the streets by hundreds of thousands of people—and in the case of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising—by tens of millions. As Richard Gilman-Opalsky insists in his contribution to this volume, revolt is “philosophical work.” He understands “revolt as reason and reason as revolt.” (120)  It is not by accident that every one of the books I have written (Imagination of the New Left in 1987, Subversion of Politics in 1997, and Asia’s Unknown Uprisings in 2012) have theoretical chapters at the end of the books, not at the beginning as is normally the case.

The second reason why I sought to prove the Eros effect through historical studies was precisely because the concept was initially rejected by distinguished sociologists. Professor Lewis Killian wrote to me that “you impose your theory on your examples rather than deriving it from empirical evidence.”[8] Anthony Oberschall mused that “if you linked it up with a case study, it would be better and more likely to be published.”[9] Charles Tilly opined, “You’ll have to specify and document how the ‘Eros effect’ operates far more carefully.”[10] These reactions stood in sharp contrast to those of fellow activists. When I ran into Murray Bookchin at St. Mark’s bookstore in Manhattan, he praised my book. Insisting it had good “buzz,” he told me not to worry about the cold reception of academia. Very often when I met activists for the first time, they immediately mentioned how much they resonated with the Eros effect. In 1999, I first visited Gwangju, South Korea. Shortly thereafter, I went to the unveiling of a statue for poet-revolutionary Kim Nam-ju. After the ceremony, I walked alone in Biennale Park, when an older man stopped me. “Katsiaficas” he said, “Eros effect.” That was the extent of his English.

Facing this combination of professorial disdain and movement praise, I devoted eleven years of my life to writing Asia‘s Unknown Uprisings in order to “prove” the existence of the Eros effect. Before I began my project, I was aware of the astonishing synchronicity of the Asian wave of uprisings from 1986 to 1992 that overthrew nine dictatorships in six years in a region divided by five influential religions and seven major languages. So eager was I to find ways in which individual activists were connected to each other,  I interviewed over 200 individuals in eight countries. For many of those years of research and writing, I lived in Gwangju, South Korea. In other Korean venues, I was often invited to give talks about my ongoing research. In Busan, after I had spent considerable time and effort developing statistical evidence to show that factors such as inflation, GDP growth, harshness of repression, and “middle-class threshold” were not useful explanatory variables, the professor who had invited me proclaimed that only the Eros effect appeared to explain the unity of actions amid such diversity.

As I was finishing my book, a new global eruption suddenly occurred—the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and occupations of squares in Spain and Greece. I was both elated and chagrined, the latter because I had devoted so many years of my life to proving the existence of the Eros effect, and the simultaneity of insurgencies in 2011 would make it obvious to all but the most stubborn academics and recalcitrant Marxist dogmatists.

At the dawn of the 21st century, while Herbert Marcuse was being neglected (thankfully, a phenomenon that is no longer the case), mundane neo-Marxian theories of Negri and Zizek were fashionable, despite their being similar to those espoused by the likes of Progressive Labor and other sects that contributed to the New Left’s distance from freedom and demise after 1968.[11] Sadly, much of the Left continues to operate as though the world has not changed since the 19th century. They characterize the 1960s as an aberrant student movement while they uncritically praise insurgencies of the 1930s. They know nothing of Gwangju, yet glorify pre-20th century French revolutions.

The remainder of my response to Spontaneous Combustion falls into five broad themes: individual and collective Eros, nature and history, the relationship of the Eros effect to sociological theory, the collective unconscious, and lack and love.


Individual and Collective Eros 

As many of the contributors to Spontaneous Combustion mention, I only consider the Eros effect as a real-time group phenomenon. Nina Power asks why “given the immense amount of feminist work done on love, Eros, care and the exit from repression,” I do not discuss feminist debates on these issues. Her point is well taken, although not entirely accurate. In Subversion of Politics, I spent considerable time analyzing feminist movements in Italy and Germany from the 1960s to the 1990s.  Yet I concerned myself more with Germans’ motherhood question and the influence of Italian feminism within the autonomous workers’ movement than I did with more individually constructed problems. Power is right that I do not delve deeply into issues of personal development. She makes a very striking case that existing forms of emotional labor, care, and love help to condition erotic connections that continually reappear during popular uprisings. In that sense, I agree with her that the Eros effect needs to be extended through better understanding of its origins in the individual development of the capacity to love. At the end of Subversion of Politics, I share with her such insights as the need to value reproductive labor and housework.

Arnold Farr portrays his individual Eros effect by sharing intimate autobiographical experiences, vividly portraying what he names “democratic attunement.” Far more than I have yet been capable of doing, he  opens his family problems to our vision. In so doing, he is able to demonstrate dynamics of transformation and growth. His point that one-dimensional thinking reduces struggles for radical change into desire for inclusion in the existing system merits discussion. Recently, Leftists orientated around “class politics” seek to classify Black Live Matter as belonging to the progressive fringe of neoliberalism insofar as slogans like defund the police would reduce state services. Insofar as it is impossible to abolish police in a society based upon systemic robbery of labor and empowerment of a few billionaires alongside tens of millions of impoverished people, calls to defund the police should be considered what Andre Gorz named “revolutionary reforms.”

For a long time now, I have felt that the latent universal within identity politics has often been ignored.[12] I acknowledge that the strident self-righteousness of impassioned opposition to sexism and racism can be quite isolating, if not destructive of unity, Leftists’ failure to recognize and oppose patriarchal and racial forms of oppression has been no less divisive and alienating.  The universal resides in the particular or else it is nowhere to be found. Speaking personally, soul music was my music as I came up in public schools in Baltimore. Black music was—and is today more than ever—universal music. BLM spokesperson, Alicia Garza, quoted by Doug Kellner (293), observed: “When Black people get free, everybody gets free.”  Women’s liberation means freedom for all of us from the straitjacket of patriarchal gender relationships.

Gooyong Kim and Anat Schwarz surprised me by showing how Missy USA chat space was able to mobilize effectively during the Seowol crisis in South Korea (202). A decade before the Seowol tragedy, teenage Korean girls used musicians’ fan pages to lead the whole nation in a massive movement that overturned a KORUS trade agreement that had permitted massive imports of low quality US “mad cow” beef. In one of the world’s most patriarchal societies, decades of massive uprisings helped galvanize young women and formerly downtrodden workers into preeminent leadership roles. By extending the Eros effect to moments of emergencies, Kim and Schwarz refuse to accede control of such moments to government officials and instead emphasize the role of popular agency and mutual aid.

Jack Hipp goes beyond the confines of Cartesian dualities and arrives at the intersection of the George Lakoff’s “embodied mind” and the Eros effect, which he considers as a form of “sensual collective reason.” (163) He insists that human reason is emotionally engaged, that rationality has a moral dimension. (152) Indeed, he believes that reason is largely unconscious. Following Herbert Marcuse’s admonition that unless liberatory movements’ impact reaches into our “second Nature” (“natural” behavior patterns, habits and customs), they will remain incomplete, “even self-defeating.”(156) For Hipp, moments of the Eros effect neurologically restructure the cognitive unconscious. He points to May 1968 in France and May 1980 in Gwangju, South Korea to talk specifically about how entrenched patterns of behavior were smashed as participants created new values and norms. (157-159) Without transformation of our everyday lives, Hipp observes that instinctual erotic drives will continue to be channeled into “false needs and desires”—libidinal energy into commerce and pornography, solidarity into xenophobic nationalism, and ecological communion into “manicured suburban lawns and day trips to the zoo.” (160)

Sabu Kohso builds upon the individual psychology of Anti-Oedipus to extend Eros from the “microscopic“ view of “desiring-machine” to a “spectrum of collective emotions and actions” (212-213). Although he prefers to name “hatred” rather than Eros as motivation for activism, AK Thompson similarly grounds motivation for action on the individual level, quoting e.e. cummings to the effect that individuals act after they reach limits of oppression.


Nature and History


Jason del Gandio analogizes the Eros effect with the growth of plants toward the sun, “…like trees growing through fences, flowers blooming in cracked sidewalks and seeds outsmarting genetic engineering…” (104) He extends the concept of the Eros effect to include vibrations and the body, explicitly going beyond my psychological understanding. By integrating the body into our understanding of the Eros effect, he grounds the concept even more in Marcuse’s work and helps to explain why we get goosebumps, or become “electrically charged” from a “global vibe” during moments of collective awakening. (111)

Nina Power (241) discusses “already existing family bonds as a powerful social model.” I would be careful using such a term universally, since for many of us, existing family bonds denote ways in which our freedom is constricted by blood ties and family obligations. I grew up in a US Army family with a great deal of domestic violence long before there were shelters for battered children and women. Cowering in basements or clandestinely ducking into neighbors’ houses were the only means of escape from experiences I wish on no other member of the human race. In my view, and I think Power would agree, patriarchal bonds cannot be subsumed under other categories of oppression. They are as much a dimension of the problem we face as are global capitalism and militarized nation-states armed with weapons of mass destruction.

In my understanding, family bonds are part of the process referred to as Naturwuchs. We are born into families we have not autonomously chosen, blood groups which are increasingly fragmented by capitalist relations. Our species has chosen neither to live under patriarchal rule not to accept the specific form of the economic organization of the whole society. Rather global capitalism and male violence bolster and expand a system inherited from the past, which has marginalized women and disenfranchised billions of people whose ancestors’ labor created the wealth today hoarded by billionaires and giant corporations. So long as it is not our consciousness but conditions beyond our control that perpetuate capitalist patriarchy, the human species cannot yet be said to have gone beyond “pre-history.” For me, the Eros Effect is the concrete embodiment of Nature becoming history through the dynamic process of human beings lovingly transforming society according to their own free will. When the actions of millions of people change the course of social evolution, freedom is indeed the right word to use.

AK Thompson questions my comparison of human behavior to that of caribou, birds, bees and ants.  Don’t humans and other animals share similar unconscious drives guiding us? AK faithfully quotes Karl Marx on the difference between the finest bees and the worst architect without considering the possibility that Marx may have been unable to escape from the human chauvinism of the 19th century. The intelligence of whales and dolphins has only begun to be understood in the latter part of the 20th century. Recent studies have found that dolphins have a more complex language than humans. We now understand that animals have feelings. The recent Netflix film, My Octopus Teacher, is mind expanding in this regard.

AK continually creates either-or situations, ones in which Manichean dichotomies abound. One is a Marxist or not, dialectical or not, faithful to Benjamin or not. By counterposing human history to natural history, he fails to see that human history is part of natural history. We ourselves are products of nature as is our intelligence, our reason, and our Eros.

Incidentally AK writes of my “professed intellectual allegiance to Herbert Marcuse and to the Marxist tradition more broadly.” (270). If he includes in that broad tradition the Stalinist variety that ravaged the Soviet Union, he is sadly mistaken. Throughout my adult life, I have studiously avoided labels. Others have applied them without much thought. In 1970, the FBI described me as a “New Left extremist—anarchist.” That same year, when I was sentenced to a brief stint in prison, the guards, warden and right-wing prisoners called me a “Communist.”


The Eros Effect and Social Movement Theory


My first book on 1968 concluded with criticisms of sociological analysis of social movements and their relationship to administrative social research that serves the control center.[13] For that critical endeavor, I earned the enmity of several academics. There were notable exceptions, such as Joseph Gusfield and Robert Ross’ favorable reviews as well as Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the 20th century, which twice praised my book.

Lesley Wood notes my “dismissal” of social movement theory (252). I am grateful to her for comprehending that my work is closer to the understanding of First Nation people and to the civil rights movement (264) than to sociologists who speak of social movements having relationships of “adopters” and “transmitters” (258), terms used by Dieter Rucht and Douglas McAdam to explain what they call “diffusion.”[14] Their understanding resembles that of police during the civil rights movement, who proclaimed that they never had a problem before the arrival of Martin Luther King and “outside agitators.” Operation Phoenix, a massive CIA program that killed at least 20,000 Vietnamese civilians, specifically targeted middle-level cadre in southern Vietnam (“Viet Cong”) to disrupt alleged lines of transmission from Hanoi to the frontlines in the South.

Several contributors to Spontaneous Combustion quote specifically how I distanced myself from mainstream theories by using the distinction between geometry and calculus. That metaphor was meant to contrast research useful to the control center with movement building theoretical endeavors. I cannot help but wonder whether terms like “transmitter and adopter” or attempts to provide insight into “how waves of protest unfold“ might be useful to those seeking to blunt the impact of insurgencies. Indeed, I have sometimes worried that the US government might have found my research useful, a fear I suspect I am not alone in harboring.


The Collective Unconscious

Whether or not the collective unconscious exists remains an unresolved question. Among the many differences between Freud and Jung, chief among them was Jung’s notion of a “collective unconscious,” a force of Nature produced over millions of years in which humanity accumulated wisdom from past experiences. Freud had disingenuously compared himself to Columbus as discover of a new continent, the unconscious, which for him existed on an individual level.  For Jung, the collective unconscious became understood as the principal feature of our being, and as such was a form of wisdom that undermined Freud’s elaborations of infantile sexuality, the Oedipus complex, the superego and other essential dimensions of his scientific theory.

As is well known, Jung edited the Nazified Zentralblatt für Psychotherapie. He believed masses are blind and call for a demagogue to lead them. For some, his affiliation with Nazism and Eastern mysticism[15] is sufficiently egregious to completely dismiss him. Nonetheless, to simply relegate all of Jung’s work to the garbage heap because of his faults would be short-sighted. There remain pieces of valuable insight in his work. AK Thompson (274) criticizes me for having gone so far “as to invoke the mythopoetic foundations of Jungian archetypes to buttress his arguments despite the fact—as Benjamin noted—such archetypes were the bread-and-butter of fascism.” Yet if we simply dismiss Jung and fail to engage with the notion of the collective unconscious because of its links to authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies, we remain imprisoned in the very form of binary rationality that has made Western civilization the scourge of planet Earth. Until Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, Hegel’s work had largely been regarded as proto-fascist, yet Marcuse was able to show Hegel’s usefulness to revolution. Shouldn’t we attempt to salvage what is useful in Jung?

Marcuse regarded the collective unconscious as related to totalitarian tendencies in which individual consciousness is overwhelmed.[16] The contemporary imprint of mass media on our personalities and unconscious is pervasive and powerful—and often quite harmful. Given that we all are subjected to media in varying degrees, a case can be made that we share symbols propagated by Hollywood and advertisers, that our desires are formed by media imprints. Does the “end of individuality” and the rise of the “social superego”[17] also indicate the greater significance of a collective unconscious? Time may not exist in the unconscious, but it is shaped by history, whether archaic or contemporary. Are there ways in which we can understand moments of the Eros effect as arising from within the collective unconscious?

With our growing understanding in the 21st century, can we speak of a liberatory collective unconscious? Freud was convinced that memory traces of traumas suffered by previous generations affected their progeny. The “return of the repressed” in phylogenetic fragments meant that “mental residues of primeval times” could be reawakened.[18] Richard Gilman-Opalsky (126) notes that new revolts begin where other insurrections left off in a process of “unfinished questioning.” In Imagination of the New Left,  I noted such a transmission process but could not determine whether it was accomplished through intuition, direct inter-generational contact, or through the study of history that revolutionary consciousness from previous epochs reappears time and again. This is not simply a question of slogans and costumes, rather it involves deeply rooted human aspirations for freedom. Emily Brisette and Mike King observe the “transmission of an emergent transtemporal revolutionary consciousness” during their participation in Occupy and the birth of the Oakland Commune (172).

Many of us have recognized ways in which previous waves of struggle leave an indelible mark on social development, so much so that waves in the future, without seemingly connected to previous ones, reinvigorate needs and desires that were apparently left forgotten. In Korea,  the thirst for national unity and independence prior to the 1950-1953 Korean War re-emerged in its aftermath of the war despite the whole country having been divided and obliterated by total war in which over four million people were killed out of a total population of 30 million. The fervent need for democratic freedoms expressed in the 1960 movement (that won power in South Korea, only to be overturned by a US-backed military coup in 1961), reemerged in 1980 with the Gwangju People’s Uprising.



Lack and Love


AK Thompson writes that “revolution begins not with the Eros effect but with biological hatred.” (282) He believes that “human ontology is historical, not natural, and that the motive force in human development is lack…” (278). For him, “only with ‘gut-hatred’…does partisanship become clear” (279). AK is not alone in what may be called “bad nihilism” in the movement. Disgust with the tragedy of human actions is certainly not unwarranted but to position hatred at the center of our movement’s motivation will only lead to undesirable outcomes.

A brilliant theorist, he argues persuasively that his analysis “reveals that revolutionary aspirations are stimulated not so much by a normative a priori content but rather by something like a universal experience of lack”—which means that our strategy must be changed.[19] Granting his extension of Lacanian discourse to revolutionary strategy without delving into the worthiness thereof, I must ask: if we base our strategy on lack of fulfilment of frustrated needs and desires, isn’t it apparent that new needs and new desires will not thereby be created? Doesn’t lack always refer to needs that have already emerged? Isn’t our “biological hatred,” at least in part, a product of our natural evolution?

My understanding that love is a transhistorical human need does not mean it is simply universal and unchanging. Eros is historically conditioned and changes character over time. The current society’s repressive channeling of Eros into depersonalized sex and consumerism is one example of the historical molding of instincts. Our species is sometimes consumed by hate and xenophobia. Thanatos found expression in the imposition of African slavery, genocide of indigenous First Nation peoples, the Civil War, and massive neo-colonial slaughters from the Philippines at the end of the 19th century to Afghanistan today. Recent history appears to have enormously strengthened Thanatos.[20]

Positing lack as a negative, transhistorical ontology, AK believes that hatred, not love, is at the core of action. He continually bifurcates reality rather than simultaneously grasping its contradictory elements. In the practice of the Black Panther Party, anti-police patrols coexisted with survival programs.[21]  In Ocean Beach, we developed a network of counterinstitutions[22] as well as a number of anti-system initiatives.[23] These two seemingly contradictory aspects of struggle complemented each other. Marcuse synthesized apparently unreconcilable dimensions, calling the Great Refusal “the protest against unnecessary repression, the struggle for the ultimate form of freedom—’to live without anxiety.’”[24]

In contrast to AK, Nina Power concludes her chapter with the point that it might be better to think of Eros as a cause rather than effect, as the point of origin of the seeds of revolution. (249). Emily Brisette and Mike King believe: “Consciousness is transformed; the impossible becomes possible. The Eros effect is built upon that conviction. It is fueled by the moments in which we open a crack in the existing order—enough to catch a glimpse of the beauty and the power that could be ours. Through such moments, our desire for a new world is stoked and—even after the fire is tampered down—we emerge like primed tinder for the next spark.“ (186).

Marcuse linked Ananke (necessity) and Lebensnot (scarcity) to the repressive reality principle, not to the struggle for liberation. Revolutionary moments in the self-creation of the human species-being, like labor, art, and communication create new dimensions of freedom. In our recent history, the uprisings of May-June 1968 in France, May-September 1970 in the USA, and May 1980 in Gwangju, were “moments of the actualization of the species as a species-being, moments when new goals for the whole organization of society were conceived (and temporarily actualized) in the lives of millions of people. The emergence of values like internationalism, new forms of social organization like self-management, and new goals opposed to profit making make clear that the global movement was more than spontaneous opposition to perceived injustices derived from the unplanned goals of the system as it has evolved.”[25] For AK, the “discrepancy between imagination and reality is nothing other than lack.” (277)

In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse quotes one of Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifestos: “To reduce imagination to slavery—even if one’s so-called happiness is at stake—needs to violate all that one finds in one’s inner most self of ultimate Justice. Imagination alone tells me what can be.[26] He went on to complain that “The utopian claims of imagination have become saturated with historical reality.” If we allow the dead weight of the past and define our hatred of oppression as our motivation for action, how can we become capable of freedom?

-Chicago, October 11, 2020


George Katsiaficas explains that his “own project begins with a very simple proposition: millions of ordinary people, acting together, can profoundly change the basic facts of social life. The South Korean Minjung movement of 1987 is a good example. If we look at history, we can find other such moments in every country when the activated population changes governments, economic structures-even the way time and space are measured and understood!” He is the author of numerous books, including, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Boston: South End Press, 1987); with Kathleen Cleaver, eds. Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party (New York: Routledge, 2001); The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (Oakland: AK Press, 2006)and the two volume Asia’s Unknown Uprisings (Oakland: PM Press, 2012, 2013), among others. Keep in touch with him at his website here.


Katsiaficas’ The Global Imagination of 1968: Revolution and Counterrevolution is available from PM Press here.

Asia’s Unknown Uprisings Volume 1: South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century is available here

Asia’s Unknown Uprisings Volume 2: People Power in the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia, 1947-2009 is here.

Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements And The Decolonization Of Everyday Life is available from AK Press here.



[1] Eros’ twin Thanatos (often referred to as the “death instinct”) simultaneously appears with Eros, sometimes in the background, often in the foreground. Analogous to monotheists’ belief in god and the devil, Eros and Thanatos and their never-ending struggle were at the center of Freud’s final formulation of instincts. The death instinct is a compulsion inherent in animate beings to dash to the inanimate state that awaits all life. As Eros and Thanatos co-exist and even strengthen their opposing partner, many people find it difficult to distinguish them from each other.

[2] Billy Ayers quoted in Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home (Berkeley: UC Press, 2004) 87.

[3] Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic” in Sister Outsider (New York: Crossing Press, 1984) 59.

[4] Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 2013) 41.

[5] See The Global Imagination of 1968: Revolution and Counterrevolution (Oakland: PM Press, 2019).

[6] Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” New York Times, July 3, 2020.

[7] Numbers in parenthesis in the text refer to page numbers in Spontaneous Combustion.

[8] Personal correspondence, January 12, 1989.

[9] Personal correspondence, March 7, 1990.

[10] Personal correspondence, September 24, 1991.

[11] The popularity of Antonio Negri overlooked his mimicking the conservative “end of history” thesis when he wrote that, “The history of imperialist, interimperialist, and anti-imperialist war is over. The end of that history has ushered in the reign of peace.” See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000) 189. Zizek’s fawning adoration of Stalin is scarcely mentioned in public—and then only in whispers. The German Left Party refuses to acknowledge that the DDR was a dictatorship.

[12] “The Latent Universal Within Identity Politics” in The Promise of Multiculturalism (New York: Routledge, 1998).

[13] When I revised the 1987 edition of The Imagination of the New Left and produced The Global Imagination of 1968, I did not include theoretical chapters 5 and 6 from the original book, but they are available on my website, www.eroseffect.com

[14] When I met him in Berlin, Dieter Rucht sheepishly confessed to me that he and Doug McAdam had used my understanding of the international connections among movements without acknowledging my contribution to their work.

[15] As someone who matured in Ocean Beach (San Diego) in the 1970s, spirituality and radical politics coexisted harmoniously for many of us.Without planning, about a dozen OB activists converged on the Rainbow gathering in 1975 in Utah, where we shared metaphysical experiences that defy rational explanation. Andre Gorz visited OB in the mid-1970s and recounted his experiences there in Les Tempes Modernes and later translated as the final chapters of Ecology as Politics (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980).

[16] Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972) 115.

[17] Herbert Marcuse, Five Lectures (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970) 46-7.

[18] Edward Glover, Freud or Jung (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1950) 40-41.

[19] I’m not sure what he means by “our strategy.” We do not have a single organizational form that elaborate long-term goals and means of achieving them. Nor is the Left even remotely close to unity. A talk by Adolf Reed to New York DSA was recently cancelled because Reed’s of criticisms of Black Lives Matter as a form of identity politics that minimizes class. Regardless of one’s position on this issue, it is an important point of difference that merits discussion, not censorship.

[20] Osha Neumann, “Who’s Winning: Eros or Thanatos?” Radical Philosophy Review, 16:1 (2013) 91-98.

[21] Breakfast for children programs, prison buses for families, Sickle cell anemia testing, clothing drives and more.

[22] Left Bank bookstore, the OB Free School, OB Rag community newspaper, the People’s Food Store (which continues to serve the people), the childcare project and others.

[23] Women Against Rape, the Human Rights Committee (which in alliance with African-Americans and Latinos helped to get the police chief fired), the anti-CIA Coalition at UCSD, and the San Diego Convention Coalition.

[24] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (New York: Beacon, 1949) 149-150.

[25] The Imagination of the New Left, 224-225.

[26] Eros and Civilization, 149, emphasis in the original.