‘Militant Acts: The Role of Investigations in Radical Political Struggles’ by Marcelo Hoffman reviewed by Guilel Treiber

Reviewed by Guilel Treiber

About the reviewer

Guilel Treiber is a postdoctoral researcher affiliated with the Research group in Political …


In Militant Acts, a deep philosophical query traverses a minute historical reconstruction of the militant investigation in the history of Marxism. The theoretical question Marcelo Hoffman addresses in his excellent history of this forgotten and sadly neglected practice is the relation between knowledge production and the constitution of collective political agency. This question, often time overlooked, is taken up through careful historical research of militant investigations from Marx to Foucault. It feels at times like the book’s added value and not its primary aim, as the subtitle suggests. By addressing this question through a surprising richness of difficultly accessible material and diversity of cases, Hoffman keeps his writing far from opaque formulations and gives it a vivacity that makes one wonder why militant investigations ever vanished from the radar of radical political struggles. Hoffman succeeds in showing that the issue of failure haunting the practice of militant investigations is less applicable for its continuing relevance than one would assume. It is a theoretical point Hoffman repeatedly makes (14-15, 25-27, 36-37, 51-52, and more). In many cases, militant investigations concretely failed to produce the knowledge they were expected to deliver of the working class, its living conditions and the reasons for its alienation. However, for Hoffman, this hides their main stated aims since Marx: to produce a collective political subjectivity that does not distinguish clearly between the investigator and the investigated, leading to concrete political actions. The book will surely become a reference on the issue. Though suffering from a few minor flaws, it is a brilliantly executed foray into an issue that deserves much more attention from academics and activists alike.

The book is divided into six chapters, the first of which is a critical introduction and the last a short conclusion. The remaining four chapters cover chronologically four moments in the ‘fragmentary’ history (133) of the militant investigation. The second chapter focuses on early formulations in the work of Marx, Lenin and Mao. The third chapter is dedicated to how Trotskyists and post-Trotskyists took up the militant investigations in the US, France and Italy. The last two chapters deal with French Maoism, the fourth on the early Badiou and his colleagues and the fifth on Foucault’s theoretical work and activism of the early seventies. A few things become clear from this description of chapters: the importance of Maoism and its afterlives in the formulation and practice of militant investigations; and the fact that they are a constant feature of radical Marxist militantism since Marx. What follows is a more detailed exposition of the book with a few critical points. These should not obscure the basic fact that this book is a crucial contribution to a neglected field that may be a possible way out of the tense relationship between truth and political struggle in our information-saturated times.

The introduction clarifies the stakes of the work in terms of historical reconstruction and theoretical ramifications. Hoffman’s main aim ‘is to rescue the investigation in radical political struggles and theories from’ a relative ‘position of an obscurity’ (2) exacerbated by its omnipresence in its neoliberal or sociological guises. The militant investigation for Hoffman is a public act meant ‘to gather information about the conditions and struggles of workers, peasants, and other subalterns for explicitly political purposes.’ (2) Such undertakings preceded Marx, yet he was the one who gave it one of its fundamental forms, that of the questionnaire, and weaved it into the history of Marxism as theory and praxis. Hoffman states that his own ‘core argument is that the militant investigation amounts to a highly fluid and adaptable practice whose value resides in the production of forms of collective political subjectivity rather than in the extraction, accumulation, and publication of purely informational content’ (3). This distinction is crucial for two main reasons: (i) It distinguishes the militant investigation from the politically oriented sociological or anthropological research. The latter may have a general political outlook, but its main purpose is the constitution of objective science (8). (ii) The reorientation of the militant investigation away from knowledge-production enables Hoffman to argue convincingly that to apply to it a logic of failure or success in terms of the knowledge accumulated, reformulated and disseminated which we usually use to judge such intellectual work, is simply missing the point. The value of militant investigations is ‘to instantiate forms of collective political subjectivity […] a new “we” among the various participants in the investigations, not to mention many others.’ (16) By blurring the distinction between investigated and investigator, between representation and practice, the militant investigation is both a powerful tool to undermine party and state and a means through which a concrete political consciousness may emerge.

The second chapter maps the main forms of investigation formulated by Marx, Lenin and Mao. Surprisingly, each ‘formulated his own investigation as if starting from scratch’ (25). According to Hoffman, a possible reason for neglecting investigations in militant practice is this ‘compartmentalized’ history (26). Hoffman attempts and succeeds in weaving together the origins of the investigations showing that it developed in three diverging directions: the detailed questionnaire (Marx), the rejection of the investigation in favour of the knowledge of the militants themselves (Lenin), and the immersion of militants in order to have more open-ended resources via fact-finding meetings, collection of knowledge from specific actors, and more (Mao). For Hoffman, this ‘heterogeneity of the militant investigation’ (27) is not a mark of weakness. It is its very strength. It can be adapted to different historical and social contexts based on a thin assumption, i.e. that official accounts are not a reliable source of knowledge concerning exploitation, discrimination and domination that are a regular part of the lives of subaltern classes. As stated, refocusing militant investigations on the constitution of political subjectivity enables Hoffman to argue for the value of Marx’s ‘A Worker’s Inquiry’, even though only a few replies were received after 25,000 forms were sent. While showing that Lenin did practice investigations between 1894 and 1896 (39) only to reject it later, this chapter re-establishes Mao as the foremost theorist of militant investigations in Marxism’s early history (49). With Mao, it becomes clear that militant investigations can be successful as sources of knowledge, strategic political reorientation and political constitution. The practice stands behind Mao’s redirection of the struggle in China towards the peasantry (50).

The last three chapters are an impressive historical and linguistic tour de force. Taking place between the American, Italian and French radical left, they force Hoffman to deal with texts that are not easily accessible in at least three languages. The resulting chapters are impressive as they are a pleasurable read. Even those familiar with the history of these, at times hermetic, groups will gain something from Hoffman’s synthetic account. From the Johnson-Forest Tendency, the American Trotskyist group behind ‘The American Worker’, to Italian Workerism and its leading journal, Quaderni Rossi, the third chapter maps the rise and fall of self-narratives in militant investigations (53-56). The self-narrative was a solution proposed to overcome the distinction between the investigator and the investigated implicit in the questionnaire form formulated by a militant and given to workers. Hoffman shows how it remains an issue in ‘The American Worker’ and how this relatively unknown text had a crucial influence on the Quaderni Rossi members and their essential revival of Marx’s questionnaire while investigating the Turin FIAT factories in the early 1960s (71-79). Hoffman shows how this series of investigations, and a joint, intense theoretical engagement with Marx, led Italian Workerism towards their primary contribution to Marxism: the need to transform the working class from a social class to an antagonistic one.

As stated, the fourth and fifth chapters can be read as the most consequential moment of investigations in the West as part of French Maoism under its different mutations and articulations in the red sixties and seventies. Hoffman dedicates meticulous attention to these investigations’ content (usually ignored), to their theoretical expressions, to the revision done to them regarding Mao’s early formulations. While the Union of Marxist-Leninist Communists of France (UCFML), of which Badiou was a founding member, took to heart Mao’s idea of the investigation as an immersive experience under the French term of établissement, leading them to spend 5 years (!) in the French rural countryside with poor farmers (81-84), the Information Group on Prisons (GIP) established by Foucault focused on prisoners and synthesized both Marx’s questionnaire and Mao’s theoretical reflections (120-123). Indeed, Foucault, as Hoffman argues, ‘solved’ the thorny issue of the distinction between the investigator and the investigated by including prisoners and ex-prisoners at all levels of the investigation just before the red years ended and the militant investigation went into a hiatus. Both Foucault and Badiou, working in parallel and with almost no knowledge of each other’s work, used the investigation to undermine the party form as a traditional form of subaltern representation, attempting, in the case of the early Badiou, to reach a new form of the party (91) and in the case of the GIP, to bypass it altogether (121). By introducing Foucault into the history of Marxism, Hoffman, a scholar of Foucault, adds an alternative way out of the conundrum of Foucault and Marx’s diverging philosophies plaguing parts of the left. Though the book is not dedicated to Foucault, the Foucault that emerges from its pages is more Marxist than the one appearing in many philosophical works dedicated to theoretically bringing closer these two giants. Hoffman highlights to what extent Foucault was in the early seventies an unorthodox Marxist (yet very much a Marxist) and, simultaneously, he succeeds in bringing Foucault into the long and winding history of Marxism as theory and practice.

There are at least three flaws that trail the work. The first is related to the issue of activist, political anthropology. This field seems to combine both militant activism and anthropological research. A striking example is David Graeber’s work. Though indeed Hoffman’s distinction between the aims is relevant, his example of the Frankfurt School is a bit antiquated (5-6). Only in conclusion, and very briefly, Hoffman comes back to such matters in contemporary theory and praxis (135-139). Hoffman can defend himself by stating that Militant Acts has a strict timeframe, ending with Foucault and Badiou in the mid-seventies. However, given Hoffman’s addition that the militant investigation sees a resurgence in interest and use (134-135), choosing the seventies as a limit seems arbitrary. To turn to contemporary examples from Argentina, Spain or the U.S. only in a short conclusion leaves the reader wanting more. Our understanding of power and knowledge has changed radically in the last decades. One remains unsatisfied that these are not addressed in their impact on the renewal of militant investigations. The last point concerns the book’s main theoretical discussion, that of the apparent failure of militant investigations to produce at times their ambitious results in terms of concrete knowledge of subaltern classes. Indeed, Hoffman reframing the subject is important. Militant investigations do not have the same aims and should not be judged according to the same measures as academic research. However, this does not mean that failure has been dealt with. If, as Hoffman would like us to believe, the militant investigation has as its main aim the production of a collective political agency, then we can judge them by their failure or success on this account. Indeed, except for Mao, militant investigations did not seem to produce any concrete, lasting, consequential political formation of a collective agency.

24 March 2021

One comment

  1. Thank you for this review of a book that looks to be an interesting read. However – without having read the book yet – I am not entirely convinced that the author simply dismisses the surveys of activists, because they “failed to produce the knowledge they were expected to deliver of the working class, its living conditions and the reasons for its alienation.”

    Doing the surveys brought activists together to go canvassing, and focused what they thought they were in business for, politically. Even if the surveys technically or methodologically failed, they nevertheless generated new knowledge, simply because activists took the step to go out and talk to ordinary folks, and find out what they really thought, and that was already a gain.

    It is one thing to speculate about what people think, another to try and find out, what they really do think! Who is willing to do this kind of scientific work these days, unless they are paid, or can get off? Not very many, other than students doing a research project for their degree or diploma. Some political parties do their own surveys though, with volunteers.

    If you want to do a good survey, you need a good and scientifically sound survey methodology. You don’t need to be an academic to understand what is required. Most generally, you want to find out SOMETHING THAT YOU DON’T KNOW FOR SURE YOURSELF. This presupposes, that you can admit, that you don’t know something, and that you have the dedication to find out what you don’t know. You need the confidence and arrogance to discover things, and sufficient humility to do what it takes to get to know things that you don’t know.

    Secondly, you have certain problems you want to find an answer too, and you approach that task with certain assumptions guided by a theory. To the extent that surveys by activists failed, it was probably due in good part to the fact that they were so deeply into their own moral ideology and intellectual concerns, that they largely failed to frame and phrase the survey topics correctly and objectively. There are most certainly a series of methodological rules you have to follow there, if you want to succeed. They are not even particularly difficult to learn, if you have the right teaching materials.

    If, for example, you frame working class people implicitly or explicitly as “victims of the system”, you are likely to go badly wrong in your survey already. In reality, working class people may often have better houses, better cars and better sex lives, than middleclass or even some elite people do. Moreover, they very likely don’t see themselves just as “alienated victims”.

    “May I ask you sir, do you feel alienated?” “No I bloody don’t, I just feel pissed off”. I actually asked that question once, and that was the answer. Working-class people may have grudges at times against the way they are treated by people who consider them as “their betters”, they may be somewhat derisive about so-called “sensitive intellectual people”, but they do usually consider it is up to themselves, to better their lot, and it is not as though they believe that they cannot do anything about that. They often do want to “get even”, and they do often get even, as they see it. They often have very clear and definite opinions about the state that society is in, and who is responsible for that.

    There is a very good reason for doing voluntary “grassroots” surveys in our era, even if many surveys in the past failed to get the hoped-for results. The reason is, that the formats of many modern surveys are framed to fabricate the kind of data, that support or inform the policies which paying clients happen to favour. The surveys do not necessarily contain the questions which really ought to be asked, and which could yield “uncomfortable” replies.

    In his radical days, Pierre Bourdieu already commented on that sort of business, in an essay titled “public opinion does not exist” (1972). Scientifically I don’t agree entirely with what Bourdieu said, of course, but it is nevertheless still worth a read. https://is.muni.cz/el/fss/podzim2019/POLn4102/um/blok1/Bourdieu_PO_Does_Not_Exist.pdf

    As a philosopher, Foucault offered some brilliant and visionary insights about the evolution of society. But he was also a child of his era, and not a reliable guide to empirical social science. If you want good guides to social-scientific research, there are far better models to follow these days. Badiou is most probably a good man, I have nothing against him in that sense, but as far as I can see, he lost the point of theory, the real purpose of theory, as well as good insight into the limits of theory.

    Albert Einstein quipped once, that “The sceptic will say, ‘It may well be true that this system of equations is reasonable from a logical standpoint, but this does not prove that it corresponds to nature.’ You are right, dear sceptic. Experience alone can decide on truth.”

    Theoreticians who are unwilling to confront systematically the facts of experience, because they think they can infer everything from theoretical ideas, are unlikely to comprehend much about the true and real situation in the world.

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