2014 annual Platypus President’s report

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the 6th annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention. Recording available at: http://youtu.be/vB0AR61lcnE

100 years later, what does the crisis and split in Marxism and the political collapse of the major parties of the 2nd International in 1914 mean for us today?

The Spartacists, for example, are constantly in search of the “August 4th” moment, the moment of betrayal of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism, by various tendencies in the history of Marxism. They went so far as to confess their own “August 4th” when they failed to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there.

So, what happened, from a Marxist perspective, on August 4, 1914, when the SPD members of the Reichstag voted to finance the Prussian Empire’s war budget?

Two things: the parliamentary representatives of the SPD went against past resolutions to vote against the war effort of the German government; and the disorganization of the SPD leadership, what has been called the effective but illegitimate take-over of the party by the parliamentary delegation. No legitimate political authority of the party sanctioned this action. In all respects of principle and practice, the SPD was destroyed as a political organization as it had existed up to that point.

August 4, 1914 has been called — by the Spartacists — the first great internal counterrevolution in the history of Marxism. This is entirely true.

But it was a counterrevolution conducted not merely by the leadership of the SPD, however they may have abetted it, but rather by the Reich’s government against the SPD membership.

What was the specific character of this counterrevolution, and how was it made possible?

There was a famous pair of sayings by the SPD’s chairman, Bebel: “Not one man or one penny for this rotten system!;” and “If it’s against Russia, I myself will pick up a gun!”

The German High Command, in preparation for war, took aim precisely at the contradiction between these two statements by Bebel.

The German High Command wielded the specter of counterrevolution through occupation by Tsarist Russian troops against the SPD in order to prompt their preemptive counterrevolution, which they saw as an act of self-preservation, as the lesser evil. Furthermore, they thought that getting behind the war would allow them to (somehow) control it, to make the government dependent on them and so wrest political concessions from it, perhaps even undermining it, in political favor of the proletariat.

This was not an unreasonable judgment. The question is whether their compromise was too much, whether the act of ostensible self-preservation was in fact actually an act of self-destruction.

The SPD leadership did not want the war; they thought, however, that they couldn’t prevent it: unleashing a class-struggle civil war to stop the international war was not feasible in terms of success, but would only result in the crushing of the SPD’s organization, which was at least preserved if subordinated to the government through the war.

So the issue is what was preserved through the compromise, the surrender to the blackmail of the war?

The German government, which the original Spartacus League of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht considered responsible for the war, adopted a strategy of a 2-front war, against both the Russians and the British and the French, despite the evident military risks of doing so, in order to ensure the adherence of the Social Democrats to the war effort, out of defense against the Russians. The threat of Russian invasion and occupation, and destruction of the social-democratic workers’ movement, was enough to pre-empt such active counterrevolution with the passive counter-revolution of the social-democratic cooperation with the war effort.

In all politics there is, as Lenin put it, a “who-whom?” question: who is the agent and who is the object. The most catastrophic political mistakes the Left has made historically is in terms of this who-whom problem: for instance, the Iranian Left tried to use the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamists, but it was Khomeini who instead used the Left.

The German Social Democrats, by contrast, did not seek so much to undermine the German government through cooperation, but rather merely to survive the war.

Still, when the German war effort collapsed in 1918, the Social Democrats were, as a result of their collaboration, in the position to have the mantle of government fall to them, in what they considered to be a democratic — and not socialist — revolution.

The apparent separation of the democratic from the socialist revolution in 1918 is what retrospectively condemns the SPD’s collaboration with the German government’s war effort. What confirms the political character of the vote for war credits of August 4, 1914 was the counterrevolutionary role played by the SPD in 1918-19. If the SPD had fought for socialism in 1918, then its choice to avoid confrontation and repression in 1914 would have been justified. It was not only the horror of the war that indicted the SPD’s compromise in 1914, but the division around the struggle for socialist revolution later at the conclusion of the war that confirmed Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Lenin’s perspective.

However, there was the perspective of Kautsky, who was consistent in considering the war an utter calamity and not any kind of occasion for struggling for socialism, either in 1914 or in 1917 and 1918-19.

Kautsky condemned the Bolsheviks’ overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government in 1917, which stood with the Entente against the Germans. Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks were regarded by Russian nationalists as German agents for promoting an armistice, to pull Russia out of the war. But Lenin wanted to pull Russia out of the international war in order for it to participate in the civil war between the global classes of workers and capitalists.

Thus Kautsky and Lenin could accuse one another of complicity in the war: Kautsky for voting for war credits to defend the SPD in the present and thus the possibility of the struggle for socialism in the future; and Lenin for trying to use the war as an occasion for socialist revolution. Each could accuse the other of opportunism in the historical moment, and of undermining — betraying — the true struggle for socialism.

Luxemburg agreed with Lenin that in itself and apart from the immediate application of the goal in the struggle for socialism, the SPD was nothing or indeed worse than nothing, part of sustaining capitalism.

For Luxemburg and Lenin, the SPD was duty-bound to launch a civil war against the German government rather than allow it to launch an international war. This is precisely the repression of the SPD Kautsky and other leaders of the SPD feared, why they thought it was impossible to stage a political confrontation with the government in 1914. Its failure to do so rendered it, in Luxemburg’s terms, a “stinking corpse,” that is, dead for long enough that it was putrefying already in 1914. August 4 revealed the SPD as already dead: its past failures accumulated in it. This was not a matter of mere tactics, a military appraisal of the SPD’s chances against the government’s forces in 1914, but rather a matter of principle — preserving the honor of Marxism and of the workers’ movement for socialism more generally.

Recently, the anarchist Wayne Price spoke on a Platypus panel about the dual failure of Marxism in the 2nd and 3rd Internationals, that Marxism revealed its authoritarian statism at 2 clear moments, when Marxists of the 2nd Intl. supported the war in 1914, and when Lenin suppressed other socialists in the Russian Revolution and Stalin did so in the Spanish Civil War: the role of Marxist parties in these instances was to serve the counterrevolution rather than the revolution.

The question, then, would be not what Kautsky and Lenin had in common, but how they differed, and they differed most clearly around the issue of the war in 1914, from which their later difference over the revolution in both Russia and Germany in 1917-18 was derived.

The question is the workers’ movement for socialism. Kautsky considered it an end in itself, thus retroactively agreeing with Bernstein’s Revisionist reformist view of the “movement everything, the goal nothing.” Preserving the movement meant betraying its goals. Whereas Luxemburg and Lenin were willing to sacrifice the movement for the goal of socialism. That is the only reason they opposed the war by opposing the war policies of the various antagonistic governments, to precipitate a global civil war of workers against capitalists. They thus did not reject the war on pacifist grounds, as Kautsky might have done, compromising with it on defensive grounds, but rather identified the war as the necessary expression of and occasion for the need for the struggle for socialism.

As it turns out, perhaps the preemptive counterrevolution by the German government through the war must be deemed in retrospect to have been successful. Certainly the struggle for socialism let alone Marxism in the advanced capitalism countries never did recover from it.

Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky tried to make the First World War really into what Woodrow Wilson merely promised, a “war to end all wars.” Wilson thought it was to defeat remnant feudalism; Marxists understood rather that it was to overcome capitalism.

As such, they launched a civil war: first and foremost a civil war within Marxism itself, between those who accepted the task and those who rejected and thus betrayed the duties of that civil war. That they failed in this is not proof against the task of socialism. Wilson regarded and fought against the Marxists as extemists — extremism bred of political repression in undemocratic states. But of course the conservative and opportunist character of Wilson’s politics was different from that of the SPD’s capitulation to the war. Or was it? Wilson didn’t think that Prussian militarism or Tsarism indicted bourgeois society but were backward violations of its norms. The SPD similarly addressed the war as an abnormality. Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky addressed the war as the norm: the endemic crisis of capitalism raised to a fever pitch. But the SPD and Wilson considered them to be opening the world to greater war and horror, to the greater barbarization of bourgeois society. If Wilson was no socialist, he still considered himself a defender against the threats of both Prussian militarism and Bolshevism of the norms of liberal democratic bourgeois society, which socialists considered the base-line minimum of the standards for a better society. The question and the political dispute was over how to best protect, defend and promote the principles of that better society, to which all political actors might claim adherence, and what compromises can be justifiable in that pursuit. It is thus not a matter of pure principles but of means to their end, the true dispute of politics.

1914 was not proof of the Marxist analysis of “imperialism” or the demonstration of the horrors of capitalism or any other such thing: It was the division of Marxism in war and revolution at the Gotterdammerung of bourgeois society that haunts the struggle for socialism to this day, the task and duty of civil war from which the “Left” today shrinks, thus becoming a “stinking corpse,” now as before.

The war and the revolution are all around us, all the time. As Lenin put it, it is not as conveniently posed as the capitalists lining up on one side and the workers on the other, which would make the task very simple. No: 1914 is still with us to the extent that the workers are on both sides, and both sides could plausibly claim to be on the true side of the struggle for socialism, or at least for a better society, which is what “socialism” after all means.

1914 was the division in the workers’ movement for socialism, which was the precondition for the politics of revolution. The fact that we no longer have that politics can be traced back to the problem and task that 1914 revealed. | §

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Samir Gandesha (Simon Fraser University), Nikos Malliaris (Lieux Communs), Dimitrios Roussopoulos (Transnational Institute of Social Ecology) and Joseph Schwartz (Democratic Socialists of America) at the 6th annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention. Recording and panel description available at: http://platypus1917.org/2014/04/06/revolutionary-politics-thought/

The last, 20th century was characterized as one of wars and revolutions. I would like to re-characterize it slightly, to a century of war and revolution, singular. The 20th century was the century of the crisis of capitalism, and that crisis was expressed through war and revolution.

Hannah Arendt’s 1962 book On Revolution begins its discussion of politics with an Introduction on “War and Revolution,” offering that these were the two paramount political issues of the day, after all ideological justifications handed down from the 19th century, such as nationalism, capitalism and socialism or communism, had faded.

Arendt began her discussion, properly, with Lenin: Lenin, who called for turning the “world war” among national states into a global “civil war” between the workers and the capitalists. Lenin represented to Arendt the opposition of revolution to war. It is said that a Nazi diplomat once quipped that the only beneficiary of WWII would be Trotsky. For most of the 20th century, this is what was assumed, that war was the failure of politics, and that the political failure of the ruling class in war would lead to social revolution. This was once a reasonable assumption that we cannot however share today, for the political issues of the revolution, while not going away, have been driven underground, no longer manifesting as politics. Arendt’s fears have been confirmed: it was her rather hopeful and optimistic prognosis that modern history was the history of revolution, and war merely the revolution’s epiphenomenon. Today that is hard for us to perceive.

Arendt predicted that due to “mutual assured nuclear destruction” in the Cold War, the 20th century would cease to be characterized as a century of war but would remain a century of revolution (18). But the opposite has taken place after the end of the Cold War. It is not that war has been eclipsed by revolution — as Lenin would have hoped — but rather the opposite, that war has eclipsed revolution. Arendt dismissed De Maistre’s statement that “counterrevolution is not the revolution in reverse but the opposite of revolution.” But De Maistre was correct and Arendt mistaken: the 20th century became a century of war not revolution because it was a century of counterrevolution.

To recognize, with von Clausewitz, that “war is politics by other means,” does not mean the reverse, that “politics is war by other means.” In other words, while the early 19th century liberal Benjamin Constant pointed out that moderns achieve by social commerce and peaceful politics what was once achieved by the Ancients through war, this does not mean that politics is reducible to war. If war is politics by other means, then we must add that war is not the best and might indeed be the worst means for achieving political ends. Revolution might be the alternative to war, but that does not mean that war is an acceptable alternative to revolution.

It is important as well to note that Arendt recognized that while wars were a timeless, perennial feature of civilization, revolution was quintessentially modern. So, what we might say is that it appears that the 20th century became in retrospect a century of wars rather than revolutions the degree to which revolutionary modernity was rolled back successfully by the counterrevolution.

Arendt discusses “freedom” in an ancient rather than specifically modern sense à la Benjamin Constant, when she points out that for the Ancients wars were fought not for freedom but for gain; and that for moderns revolution is inseparable from freedom: that a particular danger lies in the concept of wars for freedom, precisely because it conflates war and revolution, at the expense of proper political considerations, drowning the separate issues of each in the phenomenon of violence, to which she thought neither revolution nor war could be reduced.

However, it would appear that today not only war and revolution are reduced to violence, but also politics and society. Politics seems reduced to “war by other means,” indeed to violence by other means. That politics and social power have been reduced to violence is the surest sign of the “success,” so to speak, of the counterrevolution.

This is what it means for the Left to say that, but for the Right, the revolution would be peaceful, without violence — political force is not violence.

Arendt, like von Clausewitz, sought to preserve the political content of war. But Benjamin Constant like other liberals considered war to be, not merely the failure of politics, but a crime. Unlike for the Ancients who celebrated war, indeed as among the highest of values, after every modern war people search for who was criminally culpable for the regrettable catastrophe. Carl Schmitt thought that this pointed to the dehumanization inherent in liberalism, its attempt to suppress the war of politics through its criminalization of war, reducing to his mind society to mere “commerce and entertainment.” It should not be for the Left to define politics, like Schmitt, in terms of war. Rather, the issue is the pursuit of freedom without war. If the liberal ideal of bourgeois society as the replacement of war by commerce — by not only peaceful competition but indeed cooperative competition for the benefit of all — has failed, then we must interrogate the nature of that failure and not naturalize it. The liberal ideal may also remain that of socialism.

This raises the issue of war in our particular moment, today, the time of an apparently quickly fading neoconservatism and a continuing if chastened neoliberalism. What are these ideologies with respect to revolution? We might say that there is an antinomy of neoconservatism versus neoliberalism, that neoliberalism prefers to seek to achieve through the market what neoconservatism is content to seek through war, and that this antinomy points to the form of the revolution in our time, that is, capitalism, and its political antinomies. For capitalism is the revolution, however it is also the counterrevolution. Both the neoliberals and neoconservatives seek to further the revolution — capitalism — but do so through what Marxists must consider the counterrevolution.

Modern politics, in this sense, can be considered the war, so to speak, within the revolution: the political counterrevolution within the revolutionizing of society in capitalism, and the yet still ongoing irrepressible revolution of capitalism within the politics of the counterrevolution. Modern politics is concerned with the values of the massive changes occurring within capitalism — the values and direction of the revolution.

Once we recognize that modern history does not consist of occasional revolutions but rather of the revolution, one single process and trajectory of revolution, which has been more or less poorly manifested, recognized and fought-out, we can better situate the stakes of politics.

The counterrevolution, as the war within the revolution, is the reaction against the failure of the revolution: the degeneration of the revolution into war expressed through the counterrevolution.

So what is the revolution?

The modern era is one of revolution, the overthrow of traditional civilization. The past few hundred years have been characterized by the most far-reaching and deepest ever transformation of the world: more has changed and has changed more rapidly than at any other moment of history.

The predominant way in which this change has taken place is through avowed bourgeois social relations, which are essentially the relations of the exchange of labor as a commodity, what Adorno called the “law of labor.” This has been recognized clearly by bourgeois protagonists as well as by their adversaries. Both revolutionaries and reactionaries have characterized this process in bourgeois terms, the terms of the modern city.

The American revolutionary Thomas Jefferson offered a clear characterization of the stakes of this revolution of which he was an important advocate and political agent. Jefferson, in his letter of January 3, 1793 to U.S. Ambassador to France William Short about the Jacobins, wrote:

The tone of your letters had for some time given me pain, on account of the extreme warmth with which they censured the proceedings of the Jacobins of France…. In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands, the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.

In 1793, the Jacobins had restarted the calendar, retrospectively beginning with year one of the Republic in 1792. The French Revolution also introduced the metric system of measurements, which has since become the universal standard. A new epoch was to have dawned. That the revolution has since then come to seem not the overthrow but the rather continuation of traditional civilization is only an effect of the need and failure to advance the revolution.

Politics since then has been concerned with the direction of this revolution. Only very isolated extreme figures and only for relatively brief historical intervals have rejected the politics of the bourgeois revolution. For instance, several years ago, in an open letter to President George W. Bush, President of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote that the project of liberal democratic capitalism had clearly failed and that therefore it was time to return to the values of traditional civilization in religion, to Islam and Christianity, respectively.

Since the 1970s, there have been two extremely active movements more or less proximate to the centers of political power at a global scale that have sought to further the bourgeois revolution. They have not been of the Left. Neoconservatism and neoliberalism have taken up the mantle abandoned by the Left in promoting the revolution of bourgeois society, promising the world freedom. In many ways the neoliberals have done so more radically than the neoconservatives. Still, even the neocons must be reckoned as bourgeois revolutionaries — which their traditionalist paleoconservative rivals, let alone the religious fundamentalists, have clearly recognized. The strange bedfellows of Christian conservatives and neoconservatives have fought the properly political battle of what Lenin called the “who-whom” question: Have the Christians used the neocons, or the neocons used the Christians? I think it is clear that the neocons, though now ideologically discredited on certain policy questions (after the Iraq war in particular), won that battle: they used the Christians to attain political power. But the neoliberals have, despite the recent global economic crisis of the past several years, really triumphed. Neoliberalism is the “new normal” throughout the world; Margaret Thatcher was right, “There is no alternative.” Furthermore, it is under neoliberal leadership that the world is currently being revolutionized. We might say that the neoliberals have been in the vanguard and the neoconservatives in the rearguard of the continuing bourgeois revolution over the course of the past generation, the last 40 years.

Where does this leave the avowed “Left,” today?

There has been a great deal of confusion in the past generation in particular, but also more broadly since the early 20th century, about the direction and stakes of the revolution from the point of view of the “Left.”

Arendt, for instance, pointed out how it was remarkable that freedom had dropped out of the vocabulary of revolutionaries.

What would have been obvious to Marx and Engels, or to Lenin or Trotsky as Marxists, that the struggle for socialism was to further and complete and ultimately transcend the bourgeois revolution in freedom, has become an obscure issue today.

Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto parsed out the issue of socialism in the 19th century in terms of conservative-reactionary versus progressive-emancipatory varieties, deeming only “proletarian socialism” a reliable agent of overcoming the problem of capitalism in the emancipatory direction of freedom. Other varieties were deemed “petit-bourgeois,” that is, reproductive of the problem of capitalism, because obscuring its essential contradictions.

The original socialist critique of capitalism was that the capitalists were unreliable revolutionaries, too opportunistically conservative to confidently promote the revolution of which they had been however the beneficiaries historically.

Rather, that task of fulfilling the revolution in modern society had fallen to the working class.

In the 20th century, this became muddled, in that “new revolutionary subjects” were sought to promote the revolution after the apparent failure of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries to further the revolutionary advance to socialism. But today these purported new social-revolutionary classes and social groups have also clearly failed. Neither peasants nor anticolonialists nor oppressed ethno-cultural minorities nor women nor sexual deviants have furthered the advance of socialism. If anything, such politics have only confounded the issue.

We are left with the problem of the results of incomplete revolution — capitalism — but without any apparent revolutionary subjects to address and overcome this problem. The best on offer seems an indeterminate “democracy,” but that has a storied and problematic history as well, going back to the Jacobins themselves if not earlier. Moreover, since the mid-19th century, the democratic revolution has been an engine for the reproduction of capitalism.

What the revolution has given us since Marx’s time is not socialism but more, and more extensive and deeper capitalism. Moreover, Marx’s recognition of the revolutionary character of capitalism has been lost. The reproduction of capitalism has taken largely conservative-reactionary forms. This is because the issue of capitalism has become obscured.

This has had a profound effect on politics itself. The ostensible “Left” has allowed itself to become defensive, and to thus imagine that the principal task has been, rather, the “resistance” to capitalism. A one-sided and confused “anti-capitalism” has replaced the struggle for socialism. Worse, the “Left” has internalized not only cynicism about the bourgeois revolution, but even the conservative-reactionary rejection of the revolution itself. Marx has gone from being a revolutionary to becoming a “master of suspicion,” and has been profoundly misread as skeptical or even cynical regarding modern, bourgeois society and its revolutionary potential. The “Left” has thus become a new Right. It has not only compromised itself but actively contributes to the confounding and obscuring of the revolution that still tasks the world.

This means that only opportunists — the Right — have allowed themselves to be politically active, but have been compromised in their activity precisely by such opportunism. Neoliberalism and neoconservativism are clear examples of this, but so is political religious fundamentalism. But before them so was Stalinism. As Trotsky put it, Stalinism was the “great organizer of defeat,” meaning the political “leadership” of the organized accommodation of defeat. As such, Stalinism was also, ideologically, the apologetics for defeat. This was done through calling defeat victory, or, the affirming of the course of the revolution through opportunistic grief. Thus, the 20th century was called “progress” when there was none. No wonder that postmodernism’s opposition to Marxism – really to Stalinism — was first and foremost an opposition to ideas of historical progress and of history — that is, universal history — itself.

What characterizes the last two hundred years is the relative lack of consciousness, and unfortunately increasingly so, of the on-going bourgeois revolution. To date, Marxism has offered not merely the best but really the only way out of this deficiency of consciousness. Specifically, Marxism offered the diagnosis of the necessary if symptomatic character of that lack of consciousness. The bourgeois revolution without consciousness is what Marx called “capitalism;” it was the rendering of the revolution “objective” — an object of mere contemplation, an unfolding catastrophe rather than a process of freedom — abdicating the task of consciousness, which alone could offer the possibility of the continuation of the revolution as a matter of freedom.

If we experience the return, the repetition of the bourgeois revolution, then this is as the reproduction of capitalism. But the repetition is an opportunity for advancing the revolution, if however through its self-contradiction, the war of the counterrevolution within the failure of the revolution. The task of revolutionary thinking, therefore, would be the recognition of the repetition and of the contradiction. | §

Chris Cutrone

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Originally published as a letter in Weekly Worker 997, February 13, 2014. Rex Dunn replied in Weekly Worker 998, February 20, 2014.

With a series of exclamation points, Rex Dunn attacks Paul Demarty’s assertion that Robert Mapplethorpe’s black male nude photos are “hot”. Why?

Dunn attacks ‘sexual fetishism’ as a species of ‘commodity fetishism’ in Marx’s sense. But this specifically neglects and actively elides the crucial difference of Marx’s critique of anthropological ‘fetishism’ from Freudian psychoanalysis’s theory of ‘(sexual) fetishism’ that postdates Marx and has nothing to do with political economy. Marx’s theory of ‘commodity fetishism’ has nothing to do with truth versus deception, and everything to do with the ‘way things really are’, the Hegelian “necessary form of appearance” of social reality.

Dunn makes a plea for “humanism” and for “the person” against sexual objectification, claiming that Demarty’s defence of avant garde art is in league with the capitalist dehumanisation of people, the “shock effect” that enhances “exchange value”, but is spurious as the true aesthetic value of art. But is that all that the avant garde can be reduced to? Aren’t Mapplethorpe’s nudes more meaningful – don’t they make one think? – rather than merely shocking? Demarty makes a good case for Mapplethorpe’s art as art.

Dunn restates something observed originally in bourgeois thought long ago: that art must go beyond mere propaganda or entertainment (which is what all art in traditional civilisation was), that it must make one think about aesthetic experience. The question is how it might do so. Sexual objectification can be an occasion for thought and not only mindlessness. It is impossible to separate art – ‘good art’, that is: art that makes one think – from the transformation of humanity in capital, however that may be distorted by unfreedom.

If Dunn thinks that an overly great theoretical effort is required to redeem avant garde art’s social value, then this neglects Hegel’s observation that art in modern society cannot stand on its own, but must be made sense of conceptually, through criticism and historical comparison, which Demarty’s article does attempt to do – for instance, showing how Bjarne Melgaard’s ‘chair’ might relate to its historical reference and predecessor as artwork, Allen Jones’s The chair. By contrast, Dunn seeks to anathematise art works, such as Mapplethorpe’s black male nudes, for their complicity in capitalism, as if it were possible to be otherwise.

Yes, in capitalism, sex is “bought and consumed” as a commodity in the ‘culture industry’. But is that what is wrong with capitalism, that people participate in sexual availability through commodification? Or is the problem rather that human sexuality is rendered worthless, the way any commodity is, in the ‘alienated’ crisis of value in capital? Furthermore, if art that participates in sexual objectification is rendered out of court, then this will cut us off from being able to contemplate and think about the specifically aesthetic experience of sex (not reducible to and apart from its other aspects: for instance, emotional intimacy).

Why is the appreciation of another as a sexual object in itself dehumanising? Aren’t human beings (also) objects? As Kant put it in the moral ‘categorical imperative’, the point is to not treat other humans ‘only’ as objects, but ‘also’ as subjects. We inevitably treat one another as objects in our social relations, but this is not the problem with capitalism. The problem in capitalism is that objects (and not only subjects) become worthless. We all want to be valued objects, erotically and otherwise.

Dunn’s comparison with ‘alienation’ in religion is problematical, in that it turns religion into an attribute of social oppression in itself, rather than recognising that this is what it became in retrospect, by comparison with bourgeois freedom. Religion not only oppressed the peasants, but also made their lives meaningful. The analogue between capitalist alienation and religion is retroactive: indeed, the ancient gods were not nearly as evil as capital!

It won’t do to attack the ‘false idols’ of art for participating in capitalism. For human beings in the present system are no less false. As Adorno wrote, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”

– Chris Cutrone, Platypus Affiliated Society

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 63 | February 2014

 

The following is based on a presentation given on January 11, 2014 in Chicago. Video recording available online at: <http://youtube.com/watch?v=FyAx32lzC0U>; audio recording at: <http://archive.org/details/cutrone_lukacsteachin011114_201401>.

Georg Lukács in 1913

Georg Lukács in 1913

The role of “critical theory”

Why read Georg Lukács today?[1] Especially when his most famous work, History and Class Consciousness, is so clearly an expression of its specific historical moment, the aborted world revolution of 1917–19 in which he participated, attempting to follow Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Are there “philosophical” lessons to be learned or principles to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Mike Macnair has put it, of “theoretical overkill,” stymieing of political possibilities, closing up the struggle for socialism in tiny authoritarian and politically sterile sects founded on “theoretical agreement?”

Mike Macnair’s article “Lukács: The philosophy trap”[2] argues about the issue of the relation between theory and practice in the history of ostensible “Leninism,” taking issue in particular with Lukács’s books History and Class Consciousness (1923) and Lenin (1924), as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy.” The issue is what kind of theoretical generalization of consciousness could be derived from the experience of Bolshevism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that “philosophical” agreement is not the proper basis for political agreement, but this is not the same as saying that political agreement has no theoretical implications. I’ve discussed this previously in “The philosophy of history”[3] and “Defending Marxist Hegelianism against a Marxist critique,”[4] as well as in “Gillian Rose’s ‘Hegelian’ critique of Marxism.”[5] The issue is whether theoretical “positions” have necessary political implications. I think it is a truism to say that there is no sure theoretical basis for effective political practice. But Macnair seems to be saying nothing more than this. In subordinating theory to practice, Macnair loses sight of the potential critical role theory can play in political practice, specifically the task of consciousness of history in the struggle for transforming society in an emancipatory direction.

A certain relation of theory to practice is a matter specific to the modern era, and moreover a problem specific to the era of capitalism, that is, after the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of the modern proletarianized working class and its struggle for socialism, and the crisis of bourgeois social relations and thus of consciousness of society involved in this process.

Critical theory recognizes that the role of theory in the attempt to transform society is not to justify or legitimate or provide normative sanction, not to rationalize what is happening anyway, but rather to critique, to explore conditions of possibility for change. The role of such critical theory is not to describe how things are, but rather how they might become, how things could and should be, but are not, yet.

The political distinction, then, would be not over the description of reality but rather the question of what can and should be changed, and over the direction of that change. Hence, critical theory as such goes beyond the distinction of analysis from description. The issue is not theoretical analysis proper to practical matters, but, beyond that, the issue of transforming practices, with active agency and subjective recognition, as opposed to merely experiencing change as something that has already happened. Capitalism itself is a transformative practice, but that transformation has eluded consciousness, specifically regarding the ways change has happened and political judgments about this. This is the specific role of theory, and hence the place of theoretical issues or “philosophical” concerns in Marxism. Marxist critical theory cannot be compared to other forms of theory, because they are not concerned with changing the world and the politics of our changing practices. Lukács distinguished Marxism from “contemplative” or “reified” consciousness, to which bourgeois society had otherwise succumbed in capitalism.

If ostensibly “Marxist” tendencies such as those of the followers of Tony Cliff have botched “theory,” which undoubtedly they have, it is because they have conflated or rendered indistinct the role of critical theory as opposed to the political exigencies of propaganda: for organizations dedicated to propaganda, there must be agreement as to such propaganda; the question is the role of theory in such propaganda activity. If theory is debased to justifying propaganda, then its critical role is evacuated, and indeed it can mask opportunism. But then it ceases to be proper theory, not becoming simply “wrong” or falsified but rather ideological, which is a different matter. This is what happened, according to Lukács and Korsch, in the 2nd/Socialist International, resulting in the “vulgarization” of Marxism, or the confusion of the formulations of political propaganda instead of properly Marxist critical theorization.

“Proletarian socialism”

The “proletariat” was Marx’s neologism for the condition of the post-Industrial Revolution working class, which was analogous metaphorically to the Ancient Roman Republic’s class of “proletarians:” the modern industrial working class was composed of “citizens without property.” In modern, bourgeois society, for instance in the view of John Locke, property in objects is derived from labor, which is the first property. Hence, to be a laborer without property is a self-contradiction in a very specific sense, in that the “expropriation” of labor in capitalism happens as a function of society. A modern “free wage-laborer” is supposed to be a contractual agent with full rights of ownership and disposal over her own labor in its exchange, its buying and selling as property, as a commodity. This is the most elementary form of right in bourgeois society, from which other claims, for instance, individual right to one’s own person and equality before the law, flow. If, according to Marx and Engels, the condition of the modern, post-Industrial Revolution working class or “proletariat” expressed a self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, this was because this set of social relations, or “bourgeois right,” was in need of transformation: the Industrial Revolution indicated a potential condition beyond bourgeois society. If the workers were expropriated, according to Marx and Engels, this was because of a problem of the value of labor at a greater societal level, not at the level of the individual capitalist firm, not reducible to the contractual relation of the employee to her employer, which remained “fair exchange.” The wage contract was still bourgeois, but the value of the labor exchanged was undermined in the greater (global) society, which was no longer simply bourgeois but rather industrial, that is, “capital”-ist.

The struggle for socialism by the proletariat was the attempt to reappropriate the social property of labor that had been transformed and “expropriated” or “alienated” in the Industrial Revolution. Marx and Engels thought this could be achieved only beyond capitalism, for instance in the value of accumulated past labor in science and technology, what Marx called the “general (social) intellect.” An objective condition was expressed subjectively, but that objective condition of society was itself self-contradictory and so expressed in a self-contradictory form of political subjectivity, “proletarian socialism.” For Marx and Engels, the greatest exemplar of this self-contradictory form of politics aiming to transform society was Chartism in Britain, a movement of the high moment of the Industrial Revolution and its crisis in the 1830s–40s, whose most pointed political expression was, indicatively, universal suffrage. The crisis of the bust period of the “Hungry ’40s” indicated the maturation of bourgeois society, in crisis, as the preceding boom era of the 1830s already had raised expectations of socialism, politically as well as technically and culturally, for instance in the “Utopian Socialism” of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen et al., as well as in the “Young Hegelian” movement taking place around the world in the 1830s, on whose scene the younger Marx and Engels arrived belatedly, during its crisis and dissolution in the 1840s.

One must distinguish between the relation of theory and practice in the revolutionary bourgeois era and in the post-Industrial Revolution era of the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism and the proletariat’s struggle for socialism. If in the bourgeois era there was a productive tension, a reflective, speculative or “philosophical” relation, for instance for Kant and Hegel, between theory and practice, in the era of the crisis of bourgeois society there is rather a “negative” or “critical” relation. Hence, the need for Marxism.

As the Frankfurt School Marxist Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno put it, the separation of theory and practice was emancipatory: it expressed the freedom to think at variance with prevailing social practices unknown in the Ancient or Medieval world of traditional civilization. The freedom to relate and articulate theory and practice was a hallmark of the revolutionary emergence of bourgeois society: the combined revolution in society of politics, economics, culture (religion), technique and philosophy—the latter under the rubric “Enlightenment.” By contrast, Romantic socialism of the early 19th century sought to re-unify theory and practice, to make them one thing as they had been under religious cosmology as a total way of life. If, according to Adorno, Marxism, as opposed to Romantic socialism, did not aspire to a “unity of theory and practice” in terms of their identity, but rather of their articulated separation in the transformation of society—transformation of both consciousness and social being—then what Adorno recognized was that, as he put it, the relation of theory and practice is not established once-and-for-all but rather “fluctuates historically.” Marxism, through different phases of its history, itself expressed this fluctuation. But the fluctuation was an expression of crisis in Marxism, and ultimately of failure: Adorno called it a “negative dialectic.” It expressed and was tasked by the failure of the revolution. But this failure was not merely the failure of the industrial working class’s struggle for socialism in the early 20th century, but rather that failure was the failure of the emancipation of the bourgeois revolution: this failure consumed history, undermining the past achievements of freedom—as Adorno’s colleague Walter Benjamin put it, “Even the dead are not safe.” Historical Marxism is not a safe legacy but suffers the vicissitudes of the present. If we still are reading Lukács, we need to recognize the danger to which his thought, as part of Marxism’s history, is subject in the present. One way of protecting historical Marxism’s legacy would be through recognizing its inapplicability in the present, distancing it from immediate enlistment in present concerns, which would concede too much already, undermining—liquidating without redeeming—consciousness once already achieved.

The division in Marxism

The title of Lukács’s book History and Class Consciousness should be properly understood directly as indicating that Lukács’s studies, the various essays collected in the book, were about class consciousness as consciousness of history. This goes back to the early Marx and Engels, who understood the emergence of the modern proletariat and its political struggles for socialism after the Industrial Revolution in a “Hegelian” manner, that is, as phenomena or “forms of appearance” of society and history specific to the 19th century. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in their point of departure for “Marxism” as opposed to other varieties of Hegelianism and socialism, looked forward to the dialectical “Aufhebung” of this new modern proletariat: its simultaneous self-fulfillment and completion, self-negation, and self-transcendence in socialism, which would be (also) that of capitalism. In other words, Marx and Engels regarded the proletariat in the struggle for socialism as the central, key phenomenon of capitalism, but the symptomatic expression of its crisis, self-contradiction and need for self-overcoming. This is because capitalism was regarded by Marx and Engels as a form of society, specifically the form of bourgeois society’s crisis and self-contradiction. As Hegelians, Marx and Engels regarded contradiction as the appearance of the necessity and possibility for change. So, the question becomes, what is the meaning of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society, the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, expressed by the post-Industrial Revolution working class and its forms of political struggle?

Marx and Engels regarded the politics of proletarian socialism as a form of bourgeois politics in crisis and self-contradiction. This is what it meant for Marx and Engels to say that the objective existence of the proletariat and its subjective struggle for socialism were phenomena of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society and its potential Aufhebung.

The struggle for socialism was self-contradictory. This is what Lukács ruminated on in History and Class Consciousness. But this was not original to Lukács or achieved by Lukács’s reading of Marx and Engels, but rather mediated through the politics of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: Lenin and Luxemburg provided access, for Lukács as well as others in the nascent 3rd or Communist International, to the “original Marxism” of Marx and Engels. For Marx and Engels recognized that socialism was inevitably ideological: a self-contradictory form of politics and consciousness. The question was how to advance the contradiction.

As a participant in the project of the Communist International, for Lukács in his books History and Class Consciousness and Lenin (as well as for Karl Korsch in “Marxism and philosophy” and other writings circa 1923), the intervening Marxism of the 2nd or Socialist International had become an obstacle to Marx and Engels’s Marxism and thus to proletarian socialist revolution in the early 20th century, an obstacle that the political struggles of Lenin, Luxemburg and other radicals in the 2nd International sought to overcome. This obstacle of 2nd International Marxism had theoretical as well as practical-political aspects: it was expressed both at the level of theoretical consciousness as well as at the level of political organization.

2nd International Marxism had become an obstacle. According to Luxemburg, in Reform or Revolution? (1900) and in Lenin’s What is to be Done? (1902) (the latter of which was an attempted application of the terms of the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International to conditions in the Russian movement), the development of proletarian socialism in the 2nd International had produced its own obstacle, so to the speak, in becoming self-divided between “orthodox Marxists” who retained fidelity to the revolutionary politics of proletarian socialism in terms of the Revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, and “Revisionists” who thought that political practice and theoretical consciousness of Marxism demanded transformation under the altered historical social conditions that had been achieved by the workers’ struggle for socialism, which proceeded in an “evolutionary” way. Eduard Bernstein gave the clearest expression of this “Revisionist” view, which was influenced by the apparent success of British Fabianism that led to the contemporary formation of the Labour Party, and found its greatest political support among the working class’s trade union leaders in the 2nd International, especially in Germany. In Bernstein’s view, capitalism was evolving into socialism through the political gains of the workers.

Marxism of the Third International

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Lukács and Korsch among others following them, thought that the self-contradictory nature and character—origin and expression—of proletarian socialism meant that the latter’s development proceeded in a self-contradictory way, which meant that the movement of historical “progress” was self-contradictory. Luxemburg summarized this view in Reform or Revolution?, where she pointed out that the growth in organization and consciousness of the proletariat was itself part of—a new phenomenon of—the self-contradiction of capitalism, and so expressed itself in its own self-contradictory way. This was how Luxemburg grasped the Revisionist Dispute in the Marxism of the 2nd International itself. This self-contradiction was theoretical as well as practical: for Luxemburg and for Lenin the “theoretical struggle” was an expression of practical self-contradiction. Leon Trotsky expressed this “orthodox Marxist” view shared by Lenin and Luxemburg in his 1906 pamphlet Results and Prospects, on the 1905 Revolution in Russia, by pointing out that the various “pre-requisites of socialism” were self-contradictory, that they “retarded” rather than promoted each other. This view was due to the understanding that proletarian socialism was bound up in the crisis of capitalism which was disintegrative: the struggle for socialism was caught up in the disintegration of bourgeois society in capitalism. For Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, contra Bernstein, the crisis of capitalism was deepening.

One of the clearest expressions of this disintegrative process of self-contradiction in Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky’s time was the relation of capitalism as a global system to the political divisions between national states in the era of “monopoly capital” and “imperialism” that led to the World War, but was already apprehended in the Revisionist Dispute at the turn of the 20th century as expressing the need for socialism—the need for proletarian political revolution. Lenin and Luxemburg’s academic doctoral dissertations of the 1890s, on the development of capitalism in Russia and Poland, respectively, addressed this phenomenon of “combined and uneven” development in the epoch of capitalist crisis, disintegration and “decay,” as expressing the need for world revolution. Moreover, Lenin in What is to be Done? expressed the perspective that the Revisionist Dispute in Marxism was itself an expression of the crisis of capitalism manifesting within the socialist workers’ movement, a prelude to revolution.

While it is conventional to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “revolutionary socialism” to Bernstein et al.’s “evolutionism,” and hence to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “dialectical” Marxism to the Revisionist “mechanical” one, what is lost in this view is the role of historical dynamics of consciousness in Lenin and Luxemburg’s (and Trotsky’s) view. This is the phenomenon of historical “regression” as opposed to “progress,” which the “evolutionary socialism” of Bernstein et al. assumed and later Stalinism also assumed. The most important distinction of Luxemburg and Lenin’s (as well as Trotsky’s) “orthodox” perspective—in Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) view, what made their Marxism “dialectical” and “Hegelian”—was its recognition of historical “regression:” its recognition of bourgeois society as disintegrative and self-destructive in its crisis of capitalism. But this process of disintegration was recognized as affecting the proletariat and its politics as well. Benjamin and Adorno’s theory of regression began here.

Historical regression

The question is how to properly recognize, in political practice as well as theory, the ways in which the struggle for proletarian socialism—socialism achieved by way of the political action of wage-laborers in the post-Industrial Revolution era as such—is caught up and participates in the process of capitalist disintegration: the expression of proletarian socialism as a phenomenon of history, specifically as a phenomenon of crisis and regression.

This history has multiple registers: there is the principal register of the post-Industrial Revolution crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, its crisis and departure from preceding bourgeois social relations (those of the prior, pre-industrial eras of “cooperation” and “manufacture” of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, in Marx’s terms); but there is also the register of the dynamics and periods within capitalism itself. Capitalism was for Marx and Engels already the regression of bourgeois society. This is where Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) perspective, derived from Luxemburg and Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) views from 1900-19, what they considered an era of “revolution,” might become problematic for us, today: the history of the post-1923 world has not been, as 1848–1914 was in the 2nd International “orthodox” or “radical” Marxist (as opposed to Revisionist) view, a process of increasing crisis and development of revolutionary political necessities, but rather a process of continued social disintegration of capitalism without, however, this being expressed in and through the struggle for proletarian socialism.

It is important to note that Lukács (and Korsch) abandoned rather rapidly their 1923 perspectives, adjusting to developing circumstances of a non-revolutionary era.

Here is where the problematic relation of Tony Cliff’s political project to Lukács (and Korsch), and hence to Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, may be located: in Cliff’s perspective on his (post-1945) time being a “non-revolutionary” one, demanding a project of “propaganda” that is related to but differs significantly from the moment of Lenin et al. For the Cliffites and their organizations, “political practice” is one of propaganda in a non-revolutionary period, in which political action is less of a directly practical but rather of an exemplary-propagandistic significance. This has been muddled by their strategy of “movement-building.”

This was not the case for Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, whose political practice was directly about the struggle for power, and in whose practical project Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) “theoretical” work sought to participate, offering attempts at clarification of self-understanding to revolutionaries “on the march.” Cliff and his followers, at least at their most self-conscious, have known that they were doing something essentially different from Lenin et al.: they were not organizing a revolutionary political party seeking a bid for power as part of an upsurge of working class struggle in the context of a global movement (the 2nd International), as had been the case for Lenin at the time of What is to be Done? (1902), or Luxemburg’s Mass Strike pamphlet and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Yet the Cliffites have used the ideas of Lenin and Luxemburg and their followers, such as Lukács and Korsch as well as Trotsky, to justify their practices. This presents certain problems. Yes, Lenin et al. have become ideological in the hands of the Cliffites, among others—“Leninism” for the Stalinists most prominently. So the question turns to the status of Lenin’s ideas in themselves and in their own moment.[6]

Mike Macnair points out that Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) works circa 1923 emphasized attack and so sought to provide a “theory of the offensive,” as opposed to Lenin’s arguments about the necessities of “retreat” in 1920 (as against and in critique of “Left-Wing” Communism) and what Macnair has elsewhere described as the need for “Kautskyan patience” in politically building for proletarian socialism (as in the era of the 2nd International 1889–1914), and so this limits the perspective of Lukács (and Korsch), after Lenin and Luxemburg (and Trotsky), to a period of “civil war” (circa 1905, and 1914/17–19/20/21). In this, Macnair is concerned, rightly, with “theory” becoming a blinder to proper political practice: “theoretical overkill” is a matter of over-“philosophizing” politics. But there is a difference between active campaigning in the struggle for power, whether in attack or (temporary) retreat, and propagandizing, to which Marxism (at best) has been relegated ever since the early 20th century.

However, in raising, by contrast, the need for a conscious openness to “empirical reality” of political experience, Macnair succumbs to a linear-progressive view of history as well as of political practice, turning this into a matter of “lessons learned:” it becomes a quantitative rather than qualitative matter. Moreover, it becomes a matter of theory in a conventional rather than the Marxist “critical” sense, in which the description of reality and its analysis approach more and more adequate approximations.

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, and so Lukács (and Korsch), as “orthodox” as opposed to “revisionist” Marxists, conceived of the development of consciousness, both theoretically and practically-organizationally, rather differently, in that a necessary “transformation of Marxism,” which took place in the “peculiar guise” of a “return to the original Marxism of Marx and Engels” (Korsch), could be an asset in the present. But that “present” was the “crisis of Marxism” 1914–19, which is not, today, our moment—as even Cliff and his followers, with their notion of “propaganda” in a non-revolutionary era, have recognized (as did Lukács and Korsch, in subsequently abandoning their circa-1923 perspectives).

So what is the status of such ideas in a non-revolutionary era?

Korsch and the problem of “philosophy”

Karl Korsch, Lukács’s contemporary in the 3rd International, whose work Macnair deliberately and explicitly puts aside, offered a pithy formulation in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and philosophy,” that, “a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch.” That is, we may live under the shadow of a problem that goes beyond us.

This is a non-linear, non-progressive and recursive view of history, which Korsch gleaned from Luxemburg and Lenin’s contributions to the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International (e.g., Reform or Revolution?, What is to be Done?, etc.; and Trotsky’s Results and Prospects). It has its origins in Marx and Engels’s view of capitalism as a regressive, disintegrative process. This view has two registers: the self-contradiction and crisis of bourgeois social relations in the transition to capital-ism after the Industrial Revolution; and the disintegrative and self-destructive process of the reproduction of capitalism itself, which takes place within and as a function of the reproduction of bourgeois social relations, through successive crises.

Marx and Engels recognized that the crisis of capitalism was motivated by the reproduction of bourgeois social relations under conditions of the disintegration of the value of labor in the Industrial Revolution, producing the need for socialism. The industrial-era working class’s struggle for the social value of its labor was at once regressive, as if bourgeois social relations of the value of labor had not been undermined by the Industrial Revolution, and pointed beyond capitalism, in that the realization of the demands for the proper social value of labor would actually mean overcoming labor as value in society, transforming work from “life’s prime need” to “life’s prime want:” work would be done not out of the social compulsion to labor in the valorization process of capital, but rather out of intrinsic desire and interest; and society would provide for “each according to his need” from “each according to his ability.” As Adorno, a later follower of Lukács and Korsch’s works circa 1923 that had converted him to Marxism, put it, getting beyond capitalism would mean overcoming the “law of labor.”[7]

Korsch’s argument in his 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy” was focused on a very specific problem, the status of philosophy in Marxism, in the direct sense of Marx and Engels being followers of Hegel, and Hegel representing a certain “end” to philosophy, in which the world became philosophical and philosophy became worldly. Hegel announced that with his work, philosophy was “completed,” as a function of recognizing how society had become “philosophical,” or mediated through conceptual theory in ways previously not the case. Marx and Engels accepted Hegel’s conclusion, in which case the issue was to further the revolution of bourgeois society—the “philosophical” world that demanded worldly “philosophy.” The disputes among the Hegelians in the 1830s and ’40s were concerned, properly, with precisely the politics of the bourgeois world and its direction for change. The problem, according to Korsch, was that, after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, there was a recrudescence of “philosophy,” and that this was something other than what had been practiced either traditionally by the Ancients or in modernity by revolutionary bourgeois thinkers—thinkers of the revolution of the bourgeois era—such as Kant and Hegel (also Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith, et al.).

What constitutes “philosophical” questions? Traditionally, philosophy was concerned with three kinds of questions: ontology, what we are; epistemology, how we know; and the good life, how we ought to live. Starting with Kant, such traditional philosophical “first questions” of prima philosophia or “first philosophy” were no longer asked, or, if they were asked, they were strictly subordinated or rendered secondary to the question of the relation of theory and practice, or, how we account to ourselves what we are doing. Marxism is not a philosophy in the traditional sense, any more than Kant and Hegel’s philosophy was traditional. Lenin, in the Conclusion of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908), summed up that the late 19th century Neo-Kantians “started with Kant and, leaving him, proceeded not [forwards] towards [Marxist] materialism, but in the opposite direction, [backwards] towards Hume and Berkeley.” It is not, along the lines of a traditional materialist ontology, that firstly we are material beings; epistemologically, who know the world empirically through our bodily senses; and ethically we must serve the needs of our true, material bodily nature. No. For Kant and his followers, including Hegel and Marx, rather, we consciously reflect upon an on-going process from within its movement: we don’t step back from what we are doing and try to establish a “first” basis for asking our questions; those questions arise, rather, from within our on-going practices and their transformations. Empirical facts cannot be considered primary if they are to be changed. Theory may go beyond the facts by influencing their transformation in practice.

Society is the source of our practices and their transformations, and hence of our theoretical consciousness of them. Society, according to Rousseau, is the source of our ability to act contrary to our “first nature,” to behave in unnatural ways. This is our freedom. And for Kant and his followers, our highest moral duty in the era of the process of “Enlightenment” was to serve the cause of freedom. This meant serving the revolution of bourgeois emancipation from traditional civilization, changing society. However Kant considered the full achievement of bourgeois society to be the mere “mid-point” of the development of freedom.[8] Hegel and Marxism inherited and assumed this projective perspective on the transitional character of bourgeois society.

Marx and Engels can be considered to have initiated a “Second Enlightenment” in the 19th century the degree to which capitalism presented new problems unknown in the pre-Industrial Revolution bourgeois era, because they had not yet arisen in practice. By contrast, philosophers who continued to ask such traditional questions of ontology, epistemology and ethics were actually addressing the problem of the relation of theory and practice in the capitalist era, whether they recognized this or not. Assuming the traditional basis for philosophical questions in the era of capitalism obscured the real issue and rendered “philosophy” ideological. This is why “philosophy” needed to be abolished. The question was, how?

The recrudescence of philosophy in the late 19th century was, according to Korsch, a symptom of the failure of socialism in 1848, but as such expressed a genuine need: the necessity of relating theory and practice as a problem of consciousness under conditions of capitalism. In this respect, Marxism was the sustaining of the Kantian-Hegelian “critical philosophy” but under changed conditions from the bourgeois-revolutionary era to that of capitalism. Korsch analogized this to the recrudescence of the state in post-1848 Bonapartism, which contradicted the bourgeois-revolutionary, liberal prognosis of the subordination of the state to civil society and thus the state’s “withering away,” its functions absorbed into free social relations. This meant recognizing the need to overcome recrudescent philosophy as analogous to the need to overcome the capitalist state, the transformation of its necessity through socialism. “Bonapartism in philosophy” thus expressed a new, late found need in capitalism, to free society. We look to “philosophers” to do our thinking for us the same way we look to authoritarian leaders politically.

As Korsch put it, the only way to “abolish” philosophy would be to “realize” it: socialism would be the attainment of the “philosophical world” promised by bourgeois emancipation but betrayed by capitalism, which renders society—our social practices—opaque. It would be premature to say that under capitalism everyone is already a philosopher. Indeed, the point is that none are. But this is because of the alienation and reification of bourgeois social relations in capitalism, which renders the Kantian-Hegelian “worldly philosophy” of the critical relation of theory and practice an aspiration rather than an actuality. Nonetheless, Marxist critical theory accepted the task of such modern critical philosophy, specifically regarding the ideological problem of theory and practice in the struggle for socialism. This is what it meant to say, as was formulated in the 2nd International, that the workers’ movement for socialism was the inheritor of German Idealism: it was the inheritor of the revolutionary process of bourgeois emancipation, which the bourgeoisie, compromised by capitalism, had abandoned. The task remained.

Transformation of Marxism

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, “orthodox Marxists” of the 2nd International who radicalized their perspectives in the crisis of the 2nd International and of Marxism in world war and revolution 1914–19, and were followed by Lukács and Korsch, were subjects of a historical moment in which the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism was expressed by social and political crisis and the movement for “proletarian socialist” revolution, beginning, after the Industrial Revolution, in the 1830s–40s, the attempt to revolutionize society centrally by the wage-laborers as such, a movement dominated from 1889–1914 by the practical politics as well as theoretical consciousness of Marxism.

Why would Lukács and Korsch in the 20th century return to the origins of Marxism in Hegelianism, in what Korsch called the consciousness of the “revolt of the Third Estate,” a process of the 17th and 18th centuries (that had already begun earlier)? Precisely because Lukács and Korsch sought to address Marxism’s relation to the revolt of the Third Estate’s bourgeois glorification of the social relations of labor, and the relation of this to the democratic revolution (see for example the Abbé Sieyès’s revolutionary 1789 pamphlet What is the Third Estate?): how Marxism recognized that this relation between labor and democracy continued in 19th century socialism, however problematically. In Lukács and Korsch’s view, proletarian socialism sustained just this bourgeois revolution, albeit under the changed conditions of the Industrial Revolution and its capitalist aftermath. Mike Macnair acknowledges this in his focus on the English Enlightenment “materialist empiricism” of John Locke in the 17th and 18th centuries and on the British Chartism of the early 19th century, their intrinsic continuity in the democratic revolution, and Marx and Engels’s continuity with both. But then Macnair takes Kant and Hegel—and thus Lukács and Korsch following them—to be counter-Enlightenment and anti-democratic thinkers accommodating autocratic political authority, drawing this from Hume’s alleged turn away from the radicalism of Locke back to Hobbes’s political conservatism, and Kant and Hegel’s alleged affirmation of the Prussian state. But this account leaves out the crucially important influence on Kant and German Idealism more generally by Rousseau, of whom Hegel remarked that “freedom dawned on the world” in his works, and who critiqued and departed from Hobbes’s naturalistic society of “war of all against all” and built rather upon Locke’s contrary view of society and politics, sustaining and promoting the revolution in bourgeois society as “more than the sum of its parts,” revolutionary in its social relations per se, seminal for the American and French Revolutions of the later 18th century. Capital, emerging in the 19th century, in the Marxist view, as the continued social compulsion to wage-labor after its crisis of value in the Industrial Revolution, both is and is not the Rousseauian “general will” of capitalist society: it is a self-contradictory “mode of production” and set of social relations, expressed through self-contradictory consciousness, in theory and practice, of its social and political subjects, first and foremost the consciousness of the proletariat. It is self-contradictory both objectively and subjectively, both in theory and in practice.

Marx and Engels’s point was to encourage and advance the proletariat’s critical recognition of the self-contradictory character of its struggle for socialism, in what Marx called the “logical extreme” of the role of the proletariat in the democratic revolution of the 19th century, which could not, according to Marx, take its “poetry” from the 17th and 18th centuries, as clearly expressed in the failure of the revolutions of 1848, Marx’s famous formulation of the need for “revolution in permanence.”[9] What this means is that the democratic revolutionary aspirations of the wage-laborers for the “social republic” was the self-contradictory demand for the realization of the social value of labor after this had already taken the form of accumulated capital, what Marx called the “general intellect.” It is not the social value of labor, but rather that of this “general intellect” which must be reappropriated, and by the wage-laborers themselves, in their discontents as subjects of democracy. The ongoing democratic revolution renders this both possible and superfluous in that it renders the state both the agency and obstacle to this reappropriation, in post-1848 Bonapartism, which promises everything to everyone—to solve the “social question” of capitalism—but provides nothing, a diversion of the democratic revolution under conditions of self-contradictory bourgeois social relations: the state promises employment but gives unemployment benefits or subsidizes the lost value of wages; as Adorno put it, the workers get a cut of the profits of capital, to prevent revolution.[10] Or, as Adorno’s colleague, the director of the Frankfurt Institute Max Horkheimer put it, the Industrial Revolution and its continued social ramifications made not labor but the workers “superfluous.”[11] This created a very dangerous political situation—clearly expressed by the catastrophic events of the 20th century, mediated by mass “democratic” movements.

Marxism in the 20th century

In the 20th century, under the pressure of mass democracy—itself the result of the class struggle of the workers—the role of the state as self-contradictory and helpless manager of capitalism came to full fruition, but not through the self-conscious activity of the working class’s political struggle for socialism, confronting the need to overcome the role of the state, but more obscurely, with perverse results. Lenin’s point in The State and Revolution (1917) was the need for the revolutionary transformation of society beyond “bourgeois right” that the state symptomatically expressed; but, according to Lenin, this could be accomplished only “on the basis of capitalism itself” (“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1920). If the working class among others in bourgeois society has succumbed to what Lukács called the “reification” of bourgeois social relations, then this has been completely naturalized and can no longer be called out and recognized as such. For Lukács, “reification” referred to the hypostatization and conservatization of the workers’ own politics in protecting their “class interest,” what Lenin called mere “trade union consciousness” (including that of nationalist competition) in capitalism, rather than rising to the need to overcome this in practice, recognizing how the workers’ political struggles might point beyond and transcend themselves. This included democracy, which could occult the social process of capitalism as much as reveal it.

One phenomenon of such reification in the 20th century was what Adorno called the “veil of technology,” which included the appearance of capital as a thing (as in capital goods, or techniques of organizing production), rather than as Marxism recognized it, a social relation, however self-contradictory.

Film still of Hannah Arendt (2013) directed by Margarethe von Trotta.

Film still of Hannah Arendt (2013) directed by Margarethe von Trotta.

The anti-Marxist, liberal (yet still quite conservative) Heideggerian political theorist Hannah Arendt (and antagonist of Adorno and other Marxist “Critical Theorists” of the Frankfurt School, who was however married to a former Communist follower of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League of 1919), expressed well how the working class in the 20th century developed after the failure of Marxism:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in an actual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor [by technical automation], and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.[12]

This was written contemporaneously with the Keynesian economist Joan Robinson’s statement that, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”[13] (Robinson, who once accused a Marxist that, “I have Marx in my bones and you have him in your mouth.”[14]) Compare this to what Heidegger offered in Nazi-era lectures on “Overcoming metaphysics,” that, “The still hidden truth of Being is withheld from metaphysical humanity. The laboring animal is left to the giddy whirl of its products so that it may tear itself to pieces and annihilate itself in empty nothingness;”[15] and, in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (1964), the place of Marx in this process: “With the reversal of metaphysics which was already accomplished by Karl Marx, the most extreme possibility of philosophy is attained.”[16] But this was Heidegger blaming Marxism and the “metaphysics of labor” championed politically by the bourgeois revolt of the Third Estate and inherited by the workers’ movement for socialism, without recognizing as Marx did the self-contradictory character in capitalism; Heidegger, for whom “only a god can still save us” (meaning, only the discovery of a new value to serve),[17] and Arendt following him, demonized technologized society as a dead-end of “Western metaphysics” allegedly going back to the Socratic turn of ‘science” followed by Plato and Aristotle in Classical Antiquity, rather than recognizing it as a symptom of the need to transform society, capitalism and its need for socialism as a transitional condition of history emerging specifically in the 19th century.

This was the resulting flat “contradiction” that replaced the prior “dialectical” contradiction of “proletarian socialism” recognized by Marxism, whose theoretical recovery, in the context of the crisis of Marxism in the movement from the 2nd to 3rd Internationals, had been attempted by Lukács and Korsch. What Arendt called merely the (objective) “human condition,” the “vita activa” and its perverse nihilistic destiny in modern society, was, once, the (subjective) “dialectical,” self-contradictory “standpoint of the proletariat” in Marxism, as the “class consciousness” of history: the historical need for the proletariat to overcome and abolish itself as a class, including its own standpoint of “consciousness,” its regressive bourgeois demand to reappropriate the value of labor in capitalism, which would both realize and negate the “bourgeois right” of the value of labor in society. Socialism was recognized by Marxism as the raising and advancing of the self-contradiction of capitalism to the “next stage,” motivated by the necessity and possibility for “communism.” What Arendt could only apprehend as a baleful telos, the society of labor overcoming itself, Marxism once recognized as the need for revolution, to advance the contradiction in socialism.

When Marxists such as Adorno or Lukács can only sound to us like Arendt (or Heidegger), this is because we no longer live in the revolution. Adorno:

According to [Marxist] theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . . If all the oppression that man has ever inflicted upon man culminates in the cold inhumanity of free wage labor, then . . . the archaic silence of pyramids and ruins becomes conscious of itself in materialist thought: it is the echo of factory noise in the landscape of the immutable. . . . This means, however, that dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified human beings reification finds its outer limits. . . . Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power. . . . Even if the dynamic at work was always the same, its end today is not the end.[18]

Lukács:

[As Hegel said,] directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable. . . . [I]n the age of the dissolution of capitalism, the fetishistic categories collapse and it becomes necessary to have recourse to the “natural form” underlying them. . . . As the antagonism becomes more acute two possibilities open up for the proletariat. It is given the opportunity to substitute its own positive contents for the emptied and bursting husks. But also it is exposed to the danger that for a time at least it might adapt itself ideologically to conform to these, the emptiest and most decadent forms of bourgeois culture.[19]

Why still “philosophy?”

The problem today is that we are not faced, as Lukács and Korsch were, with the self-contradiction of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism in the political problem of the reified forms of the working class substituting for those of bourgeois society in its decadence. We replay the revolt of the Third Estate and its demands for the social value of labor, but we do not have occasion to recognize what Lukács regarded as the emptiness of bourgeois social relations of labor, its value evacuated by technical but not political transcendence. We have lost sight of the problem of “reification” as Lukács meant it.

As Hegel scholar Robert Pippin has concluded, in a formulation that is eminently agreeable to Korsch’s perspective on the continuation of philosophy as a symptom of failed transformation of society, in an essay addressing how, by contrast with the original “Left-Hegelian, Marxist, Frankfurt school tradition,” today, “the problem with contemporary critical theory is that it has become insufficiently critical:” “Perhaps [philosophy] exists to remind us we haven’t gotten anywhere.”[20] The question is the proper role of critical theory and “philosophical” questions in politics. In the absence of Marxism, other thinking is called to address this—for instance, Arendt (or worse: see Carl Schmitt[21]).

Recognizing the potential political abuse of “philosophy” does not mean, however, that we must agree with Heidegger, that, “Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world” (Der Spiegel interview). Especially since Marxism is not only (a history of) a form of politics, but also, as the Hegel and Frankfurt School scholar Gillian Rose put it, a “mode of cognition sui generis.”[22] This is because, as the late 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim put it, (bourgeois) society is an “object of cognition sui generis.” Furthermore, capitalism is a problem of social transformation sui generis—one with which we still might struggle, at least hopefully! Marxism is hence a mode of politics sui generis—one whose historical memory has become very obscure. This is above all a practical problem, but one which registers also “philosophically” in “theory.”

The problem of what Rousseau called the “reflective” and Kant and Hegel, after Rousseau, called the “speculative” relation of theory and practice in bourgeois society’s crisis in capitalism, recognized once by historical Marxism as the critical self-consciousness of proletarian socialism and its self-contradictions, has not gone away but was only driven underground. The revolution originating in the bourgeois era in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave rise to the modern philosophy of freedom in Rousseauian Enlightenment and German Idealism and that advanced to new problems in the Industrial Revolution and the proletarianization of society, perverting “bourgeois right” into a form of domination rather than emancipation, and expressed through the Bonapartist state’s perversion of democracy, which was recognized by Marxism in the 19th century but failed in the 20th century, may still task us.

This is why we might, still, be reading Lukács. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 63 (February 2014). Re-published by Philosophers for Change.


FOOTNOTES
1. See Marco Torres, “Politics as a Form of Knowledge: A Brief Introduction to Georg Lukács,” Platypus Review 1 (November 2007), available online at: <http://platypus1917.org/2007/11/01/politics-as-a-form-of-knowledge-a-brief-introduction-to-georg-lukacs/>.
2. Weekly Worker 987 (November 21, 2013), available on-line at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/987/luk%C3%A1cs-the-philosophy-trap>.
3. Weekly Worker 869 (June 9, 2011), available on-line at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/869/the-philosophy-of-history>.
4. Weekly Worker 878 (August 11, 2011), available on-line at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/878/defending-marxist-hegelianism-against-a-marxist-critique>.
5. Platypus Review 21 (March 2010), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2010/03/15/gillian-roses-hegelian-critique-of-marxism/>.
6. See my “The relevance of Lenin today,” Platypus Review 48 (July–August 2012), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2012/07/01/the-relevance-of-lenin-today/>.
7. Quoted in Detlev Claussen, Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 48.
8. “Idea for a universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view” (1784), available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm>.
9. “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League” (1850), available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/communist-league/1850-ad1.htm>.
10. “Late capitalism or industrial society?” AKA “Is Marx obsolete?” (1968).
11. “The authoritarian state” (1942).
12. The Human Condition [Vita Activa] (1958).
13. Economic Philosophy (1962).
14. See Mike Beggs, “Joan Robinson’s ‘Open letter from a Keynesian to a Marxist’” (July 2011), which quotes in full Robinson’s letter from 1953 to Ronald Meek, available on-line at: <http://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/07/joan-robinsons-open-letter-from-a-keynesian-to-a-marxist-2/>.
15. The End of Philosophy, ed. and trans. Joan Stambaugh (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 87.
16. Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 433.
17. 1966 interview in Der Spiegel, published posthumously May 31, 1976.
18. “Reflections on class theory” (1942).
19. “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness (1923).
20. “On Critical Inquiry and critical theory: A short history of non-being,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), 416–417.
21. See Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (1927/32).
22. Review of the English translation of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics [1973] in The American Political Science Review 70.2 (June 1976), 598–599.

The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone

Why read Georg Lukács today? Especially when his most famous work, History and class consciousness, is so clearly an expression of its specific historical moment: the aborted world revolution of 1917-19, in which he participated, attempting to follow Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Are there ‘philosophical’ lessons to be learned or principles to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as Mike Macnair has put it, of “theoretical overkill” – the stymieing of political possibilities, closing up the struggle for socialism in tiny authoritarian and politically sterile sects founded on “theoretical agreement”?

Mike Macnair’s article, ‘The philosophy trap’,1 argues about the issue of the relation between theory and practice in the history of ostensible ‘Leninism’, taking issue in particular with Lukács’s books, History and class consciousness (1923) and Lenin (1924), as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 essay, ‘Marxism and philosophy’.2 The issue is what kind of theoretical generalisation of consciousness could be derived from the experience of Bolshevism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that ‘philosophical’ agreement is not the proper basis for political agreement, but this is not the same as saying that political agreement has no theoretical implications. I have discussed this previously in ‘The philosophy of history’3 and ‘Defending Marxist Hegelianism against a Marxist critique’.4 The issue is whether theoretical ‘positions’ have necessary political implications. I think it is a truism to say that there is no sure theoretical basis for effective political practice. But Macnair seems to be saying nothing more than this. In subordinating theory to practice, Macnair loses sight of the potential critical role theory can play in political practice.

A certain relation of theory to practice is a matter specific to the modern era, and moreover a problem specific to the era of capitalism: that is, after the industrial revolution, the emergence of the modern proletarianised working class and its struggle for socialism, and the crisis of bourgeois social relations and thus of consciousness of society involved in this process.

Critical theory recognises that the role of theory in the attempt to transform society is not to justify or legitimate or provide normative sanction, not to rationalise what is happening anyway, but rather to critique, to explore conditions of possibility for change. The role of such critical theory is not to describe how things are, but rather how they might become, how things could and should be, but are not yet.

The political distinction, then, would be not over the description of reality, but rather the question of what can and should be changed, and over the direction of that change. Hence, critical theory as such goes beyond the distinction of analysis from description. The issue is not theoretical analysis proper to practical matters, but, beyond that, the issue of transforming practices, with active agency and subjective recognition, as opposed to merely experiencing change as something that has already happened. Capitalism itself is a transformative practice, but that transformation has eluded consciousness, specifically regarding the ways change has happened and political judgments about this. This is the specific role of theory, and hence the place of theoretical issues or ‘philosophical’ concerns in Marxism. Marxist critical theory cannot be compared to other forms of theory, because they are not concerned with changing the world and the politics of our changing practices. Lukács distinguished Marxism from “contemplative” or “reified” consciousness, to which bourgeois society had otherwise succumbed in capitalism.

‘Proletarian socialism’

The ‘proletariat’ was Marx’s neologism for the condition of the post-industrial revolution working class, which was analogous metaphorically to the ancient Roman republic’s class of ‘proletarians’: the modern industrial working class was composed of “citizens without property”. In modern, bourgeois society – for instance, in the view of John Locke – property in objects is derived from labour, which is the first property. Hence, to be a labourer without property is a self-contradiction in a very specific sense, in that the ‘expropriation’ of labour in capitalism happens as a function of society. A modern ‘free wage-labourer’ is supposed to be a contractual agent with full rights of ownership and disposal over her own labour in its exchange, its buying and selling as property, as a commodity. This is the most elementary form of right in bourgeois society, from which other claims – for instance, individual right to one’s own person and equality before the law – flow.

If, according to Marx and Engels, the condition of the modern, post-industrial revolution working class or ‘proletariat’ expressed a self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, this was because this set of social relations, or “bourgeois right”, was in need of transformation: the industrial revolution indicated a potential condition beyond bourgeois society. If the workers were expropriated, according to Marx and Engels, this was because of a problem of the value of labour at a greater societal level, not at the level of the individual capitalist firm, not reducible to the contractual relation of the employee to her employer, which remained ‘fair exchange’. The wage contract was still bourgeois, but the value of the labour exchanged was undermined in the greater (global) society, which was no longer simply bourgeois, but rather industrial: that is, ‘capital’-ist.

The struggle for socialism by the proletariat was the attempt to reappropriate the social property of labour that had been transformed and ‘expropriated’ or ‘alienated’ in the industrial revolution. Marx and Engels thought this could be achieved only beyond capitalism: for instance, in the value of accumulated past labour in science and technology, what Marx called the ‘general (social) intellect’. An objective condition was expressed subjectively, but that objective condition of society was itself self-contradictory and so expressed in a self-contradictory form of political subjectivity: ‘proletarian socialism’.

For Marx and Engels, the greatest exemplar of this self-contradictory form of politics aiming to transform society was Chartism in Britain, a movement of the high moment of the industrial revolution and its crisis in the 1830s-40s, whose most pointed political expression was, indicatively, universal suffrage. The crisis of the bust period of the ‘hungry 40s’ indicated the maturation of bourgeois society, in crisis, as the preceding boom era of the 1830s already had raised expectations of socialism, politically as well as technically and culturally – for example, in the ‘utopian socialism’ of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen et al, as well as in the ‘Young Hegelian’ movement taking place around the world in the 1830s, on whose scene the younger Marx and Engels arrived belatedly, during its crisis and dissolution in the 1840s.

One must distinguish between the relation of theory and practice in the revolutionary bourgeois era and in the post-industrial revolution era of the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism and the proletariat’s struggle for socialism. If in the bourgeois era there was a productive tension, a reflective, speculative or ‘philosophical’ relation: for instance, for Kant and Hegel, between theory and practice, in the era of the crisis of bourgeois society there is rather a ‘negative’ or ‘critical’ relation. Hence, the need for Marxism.

The division in Marxism

The title, History and class consciousness, should be properly understood directly as indicating that Lukács’s studies, the various essays collected in the book, were about class-consciousness as consciousness of history.

This goes back to the early Marx and Engels, who understood the emergence of the modern proletariat and its political struggles for socialism after the industrial revolution in a ‘Hegelian’ manner: that is, as phenomena or ‘forms of appearance’ of society and history specific to the 19th century. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in their point of departure for ‘Marxism’, as opposed to other varieties of Hegelianism and socialism, looked forward to the dialectical ‘Aufhebung’ of this new modern proletariat: its simultaneous self-fulfilment and completion, self-negation and self-transcendence in socialism, which would be (also) that of capitalism. In other words, Marx and Engels regarded the proletariat in the struggle for socialism as the central, key phenomenon of capitalism, but the symptomatic expression of its crisis, self-contradiction and need for self-overcoming. This is because capitalism was regarded as a form of society, specifically the form of bourgeois society’s crisis and self-contradiction. As Hegelians, Marx and Engels regarded contradiction as the appearance of the necessity and possibility for change.

So the question becomes, what is the meaning of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society, the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, expressed by the post-industrial revolution working class and its forms of political struggle?

Marx and Engels regarded the politics of proletarian socialism as a form of bourgeois politics in crisis and self-contradiction. This is what it meant when they say that the objective existence of the proletariat and its subjective struggle for socialism were phenomena of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society and its potential Aufhebung.

The struggle for socialism was self-contradictory. This is what Lukács ruminated on in History and class consciousness. However, this was not original to Lukács or achieved by Lukács’s reading of Marx and Engels, but rather mediated through the politics of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: Lenin and Luxemburg provided access, for Lukács as well as others in the nascent Third or Communist International, to the ‘original Marxism’ of Marx and Engels. For Marx and Engels recognised that socialism was inevitably ideological: a self-contradictory form of politics and consciousness. The question was how to advance the contradiction.

As a participant in the project of the Communist International, for Lukács in History and class consciousness and Lenin (as well as for Karl Korsch in ‘Marxism and philosophy’ and other writings circa 1923), the intervening Marxism of the Second or Socialist International had become an obstacle to Marx’s and Engels’s Marxism and thus to proletarian socialist revolution in the early 20th century – an obstacle that the political struggles of Lenin, Luxemburg and other radicals in the Second International sought to overcome. This obstacle of Second International Marxism had theoretical as well as practical-political aspects: it was expressed both at the level of theoretical consciousness and at the level of political organisation.

Second International Marxism had become an obstacle. According to Luxemburg, in Reform and revolution (1900) and in Lenin’s What is to be done? (1902) – the latter of which was an attempted application of the terms of the revisionist dispute in the Second International to conditions in the Russian movement – the development of proletarian socialism in the Second International had produced its own obstacle, so to the speak, in becoming self-divided between ‘orthodox Marxists’, who retained fidelity to the revolutionary politics of proletarian socialism in terms of the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, and ‘revisionists’, who thought that political practice and theoretical consciousness of Marxism demanded transformation under the altered historical social conditions that had been achieved by the workers’ struggle for socialism, which proceeded in an ‘evolutionary’ way.

Eduard Bernstein gave the clearest expression of this ‘revisionist’ view, which was influenced by the apparent success of British Fabianism leading to the contemporary formation of the Labour Party, and found its greatest political support among the working class’s trade union leaders in the Second International, especially in Germany. In Bernstein’s view, capitalism was evolving into socialism through the political gains of the workers.

Marxism of the Third International

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Lukács and Korsch among others following them, thought that the self-contradictory nature and character – origin and expression – of proletarian socialism meant that the latter’s development proceeded in a self-contradictory way, and so the movement of historical ‘progress’ was self-contradictory. Luxemburg summarised this view in Reform or revolution, where she pointed out that the growth in organisation and consciousness of the proletariat was itself part of – a new phenomenon of – the self-contradiction of capitalism, and so expressed itself in its own self-contradictory way. This was how Luxemburg grasped the revisionist dispute in the Marxism of the Second International itself.

This self-contradiction was theoretical as well as practical: for Luxemburg and for Lenin the ‘theoretical struggle’ was an expression of practical self-contradiction. Leon Trotsky expressed this ‘orthodox Marxist’ view shared by Lenin and Luxemburg in his 1906 pamphlet Results and prospects, on the 1905 revolution in Russia, by pointing out that the various “prerequisites of socialism”5 were self-contradictory, that they ‘retarded’ rather than promoted each other. This view was due to the understanding that proletarian socialism was bound up in the crisis of capitalism, which was disintegrative: the struggle for socialism was caught up in the disintegration of bourgeois society in capitalism. For Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, contra Bernstein, the crisis of capitalism was deepening.

While it is conventional to oppose Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s ‘revolutionary socialism’ to the ‘evolutionism’ of Bernstein et al, and hence to oppose Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s ‘dialectical’ Marxism to the revisionist, ‘mechanical’ version, what is lost in this view is the role of historical dynamics of consciousness in Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s (and Trotsky’s) view: this is the phenomenon of historical ‘regression’, as opposed to ‘progress’, which the ‘evolutionary socialism’ of Bernstein et al and later Stalinism assumed. The most important distinction of Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s (as well as Trotsky’s) ‘orthodox’ perspective – in Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) view, what made their Marxism ‘dialectical’ and ‘Hegelian’ – was its recognition of historical ‘regression’: its recognition of bourgeois society as disintegrative and self-destructive in its crisis of capitalism. But this process of disintegration was recognised as affecting the proletariat and its politics as well.

Korsch and the problem of ‘philosophy’

Karl Korsch, Lukács’s contemporary in the Third International, whose work Macnair deliberately and explicitly puts aside, offered a pithy formulation in his 1923 essay on ‘Marxism and philosophy’: “a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch”.6 That is, we may live under the shadow of a problem that goes beyond us.

This is a non-linear, non-progressive and recursive view of history, which Korsch gleaned from Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s contributions to the revisionist dispute (eg, Reform or revolution, What is to be done?, etc; and Trotsky’s Results and prospects). It has its origins in Marx’s and Engels’s view of capitalism as a regressive, disintegrative process. This view has two registers: the self-contradiction and crisis of bourgeois social relations in the transition to capital-ism after the industrial revolution; and the disintegrative and self-destructive process of the reproduction of capitalism itself, which takes place within and as a function of the reproduction of bourgeois social relations, through successive crises.

Marx and Engels recognised that the crisis of capitalism was motivated by the reproduction of bourgeois social relations under conditions of the disintegration of the value of labour in the industrial revolution, producing the need for socialism. The industrial-era working class’s struggle for the social value of its labour was at once regressive, as if bourgeois social relations of the value of labour had not been undermined by the industrial revolution, and pointed beyond capitalism, in that the realisation of the demands for the proper social value of labour would actually mean overcoming labour as value in society, transforming work from ‘life’s prime need’ to ‘life’s prime want’: work would be done not out of the social compulsion to labour in the valorisation process of capital, but rather out of intrinsic desire and interest; and society would provide for “each according to his need” from “each according to his ability”.

Korsch’s argument in ‘Marxism and philosophy’ was focused on a very specific problem: the status of philosophy in Marxism, in the direct sense of Marx and Engels being followers of Hegel, and Hegel representing a certain ‘end’ to philosophy, in which the world became philosophical and philosophy became worldly. Hegel announced that, with his work, philosophy was ‘completed’, as a function of recognising how society had become ‘philosophical’, or mediated through conceptual theory in ways previously not the case. Marx and Engels accepted Hegel’s conclusion, in which case the issue was to further the revolution of bourgeois society – the ‘philosophical’ world that demanded worldly ‘philosophy’. The disputes among the Hegelians in the 1830s and 40s were concerned, properly, with precisely the politics of the bourgeois world and its direction for change. The problem, according to Korsch, was that, after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, there was a recrudescence of ‘philosophy’, and that this was something other than what had been practised either traditionally by the ancients or in modernity by revolutionary bourgeois thinkers – thinkers of the revolution of the bourgeois era – such as Kant and Hegel (also Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith et al).

What constitutes ‘philosophical’ questions? Traditionally, philosophy was concerned with three kinds of questions: ontology, what we are; epistemology, how we know; and the good life, how we ought to live. Starting with Kant, such traditional philosophical ‘first questions’ of prima philosophia or ‘first philosophy’ were no longer asked, or, if they were asked, they were strictly subordinated or rendered secondary to the question of the relation of theory and practice, or, how we account to ourselves what we are doing.

Marxism is not a philosophy in the traditional sense, any more than Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophy was traditional. Lenin, in the conclusion of Materialism and empirio-criticism (1908), summed up that the late 19th century Neo-Kantians “started with Kant and, leaving him, proceeded not [forwards] towards [Marxist] materialism, but in the opposite direction, [backwards] towards Hume and Berkeley”.7 It is not, along the lines of a traditional materialist ontology, that firstly we are material beings; epistemologically, we know the world empirically through our bodily senses; and ethically we must serve the needs of our true, material bodily nature. No. For Kant and his followers, including Hegel and Marx, rather, we consciously reflect upon an ongoing process from within its movement: we do not step back from what we are doing and try to establish a ‘first’ basis for asking our questions; those questions arise, rather, from within our ongoing practices and their transformations. Empirical facts cannot be considered primary if they are to be changed. Theory may go beyond the facts by influencing their transformation in practice.

Society is the source of our practices and their transformations, and hence of our theoretical consciousness of them. Society, according to Rousseau, is the source of our ability to act contrary to our ‘first nature’, to behave in unnatural ways. This is our freedom. And for Kant and his followers, our highest moral duty in the era of the process of ‘enlightenment’ was to serve the cause of freedom. This meant serving the revolution of bourgeois emancipation from traditional civilisation, changing society. However, Kant considered the full achievement of bourgeois society to be the mere ‘mid-point’ of the development of freedom. Hegel and Marxism inherited and assumed this projective perspective on the transitional character of bourgeois society.

Marx and Engels can be considered to have initiated a ‘second enlightenment’ in the 19th century: the degree to which capitalism presented new problems unknown in the pre-industrial revolution bourgeois era, because they had not yet arisen in practice. By contrast, philosophers who continued to ask such traditional questions of ontology, epistemology and ethics were actually addressing the problem of the relation of theory and practice in the capitalist era, whether they recognised this or not. Assuming the traditional basis for philosophical questions in the era of capitalism obscured the real issue and rendered ‘philosophy’ ideological. This is why ‘philosophy’ needed to be abolished. The question was, how?

The recrudescence of philosophy in the late 19th century was, according to Korsch, a symptom of the failure of socialism in 1848, but as such expressed a genuine need: the necessity of relating theory and practice as a problem of consciousness under conditions of capitalism. In this respect, Marxism was the sustaining of the Kantian-Hegelian ‘critical philosophy’, but under changed conditions from the bourgeois-revolutionary era to that of capitalism. Korsch analogised this to the recrudescence of the state in post-1848 Bonapartism, which contradicted the bourgeois-revolutionary, liberal prognosis of the subordination of the state to civil society and thus the state’s ‘withering away’, its functions absorbed into free social relations. This meant recognising the need to overcome recrudescent philosophy as analogous to the need to overcome the capitalist state, the transformation of its necessity through socialism. ‘Bonapartism in philosophy’ thus expressed a new, late-found need in capitalism, to free society. We look to ‘philosophers’ to do our thinking for us the same way we look to authoritarian leaders politically.

As Korsch put it, the only way to ‘abolish’ philosophy would be to ‘realise’ it8 : socialism would be the attainment of the ‘philosophical world’ promised by bourgeois emancipation but betrayed by capitalism, which renders society – our social practices – opaque. It would be premature to say that under capitalism everyone is already a philosopher. Indeed, the point is that none are. But this is because of the alienation and reification of bourgeois social relations in capitalism, which renders the Kantian-Hegelian ‘worldly philosophy’ of the critical relation of theory and practice an aspiration rather than an actuality. Nonetheless, Marxist critical theory accepted the task of such modern critical philosophy, specifically regarding the ideological problem of theory and practice in the struggle for socialism. This is what it meant to say, as was formulated in the Second International, that the workers’ movement for socialism was the inheritor of German idealism: it was the inheritor of the revolutionary process of bourgeois emancipation, which the bourgeoisie, compromised by capitalism, had abandoned. The task remained.

Transformation of Marxism

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky – ‘orthodox Marxists’ of the Second International who radicalised their perspectives in the crisis of the International and of Marxism in world war and revolution 1914-19, and were followed by Lukács and Korsch – were subjects of a historical moment: the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism was expressed by social and political crisis and the movement for ‘proletarian socialist’ revolution, beginning, after the industrial revolution, in the 1830s-40s, and the attempt to revolutionise society centrally by the wage-labourers as such, a movement dominated from 1889-1914 by the practical politics as well as theoretical consciousness of Marxism.

Why would Lukács and Korsch in the 20th century return to the origins of Marxism in Hegelianism, in what Korsch called the consciousness of the ‘revolt of the third estate’, a process of the 17th and 18th centuries (that had already begun earlier)? Precisely because Lukács and Korsch sought to address Marxism’s relation to the revolt of the third estate’s bourgeois glorification of the social relations of labour, and the relation of this to the democratic revolution (see, for example, Abbé Sieyès’s revolutionary 1789 pamphlet What is the third estate?9 ): how Marxism recognised that this relation between labour and democracy continued in 19th century socialism, however problematically. In Lukács’s and Korsch’s view, proletarian socialism sustained just this bourgeois revolution, albeit under the changed conditions of the industrial revolution and its capitalist aftermath.

Mike Macnair acknowledges this in his focus on the English enlightenment ‘materialist empiricism’ of John Locke in the 17th and 18th centuries and on the British Chartism of the early 19th century, their intrinsic continuity in the democratic revolution, and Marx and Engels’s continuity with both. But then Macnair takes Kant and Hegel – and thus Lukács and Korsch, following them – to be counter-enlightenment and anti-democratic thinkers accommodating autocratic political authority, drawing this from Hume’s alleged turn away from the radicalism of Locke back to Hobbes’s political conservatism, and Kant and Hegel’s alleged affirmation of the Prussian state.

But this account leaves out the crucially important influence on Kant and German idealism more generally by Rousseau, of whom Hegel remarked that “freedom dawned on the world” in his works, and who critiqued and departed from Hobbes’s naturalistic society of “war of all against all” and built rather upon Locke’s contrary view of society and politics, sustaining and promoting the revolution in bourgeois society as ‘more than the sum of its parts’, revolutionary in its social relations per se, seminal for the American and French revolutions of the later 18th century. Capital in the 19th century, in the Marxist view, as the continued social compulsion to wage-labour after its crisis of value in the industrial revolution, both is and is not the Rousseauian ‘general will’ of capitalist society: it is a self-contradictory ‘mode of production’ and set of social relations, expressed through self-contradictory consciousness, in theory and practice, of its social and political subjects: first and foremost the consciousness of the proletariat. It is self-contradictory both objectively and subjectively, both in theory and in practice.

Marx’s and Engels’s point was to encourage and advance the proletariat’s critical recognition of the self-contradictory character of its struggle for socialism, in what Marx called the “logical extreme”10 of the role of the proletariat in the democratic revolution of the 19th century, which could not, according to Marx, take its “poetry” from the 17th and 18th centuries, as clearly expressed in the failure of the revolutions of 1848, Marx’s famous formulation of the need for “revolution in permanence”. What this means is that the democratic revolutionary aspirations of the wage-labourers for the “social republic” was the self-contradictory demand for the realisation of the social value of labour after this had already taken the form of accumulated capital, what Marx called the “general intellect”.

It is not the social value of labour, but rather that of this “general intellect”, which must be reappropriated, and by the wage-labourers themselves, in their discontents as subjects of democracy. The ongoing democratic revolution renders this both possible and superfluous, in that it renders the state both the agency of and obstacle to this reappropriation, in post-1848 Bonapartism, which promises everything to everyone – to solve the ‘social question’ of capitalism – but provides nothing, a diversion of the democratic revolution under conditions of self-contradictory bourgeois social relations: the state promises employment, but gives unemployment benefits or subsidises the lost value of wages.

In the 20th century, under the pressure of mass democracy – itself the result of the class struggle of the workers – the role of the state as self-contradictory and helpless manager of capitalism came to full fruition, but not through the self-conscious activity of the working class’s political struggle for socialism, confronting the need to overcome the role of the state, but more obscurely, with perverse results. Lenin’s point in The state and revolution (1917) was the need for the revolutionary transformation of society beyond “bourgeois right” that the state symptomatically expressed; but, according to Lenin, this could be accomplished only “on the basis of capitalism itself”.11 If the working class among others in bourgeois society has succumbed to what Lukács called the ‘reification’ of bourgeois social relations, then this has been completely naturalised and can no longer be called out and recognised as such. For Lukács, ‘reification’ referred to the hypostatisation and conservatisation of the workers’ own politics in protecting their ‘class interest’ – what Lenin called mere “trade union consciousness” (including that of nationalist competition) in capitalism – rather than rising to the need to overcome this in practice, recognising how the workers’ political struggles might point beyond and transcend themselves. This included democracy, which could occult the social process of capitalism as much as reveal it.

Why still ‘philosophy’?

The problem today is that we are not faced, as Lukács and Korsch were, with the self-contradiction of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism in the political problem of the reified forms of the working class substituting for those of bourgeois society in its decadence. We replay the revolt of the third estate and its demands for the social value of labour, but we do not have occasion to recognise what Lukács regarded as the emptiness of bourgeois social relations of labour, its value evacuated by technical, but not political transcendence. We have lost sight of the problem of ‘reification’ as Lukács meant it.

As Hegel scholar Robert Pippin has concluded, in a formulation that is eminently agreeable to Korsch’s perspective on the continuation of philosophy as a symptom of failed transformation of society, in an essay addressing how, by contrast with the original “Left-Hegelian, Marxist, Frankfurt school tradition”, today, “the problem with contemporary critical theory is that it has become insufficiently critical”: perhaps philosophy “exists to remind us we haven’t gotten anywhere”.12

The problem of what Rousseau called the “reflective” and Kant and Hegel, after Rousseau, called the “speculative” relation of theory and practice in bourgeois society’s crisis in capitalism, recognised once by historical Marxism as the critical self-consciousness of proletarian socialism and its self-contradictions, has not gone away, but was only driven underground. The revolution originating in the bourgeois era in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave rise to the modern philosophy of freedom in Rousseauian enlightenment and German idealism and that advanced to new problems in the industrial revolution and the proletarianisation of society, perverting ‘bourgeois right’ into a form of domination rather than emancipation – and expressed through the Bonapartist state’s perversion of democracy, which was recognised by Marxism in the 19th century, but failed in the 20th century – may still task us.

This is why we might, still, be reading Lukács. | §

This article is based on a presentation given on January 11 2014 in Chicago. A video recording is available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyAx32lzC0U; and audio recording at https://archive.org/details/cutrone_lukacsteachin011114_201401.
Originally published in
Weekly Worker 994 (January 23, 2014) [PDF].


  1. Weekly Worker November 21 2013. []
  2. www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm. []
  3. Weekly Worker June 9 2011. []
  4. Weekly Worker August 11 2011. []
  5. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/rp-index.htm. []
  6. www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm. []
  7. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/concl.htm. []
  8. www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm. []
  9. www.college.columbia.edu/core/sites/core/files/text/sieyes2003-4_0.pdf. []
  10. K Marx, ‘Address to the central committee of the Communist League’, March 1850. []
  11. VI Lenin ‘Leftwing’ communism: an infantile disorder, 1920. []
  12. R Pippin, ‘On critical inquiry and critical theory: a short history of non-being’ Critical Inquiry No30, winter 2004, pp416-417. []

The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, January 11, 2014. Video recording available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyAx32lzC0U; audio recording at: https://archive.org/details/cutrone_lukacsteachin011114_201401.

Still reading Lukács? The role of “critical theory”

Why read Georg Lukács today? Especially when his most famous work, History and Class Consciousness, is so clearly an expression of its specific historical moment, the aborted world revolution of 1917–19 in which he participated, attempting to follow Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Are there “philosophical” lessons to be learned or principles to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Mike Macnair has put it, of “theoretical overkill,” stymieing of political possibilities, closing up the struggle for socialism in tiny authoritarian and politically sterile sects founded on “theoretical agreement?”

Mike Macnair’s article “The philosophy trap” (2013) argues about the issue of the relation between theory and practice in the history of ostensible “Leninism,” taking issue in particular with Lukács’s books History and Class Consciousness (1923) and Lenin (1924) as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy.” The issue is what kind of theoretical generalization of consciousness could be derived from the experience of Bolshevism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that “philosophical” agreement is not the proper basis for political agreement, but this is not the same as saying that political agreement has no theoretical implications. Rather, the issue is whether theoretical “positions” have necessary political implications. I think it is a truism to say that there is no sure theoretical basis for effective political practice. But Macnair seems to be saying nothing more than this. In subordinating theory to practice, Macnair loses sight of the potential critical role theory can play in political practice, specifically the task of consciousness of history in the struggle for transforming society in an emancipatory direction.

A certain relation of theory to practice is a matter specific to the modern era, and moreover a problem specific to the era of capitalism, that is, after the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of the modern proletarianized working class and its struggle for socialism, and the crisis of bourgeois social relations and thus of consciousness of society this entails.

Critical theory recognizes that the role of theory in the attempt to transform society is not to justify or legitimate or provide normative sanction, not to rationalize what is happening anyway, but rather to critique, to explore conditions of possibility for change. The role of such critical theory is not to describe how things are, but rather how they might become, how things could and should be, but are not — yet.

The political distinction, then, would be not over the description of reality but rather the question of what can and should be changed, and over the direction of that change. Hence, critical theory as such goes beyond the distinction of analysis from description. The issue is not theoretical analysis proper to practical matters, but, beyond that, and of course incorporating this, the issue of transforming practices, and doing so with active agency and subjective recognition, as opposed to merely experiencing changed practice as something that has already happened. Indeed, capitalism itself is a transformative practice, but that transformation has eluded consciousness, specifically with regard to the ways change has happened, and political judgments about this. This is the specific role of theory, and hence the place of theoretical issues or “philosophical” concerns, in Marxism. It cannot be compared to other forms of theory, because they are not concerned with changing the world — not concerned with the politics of our changing practices. Lukács characterized this distinction of Marxism from “contemplative” or “reified” consciousness, to which bourgeois society had otherwise succumbed in capitalism.

If ostensibly “Marxist” tendencies such as those of the followers of Tony Cliff have botched “theory,” which undoubtedly they have, it is because they have conflated or rendered indistinct the role of critical theory as opposed to the political exigencies of propaganda: for organizations dedicated to propaganda, there must be agreement as to such propaganda; the question is the role of theory in such propaganda activity. If theory is debased to justifying propaganda, then its critical role is evacuated, and indeed it can mask opportunism. But then it ceases to be proper theory, not becoming simply “wrong” or falsified but rather ideological, which is a different matter. This is what happened, according to Lukács and Korsch, in the 2nd/Socialist International, resulting in the “vulgarization” of Marxism, or the confusion of the formulations of political propaganda instead of properly Marxist critical theorization.

The theory and practice of “proletarian socialism”

A note on the term “proletariat:” This was Marx’s neologism for the condition of the post-Industrial Revolution working class, which was analogous — but only in metaphorical analogy! — to the Ancient Roman Republic’s class of “proletarians:” the modern industrial working class was composed of “citizens without property.” In modern, bourgeois society, for instance in the view of John Locke, property in objects is derived from labor, because labor is the first property. Hence, to be a laborer without property, to be a worker without property in one’s own labor, is a self-contradiction in a very specific sense, in that the “expropriation” of labor happens as a function of society: in Marx and Engels’s view, this is a function of a self-contradictory form of society. A modern “free wage-labor” worker is supposed to be a free contractual agent with full rights of ownership and disposal over her own labor in its exchange, its buying and selling as property, or, more simply, as a commodity. This is the most elementary form of right in bourgeois society, from which other claims, for instance, individual right to one’s own person and equality before the law, flow. If, according to Marx and Engels, the condition of the modern, post-Industrial Revolution working class or “proletariat” expressed a self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, this was because this set of social relations, or “bourgeois right,” was in need of transformation: the Industrial Revolution indicated a potential condition beyond bourgeois society. If the workers were expropriated, even though their contractual right to dispose of their own labor was already and still continued to be sanctioned by law, according to Marx and Engels, this was because of a problem of the value of labor at a greater societal level, not at the level of the individual capitalist firm, not reducible to the level of the contractual relation of the employee to her employer, which remained “fair exchange.” The wage contract was still bourgeois, but the value of the labor exchanged was undermined in the greater (global) society, which was no longer simply bourgeois but rather industrial, that is, “capital”-ist.

The struggle for socialism by the proletariat was the attempt to reappropriate the social property of labor that had been transformed and “expropriated” or “alienated” in the Industrial Revolution, which Marx and Engels thought could be achieved only beyond capitalism, for instance in the value of accumulated past labor in science and technology, as what Marx called the “general (social) intellect.” An objective condition was expressed subjectively, but that objective condition of society was itself self-contradictory and so expressed in a self-contradictory form of political subjectivity, “proletarian socialism.” The greatest exemplar for Marx and Engels of this self-contradictory form of politics aiming to transform society was Chartism, a movement of the high moment of the Industrial Revolution and its crisis in the 1830s–40s, whose most pointed political expression was, indicatively, universal suffrage. The crisis of the bust period of the “Hungry ’40s” indicated the maturation of bourgeois society, in crisis, as the preceding boom era of the 1830s already had raised expectations of socialism, politically as well as technically and culturally, for instance in the “Utopian Socialism” of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen et al. (as well as in the “Young Hegelian” movement taking place around the world in the 1830s, on whose scene the younger Marx and Engels arrived belatedly, during its crisis and dissolution in the 1840s).

One must distinguish between the relation of theory and practice in the revolutionary bourgeois era and in the post-Industrial Revolution era of the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism and the proletariat’s struggle for socialism. If in the bourgeois era there was a productive tension, a reflective, speculative or “philosophical” relation, for instance for Kant and Hegel, between theory and practice, in the era of the crisis of bourgeois society there is rather a “negative” or “critical” relation. Hence, the need for Marxism.

As the Frankfurt School Marxist Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno put it, the separation of theory and practice was emancipatory: it expressed the freedom to think at variance with prevailing social practices unknown in the Ancient or Medieval world of traditional civilization. The freedom to relate and articulate theory and practice was a hallmark of the revolutionary emergence of bourgeois society: the combined revolution in society of politics, economics, culture (religion), technique and philosophy — the latter under the rubric “Enlightenment.” By contrast, Romantic socialism of the early 19th century sought to re-unify theory and practice, to make them one thing as they had been under religious cosmology as a total way of life. If, according to Adorno, Marxism, as opposed to Romantic socialism, did not aspire to a “unity of theory and practice” in terms of their identity, but rather of their articulated separation in the transformation of society — transformation of both consciousness and social being — then what Adorno recognized was that, as he put it, the relation of theory and practice is not once-and-for-all but rather “fluctuates historically.” Marxism, through different phases of its history, itself expressed this fluctuation. But the fluctuation was an expression of crisis in Marxism, and ultimately of failure: Adorno called it a “negative dialectic.” It expressed and was tasked by the failure of the revolution. But this failure was not merely the failure of the industrial working class’s struggle for socialism in the early 20th century, but rather that failure was the failure of the emancipation of the bourgeois revolution: this failure consumed history, undermining the past achievements of freedom — as Adorno’s colleague Walter Benjamin put it, “Even the dead are not safe.” Historical Marxism is not a safe legacy but suffers the vicissitudes of the present. If we still are reading Lukács, we need to recognize the danger to which his thought, as part of Marxism’s history, is subject in the present. One way of protecting historical Marxism’s legacy would be through recognizing its inapplicability in the present, distancing it from immediate enlistment in present concerns, which would concede too much already, undermining — liquidating without redeeming — consciousness once already achieved.

The division in Marxism: Lukács with Lenin and Luxemburg as “orthodox”

The title of Lukács’s book History and Class Consciousness should be properly understood directly as indicating that Lukács’s studies, the various essays collected in the book, were about class consciousness as consciousness of history. This goes back to the early Marx and Engels, who understood the emergence of the modern proletariat and its political struggles for socialism after the Industrial Revolution in a “Hegelian” manner, that is, as phenomena or “forms of appearance” of society and history specific to the 19th century. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in their point of departure for “Marxism” as opposed to other varieties of Hegelianism and socialism, looked forward to the dialectical “Aufhebung” of this new modern proletariat: its simultaneous self-fulfillment and completion, self-negation, and self-transcendence in socialism, which would be (also) that of capitalism. In other words, Marx and Engels regarded the proletariat in the struggle for socialism as the central, key phenomenon of capitalism, but the symptomatic expression of its crisis, self-contradiction and need for self-overcoming. This is because capitalism was regarded by Marx and Engels as a form of society, specifically the form of bourgeois society’s crisis and self-contradiction.  As Hegelians, Marx and Engels regarded contradiction as the appearance of the necessity and possibility for change. So, the question becomes, what is the meaning of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society, the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, expressed by the post-Industrial Revolution working class and its forms of political struggle?

This latter part is key, for Marx and Engels regarded the politics of proletarian socialism as a form of bourgeois politics in crisis and self-contradiction. This is what it meant for Marx and Engels to say that the objective existence of the proletariat (“propertyless” workers) and its subjective struggle for socialism were phenomena of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society and its potential Aufhebung.

The struggle for socialism was self-contradictory. This is what Lukács emphasized and ruminated on in History and Class Consciousness. But this was not original to Lukács or achieved simply by Lukács’s reading of Marx and Engels, but rather mediated through consideration of and attempted active participation in the politics of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: Lenin and Luxemburg provided access, for Lukács as well as others in the nascent 3rd or Communist International, to the “original Marxism” of Marx and Engels. For Marx and Engels recognized that socialism was inevitably ideological: a self-contradictory form of politics and consciousness. The question was how to advance the contradiction.

As an active participant in the project of the Communist International, for Lukács in his books History and Class Consciousness and Lenin (as well as for Karl Korsch in “Marxism and philosophy” and other writings circa 1923), the intervening Marxism of the 2nd or Socialist International had become an obstacle to Marx and Engels’s Marxism and thus to proletarian socialist revolution in the early 20th century, an obstacle that the political struggles of Lenin, Luxemburg and other radicals in the 2nd International sought to overcome. This obstacle of 2nd International Marxism had theoretical as well as practical-political aspects: it was expressed both at the level of theoretical consciousness as well as at the level of political organization.

It is important to note that the 2nd International Marxism had become an obstacle. Indeed, according to Luxemburg, in Reform and Revolution (1900) and in Lenin’s What is to be Done? (1902) (the latter of which was an attempted application of the terms of the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International to conditions in the Russian movement), the development of proletarian socialism in the 2nd International had produced its own obstacle, so to the speak, in becoming self-divided between “orthodox Marxists” who retained fidelity to the revolutionary politics of proletarian socialism in terms of the Revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, and “Revisionists” who thought that political practice and theoretical consciousness of Marxism demanded transformation under the altered historical social conditions that had been achieved by the workers’ struggle for socialism, which proceeded in an “evolutionary” way. Eduard Bernstein gave the clearest expression of this “Revisionist” view, which indicatively was influenced by the British Fabianism (by Bernstein’s participation in working class politics while living in political exile in the U.K.) that led to the contemporary formation of the Labour Party, and found its greatest political support among the working class’s trade union leaders in the 2nd International, especially in Germany.

Marxism of the Third International

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Lukács and Korsch among others following them, thought that the self-contradictory nature and character — origin and expression — of proletarian socialism meant that the latter’s development proceeded in a self-contradictory way, which meant that the movement of historical “progress” was self-contradictory. Luxemburg summarized this view in Reform or Revolution, where she pointed out that the growth in organization and consciousness of the proletariat was itself part of — a new phenomenon of — the self-contradiction of capitalism, and so expressed itself in its own self-contradictory way. This was how Luxemburg grasped the Revisionist Dispute in the Marxism of the 2nd International itself. This self-contradiction was theoretical as well as practical: for Luxemburg and for Lenin the “theoretical struggle” was an expression of practical self-contradiction. Leon Trotsky expressed this “orthodox Marxist” view shared by Lenin and Luxemburg in his 1906 Results and Prospects, on the 1905 Revolution in Russia, by pointing out that the “pre-requisites of socialism” were self-contradictory: that they “retarded” rather than promoted each other. This view was due to the understanding that proletarian socialism was bound up in the crisis of capitalism which was disintegrative: the struggle for socialism was caught up in the disintegration of bourgeois society in capitalism. For Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky contra Bernstein, the crisis of capitalism was deepening.

One of the clearest expressions of this disintegrative process of self-contradiction in Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky’s time was the relation of capitalism as a global system to the political divisions between national states in the era of “monopoly capital” and “imperialism” that led to the World War, but was already apprehended in the Revisionist Dispute at the turn of the 20th century as expressing the need for socialism — the need for proletarian political revolution. Lenin and Luxemburg’s academic doctoral dissertations of the 1890s, on the development of capitalism in Russia and Poland, respectively, addressed this phenomenon of “combined and uneven” development in the epoch of capitalist crisis, disintegration and “decay,” as expressing the need for world revolution. Moreover, Lenin in What is to be Done? expressed the perspective that the Revisionist Dispute in Marxism was itself an expression of the crisis of capitalism manifesting within the socialist workers’ movement, a prelude to revolution.

While it is conventional to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “revolutionary socialism” to Bernstein et al.’s “evolutionism,” and hence to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “dialectical” Marxism to the Revisionist “mechanical” one, what is lost in this view is the role of historical dynamics of consciousness in Lenin and Luxemburg’s (and Trotsky’s) view: this is the phenomenon of historical “regression” as opposed to “progress,” which the “evolutionary socialism” of Bernstein et al. assumed and later Stalinism also assumed.  The most important distinction of Luxemburg and Lenin’s (as well as Trotsky’s) “orthodox” perspective — in Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) view, what made their Marxism “dialectical” and “Hegelian” — was its recognition of historical “regression” — its recognition of bourgeois society as disintegrative and self-destructive in its crisis of capitalism. But this process of disintegration was recognized as affecting the proletariat and its politics as well. Benjamin and Adorno’s theory of regression began here.

Historical regression

The question is how to properly recognize, in political practice as well as theory, the ways in which the struggle for proletarian socialism — socialism achieved by way of the political action of wage-laborers in the post-Industrial Revolution era as such — is caught up and participates in the process of capitalist disintegration: the expression of proletarian socialism as a phenomenon of history, specifically as a phenomenon of crisis and regression.

This history has multiple registers: there is the principal register of the post-Industrial Revolution crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, its crisis and departure from preceding bourgeois social relations (those of the prior, pre-industrial eras of “cooperation” and “manufacture” of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, in Marx’s terms); but there is also the register of the dynamics and periods within capitalism itself. Capitalism was for Marx and Engels already the regression of bourgeois society. This is where Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) perspective, derived from Luxemburg and Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) views from 1900-19, what they considered an era of “revolution,” might become problematic for us, today: the history of the post-1923 world has not been, as 1848–1914 was in the 2nd International “orthodox” or “radical” Marxist (as opposed to Revisionist) view, a process of increasing crisis and development of revolutionary political necessities, but rather a process of continued social disintegration of capitalism without, however, this being expressed in and through the struggle for proletarian socialism.

It is important to note that Lukács (and Korsch) abandoned rather rapidly their 1923 perspectives, adjusting to developing circumstances of a non-revolutionary era.

Here is where the problematic relation of Tony Cliff’s political project to Lukács (and Korsch), and hence to Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, may be located: in Cliff’s perspective on his (post-1945) time being a “non-revolutionary” one, demanding a project of “propaganda” that is related to but differs significantly from the moment of Lenin et al. For the Cliffites and their organizations, “political practice” is one of propaganda in a non-revolutionary period, in which political action is less of a directly practical but rather of an exemplary-propagandistic significance. This has been muddled by “movement-building.”

This was not the case for Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, whose political practice was directly about the struggle for power, and in whose practical project Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) “theoretical” work sought to participate, offering attempts at clarification of self-understanding to revolutionaries “on the march.” Cliff and his followers, at least at their most self-conscious, have known that they were doing something essentially different from Lenin et al.: they were not organizing a revolutionary political party seeking a bid for power as part of an upsurge of working class struggle in the context of a global movement (the 2nd International), as had been the case for Lenin at the time of What is to be Done? (1902), or Luxemburg’s Mass Strike pamphlet and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Yet the Cliffites have used the ideas of Lenin and Luxemburg and their followers, such as Lukács and Korsch as well as Trotsky, to justify their practices. This presents certain problems. Yes, Lenin et al. have become ideological in the hands of the Cliffites, among others — “Leninism” for the Stalinists most prominently. So the question turns to the status of Lenin’s ideas in themselves and in their own moment.

Mike Macnair points out that Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) works circa 1923 emphasized attack and so sought to provide a “theory of the offensive,” as opposed to Lenin’s arguments about the necessities of “retreat” in 1920 (as against and in critique of “Left-Wing” Communism) and what Macnair has elsewhere described as the need for “Kautskyan patience” in politically building for proletarian socialism (as in the era of the 2nd International 1889–1914), and so this limits the perspective of Lukács (and Korsch), after Lenin and Luxemburg (and Trotsky), to a period of “civil war” (1905, 1914/17–19/20/21). In this, Macnair is concerned, rightly, with “theory” becoming a blinder to proper political practice: “theoretical overkill” is a matter of over-“philosophizing” politics. But there is a difference between active campaigning in the struggle for power, whether in attack or (temporary) retreat, and propagandizing, to which Marxism (at best) has been relegated ever since the early 20th century.

However, in raising, by contrast, the need for a conscious openness to “empirical reality” of political experience, Macnair succumbs to a linear-progressive view of history as well as of political practice, turning this into a matter of “lessons learned:” it becomes a quantitative rather than qualitative matter. Moreover, it becomes a matter of theory in a conventional rather than the Marxist “critical” sense, in which the description of reality and its analysis approach more and more adequate approximations.

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, and so Lukács (and Korsch), as “orthodox” as opposed to “revisionist” Marxists, conceived of the development of consciousness, both theoretically and practically-organizationally, rather differently, in that a necessary “transformation of Marxism,” which took place in the “peculiar guise” of a “return to the original Marxism of Marx and Engels” (Korsch), could be an asset in the present. But that “present” was the “crisis of Marxism” 1914–19, which is not, today, our moment — as even Cliff and his followers, with their notion of “propaganda” in a non-revolutionary era, have recognized (as did Lukács and Korsch, in subsequently abandoning their circa-1923 perspectives).

So what is the status of such ideas in a non-revolutionary era?

Korsch and the problem of “philosophy”

Karl Korsch, Lukács’s contemporary in the 3rd Intl., whose work Macnair deliberately and explicitly puts aside in his attack on the problematic legacy of Lukács’s books History and Class Consciousness and Lenin for the Cliffites, offered a pithy formulation in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and philosophy,” which is that “a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch.”

This is a non-linear, non-progressive and recursive view of history, which Korsch gleaned from Luxemburg and Lenin’s contributions to the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International (e.g., Reform or Revolution, What is to be Done?, etc.; and Trotsky’s Results and Prospects). It has its origins in Marx and Engels’s view of capitalism as a regressive, disintegrative process. This view has two registers: the self-contradiction and crisis of bourgeois social relations in the transition to capitalism after the Industrial Revolution; and the disintegrative and self-destructive process of the reproduction of capitalism itself, which takes place within and as a function of the reproduction of bourgeois social relations, through successive crises.

Marx and Engels recognized that the crisis of capitalism was motivated by the reproduction of bourgeois social relations under conditions of the disintegration of the value of labor in the Industrial Revolution, producing the need for socialism. The industrial-era working class’s struggle for the social value of its labor was at once regressive, as if bourgeois social relations of the value of labor had not been undermined by the Industrial Revolution, and pointed beyond capitalism, in that the realization of the demands for proper social value of labor would mean overcoming labor as value in society, transforming work from “life’s prime need” to “life’s prime want:” work would be done not out of the social compulsion to labor in the valorization process of capital, but rather out of intrinsic desire and interest; and society would provide for “each according to his need” from “each according to his ability.” As Adorno, a later follower of Lukács and Korsch’s works circa 1923 that had converted him to Marxism, put it, getting beyond capitalism would mean overcoming the “law of labor.”

Korsch’s argument in his 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy” was focused on a very specific problem, the status of philosophy in Marxism, in the direct sense of Marx and Engels being followers of Hegel, and Hegel representing a certain “end” to philosophy, in which the world became philosophical and philosophy became worldly. Hegel announced that with his work, philosophy was “completed,” as a function of recognizing how society had become “philosophical,” or mediated through conceptual theory in ways previously not the case. Marx and Engels accepted Hegel’s conclusion, in which case the issue was to further the revolution of bourgeois society — the “philosophical” world that demanded worldly “philosophy.” The disputes among the Hegelians in the 1830s and ’40s were concerned, properly, with precisely the politics of the bourgeois world and its direction of change. The problem, according to Korsch, was that, post-1848, there was a recrudescence of “philosophy,” and that this was something other than what had been practiced either traditionally by the Ancients or in modernity by revolutionary bourgeois thinkers — thinkers of the revolution of the bourgeois era — such as Kant and Hegel (also Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith, et al.).

The recrudescence of philosophy in the late 19th century was, according to Korsch, a symptom of the failure of socialism in 1848, but as such expressed a genuine need: the necessity of relating theory and practice as a problem of consciousness under conditions of capitalism. In this respect, Marxism was the sustaining of the Kantian-Hegelian “critical philosophy” but under changed conditions from the bourgeois-revolutionary era to that of capitalism. Korsch analogized this to the recrudescence of the state in post-1848 Bonapartism, which contradicted the bourgeois-revolutionary, liberal prognosis of the subordination of the state to civil society and thus the state’s “withering away,” its functions absorbed into free social relations. This meant recognizing the need to overcome recrudescent philosophy as analogous to the need to overcome the capitalist state, the transformation of its necessity through socialism. “Bonapartism in philosophy” expressed a new, late found need in capitalism to free society.

As Korsch put it, the only way to “abolish” philosophy would be to “realize” it: socialism would be the attainment of the “philosophical world” promised by bourgeois emancipation but betrayed by capitalism, which renders society opaque. It would be premature to say that under capitalism everyone is already a philosopher. Indeed, the point is that none are. But this is because of the alienation and reification of bourgeois social relations in capitalism, which renders the Kantian-Hegelian “worldly philosophy” of the critical relation of theory and practice an aspiration rather than an actuality. Nonetheless, Marxist critical theory accepted the task of such modern critical philosophy, specifically regarding the ideological problem of theory and practice in the struggle for socialism. This is what it  meant to say, as was formulated in the 2nd International, that the workers’ movement for socialism was the inheritor of German Idealism: it was the inheritor of the revolutionary process of bourgeois emancipation, which the bourgeoisie, compromised by capitalism, had abandoned. The task remained.

Transformation of Marxism through “return” to Marx — and return to the bourgeois revolution 

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, “orthodox Marxists” of the 2nd International who radicalized their perspectives in the crisis of the 2nd International and of Marxism in world war and revolution 1914–19, and were followed by new converts to Marxism such as Lukács and Korsch, were subjects of a historical moment in which the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism was expressed by social and political crisis and the movement for “proletarian socialist” revolution, beginning, after the Industrial Revolution, in the 1830s–40s, the attempt to revolutionize society centrally by the wage-laborers as such, a movement dominated from 1889–1914 by the practical politics as well as theoretical consciousness of Marxism. — However, we must recognize today that that moment was lost.

Why would Lukács and Korsch in the 20th century return to the origins of Marxism in Hegelianism, in what Korsch called the consciousness of the “revolt of the Third Estate?,” a process of the 17th and 18th centuries (that had already begun earlier)? Precisely because Lukács and Korsch sought to address Marxism’s relation to the revolt of the Third Estate’s bourgeois glorification of the social relations of labor, and the relation of this to the democratic revolution (see for example the Abbé Sieyès’s revolutionary 1789 pamphlet What is the Third Estate?): how Marxism recognized that this relation between labor and democracy continued in 19th century socialism. In Lukács and Korsch’s view, proletarian socialism sustained just this bourgeois revolution, albeit under the changed conditions of the Industrial Revolution and its capitalist aftermath. Mike Macnair acknowledges this in his focus on the English Enlightenment “materialism” of John Locke in the 17th and 18th centuries and the British Chartism of the early 19th century, their intrinsic continuity in the democratic revolution, and Marx and Engels’s continuity with both. But then Macnair takes Kant and Hegel — and thus Lukács and Korsch following them — to be counter-Enlightenment and anti-democratic thinkers accommodating autocratic political authority, drawing this from Hume’s alleged turn away from the radicalism of Locke back to Hobbes’s political conservatism, and Kant and Hegel’s alleged affirmation of the Prussian state. But this leaves out the crucially important influence on Kant and German Idealism more generally by Rousseau, of whom Hegel remarked that “freedom dawned on the world” in his works, and who critiqued and departed from Hobbes’s society of “war of all against all” and built rather upon Locke’s view of society and politics, sustaining and promoting the revolution in bourgeois society as “more than the sum of its parts,” revolutionary in its social relations per se, seminal for the American and French Revolutions of the later 18th century. Capital, as the continued social compulsion to wage-labor after its crisis of value in the Industrial Revolution, both is and is not the Rousseauian “general will” of capitalist society: it is a self-contradictory “mode of production” and set of social relations, expressed through self-contradictory consciousness, in theory and practice, of its social and political subjects, first and foremost the consciousness of the proletariat.

Marx and Engels’s point was the proletariat’s critical recognition of the self-contradictory character of its struggle for socialism, in what Marx called the “logical extreme” of the role of the proletariat in the democratic revolution of the 19th century, which could not, according to Marx, take its “poetry” from the 17th and 18th centuries, as clearly expressed in the failure of the revolutions of 1848 (“Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League,” 1850), Marx’s famous formulation of the need for “revolution in permanence.”  What this means is that the democratic revolutionary aspirations of the wage-laborers for the “social republic” was the self-contradictory demand for the realization of the social value of labor after this had already taken the form of accumulated capital, what Marx called the “general intellect.” It is not the social value of labor, but rather that of this “general intellect” which must be reappropriated, and by the wage-laborers themselves, in their discontents as subjects of democracy. The ongoing democratic revolution renders this both possible and superfluous in that it renders the state both the agency and obstacle to this reappropriation, in post-1848 Bonapartism, which promises everything to everyone — to overcome the “social question” of capitalism –  but provides nothing, a diversion of the democratic revolution under conditions of self-contradictory bourgeois social relations: the state promises employment but gives unemployment benefits or subsidizes the lost value of wages; as Adorno put it, the workers get a cut of the profits of capital, to prevent revolution (“Late capitalism or industrial society?” AKA “Is Marx obsolete?,” 1968). Or, as Adorno’s colleague, the director of the Frankfurt Institute Max Horkheimer put it, the Industrial Revolution and its continued social ramifications made not labor but the workers “superfluous.” This created a very dangerous political situation — clearly expressed by the catastrophic events of the 20th century, mediated by mass “democratic” movements.

Marxism in the 20th century

In the 20th century, under the pressure of mass democracy — itself the result of the class struggle of the workers — the role of the state as self-contradictory and helpless manager of capitalism came to full fruition, but not through the self-conscious activity of the working class’s political struggle for socialism, confronting the need to overcome the role of the state, but more obscurely, with perverse results. Lenin’s point in The State and Revolution (1917) was the need for the revolutionary transformation of society beyond “bourgeois right” that the state symptomatically expressed; but, according to Lenin, this could be accomplished only “on the basis of capitalism itself” (“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1920). If the working class among others in bourgeois society has succumbed to what Lukács called the “reification” of bourgeois social relations, then this has been completely naturalized and can no longer be called out and recognized as such. For Lukács, “reification” referred to the hypostatization and conservatization of the workers’ own politics in protecting their “class interest,” what Lenin called mere “trade union consciousness” (including that of nationalist competition) in capitalism, rather than rising to the need to overcome this in practice, recognizing how the workers’ political struggles might point beyond and transcend themselves. This included democracy, which could occult the social process of capitalism as much as reveal it.

One phenomenon of such reification in the 20th century was what Adorno called the “veil of technology,” which included the appearance of capital as a thing (as in capital goods, or techniques of organizing production), rather than as Marxism recognized it, a social relation, however self-contradictory.

The anti-Marxist, liberal (yet still quite conservative) Heideggerian political theorist Hannah Arendt (and an antagonist of Adorno and other Marxist “Critical Theorists” of the Frankfurt School, who was however married to a former Communist follower of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League of 1919), expressed well how the working class in the 20th century developed after the failure of Marxism:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in an actual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor [by technical automation], and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse. (The Human Condition [Vita Activa], 1958.)

Compare this to what Heidegger offered in Nazi-era lectures on “Overcoming metaphysics,” that, “The still hidden truth of Being is withheld from metaphysical humanity.  The laboring animal is left to the giddy whirl of its products so that it may tear itself to pieces and annihilate itself in empty nothingness” (The End of Philosophy, ed. and trans. Joan Stambaugh [University of Chicago Press, 2003], 87); and, in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (1964), the place of Marx in this process: “With the reversal of metaphysics which was already accomplished by Karl Marx, the most extreme possibility of philosophy is attained” (Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell [New York: HarperCollins, 1993],433 ). But this was Heidegger blaming Marxism and the “metaphysics of labor” championed politically by the bourgeois revolt of the Third Estate and inherited by the workers’ movement for socialism, without recognizing as Marx did the self-contradictory character in capitalism; Heidegger, for whom “only a god can still save us” (1966 interview in Der Spiegel, published posthumously May 31, 1976), and Arendt following him, demonized technologized society as a dead-end of “Western metaphysics” allegedly going back to the Socratic turn of ‘science” followed by Plato and Aristotle in Classical Antiquity, rather than recognizing it as a symptom of the need to transform society, capitalism and its need for socialism as a transitional condition of history.

This was the resulting flat “contradiction” that replaced the prior “dialectical” contradiction of “proletarian socialism” recognized by Marxism, whose theoretical recovery, in the context of the crisis of Marxism in the movement from the 2nd to 3rd Internationals, had been attempted by Lukács and Korsch. What Arendt called merely the (objective) “human condition,” the “vita activa” and its perverse nihilistic destiny in modern society, was, once, the (subjective) “dialectical,” self-contradictory “standpoint of the proletariat” in Marxism, as the “class consciousness” of history: the historical need for the proletariat to overcome and abolish itself as a class, including its own standpoint of “consciousness,” its regressive bourgeois demand to reappropriate the value of labor in capitalism, which would both realize and negate the “bourgeois right” of the value of labor in society. Socialism was recognized by Marxism as the raising and advancing of the self-contradiction of capitalism to the “next stage,” motivated by the necessity and possibility for “communism.” What Arendt could only apprehend as a baleful telos, the society of labor overcoming itself, Marxism once recognized as the need for revolution, to advance the contradiction in socialism.

When Marxists such as Adorno or Lukács can only sound to us like Arendt (or Heidegger!), this is because we no longer live in the revolution. Adorno:

According to [Marxist] theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . . If all the oppression that man has ever inflicted upon man culminates in the cold inhumanity of free wage labor, then . . . the archaic silence of pyramids and ruins becomes conscious of itself in materialist thought: it is the echo of factory noise in the landscape of the immutable. . . . This means, however, that dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified human beings reification finds its outer limits. . . . Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power. . . . Even if the dynamic at work was always the same, its end today is not the end. (“Reflections on class theory,” 1942.)

Lukács:

[As Hegel said,] directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable. . . . [I]n the age of the dissolution of capitalism, the fetishistic categories collapse and it becomes necessary to have recourse to the “natural form” underlying them. . . . As the antagonism becomes more acute two possibilities open up for the proletariat. It is given the opportunity to substitute its own positive contents for the emptied and bursting husks. But also it is exposed to the danger that for a time at least it might adapt itself ideologically to conform to these, the emptiest and most decadent forms of bourgeois culture. (“Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness, 1923.)

Why still “philosophy?”

The problem today is that we are not faced with the self-contradiction of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism in the political problem of the “reified forms” of the working class substituting for those of bourgeois society in its “decadence.” We replay the revolt of the Third Estate and its demands for the social value of labor — at best, but, really, repeat the early bourgeois Protestant Christian demand for social “justice,” however more nebulously. We do not have occasion to recognize the “emptiness” of bourgeois social relations of labor, its value evacuated by technical but not political transcendence. Indeed, now we have lost sight of the problem of “reification” at all as Lukács meant it.

As Hegel scholar Robert Pippin has recently concluded, in a formulation that is eminently agreeable to Korsch’s perspective on the continuation of philosophy as a symptom of failed transformation of society, in an essay addressing how, by contrast with the original “Left-Hegelian, Marxist, Frankfurt school tradition,” “the problem with contemporary critical theory is that it has become insufficiently critical:” “Perhaps [philosophy] exists to remind us we haven’t gotten anywhere” (“On Critical Inquiry and critical theory: A short history of non-being,” Critical Inquiry 30 [Winter 2004], 416–417). The question is the proper role of critical theory and “philosophical” questions in politics. In the absence of Marxism, other thinking is called to address this — for instance, Arendt (or worse: see Carl Schmitt).

Recognizing the potential political abuse of “philosophy” does not mean, however, that we must agree with Heidegger, that, “Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world” (Der Spiegel interview). Especially since Marxism is not only (a history of) a form of politics, but also, as the Hegel and Frankfurt School scholar Gillian Rose put it, a “mode of cognition sui generis” (review of the English translation of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics [1973] in The American Political Science Review 70.2 [June 1976], 598–599). This is because, as the late 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim put it, (bourgeois) society is an “object of cognition sui generis.” Furthermore, capitalism is a problem of social transformation sui generis — one with which we still might struggle, at least hopefully! Marxism is hence a mode of politics sui generis — one whose historical memory has become very obscure. This is above all a practical problem, but one which registers also “philosophically” in “theory.”

The problem of what Rousseau called the “reflective” and Kant and Hegel, after Rousseau, called the “speculative” relation of theory and practice in bourgeois society’s crisis in capitalism, recognized once by historical Marxism as the critical self-consciousness of proletarian socialism and its self-contradictions, has not gone away but was only driven underground. The revolution originating in the bourgeois era in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave rise to the modern philosophy of freedom in Rousseauian Enlightenment and German Idealism and that advanced to new problems in the Industrial Revolution and the proletarianization of society, perverting “bourgeois right” into a form of domination rather than emancipation, and expressed through the Bonapartist state’s perversion of democracy, which was recognized by Marxism in the 19th century but failed in the 20th century, may still task us.

This is why we might, still, be reading Lukács. | §


Background readings:

Readings for teach-in on the Communist Party of Great Britain’s campaign against Lukács and its stakes for Platypus as a project.

Mike Macnair, “The philosophy trap” 11/21/13

Chris Cutrone, “Defending Marxist Hegelianism against a Marxist critique” 8/11/11

Georg Lukács, Original Preface (1922) to History and Class Consciousness (1923)

Articles in exchange originally published in Weekly Worker January 24 – March 14, 2013. [PDF]

James Turley, “The antinomies of Georg Lukács” 1/24/13

Chris Cutrone, “Regression” 1/31/13

James Turley, “Dummy” 2/21/13

Chris Cutrone, “Nota bene” 2/28/13

James Turley, “Bacon” 3/7/13

Lawrence Parker, “Lukács reloaded” 3/7/13

Chris Cutrone, “Unreloaded” 3/14/13

Supplemental reading:

Chris Cutrone, “Gillian Rose’s ‘Hegelian’ critique of Marxism” 3/1/10

Video and audio recordings of Chicago teach-in 1/11/14:

Chris Cutrone

The “anti-imperialist Left” considers itself opposed to all U.S. government action as “imperialist” on principle. But, as Trotsky wrote to his followers in 1938, “Learn to think!” while one may oppose the government politically, to oppose the government putting out a fire, especially when there is no alternative agency for doing so, is nonsense. But the “Left” today is not the inheritor of Trotsky, but rather of what he pitilessly assailed, the policy of the Stalinist “Popular Front Against War and Fascism” of the 1930s, for which the shibboleth was, “Which side are you on?”

The idea is that the defeat of imperialist policy creates possibility for an alternative, and therefore one must always be against imperialism to be on the side of an alternative to it. Historically, Marxists have understood such a strategy in terms of either “revolutionary defeatism” or “revolutionary defensism.” Simply put, the defeat of an imperialist power is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative to the government of the imperialist country; whereas the defense of a country against imperialist attack is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative in the subaltern country. Importantly, these are not pacifist positions against war, but rather political military strategies in time of war, moreover with the aim of revolution.

Historically, there are two examples of success of these strategies of revolutionary defeatism and revolutionary defensism: the role of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution is regarded as a success of revolutionary defeatism, in which the defeat of the Tsarist Russian Empire undermined the government and gave rise to political and social revolution; and Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Revolution, in which the defense of China against Japanese imperialist attack undermined the nationalist Kuomintang and allowed for Communist-led revolution. The point of revolutionary defensism was to be better defenders of the country than the nationalists could be, in that the nationalists, in upholding the nation-state as such, must necessarily compromise with global capitalism—“imperialism”—in ways the Communists, as anti-capitalist, would not. This did not mean to be better nationalists than the nationalists. Socialism, let alone Marxism, was not meant to be a political ideology of “national liberation,” but rather of global political and social transformation, which was meant to better—and indeed truly, because more fundamentally able to—meet the needs of liberation from national oppression under capitalism.

Today, such specificities and true horizons of politics of social emancipation are lost in the “anti-imperialism” of the pseudo-“Left.” Today’s “Left” has more in common with the Indian National Army (INA), which sought help from the Japanese against the British during WWII. But this was not the Communist but rather the fascist version of “anti-imperialism.” It should not be the Left’s. (Indeed, Hitler hosted INA leader Subhas Chandra Bose in Berlin as a fellow “anti-imperialist.”) As the Burmese nationalist Aung San, father of democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi, put it, “The British sucked our blood, but the Japanese ground our bones.”1 Mao and his Chinese Communist Party celebrated their WWII allies U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The German and Japanese national-fascist oppositions to the U.K. and U.S.-led global capitalist “imperialist” order were no good. Neither are today’s oppositions.

Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose meets Adolf Hitler in 1942.

The question today is whether supposed “revolutionary” defeatism in the U.S. and “revolutionary” defensism in the targets of its military interventions, for example, will actually lead to socialist revolution or any kind of beneficial outcome in either the U.S. or those countries it attacks.

The Left must ask: What might be the actual political effects of a defeat for the U.S.?

It is a mistake perpetuated by the 1960s-era New Left, with its experience of the Vietnam anti-war movement, that somehow imperialist counterinsurgency must necessarily fail. Indeed, historically, counterinsurgencies have been far more successful than unsuccessful. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was quelled; so were the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions of 1850–64 and 1899–1901. The Boers were subdued in 1880–81 and 1899–1902. The U.K. maintained control of Iraq in the 1930s-40s; they waged a successful counter-insurgency against Communists in Malaysia after WWII. The U.S. was successful in rolling back peasant jacquerie in South Korea in 1950–53. The Greek Civil War 1946–49 resulted in defeat for the Communist insurgents.

The headline on page 1 of The Straits Times newspaper of 1 May 1952 stating: "NOW IT'S $250,000 FOR PUBLIC ENEMY No. 1—if brought in alive." The person referred to (and pictured) was Chin Peng, a long-time leader of the Malayan Communist Party who led a guerrilla insurgency during the Malayan Emergency and afterwards.

Furthermore, the question of political-military strategy regarding “imperialism” is not exhausted or even well informed by ostensible Left-Right distinctions. The U.S. supported the Maoist Communists in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, both in and out of power; the U.S. opposed the regime installed by Vietnamese Communist intervention in Cambodia in 1979 by supporting the Khmer Rouge—well after the revelation of the “killing fields”—just as they opposed the USSR-supported regime in Afghanistan with the Mujahideen Islamists. Maoists supported both out of “anti-imperialism,” which found the People’s Republic of China on the same side as the U.S. against “Soviet imperialism” (also in various wars in Africa). Most of the “Left” supported Solidarity in Poland as well. In these instances “anti-imperialism” worked: “Soviet imperialism” was defeated, and there was a “revolution” in the USSR and its Eastern European “sphere of influence.”

Should we expect something similar today regarding the U.S.-led world order? Will defeat for the U.S. in one of its military campaigns result in its collapse? Hardly.

For it would appear that the only instances in which “anti-imperialism” has ever been successful—including in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions—were when there was military support from a more powerful imperialist power: Germany against Russia in WWI; and the U.S. against Japan in WWII.

The mistake of “anti-imperialism” today is in its naturalization of all national states as existing political actors and as domains of potential political action. We are today well past the political compromises of Stalin’s strategy of “socialism in one country.”

However, the deeper history of Marxism, before Stalinism, may yet be instructive in certain ways. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacus League in WWI Germany was “revolutionary defeatist” regarding the German war policy. They did not regard the greater imperialist powers of the time and their alliance, the U.K., the U.S., France and Russia, as the greater enemies of potential progressive-emancipatory political and social change, but rather “the main enemy is at home” meant the German government. This did not mean that they “sided” with the other imperialist powers, as their political opponents—and ultimate executioners—on the German Right insisted. Neither did Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks side with Germany as the Russian nationalists and their Entente international allies averred. The Provisional Government, overthrown by the Bolshevik-led soviets, fled in a U.K. diplomatic car, but that didn’t change the fact that for Lenin and Trotsky the Russian nationalists were the “main enemy.” Luxemburg feared the political consequences of Lenin and Trotsky’s potential “embrace” of German imperialism in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk—what caused the Bolsheviks’ Russian “socialist” opponents to unleash a terrorist campaign against them, bombing Bolshevik Party headquarters and attempting to assassinate Lenin and the German ambassador—but Luxemburg nonetheless endorsed the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and their soviet government and joined the Third International they led.

The “Left” today is hardly up for the challenge posed by such political necessities, let alone the task of social revolution. “Anti-imperialism” today is not revolutionary but rather counter-revolutionary in that it is a species of the most powerful actually constituted counterrevolutionary political force, nationalism.

“Internationalism” is no longer what it was for Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Internationals, but is rather inter-nationalism, that is, conjunctural alliances between nationalisms, and not revolutionary anti-nationalism as it was historically for socialism and Marxism.

Defeatism and defensism today have no progressive-emancipatory political and social content either, for they are not “revolutionary” in any sense beyond, perhaps, the conventional and superficial one of “regime change.” Today’s “Left” agrees with the imperialists in their horizon of politics: the existing international system of national states. The “Left” today may be divided among and within the nation-states, between those who “side with” this or that government policy, but they are all on the same side of accommodating global capitalism—imperialism.

There is no real anti-imperialism, but only various forms of compromise with imperialism, which is regarded pejoratively to denounce merely this or that governmental policy, but is accepted at a deeper level as an unshakeable reality. However, historical Marxists once knew that it will not be possible to move beyond it on this basis.2 | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 60 (October 2013).


  1. Quoted in Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Defeat into Victory, Cassell & Co, 2nd edition, 1956. []
  2. See the Platypus Affiliated Society public fora on: “Imperialism: What is it, and why should we be against it?,” in January 2007, an edited transcript of which was published in Platypus Review 25 (July 2010), available online at: <http://platypus1917.org/2010/07/09/imperialism-what-is-it-why-should-we-be-against-it/>; and “What is imperialism? (What now?),” in April 2013, in Platypus Review 59 (September 2013), available online at: <http://platypus1917.org/2013/09/01/what-is-imperialism-what-now/>. []

Revolution without Marx? Rousseau and his followers for the Left

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit S. Singh at the Left Forum 2013, Pace University, New York, June 9, 2013. Complete video and audio recordings of the panel discussion are available at: http://media.platypus1917.org/revolution-without-marx-rousseau-and-his-followers-for-the-left/

Introduction 

Bourgeois society came into full recognition with Rousseau, who in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and On the Social Contract, opened its radical critique. Hegel wrote: “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau.” Marx quoted Rousseau favorably that “Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature… to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.” Rousseau posed the question of society, which Adorno wrote is a “concept of the Third Estate.” Marx recognized the crisis of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution and workers’ call for socialism. But proletarian socialism is no longer the rising force it was in Marx’s time. So what remains of thinking the unrealized radicalism of bourgeois society without Marx? Kant stated that if the potential of bourgeois society was not fully achieved as the “mid-point” of freedom then Rousseau may have been right to prefer savagery against civilization’s “glittering misery.” Nietzsche warned that we might continue to be “living at the expense of the future:” “Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely.” How have thinkers of the revolutionary epoch after Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Benjamin Constant, and Nietzsche himself, contributed to the possibility of emancipation in a world after Marxism?

Marx and Rousseau 

Marx’s favorite quotation of Rousseau, from On the Social Contract, goes as follows:

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.

Marx wrote that this was “well formulated,” but only as “the abstract notion of political man,” concluding that,

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.

What did Marx mean by “social powers” as opposed to the “political power” from which it has been “separated?” A key passage from Marx’s Grundrisse articulates well the new modern concept of freedom found in Rousseau:

[T]he ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious, or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production. In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers etc., of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature — those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature”? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which make the totality of this evolution — i.e., the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick — an end in itself? What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? In bourgeois political economy — and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds — this complete elaboration of what lies within man, appears as the total alienation, and the destruction of all fixed, one-sided purposes as the sacrifice of the end in itself to a wholly external compulsion. Hence in one way the childlike world of the ancients appears to be superior; and this is so, insofar as we seek for closed shape, form and established limitation. The ancients provide a narrow satisfaction, whereas the modern world leaves us unsatisfied, or, where it appears to be satisfied, with itself, is vulgar and mean.

As the intellectual historian and critic of Michel Foucault’s historicism, James Miller, put it in introduction to Rousseau,

The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility,” . . . suggest that the possibilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless. . . . Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared.

Another contemporary intellectual historian, Louis Menand, writing in introduction to the republication of Edmund Wilson’s history of socialism To the Finland Station, described this new way of thinking in Marx and Engels as follows:

In premodern societies, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life: people do things in their generation so that the same things will continue to be done in the next generation. Meaning is immanent in all the ordinary customs and practices of existence, since these are inherited from the past, and are therefore worth reproducing. The idea is to make the world go not forward, only around. In modern societies, the ends of life are not given at the beginning of life; they are thought to be created or discovered. The reproduction of the customs and practices of the group is no longer the chief purpose of existence; the idea is not to repeat, but to change, to move the world forward. Meaning is no longer immanent in the practices of ordinary life, since those practices are understood by everyone to be contingent and time-bound. This is why death, in modern societies, is the great taboo, an absurdity, the worst thing one can imagine. For at the close of life people cannot look back and know that they have accomplished the task set for them at birth. This knowledge always lies up ahead, somewhere over history’s horizon. Modern societies don’t know what will count as valuable in the conduct of life in the long run, because they have no way of knowing what conduct the long run will find itself in a position to respect. The only certain knowledge death comes with is the knowledge that the values of one’s own time, the values one has tried to live by, are expunge-able. . . . Marxism gave a meaning to modernity. It said that, wittingly or not, the individual performs a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a trajectory, and that modernity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. Historical change is not arbitrary. It is generated by class conflict; it is faithful to an inner logic; it points toward an end, which is the establishment of the classless society. Marxism was founded on an appeal for social justice, but there were many forms that such an appeal might have taken. Its deeper attraction was the discovery of meaning, a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself. When [Edmund] Wilson explained, in his introduction to the 1972 edition of To the Finland Station, that his book had been written under the assumption that “an important step in progress has been made, that a fundamental ‘breakthrough’ had occurred,” this is the faith he was referring to. . . . Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment.

Peter Preuss, writing in introduction to Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, pointed out that,

Man, unlike animal, is self-conscious. He is aware that he is alive and that he must die. And because he is self-conscious he is not only aware of living, but of living well or badly. Life is not wholly something that happens to man; it is also something he engages in according to values he follows. Human existence is a task. . . . The 19th century had discovered history and all subsequent inquiry and education bore the stamp of this discovery. This was not simply the discovery of a set of facts about the past but the discovery of the historicity of man: man, unlike animal, is a historical being. Man is not wholly the product of an alien act, either natural or divine, but in part produces his own being. The task of existing is a task precisely because it is not a case of acting according to a permanent nature or essence but rather of producing that nature within the limitations of a situation. History is the record of this self-production; it is the activity of a historical being recovering the past into the present which anticipates the future.

Lifting the task of human freedom in modern society out of its current historical obscurity today is difficult precisely because we have reverted to regarding ourselves as products of an “alien act,” and so proceed according to a model of “social justice” owing to the Ancients’ “closed . . . form and established limitation” that loses Marxism’s specific consciousness of society in history. But such consciousness of history was not at all original to Marxism but rather had roots in the antecedent development of the self-conscious thought of emergent bourgeois society in the 18th century, beginning with Rousseau and elaborated by his followers Kant and Hegel. The radicalism of bourgeois thought conscious of itself was an essential assumption of Marxism, which sought to carry forward the historical project of freedom.

If, as Menand put it, Marx and Engels were “philosophes of a Second Enlightenment” in the 19th century, then what of the 18th century Enlightenment of which Rousseau was perhaps the most notorious philosophe? What remains of this 18th century legacy for the struggle to emancipate society today?

Rousseau in the 18th century 

The Classicism of the 18th century Enlightenment had its distinctive melancholy, already, reaching back in historical fragments, broken remnants of Ancient forms, for inspiration to the modern task of freedom. Rilke, at the turn of the 20th century, expressed this wistful sense of modern freedom in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo:”

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

The scholar of German Idealist philosophy, Robert Pippin, wrote that, after Kant’s critical turn,

some new way of conceiving of philosophy adequate to the realization of the radically historical nature of the human condition was now necessary[.] . . . The problem of understanding properly (especially critically) conceptual, artistic, and social change was henceforth at the forefront[.]

This new conception was found in Rousseau. Rousseau wrote that while animals were machines wound up for functioning in a specific natural environment, humans could regard and reflect upon their own machinery and thus change it. This was Rousseau’s radical notion of “perfectibility” which was not in pursuit of an ideal of perfection but rather open-ended in infinite adaptability. Unlike animal species, humans could adapt themselves to live in any environment and thus transform “outer nature” to suit them, thus transforming as well their own “inner nature,” giving rise to ever-new possibilities. This was the new conception of freedom, not freedom to be according to a fixed natural or Divine form, but rather freedom to transform and realize new potential possibilities, to become new and different, other than what we were before.

Rousseau and Kant 

Rousseau understood the most radical possibilities of freedom-in-transformation to take place in society, the site of new and “alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.” Rousseau described this as the sacrifice of “natural liberty” for “moral freedom,” the freedom to act in unnatural ways. For Rousseau, such freedom was radically ambivalent: it could be for good or for ill. However, the problem of society in which humanity had fallen could only be “solved” socially, not individually. This is why Rousseau was liable to be read later antinomically, as either anarchist or authoritarian: Rousseau gave expression to the radical ambiguity of freedom as it was revealed in modern society, the crossroads of civilization that bourgeois society represented. As Kant put it, in his “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” written in 1784, the same year as his famous essay answering the question, “What is Enlightenment?,”

[T]he vitality of mankind may fall asleep…. Until this last step to a union of states is taken, which is the halfway mark in the development of mankind, human nature must suffer the cruelest hardships under the guise of external well-being; and Rousseau was not far wrong in preferring the state of savages, so long, that is, as the last stage to which the human race must climb is not attained…. [Mere civilization,] however, is nothing but pretense and glittering misery. In such a condition the human species will no doubt remain until… it works its way out of the chaotic conditions of its international relations.

Rousseau was profoundly inspirational for Kant with respect to the fundamental “philosophical” issue of the relation of theory and practice. Specifically, Rousseau originated the modern dialectic of theory and practice, what Rousseau called their “reflective” and Kant called their “speculative” relation. In Kant’s First Critique, the Critique of Pure Reason, and his summary of his argument there and reply to critics of it, the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant articulated the “conditions of possibility” for concepts or categories of understanding as being those of practice.

What this meant in Kant was that, while “things-in-themselves” were inaccessible to us, things do become objects of our theoretical understanding, by virtue of being objects of our practical engagement: Objects were “concrete” in the sense of being concretions of the various practical and thus conceptual relations we have with them. Furthermore, as Hegel put it, in the Science of Logic, objects were not “identical” with themselves — there was a non-identity of an object and its own concept — because they were subject to transformed, that is, changed, practices. So, objects were not approximations of always inaccurate theoretical models of conceptual understanding, but our concepts change as a function of changes in practice that were nonetheless informed by theoretical concepts. Concepts were “inductive” rather than “deductive” because they were not abstractions from empirical observation as generalizations from experience, but rather objects were “concretions of abstractions” in the sense of being determined in a web of practical relations. Rationalist metaphysics had a real basis in issues of practice. Furthermore, such practical relations were social in nature, as well as subject to historical change, change which is brought about subjectively by agents of practice who transform themselves in the process of transforming objects. What objects are for subjects changes as a function of changing practical relations.

In his essay “What is Enlightenment?,” Kant had articulated a distinction between “public” and “private” reason in order to demonstrate that, enmeshed in the web of practical relations in society, we are condemned to exercise merely “private reason” in pursuit of our self-interest as individual “cogs in the machine” of society. It was only in the exercise of “public reason” that we were potentially free of such self-interest determined by our positions in society, to exercise reason as “anyone” — as any rational subject or any political citizen — from a position transcendent of such compromised interested practice. For Kant, such exercise of “public reason” expressed, however indirectly, the possibility of changes in social practice: the way things “ought” to be as opposed to how they “are” at present.

Hegel and the philosophy of history 

Hegel built upon Kant and Rousseau in his pursuit of the “philosophy of history” of accounting for such change in freedom, or “reason in history.” The issue of Hegelianism is a notoriously but ultimately needlessly difficult one: how to include the “subjective factor in history.” Hegel’s sense of the actuality of the rational in the real turns on the relation of essence and appearance, or, with what necessity things appear as they do. What is essential is what is practical, and what is practical is subjective as well as objective. In this view, theoretical reflection on the subjective dimension of experience must use metaphysical categories that are not merely handy but actually constitutive of social practices in which one is a subject.

Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, had raised a hypothetical “state of nature” in order to throw his contemporary society into critical relief. In so doing, Rousseau sought to bring society closer to a “state of nature.” Liberal, bourgeois society was a model and an aspiration for Rousseau. For Rousseau, it was human “nature” to be free. Humans achieved a higher “civil liberty” of “moral freedom” in society than they could enjoy as animals, with mere “physical” freedom in nature. Indeed, as animals, humans are not free, but rather slaves to their natural needs and instincts. Only in society could freedom be achieved, and humans free themselves from their natural, animal condition. When Rousseau was writing, in the mid-18th century, the promise of freedom in bourgeois society was still on the horizon. Bourgeois society aspired to proximity to the “state of nature” in the sense of bringing humanity, both individually and collectively, closer to its potential, to better realize its freedom.

For Rousseau, in his reflections On the Social Contract, society exhibited a “general will,” not reducible to its individual members: more than the sum of its parts. Not Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” but rather a “second nature,” a rebirth of potential, both collectively and individually. Human nature found the realization of its freedom in society, but humans were free to develop and transform themselves, for good or for ill. For Rousseau and the 18th century revolutionaries he inspired, to bring society closer to the “state of nature,” then, was to allow humanity’s potential to be better realized. But, first, society had to be clear about its aims, in practice as well as in theory. Rousseau was the first to articulate this new, modern task of social freedom.

The question Rousseau poses, then, is the speculative or dialectical relation of theory and practice, today. How might we raise the originally Rousseauian question of critical-theoretical reflection on our practices, from within the conditions of “second nature” that express our condition of freedom — including our self-imposed conditions of unfreedom? That is the issue of “public reason” today, as much as it was in Rousseau’s time.

As Hegel put it, in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History,

When we look at this drama of human passions, and observe the consequences of their violence and of the unreason that is linked not only to them but also (and especially) to good intentions and rightful aims; when we see arising from them all the evil, the wickedness, the decline of the most flourishing nations mankind has produced, we can only be filled with grief for all that has come to nothing. And since this decline and fall is not merely the work of nature but of the will of men, we might well end with moral outrage over such a drama, and with a revolt of our good spirit (if there is a spirit of goodness in us). Without rhetorical exaggeration, we could paint the most fearful picture of the misfortunes suffered by the noblest of nations and states as well as by private virtues — and with that picture we could arouse feelings of the deepest and most helpless sadness, not to be outweighed by any consoling outcome. We can strengthen ourselves against this, or escape it, only by thinking that, well, so it was at one time; it is fate; there is nothing to be done about it now. And finally — in order to cast off the tediousness that this reflection of sadness could produce in us and to return to involvement in our own life, to the present of our own aims and interests — we return to the selfishness of standing on a quiet shore where we can be secure in enjoying the distant sight of confusion and wreckage. . . . But as we contemplate history as this slaughter-bench, upon which the happiness of nations, the wisdom of states, and the virtues of individuals were sacrificed, the question necessarily comes to mind: What was the ultimate goal for which these monstrous sacrifices were made? . . . World history is the progress in the consciousness of freedom — a progress that we must come to know in its necessity. . . . [T]he Orientals knew only that one person is free; the Greeks and Romans that some are free; while we [moderns] know that all humans are implicitly free, qua human. . . . The final goal of the world, we said, is Spirit’s consciousness of its freedom, and hence also the actualization of that very freedom. . . . It is this final goal — freedom — toward which all the world’s history has been working. It is this goal to which all the sacrifices have been brought upon the broad altar of the earth in the long flow of time.

Hopefully, still. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 61 (November 2013).

Chris Cutrone

Submitted as a letter to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) Weekly Worker on May 21, 2013, and published there in slightly edited form on May 30, 2013.

We in Platypus have been called out for taking an alleged at least tacit “pro-imperialist” political position. The CPGB’s Mike Macnair and others have characterized our expressed opinion, that we “did not support” the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and Libya), as implying that we also “did not oppose” them. This is untrue.

The Spartacists, for example, take the position of “no political support” for Right-wing military forces against the U.S. and its allies. But what they really wanted in Iraq was not the military and political victory of the insurgency against the occupation, but rather a meteorite to hit the Green Zone. But this was not a political position. For what the Spartacists among others wanted was a military defeat for the U.S. government et al. without this being a concomitant political victory for the Iraqi Right — former Baathists and Sunni and Shia Islamists. Let’s not mince words: such forces are the Right, at least as much as the U.S. government and its allies are. It is not the case that somehow the action of Baathists and Sunni and Shia Islamists increased democratic possibilities in Iraq against the U.S. government and allied occupation.

The actual Iraqi Left — the Iraqi Communist Party and Worker-communist Party of Iraq — chose politically not to mount its own let alone join in the existing military forces occasionally opposing the U.S. government and allied occupation, but rather to oppose the latter as well as the former in other ways, through working class organizing and strike action, to some limited success, for instance in preventing the privatization of the Iraqi oil industry. The international Left largely scorned them, in favor of a fantastical imagined “anti-imperialist” insurgency, which was not that but rather an ethno-religious sectarian-communal civil war among forces targeting each other far more than they targeted the U.S. government and its allies, jockeying for a position within the occupation and its political settlement, not against it.

The question is one’s attitude towards the state. One can oppose the police politically without thinking that withdrawing them from poor neighborhoods immediately is a good idea. Should street gangs take over in their place? And the gang example is quite instructive, since they fight against each other more than they do against the state, with which they strike a modus vivendi. One might imagine that police withdrawal and gang takeover opens possibilities for working class democratic action, but it doesn’t, since the very gangs that the police once fought against, however weakly, would simply be enlisted by the police once the working class took any action that the greater ruling class needed to oppose. This is because the gangs are part of the capitalist system. Indeed, they are a constant resource for the state and for the capitalist class, not an opposition — let alone a democratic one — to it. This is seen simply in how the capitalist ruling class recruits its members from among literal gangsters, historically and up to the present. “Gangs” are merely less politically successful capitalists. This is why, for instance, the capitalist state constantly seeks to characterize labor unions as “gangsters,” as labor “racketeers” — which indeed they do degenerate into, with more or less respectability as junior capitalists, without the struggle for socialism.

The same is true regarding supposed “anti-imperialist” politics. In Iraq, the former Baathists, and Sunni and Shia traditionalists and Islamists may have opposed the U.S. government and its allies on occasion and over specific issues, but they were not in any way anti-imperialist. They were at best petit-bourgeois democrats, at worst sectarian communalists and (at least quasi-)fascists. They could and indeed have in fact provided local political leadership and power-structures that serve global capitalism and oppose the interests of workers both locally and internationally. Just because they and the U.S. government and its allies might oppose each other occasionally does not mean that they express fundamentally different social forces. They are all pro-capitalist, and all anti-democratic.

Moreover, the phenomenon of geographical regions relatively lacking in the stable rule of bourgeois law-and-order is not only not particularly good for the workers and other democratic interests locally, but also not elsewhere, since it contributes to the potential political degradation everywhere, for instance by justifying greater police repression elsewhere to contain the zones of disorder. Those who think that local disorder is good are giving in to at best nationalist politics (whether or not dressed up as ideologically different from this, for instance in religious garb), not promoting the global liberation of the working class or the increased democratic self-determination of society.

So the question is not whether Platypus opposed U.S. et al. imperialism, but rather why we thought that the Left suffered from a glaring lack of adequate perspectives on how to actually politically oppose imperialist aggression. Platypus was founded in response to the failure of the anti-war movement, and we were motivated to host the conversation on the potential political reasons for this. This was slandered by the existing, failing Left as somehow opposing the anti-war movement, where what we opposed was its fatal misleadership. And we wanted to open the broadest possible discussion of the problem of such misleadership. It is not an accident that we hosted our first public forum as a conversation between various different anti-imperialist perspectives. Only a deliberate distortion of the facts can characterize our project otherwise.

We in Platypus opposed the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and more recently in Libya. We only questioned how they could be opposed that would not further degrade the workers and other democratic interests politically. We felt that the anti-war movement’s misleadership opened it to criticisms by liberals and social democrats who indeed supported the war that the anti-war movement couldn’t adequately answer let alone win over. And it is indeed the task of a true Left to win over or at least neutralize such ostensibly democratic politics — not to provide “Leftist” rationalizations for some temporary and opportunistic oppositions that might occasionally come from the hard-bitten Right of nationalists or worse. It is not for the Left to make common cause with the Right against the Center, for the Right is even more consistently pro-imperialist — pro-capitalist — than the liberals and social democrats are.

That’s the truth the current (mis)leading “Left” can’t face, and so they attack Platypus instead for pointing this out. We say, “The Left is dead!” because it’s become a protest-demonstration organizing gang for time-servers in a membership-dues racket. Of course they object to the unmasking of their ideological adaptation to and political complicity, however minor, with the capitalist status quo. We say, “Long live the Left!” because it is long since past time to stop regarding the capitalist system’s disreputable elements as some emancipatory force, substituting this for what does not yet but needs to exist politically.

– Chris Cutrone, Platypus Affiliated Society
 


“I’ve got the poison — I’ve got the remedy!”

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Isaac Balbus and Marilyn Nissim-Sabat at the conference Which Way Forward for Psychoanalysis?, held at the University of Chicago, May 18, 2013. The panel description is as follows: The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described all history as a “gruesome dominion of nonsense and accident,” and regarded political democracy as only “the nonsense of the ‘greatest number.’” Perhaps he was right. Yet, throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Leftists had assumed that democracy made radical social transformation a near inevitability. The great majority, they thought, would surely pursue their own interest in social emancipation if allowed political participation in society. As the 20th century unfolded and this did not take place, there arose a psychoanalytic tradition that attempted to grapple with this failure. Wilhelm Reich, an exemplar of this tradition, wrote in 1933: “At the bottom of the failure to achieve a genuine social revolution lies the failure of the masses of the people: They reproduce the ideology and forms of life of political reaction in their own structures and thereby in every new generation.” While much has changed in the intervening 80 years, certain fundamentals remain the same: the people rule, but the politics of democracy evidence forms of mass irrationality, not the desire for emancipation. Can psychoanalysis, in the best tradition of the political Freudians, help us to better understand and potentially move beyond this situation? In the 20th century, Leftists around the world attempted to bring about socialism, but failed. Revolutionary movements betrayed their own goals, and those who seemed to have the most to gain from the success of revolutionary politics sided with reaction. Marxist parties created police states, and workers followed the leadership of racist demagogues. The right to participate in elections was secured, but today socialism seems less possible than ever. The intention of this panel is to explore why the political enfranchisement of the working class has not led to socialism, and whether the insights of psychoanalysis are relevant to answering this question. (A full audio recording can be found at: https://archive.org/details/CutroneMasspsychologycapitalistdemocracy051813.)

Opening remarks

The Frankfurt School in the 1920s-30s incorporated the categories of Freudian psychoanalysis as descriptive of the mediation of the contradiction of the commodity form in individual consciousness. This critical appropriation of psychoanalytic categories was in response to the collapse of preceding forms of political mediation in which the contradictions of capitalism manifested, for instance between socialism and liberalism.

Freudian categories were not meant to supplement let alone replace Marxian critical-theoretical categories for the Frankfurt School, but rather psychoanalytic approaches to psychology were themselves regarded as symptoms of social-historical development — and crisis. In other words, the question was why had not Marx, Hegel or Kant, among others, developed a theory of unconscious mental processes, prior to Freud? And why had Freud’s theory of the unconscious emerged when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th century. (The closest to a registration of the psychological unconscious was by William James, also in the late 19th century, roughly contemporaneously with but in ignorance of Freud. — One must place to one side the earlier Romantic conception by Schelling, which had a different concern, not psychological but rather philosophical and moreover theological.) Furthermore, why had Freudian psychoanalysis achieved widespread currency and plausibility when it did, in the early-mid 20th century? And, what changes had occurred in the meaning and purchase of Freudian psychoanalysis, especially with respect to the so-called “neo-Freudian revisionism” after Freud, but also regarding Freud’s later, “metapsychological” speculations?

What such concerns raised by the Frankfurt School — what Marcuse called the “obsolescence of the Freudian concept of man” — was the transformation of society that took place in the late 19th and early-mid 20th century, and how this related to the failure of Marxism, politically — the failure of the revolution 1917-19. This was the lodestar for the Frankfurt School’s perspective on history, the key period 1848-1917, through which they considered the problems of modern society. This is found especially in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which was focused on the mid-19th century moment, circa 1848, as anticipating the 20th century. It was as part of this project that Benjamin wrote his famous “Theses on the philosophy of history,” actually titled “On the concept of history,” the aphorisms which were to serve as prolegomena to the Arcades Project as a whole. It was there that Benjamin engaged Freudian psychoanalytic categories most extensively, building upon and deepening his investigation into the melancholy of modernity that he had previously charted in his work on Proust and Kafka.

As a symptom of what Freud called a “narcissistic disorder” — that is, an inability and problematic form of self-love — melancholia challenged Freud’s clinical concept of the ego: Freud thought that melancholia was perhaps beyond psychoanalytic therapy’s effectiveness. This was because for Freud the therapeutic process of transference was short-circuited by the patient’s identification that was problematically projective and prevented the relation to another — the therapist — as an other. The other was both too closely and too distantly related; the difference was too great and too little.

Such projective identification was found by Benjamin in Baudelaire’s work, about which Benjamin wrote that, “Here it is the commodity itself that speaks.” This has been mistakenly read as meaning merely that Baudelaire was granting subjectivity to commodities as articles of consumption, whereas for Benjamin the critical point was rather that the speaker was a commodity. As Adorno put it in a letter to Benjamin about his work on Baudelaire, “The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness.” That is, for Adorno, the commodity form of subjectivity is the very source of consciousness — of self-consciousness in the Hegelian sense. Benjamin wrote that the commodity is the most empathic thing imaginable, in that it only realizes its being-in-itself through being-for-another, however ambivalently. Adorno wrote to Benjamin that this is a function of both “desire and fear.”

Such ambivalence was fundamental to Freud’s conception of the primordial origins of the psyche: the primary narcissism’s originary wounding encounter with parental authority, with the first other, the mother. It is the introduction of the third figure of the father that for Freud allows for others to be others, in an essential triad that interrupts the original dyad of mother-and-child. The further relation with which the child must reckon, between the mother and father, or of the other with another, was key for Freud to the development of a balanced sense of self that transcended the reversible and ambivalent projective identification with the primary care giver in infancy. Overcoming the threat to the relation to the mother that the father represents in the Oedipus complex also overcomes the narcissistic identification that threatens to obliterate the nascent sense of self in the infantile merging with the other. Until the introduction of this essential third, the danger is the radical ambivalence regarding difference, which is perceived as a deadly threat: the fear of as well as the desire to obliterate the psyche represented by the mother as object of both love and hate.

For Freud such primordial originary narcissism subsists in later psychical development: it is enlisted and transformed in the process of being transcended. However, there is occasion for regressing to this primary narcissistic state: there are traumas that overwhelm the fragile development of the ego, beyond its original — and originally problematic — narcissism, returning it to that condition. It was not coincidental that Freud turned his attention to the question of melancholia and narcissism in the context of WWI and the traumas experienced there, in which Freud found a model for penetrating the developmental sources for narcissistic disorders such as melancholia.

The Marxist appropriation of Freud’s clinical theory of primary narcissism by Benjamin and Adorno was in the social context of the contradictions of capitalism that overwhelmed the sense of self in the ego. The Freudian therapeutic question of “Why did I do that?” was overwhelmed in the contradictory social dynamics of capitalism, in which the responsible individual was both demanded and rendered intolerable. WWI only expressed in drastic form the fundamental character of the situation of the human being in modern capitalism. For the Frankfurt School, modern society already by the mid-19th century was contradictory respecting individual human beings, and this found expression and registration in the very phenomenon of “psychology” itself — the self-contradictory character of the logic of the psyche. Freud’s apprehension of the contradiction between consciousness and “unconscious mental processes” expressed this in acute form, and was itself regarded by Benjamin and Adorno as a phenomenon of society. But Freud’s desirable intention to strengthen the resources for the individual psyche was rendered utopian — impossible — in modern society. As Freud himself observed in one of his earliest published reflections on analytic therapy, however, this was society’s problem — therapy may produce individuals with demands that society cannot meet. But these demands were socially legitimate even if they remained denied. A contradiction of capitalism was found in the contradiction between the individual and society in a very precise sense.

Now, what were the political ramifications and implications of this? The Frankfurt School Critical Theorists were keen to recognize those political forms that appealed to the abdication of the responsibility of the individual through problematic narcissistic identification, short-circuiting the ego, and seemingly justifying the condition of paranoid ambivalence — both desire and fear for objects of simultaneous hate and love — what Anna Freud termed “identification with the aggressor” in society. This was a dynamic that the Frankfurt School thinkers found as well in “revolutionary politics” — perhaps especially so, in that fascism offered a form of social revolution in mobilizing the masses for political action, however reactionary.

But the problem ran deeper than the dramatic outward expression of fascism. As Wilhelm Reich pointed out, the “fear of freedom” was characteristic of the “average unpolitical person,” who was nonetheless “authoritarian” in psychical comportment. So, what was necessary, then, was recognizing the unconscious authoritarianism of the individual’s condition in modern society.

For Adorno, this was to be found in the form of identification not only with overt fascist demagogy but also with what his friend and mentor Siegfried Kracauer called the “inconspicuous surface-level expressions” of everyday social life and its mass-cultural forms, what Adorno called the psychical “pattern” that was found in exaggerated, acute form in fascist “propaganda,” but was not qualitatively or essentially different from commercial advertising. Adorno found a constitutive ambivalence there, in which the subject found pleasure in the conformist “going along” with the lie while still recognizing it as false: the psychical satisfaction in the “will to believe” in what one knew to be false.

Adorno characterized this as simultaneously looking up and down at the object of authority, placing oneself above and below it. The pleasure of the audience for fascist propaganda was in the combined admiration and contempt for the demagogue, who was not only exalted but also degraded in the viewer’s estimation. When confronted by his friend Karl Jaspers about the Nazi mistreatment of his Jewish wife, Heidegger replied that Hitler had “such wonderful hands.” In this the demagogical “leader” was an object of projective identification for the subject: the subject rehearsed his own overestimation of himself and self-derogation, not merely in sharing the mentality of the propaganda, as both idealized and unworthy, but in recognizing one’s own contemptible character in granting the demagogy a hearing, let alone authority. The pleasure in fascist buffoonery is precisely in its ridiculousness that is nonetheless performed in earnest — with deadly seriousness. This was the authentically democratic basis for fascism — in the psychology of the masses, who, acting precisely as a “mass,” abdicated their actual democratic responsibility for political authority.

As Tocqueville put it, in a democracy the people gets the government it deserves. This was rendered paradoxical in modern capitalism, in that the public disavows responsibility for the leaders that it nonetheless elects, in this way reinforcing the authoritarianism one would otherwise deplore: it is what one really wants in the abdication for responsibility that renders one actually contemptible. One’s desire is unworthy. The authoritarian ritual is the rehearsal of this political abdication, what Reich called the “fear of freedom.” In the Frankfurt School’s time, the masses failed to make the revolution, which meant that they deserved the fascist reaction, but felt that they could both blame and punish the revolutionaries for the reaction that followed as well as disclaim responsibility for fascism, feeling “misled” by it. But the point is that they misled themselves, precisely through indulging the paranoiac mentality of fascism in which the narcissistic ego could lose itself, a bitter but nonetheless comforting pleasure of regressing through the dissolution of individual identity in the fascist mass. As Benjamin pointed out, fascism gave the masses an opportunity to “express themselves,” but only by abdicating themselves. This is true not only of fascism, but is endemic in modern politics.

An example from U.S. politics will suffice to demonstrate how this works today, despite the absence of revolutionary political crisis. When the President gives his State of the Union address to Congress and the wider public, he is flanked behind by his Vice President as leader of the Senate and by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Moreover, the Justices of the Supreme Court as well as the members of Congress are present, with certain hand-picked representatives of the public also in the audience.

In each case, the television viewers have audience members in attendance as proxy observers, whose reactions serve as cues. This goes to the most absurd ritual practiced at these events, the applause that punctuates the President’s speech. It is entirely predictable which “side of the aisle” — which representatives of the two parties, Republicans and Democrats — will applaud or give a standing ovation to particular statements in the speech. The rehearsed, mechanical quality of such audience responses demonstrate the political contentlessness of the President’s speech: the reactions are not to the President’s policies but rather to his power; one waits for what the President will say in suspense, but there will be no surprise, or, if something startling is said then this will be in expectation of a stumble rather than a prerogative. There is an embarrassed awkwardness attending such occasions of public power. For it is not the President’s power that is being rehearsed so much as his powerlessness — at least in any substantial matter of change. One expects and responds only to the performance, not the policy. Did the President give a good speech? What were the benchmarks of the speech’s success? Not the President as policy-maker but as speech-giver. The humiliating performance of the President provides for the public’s abasement of the political power to which they are nonetheless subject. Indeed, whenever unexpected Presidential action is taken, it is almost always unpopular and regarded as a misstep: one thinks of the Iraq invasion and the TARP economic bailout and stimulus measures. The President is radically divided between person and role: the role is granted unrealistic authority; the person debased.

The rating on performance expresses and reinforces the conservatism of such phenomena. One witnesses the drama more or less indulgently towards all the participants; one indulges oneself in the rehearsal, but with a combination of radically opposed values: enthrallment and circumspect distance. One knows that it is merely a performance, but a performance that is granted a spurious substance, like a sports game, with all the passions of fandom. One watches not only the President and his audience, but also oneself, ambivalently. The enigma of power remains intact, its authority unpenetrated. The effects of policy and hence the consequential character of politics remain unclear, and this suits the viewers perfectly well, as it provides solace for their abdication of responsibility. Everyone does what is expected, but no one takes action. The people get the government that they not only actually but importantly feel themselves to deserve, one which simultaneously flatters and humiliates them, and in ways that allow them to hide and lose themselves in the process, disappearing into an anonymous public, which also preserves themselves, narcissistically — allows them to be “subjects” without risking themselves, either psychologically or politically.

In a classic moment for the concerns of Freudian psychoanalysis, the social subject and hence society remains opaque to itself: the therapeutic question, “Why did I do that?” is occluded by the unasked question of politics, “What have we done?” | §

 
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