The concept of Left and Right

Chris Cutrone, Nikos Malliaris and Samir Gandesha

Platypus Review 68 | July 2014

 

On April 5, 2014, at the sixth annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, the following panel discussion took place of which this is an edited transcript. Full panel description and audio recording can be found on-line at: http://platypus1917.org/2014/04/05/the-concept-of-left-and-right/

 

“We are the 99%”
—Occupy Wall Street (2011)

“The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.”
Leszek Kolakowski, “The Concept of the Left” (1968)

The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology;” by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and the 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011—from the Arab Spring to Occupy—there seemed a sense that the Left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by Left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, Left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik—a better tactical response—rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the Right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?

 

Chris Cutrone: “The concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the Revisionist Dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility—a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities—political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution—crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom—the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom—in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed.

Nikos Malliaris: I have a mostly unorthodox approach since I come from a political tradition that considers the distinction between Left and Right to be obsolete and politically irrelevant since, let’s say, the sixties. Indeed, part of the critique that thinkers such as Lasch and Castoriadis, or even Hannah Arendt, address, from the sixties on, has been articulated around this basic idea. A distinction between Left and Right seems obsolete not only because the Old Left, the Left that was, has lost many of its properly left-wing traits, moving more and more to the Right. Christopher Lasch’s critique of the notion of progress has shown that the real problem lies in the fact that many fundamental Left-wing beliefs—such as the belief in progress, technophilia, and the primacy of material economic factors—were in reality, right from the start, shared by both Right and Left. The same goes of course for Castoriadis’s critique of Marxism as an ideology that perverted the revolutionary project by trying to articulate it using basic elements of the bourgeois worldview, such as the belief in progress, economism, scientism, technophilia, or even the distinction between revolutionary experts and uneducated masses. There is nothing absolutely new in all this, as non-orthodox Marxists such as Karl Korsch attacked the pseudo-scientific Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals. The first generation of Frankfurt School thinkers were the first to undertake an attempt to renovate revolutionary theory. We can say that Lasch and Castoriadis just made a step forward by historically and philosophically expanding—and politically in the latter’s case—such a critique.

In any case, the main conclusion of this philosophical and sociological point of view is that the Left actively participated in the gradual crystallization of the contemporary social paradigm—what we would call consumer society. This is a society constituted by the historical revolution that gave birth to the old industrial and capitalist societies, based on productivism and technophilia, and whose inherent ideology we would sum up as cultural liberalism—the celebration of the all-important individual. What is the point of stressing the importance of all these issues? They form a context for raising the issue of defining such concepts as Left and Right.

Both terms originate in the debates that shook revolutionary France back in the 1790s. They express the mounting current of political republicanism and constitute its two main forms: the Left a radical one, and the Right its more moderate counterpart. That means it is wrong to confuse Right-wing with reactionary or conservative ideologies. The latter are forms of defending the pre-revolutionary monarchical, or even feudal, political and social edifices, whereas the former is a moderate way to support the post-revolutionary order. The Right believes social equality is already achieved and that a moderate, parliamentary regime—even based on a sense of suffrage, as was the case in the 19th century—is a sufficient guarantee of real equality. Left-wing movements and theories, on the other hand, believe that such equality isn’t enough, or that it was nothing more than a form of new inequality that should be reversed.

An additional difference between Right and Left—that is, between political liberalism and Marxism or anarchism—lies in the way that each of these political traditions perceives the coming of liberty and social equality. The former believes it should be gained gradually while the latter believe only a revolution can really transform existing society. In any case, what we should underline is that Marxism and liberalism are not as radically opposed as it is commonly believed, since they are part of the same political and theoretical family; they may not be brothers, but they should surely be considered as first cousins. So we see that such terms as Left and Right are far more problematic than we are used to believing. An interesting example: Ayn Rand. Was she Right-wing or Left-wing? The same goes for various anarcho-capitalist sects that are fiercely capitalist as far as economy and politics are concerned, but are generally liberal and anti-authoritarian with regards to ethics or cultural issues. Jean-Claude Michel, a contemporary French philosopher, reminds us that when parts of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead were translated for the first time in French, they were thought to be a kind of Left-wing critique of traditional bourgeois mentality, as Rand celebrated the creating of an individual and his determination to oppose every obstacle that attempts to hinder the realization of his inner vision.

Capitalism’s inner logic lies in an unending destruction of every form of social and cultural tie that limits the pursuit of the all-important individual. That means that capitalists’ inherent ideology, if there is one, is what I’d call cultural liberalism: the idea that the individual should act as it wishes without being restrained by any form of social convention, belief, or control. Beginning with the attack on feudal, aristocratic, and religious archaism, this ideology raised the attack on such archaism to an end in itself. When real archaism ceased to exist, the need to justify our theoretical conception leads to an absurd attack on every social form or institution, without the least coherence. Coherence itself is being seen as fascist or oppressing, and with poststructuralism and postmodernism, we saw similar attacks on language and even anatomical differences between the sexes (take for example Foucault, Butler, or even Edward Said). All this was done in the name of the Left, historically amounting to nothing more than the further consolidation of consumer society with this inherent cultural and philosophical relativism. And it is precisely this fertile ground where the poisonous plant of far-Right movements grows nowadays, especially in Europe.

So I would raise the questions: Is contemporary capitalism really Right-wing? And can the invocation of the Left, at least at its present form, help us articulate a radical form of democratic and emancipatory critique, and an analysis of the total social collapse that we are facing?

Samir Gandesha: Since 1956, with the invasion of Hungary and the formation of the New Left in what’s been called a democratic, anti-imperialist form of socialism, there has been a tremendous degree of confusion concerning Left and Right.

A further series of confusions date back to 1989, with the transformation of the Soviet bloc, the appearance of Alexander Dubček on the podium, with Václav Havel, which really put paid to the moment of 1968 in the former Czechoslovakia—there was no possibility of “socialism with a human face.” Obviously the nineties, with the implosion of Yugoslavia and the different kinds of positions that were taken by various Leftists vis-à-vis the Serbian side in particular, and Milosevic, betrayed a certain kind of unclarity and confusion. The wars in the Gulf also led to a kind of paralysis and confusion about the commitments the Left would make, the sides it would take up in these conflicts. More recently, though not as monumental as the previous examples, the controversy over Judith Butler receiving the Adorno prize is quite revealing, given the fact that she had declared Hamas and Hezbollah as part of the global anti-imperialist Left. Not to defend Butler’s critics, but rather what one would want to do in that situation is to say here is a form of historical amnesia, that Hezbollah was created by the Revolutionary Guards, who played an absolutely violent role in suppressing the Left in the Iranian Revolution and actually helped to turn it, when it had a secular and genuinely Left complexion, to the Islamist revolution that we know. There’s an amnesia about these categories and an unfortunate kind of participation in identity politics, and this exemplifies that.

Today we have to understand social struggles as manifesting a distinction between Left and Right, in terms of whether they can be understood as anti-capitalist struggles. As to whether the Left makes typically collective demands whereas the Right makes typically individualistic types of demands, this is a complicated question. You’d have to answer it dialectically, insofar as the Left could be understood, at least historically, in terms of making collective demands in the interest of liberation of the individual and individuality, which would be understood in relation to the collective—the freedom of the individual is conditional on the freedom of all and vice versa. The Right tends to make demands on part of the individual, but those demands are often at the same time couched in terms of some notion of the larger whole, some attachment to nationality, to an imperial project, and so on.

In Marx you have one account of taking hold of capitalism in the Manifesto, and a very gripping account of “all that is solid melts into air,” but only a few years later we see in The Eighteenth Brumaire a much more complicated relationship between the forces of capital in transforming the landscape—wresting the whole of tradition from social subjects to social actors only for those traditions to come back and to “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” This is a complex dialectic in Marx. It is not necessarily the case that we can say that capitalism is merely liberating the individual: it’s a much more complicated sort of relationship.

A great example would be Narendra Modi, who has ruled with an iron fist in the state of Gujarat. Gujarat is being put forward in India as a viable model of economic development. It has experienced a sort of hyperprocess of development, but at the same time the worst excesses of Hindu fundamentalism have been unfolding there. This is what Perry Anderson calls the “Indian ideology”—free-market emphasis on the individual, but at the same time, appeal to the most reactionary kinds of traditions and interpretations.

Getting back to the realm of ideas, Left and Right are defined by their relationship to the French revolution. The Left seeks to realize the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment, whereas the Right—going all the way back to 1790 and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France—takes up a much more complicated relationship, trying to defend the standpoint of particularity. This is the key thing about the Right: unmediated particularity. Language, tradition, culture, family. The way this plays itself out of course in Germany and in the aftermath of Napoleon is in terms of Hegel’s, “the real is the rational and the rational is the real.” The Right of course sees the institutions of modern society and state as always already rational—no more work to be done—whereas the Left takes this up as the rallying cry—that the world must be made philosophical. This is the opening of hitherto unrealized and also unrecognized possibilities. We don’t even know what the possibilities will be like in the future.

Ultimately what’s at stake and why ideas matter is because we really have to look at forms of reason. What does it mean to make the world philosophical? That goes to the contemporary possibility of reason, because the questions of reason and freedom in the tradition we’re talking about are inextricable. Freedom isn’t simply your ability to do what you want willy-nilly but is rather some notion of rational self-determination as autonomy. So when we talk about freedom, we are also talking about reason and rationality.

I’ll just finish on the fact that in Canada today, you have a government that’s absolutely hostile to the tradition of the Enlightenment insofar as it is clearly anti-science. It has essentially destroyed national scientific libraries, it has closed the experimental lakes area, and it has said we are not going to fund any more basic research. This is quite extraordinary—reactionary and anti-Enlightenment—whereas the Left has to take up a dialectical relation, a critique of techno-science but in an era of global climate change. We have to articulate a particular relationship to that tradition of reason. It’s very embarrassing for the so-called postmodern Left today, because the positions it has taken up over the last couple of decades are exactly the positions of the conservative government today in its anti-science rhetoric and practice. It has simply thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

CC: One thing I’d like to say, rather provocatively, is that I’m a member of a generation that has come up through a return of this “end of ideology” concept—the argument of needing to get “beyond Left and Right” is just a Right-wing argument. You see it in many figures from the last generation. Foucault would be one for example—the Iranian Revolution was raised with respect to this.

The other point that I was going to make, but that Samir made in his opening remarks, is that freedom would have to be understood as both collective and individual. This is because society is both a collective and individual affair. Really, going back to the era of classical liberalism—rather than liberalism in Ayn Rand’s deranged definition—freedom of the individual would have been understood to be a moment of the freedom of the collective, and vice versa.

With respect to free market ideology, an old mentor of mine, Adolph Reed, recently said that what’s interesting about the political Right in the mainstream is that it has a dual agenda: It has an agenda of upward redistribution of resources, and it has a free-market agenda. But guess which one is sacrificed in a pinch? Actually, the free-market ideology is sacrificed. And that means perhaps the whole question of “free-market ideology” would have to be addressed as a matter of ideology, not a simple manner of “free market equals Right-wing,” but rather that it is a necessary form of misrecognition of the potential for freedom in this form of society. One of the unfortunate characteristics of living in the neoliberal era is the idea that we’ve been moving to the Right since the mid-20th century, and that Right-ward drift is to be characterized entirely in terms of the erosion of the welfare state and its replacement by the market.

In my own political imagination I go back a lot further, and I would see in the state-centric capitalism of the 20th century the form of the counterrevolution. In other words, we are dealing with phases of the Right, first in the form of statism and now in the form of post-statism, rather than non-statism. That’s where my Adolph Reed quotation comes in—what really is the agenda of the Right? It’s not really that the state is being taken down in favor of the free market, but rather that the state remains as an upward redistribution mechanism, and that the free market ideology serves merely as an ideology. It’s not really going on.

That raises the question of anti-capitalism. I would say that it’s unfortunate for the Left to categorize its politics as “anti-capitalist.” This is something that goes back to the New Left. Rather we should be thinking about post-capitalism—what would it mean to get beyond capitalism rather than fighting against capitalism? How can we redeem the history of the past two hundred years, the history of capitalism, as a pathological form of freedom, but nonetheless as a form of freedom? Certainly, with respect to what came before. I do take to heart we have a distinction to be made between two kinds of Right—a pro-capitalist Right and an anti-capitalist Right. Again, this is where Kolakowski is useful. What’s interesting is that his conception was really not about ostensible capitalism, but rather, ostensible socialism, meaning what crimes were justified by the pursuit of socialism. But we could also talk about what crimes are committed in the pursuit of capitalism, which raises the question of what capitalism actually is. Capitalism requires a dialectical treatment, and the Left has largely ceased to be a Left in having an undialectical treatment of capitalism itself.

NM: I totally agree that discourse on free-market is a lie. There is no capitalism without the state. A real free market would be something highly egalitarian and really democratic, a social space where there are no economic differences or hierarchical positions.

I would like to stress this: We cannot say that the Right has nothing to do with freedom because free-market ideology is only ideology. When we analyze Left and Right, we have to look at the philosophical and theoretical level on one hand, and of the concrete and historical on the other. As we cannot judge Marxism simply by what happened in the Stalinist regime, we cannot judge the Right by saying we have no free market so the Right has nothing to do with freedom. We are speaking of the really existing neoliberalism as we had really existing socialism, which had nothing to do with socialism. Kolakowski has a tendency to reduce Left and Right to abstract philosophical concepts, and then to identify the Left as “Good” compared to the Right as “Evil.” I cannot comprehend how he can say the Right is a dead force without openness to the future. For the first liberals, capitalism was the way to ensure real social equality and progress, so capitalism is highly open to the future.

American society, at the ideological and anthropological level, is profoundly egalitarian as opposed to European societies. That’s why American capitalism is stronger; it is not hindered by precapitalist, archaic social and economic forms. So I would say capitalism does not have an inherent ideology—that’s why it’s compatible with almost any form of political regime.

I do not agree with the distinction between freedom and justice. I don’t think social justice is an economic and social issue as opposed to freedom or equality, which are political issues, so that we could have justice without freedom or freedom without justice. That would be a Stalinist, and at the same time, a capitalist argument. The capitalist would say we could have freedom without social justice, and the Stalinist would and have said we had social justice without freedom.

Finally, you’re right Samir; we have to clarify our position towards techno-science and the tradition of the Enlightenment in general. That is the core of the philosophical enterprise of the Frankfurt School—that the Enlightenment was not something monolithic. Capitalism is the product of the Enlightenment. We have to keep some things from the Enlightenment and criticize some others.

SG: Anti-capitalism versus post-capitalism brings into play whether we are looking at a form of abstract or determinate negation. Abstract negation would be simply mean being anti-capitalist in orientation, whereas determinate negation would really draw upon progressive elements within the present, and seek to deepen and extend them. In that sense, the work of the present is completing the historical tasks of the past. But how we imagine that is a very complex question. Liberalism, utilitarianism, these in their moment were extremely progressive and, in a sense, Left-wing in terms of opening up new possibilities. When they become entrenched and reified, they turn into their opposite. There is a tendency of this within capitalism, and not just in the external ways I was describing—the Gujarat model and so on. You need external support for a certain kind of free-market logic, which is going to be highly disruptive. For all of his faults, Foucault’s discussion of neoliberalism is very interesting precisely because it was recognized that there had to be a strong, institutional framework for the unleashing of the market. That’s insightful in terms of our own neoliberal present, where the state doesn’t disappear. It is a form of class struggle that’s happening—the redistribution upwards of wealth. But at the same time there’s a transformation of the regulatory framework towards a very narrow understanding of freedom, which cancels the idea that there are certain resources and capacities people need to even exercise this negative conception of freedom. Hence the destruction of the welfare state.

That capitalism has no inherent ideology, that is problematic to me, Nikos, because the very commodity form—what Marx calls a “socially necessary illusion,”—is ideology in that we cannot directly, immediately perceive the conditions of our existence. The work of critique and the work of reason are required to understand the social whole. The market will always rely, as Hegel shows very clearly, on law—the moment of ethical life is actually presupposed in those abstract market relations, which only then becomes clear once the dialectic has done its work.

Q & A

Nikos, would you consider radical liberals, such as Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant as Leftist, and how would you perhaps discern this radical liberalism from 20th century radical liberals like Hayek? Would you consider them Right-wing? Would you consider them both Left-wing and Right-wing? How would you replace the obsolete Left and Right distinction?

NM: We have two types of criteria for judging if someone is Left-wing or Right-wing. I would say, from a historical point of view, both of them—Kant, Mill, Locke, and on the other hand, Hayek, Rand, the Chicago School, etc.—are the same mixture of Left-wing and Right-wing elements. The difference is the latter form degenerated from what great thinkers like Kant, Mill or Locke expressed. From a political point of view, I would say there is as huge difference between those two categories. I would categorize the former as democratic, whereas the latter would be nondemocratic liberals. For me, that is the categorization that has to replace Left-wing and Right-wing: democratic and non-democratic. Democratic for me also means egalitarian. In Kant, Mill and Locke, and other liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries, you had a real democratic spirit that was expressed in a limited manner, whereas in Hayek, Rand, etc., you have no democratic spirit at all. What they keep of the Left-wing elements of liberalism is just the justification of brutal individualism.

I would like to pose the question of the working class, because Left-wing liberals refer to the Third Estate and the working class, and also Marxism had its reference to the proletariat. So the Left is an idea, but there was a reference to a social group. How do you navigate this relationship?

CC: Left and Right, because it dates back to the French Revolution, doesn’t predate Hegel’s notion of contradiction, but it does predate Marx’s specification of contradiction with respect to capitalism. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is the developing self-contradiction of bourgeois society that points beyond it, in some way. Therefore, the working class had to negate itself, and what that means has been up for a great deal of interpretation, reinterpretation, and misinterpretation. It’s actually quite different from the notion of the revolt of the Third Estate in the earlier period. To redefine society in terms of labor and its exchange as opposed to tradition and custom was the bourgeois, revolutionary project. But for Marx, after the Industrial Revolution the working class represents the self-contradiction of bourgeois society. The idea is that bourgeois society should, according to its ideals, not have a proletariat—an expropriated class of workers who are formally free to participate in society according to the principle of their labor but are actually alienated from the results of their activity in society. It brings up the question of self-contradiction, because capitalism is both freedom and the constraint of freedom at the same time. The bourgeois revolutionaries did not recognize feudalism as freedom and unfreedom. Bourgeois society is self-contradictory in capitalism in a way that feudalism was not.

SG: I largely agree with your analysis. Marx’s idea of the proletariat, as you suggest, is one that is grounded in philosophical conceptuality in the early writings, and then of course becomes more concretized in his systematic working out of the logic of capital, in specific analysis of the extraction of surplus value. In chapter six of volume one of Capital, you have this transformation and the appearance of the dramatis personæ, moving from the realm of the freedom of property in Bentham to the realm of production.

NM: I think that the Frankfurt School tried to generalize the idea of the contradictions of bourgeois society, projecting these contradictions into the history of Western modernity. This very important because we cannot understand what is going on with our difficulty of defining the Left and Right otherwise. Both of them are products of Western modernity. Western modernity, from the 12th or 13th century on, is categorized by a fundamental, anthropological contradiction—trying to incarnate at the same time two contradictory world visions. On one hand, we have this project of social and individual emancipation, and on the other this paranoia with bureaucratic, scientific, and economic exploitation and domination. I would say that both the Left and the Right incarnate parts of these contradictory worldviews. We could say capitalism is the Western creation that incarnates both of them in the most eloquent way.

The first society in history that destroyed every formal limit, be it reactionary, patriarchal, or not, is the modern West. The first to analyze that in a very profound manner was Oswald Spengler, who was a reactionary. You cannot have the idea that we have to liberate the market—liberate productive forces—if you are not formed in a society that knows no limits. That is why, for example, the world as we know it is a Western creation. The Westerners were the first to get out of the geographical and cosmological limits to colonize the whole of the planet. So globalization is not a fact of the 20th century—it lies at the core of Western civilization.

I wanted to ask a question on the obsolescence or the uselessness of the idea of the Left today. How we might think about this as coming out of a legacy in two forms: what the Left has done, meaning the real elements of the Left in libertarianism or neoliberalism, and what has been done to the Left, the denigration of the emancipatory project of the Left in history?

NM: If I rightly understood you, you are reproaching me for treating in the same manner Ayn Rand, and let’s say, Marx. But I think that the Left itself calls for such a treatment, because what is the Left, historically and empirically? In Greece, for example, you have Leftists that are supportive of all anti-Western regimes—for Ahmandinejad, for Hezbollah, for Hitler, for Pol Pot, for Stalin. The Greek Left was pro-Hitler because they told us Great Britain was the main imperial force that attacked Germany. The Left has need of a really radical and vehement critique.

One of the propositions of the panel was that the Left and Right ought not to be defined in sociological groups—as in, “are working-class people Left or Right?” I think more importantly, it should be said that no Left party gets to hold the mantle of being Left indefinitely, despite whatever may come. It’s quite easy for a Left party to engage in Right-wing actions, or develop a Right-wing ideology like those ones you’re describing. I’m not sure if that really cuts to the core of the saliency of the categories of Left and Right.

NM: But could we say the contrary? For me anti-totalitarianism is Left-wing, because totalitarianism is the worst form of domination that ever appeared in human history. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick—they were profoundly Right-wing anti-totalitarianists. So then what are we going to say? That they took some Left-wing elements?

But the panel’s description concedes this—that what is Left can be taken up by the Right, in the Left’s abdication of its own responsibilities. So if there’s no Left opposition to totalitarianism, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are forced to make an alliance with the Right.

NM: You are right that, according to the panel and Kolakowski, we should not reduce the Left and Right to a sociological aspect, but I do not completely agree with this.

CC: This essay, on the concept of the Left, occupies an interesting moment in that it is part of the background for the New Left as a global phenomenon. Therefore, it’s not only of its moment, but it looks back and looks ahead. I am struck by the way it looks back. Even though, in a sense, Kolakowski was never really a Marxist, he does take Marxism a lot more seriously than the standard ideologues of the Polish Communist Party at the time would have done so. Just to give a little historiography, Khrushchev condemns Stalin as a “criminal against Leninism”—that was the form that the critique of Stalin took, even though Khrushchev himself clearly fell short in that respect. If I had to speculate on the mechanism of Kolakowski’s essay, I think that’s it—what is it about Marxism as a utopian ideology, what happened to that ideology? Essentially what he says is it compromised with reality too much. He starts off the essay by saying “every revolution is a compromise between utopia and reality.” He’s able to generalize a greater phenomenon out of the problem of Marxism—that the attempt to change the world seemed to have gone wrong at some point.

One could extrapolate that with respect to the bourgeois revolution and capitalism. What do we make of a freedom project that’s gone wrong? Then the question is how do we specify that? Marx attempted to specify the freedom problem of his moment in terms of capitalism and what was very much of the 19th century, namely the Industrial Revolution and the creation of an unskilled wage-laboring proletariat. Marx was attempting to reflect on an attempt to change the world that had taken a certain trajectory and manifested in his own time. He could be considered a Left Hegelian in the sense that Samir raised earlier—not treating the world as already rational, but rather to be made rational. The problem of making the world rational in Marx’s time was manifested in the working class struggle for socialism.

Is that happening now? Can we point to any attempt to change the world now that’s manifesting the fundamental problem of freedom of our time? That’s a complicated question because one could plausibly look to various social movements and say, this is the struggle for freedom now, this is how we could grasp the true nature of our society today. The problem is that we also live under the shadow of previous attempts to change the world. There is no attempt to change the world today that doesn’t have looking over its shoulder the ghost of Marxism, even the Right, although less acutely now. In the early 20th century the reason Hayek could be plausible is that he said, “Look, Marxism led to fascism, it’s right there, it’s right in front of us. The fascists imitated the Marxists, and therefore the Marxists were responsible for fascism.” We don’t have that kind of acute contradiction today. Maybe we could claim, in 1979, that Khomeini had Marx looking over his shoulder; at least other Islamists did (for instance Ali Shariati).

There is this radical notion to change the world, but it has failed in some way. That’s what raises the question of opportunism. The Left might be defined by its own coherence and its demand for its own self-clarification. When Kolakowski says that the Left is unclear to this day, what he is saying is that the Left, almost by its definition, is tasked by its own self-clarification, whereas the Right can remain incoherent. The world striving towards coherence—that you can’t have reason without freedom or freedom without reason in the Hegelian framework that Marxism inherits. The Right is not so tasked, and therefore is characterized not only by opportunism, tactics without ideas, crimes, but it also doesn’t leave the same kind of intellectual legacy.

How does democracy relate to the era of liberalism? I’d suggest it was the radical ideology of capitalism that first posed the need for democracy, and it was in that historical period that the whole issue arises. In what way does history mediate the demand for democracy?

NM: I sense a certain Marxist-progressivist account of history in your question. For me the Western emancipatory project, at the political level, begins with the first attempts of medieval cities to become self-organized and self-governed. The first members of the bourgeois were the merchants who managed to escape feudal bonds. That’s why at the time we had the famous German formulation, the era of the free city, because if you managed to stay free in the city for one year, then the feudal lord could not touch you. These cities were highly opportunistic and tried to safeguard their newly acquired autonomy by aligning themselves with priests against the emperor, then with the emperor against the feudal lords, etc. Sometimes they had directly democratic forms of government that didn’t last for long, but they did exist. The people who were most inspired by this were merchants who were also fighting for their economic liberty. So democracy was mixed up with liberalism in a more general sense, meaning the creation of a worldview of democracy at the cultural and anthropological level.

Marx says that one is only capable of understanding the world insofar as one is capable of changing it. What happens to the idea of freedom if there is no Left capable of changing the world?

SG: I want to end on a note of the relationship between theory and practice, and this idea of not being able to understand the world unless you’re in a position to change it. That’s exactly the starting point of Negative Dialectics, to get back to a reflection on the history of failure within the Left. It opens with this invocation of the moment to realize the philosophy that is missed, which then throws us back to a certain kind of reflection on this tradition, and in particular, a reflection on the freedom project that was defeated or failed to come to fruition. You get out of that an attempt to rethink fundamentally, in a dialectical way, the conception of autonomy. You arrive at the idea that autonomy without the moment of heteronomy is ultimately self-destructive. It can’t sustain itself because this logic of self-preservation gone wild leads to the exact opposite. Those are the stakes of our current age: rethinking freedom that can be brought in line with democracy and self-determination, but within the context of the recognition of the real limits that we face. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 68 (July-August 2014).

Chris Cutrone

Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. ( . . . )

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1914 in the history of Marxism

2014 annual Platypus President’s report

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 66 | May 2014

 

At the Platypus Affiliated Society’s annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago April 4–6, 2014, Chris Cutrone delivered the following President’s Report. An edited transcript of the presentation and subsequent discussion appears below. A full video recording is available online at <http://youtu.be/vB0AR61lcnE>.

Cover of the Vorwärts, the SPD’s party organ in 1914; the headline reads, “Social Democracy and the War!” The SPD voted for war credits to the First World War almost 100 years ago on August 4 1914. Lenin was so incredulous at the SPD’s vote for war credits that he thought this issue of Vorwarts was a forgery by the German government.

Cover of the Vorwärts, the SPD’s party organ in 1914; the headline reads, “Social Democracy and the War!” The SPD voted for war credits to the First World War almost 100 years ago on August 4 1914. Lenin was so incredulous at the SPD’s vote for war credits that he thought this issue of Vorwärts was a forgery by the German government.

One hundred 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 4″ moment, the moment of betrayal of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism by various tendencies in the history of Marxism. The Spartacists 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 Social Democratic Party of Germany (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 down the war effort of the German government; and the disorganization of the SPD leadership, what has been called the effective but illegitimate takeover 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 two-front war—against both the Russians and the British and the French—despite the evident military risks of doing so. They did 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 preempt such active counterrevolution with the passive counterrevolution 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 are 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 two clear moments, when Marxists of the 2nd International supported the war in 1914, and when Lenin suppressed other socialists in the Russian Revolution and Stalin did so in the Spanish Civil War.1

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 is 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 capitalist 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, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky 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 extremists—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.

Nineteen fourteen 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 Götterdämmerung 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.

Nineteen fourteen 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.

Q & A

The idea that we’ve inherited from 1914—Lenin as revolutionary defeatist, and defeatism as Marxist orthodoxy—really represents an innovation. It was not the norm even of Marxists who opposed the war at the time, e.g. the Zimmerwald center. Marx and Engels did not take a revolutionary defeatist stance in the wars of German unification or Franco-Prussian war, but instead tactically adopted different positions in different wars. The idea of a principled revolutionary defeatism came from Lenin’s consciousness that bourgeois society had changed in the decades since then. To him, 1914 represented simultaneously the overripeness and rottenness of both bourgeois society and the SPD. This is expressed in the theory of imperialism, which is taken to be a new stage of bourgeois society. The problem with the “Leninist” view is that after the long period from 1914–1933, the principle of revolutionary defeatism becomes detached from concrete politics and is upheld simply as a principle. This is especially pronounced after WWII. When this principle is detached from the concrete possibility of a global class civil war, everything is changed.

CC: I want to touch on something I glossed over in my comments in light of this. On the one hand, Luxemburg and Lenin were on the same side in the war; but on the other, they were on opposite sides. They were both revolutionary defeatists in certain respects. But one of Luxemburg’s first critiques of the Bolsheviks in power is of their armistice with Germany. Luxemburg thought that by doing this Lenin would be embracing German militarism. We forget this in light of other criticisms, but it was a live issue at the time. The way these disputes—imperialism, revolutionary defeatism, etc.—are remembered by the Left now is in terms of principles, but in a particular way. Rather, we should raise the issue of the need to split the worker’s movement post-1914. Lenin’s “principled” assessment of WWI was bound up with this need at his historical moment. It’s a principled stance with respect to a certain historical situation, but not principled in the manner of pacifism. It is actually in a way a kind of pro-war sentiment.

When you said, “1914 is still with us,” could you relate this to the anti–Iraq war protests? Was there still some kind of consciousness on the Left of the way the problems of 1914 are still with us? If not, what factors stand in the way of raising these problems to consciousness on the Left?

CC: A government going to war takes a huge political risk, even in the case of the U.S. invading a far weaker country. The government could delegitimate itself, and thus release all sorts of problems. But the anti-war protests before the war gave the Left the false impression that there was a kind of mass sentiment, waiting to take advantage if the governments took a misstep in the war. But the anti-war protests didn’t have the content the Left wanted to attribute to it. Both these protests and the Left were bound up in a conservative opposition to war, a kind of fear. But in 1914 the situation is quite different—there is the presence of the Second International. I brought up Lenin’s critique of Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet, where he’s basically saying, “OK, comrade, just hold on, these governments are undermining themselves and revolution can still happen.” Of course this isn’t just based upon the war, but of his perception of the strength of the Second International and the SPD. Now where Luxemburg may have been right against Lenin was in thinking that the SPD was a paper tiger. But Lenin had the cooler head with respect to the historical moment.

The main organizers in the 2003 anti-war movement were the International Socialist Organization, Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and the Workers World Party and its various offshoots like the Party for Socialism and Liberation. So the RCP would show up with their sound system and their rabble-rousers, and they would deliver speeches that sounded like they were out of a monster truck rally—except with Leftist language as their content. They thought the war just showed how fascistic the world really is. They were stuck in this 1930s frame of fascism versus communism: if you aren’t a communist, you’re a fascist, and if you don’t think you’re living under fascism, the war shows that you really are. This is far degraded, neither Luxemburg nor Lenin.

Let’s say the U.S. government had been completely delegitimated in the course of the Iraq war, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers were left in Iraq. Do we really think socialism would have been the result of that? Obviously not. What would have happened was a military takeover of the U.S. government, and it would have been popular. People would think only the military could save the troops in Iraq; if the executive and congress can’t do it, the military will. There would have been a military coup, a state of emergency; there would not have been socialist revolution—that’s for sure.

I want to bring anarchists into the discussion. In 1914, many anarchists opposed the Bolsheviks and supported the war. But nowadays we see anarchists taking up the defeatist position in an even more consistent manner than Leninists. So it seems there is an opposite course over time.

CC: The anarchists who supported the war in 1914 capitulated in the same manner as Marxists in the Second International. So it is interesting that the Third International emerges not only from a split within the Second International, but also among anarchists. However, today’s anarchists and Marxists aren’t in a position of political responsibility, so theirs are a pseudo-anarchism and pseudo-Marxism. These people aren’t going to capitulate to anything, because they don’t have the political responsibility that would force them into a choice. Anarchists in 1914 were actually faced with a political choice.

I would like to raise the issue of nationalism. We have until now talked about the stances of the so-called leadership of the worker’s movement—but WWI showed how deeply rooted nationalist sentiments were in the masses. Before 1914 the view was that workers internationally had a common interest that would led them to fight together against their exploiters. But this illusion was destroyed by WWI. As anti-nationalists we need to keep this in mind, as it seems there is the mistaken impression that nationalism can be dispensed with easily. People think that common interests are enough to overcome nationalist ideology. Marxists—Lenin included—thought that it would not be a problem, and so the USSR gave land to various ethnicities. But we could actually say that the nation was the necessary ground for the growth of the workers’ movement, and nationalism was deeply rooted in it.

CC: I take exception to this, very strongly. First of all, the question of the workers “supporting the war” is tricky. That young, 18–20-year-old people could be recruited to be very nationalistic troops is very different from saying that 30–40-year-old workers organized in the SPD supported the war. There was a cosmopolitan—not merely international—culture among workers before WWI that was actively destroyed during the war. The German government estimated that the SPD was anti-war, but could be maneuvered into supporting one. They thought that as the SPD grew, and as Germany generally became more liberal and democratic, any hope of reordering Europe by military means would be progressively undermined. So the German government blackmailed them with the threat of Russian invasion. So it’s not as if the war occurred independently, and the SPD underestimated the workers’ support for it. These are much more closely bound up phenomena, where the thinking was of the SPD as a piece on the playing field militarily. None of the workers wanted the war.

The earlier points about Lenin and Luxemburg are important here. I do believe it is correct to say that Lenin had a “cooler head” than Luxemburg with respect to their historical conjuncture. The problem is that regression in a way makes it appear that Luxemburg was right. I think that Lenin’s response to nations, nationalism, and self-determination was basically a continuation of a bourgeois-democratic project. But having experienced the 20th century, there is a way that Luxemburg’s anti-nationalism seems more accurate. But I think one has to separate oneself from the sense that we know what happened; there can be a kind of historical optical illusion. This issue came up in current debates about Ukraine. Putin said that the Bolsheviks irrationally gave away historically Russian territory to the Ukrainians. But this was a perfectly reasonable belief: Ukrainians, as a separate people, should have the right to self-determination within the overarching bounds of a soviet socialist federation. You can say at this point in history that it was a naïve belief; but it only became a naïve belief. It was at the time a very sane, rational belief that was an extension through Marxism of basic liberal ideas. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 66 (May 2014).


1. See Wayne Price’s remarks for the Platypus panel discussion Radical Ideologies Today: Marxism and Anarchism, at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), March 19 2014. The sound recording is available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2014/03/21/radical-ideologies-today-marxism-anarchism-chicago-3-21-14/>.

Revolutionary politics and thought

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/; and at the Left Forum 2014 in NYC with Raymond Lotta (RCP, USA) and Jason Wright (International Bolshevik Tendency).

 

We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.
– Senator John F. Kennedy (October 12, 1960)
1

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. | §


  1. Kennedy was speaking at the Hotel Theresa in New York: “I am delighted to come and visit. Behind the fact of [Fidel] Castro coming to this hotel, [Nikita] Khrushchev coming to Castro, there is another great traveler in the world, and that is the travel of a world revolution, a world in turmoil. I am delighted to come to Harlem and I think the whole world should come here and the whole world should recognize that we all live right next to each other, whether here in Harlem or on the other side of the globe. We should be glad they came to the United States. We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.” Fuller excerpts from Kennedy’s 1960 presidential election campaign speech can be found on-line at
    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25785. []

Wrong life

Chris Cutrone

95.4323_ph_web

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

Why still read Lukács? The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

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.

Why still read Lukács? (abridged in CPGB Weekly Worker)

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. []

Why still read Lukács? (video and audio recordings)

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:

Internationalism fails

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/>. []

Rousseau, Kant and Hegel

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).

Platypus “position” on “imperialism”

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!”