The American Revolution and the Left (audio recording)

Cutrone’s opening remarks begin at ~42:20: 

Nikole Hannah-Jones cancels 1776.

Nikole Hannah-Jones cancels 1776.

Chris Cutrone

Presented at a Platypus Affiliated Society public forum panel discussion with Norman Markowitz (CPUSA) and Bertell Ollman at Columbia University on February 22, 2020. 

“We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.” 

* * *

“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.” 

— Senator John F. Kennedy, speaking at the Hotel Theresa in New York during his 1960 presidential election campaign, October 12, 1960  

ANY REVOLUTION IN THE UNITED STATES will express the desire to preserve, sustain and promote the further development of the original American Revolution. The future of socialism, not merely in North America but in the whole world, depends on the fate of the American Revolution. But the “Left” today denies this basic truth.

Marx called the United States Civil War the alarm bell tolling the time of world socialist revolution in the 19th century. That did not happen as he wanted, but the subsequent rise of the massive world-transforming force of American capitalism signaled — and still signals today — the task of socialism. 

My old comrades in the Spartacist League had a slogan, “Finish the Civil War!” It was vintage 1960s New Leftism in that it was about the Civil Rights Movement and overcoming de jure Jim Crow segregation as a legacy of failed Reconstruction. More than 50 years later, we can say that the task is more simply to complete the American Revolution. Former President John Quincy Adams (the son not the father), speaking before the United States Supreme Court in the Amistad case advocating the freedom of slaves who rebelled, foresaw the future U.S. Civil War over the abolition of slavery and called it “the last battle of the American Revolution.” He did not foresee capitalism and its new tasks and future battles. 

The American Socialist Eugene Debs famously said that the 4th of July was a socialist holiday and that American Revolutionary figures such as Jefferson and Lincoln belonged to the struggle for socialism — and not to the capitalist political parties of Democrats and Republicans. Today, more than 100 years later, this remains no less true. 

Up to the 1960s New Left, the American and global Left and socialists and Communists all used to know this basic truth. — Indeed mainstream capitalist politics acknowledged this fact of the ongoing task of the American Revolution: Kennedy claimed the revolutionary heritage for the U.S. against the Soviet Union; even Nixon in 1968 at the Republican National Convention before his election called for a “new American Revolution.” 

Today, Bernie Sanders and Trump call themselves not politicians but leaders of a movement; Sanders calls for a “political revolution” in the name of “democratic socialism.” What they mean of course is an electoral shift to support new policies. In 1992, when conceding to Bill Clinton’s electoral victory after 12 years of Republican rule, George Herbert Walker Bush (the father not the son) said that the U.S. accomplishes through elections what other countries require civil wars. 

We are discussing the meaning of the American Revolution for the Left today because we face a general election later this year. 

Such elections for the President and Congress, which have stakes at a global and not merely national level, raise issues of the U.S. political system and its foundation in the American Revolution. The future of the American Revolution is at stake. 

In the recent Trump impeachment farce, there was at least the pantomime of conflict over the future of the American Republic: Was Trump a threat to the Republic? — Were the Democrats and their allies in the Deep State permanent bureaucracy? There has been an evident crisis of legitimacy of the political order.

Do the rather mild and moderate policy reforms Trump has been implementing and seeks to accomplish amount to a Constitutional crisis — threaten a civil war? Despite the overheated language of the Democrats, Trump’s confident and rather blasé attitude, and the matter-of-fact Constitutional arguments by his lawyers and Republican Senators and Congressmen seem appropriate — indeed unimpeachably correct. 

What about “fascism”? This favored word on the Left and even among Democrats speaks to the threat of civil war — extra-legal action and perhaps violence. There has been the so-called “resistance” — a term that Attorney General Barr said implied the danger of civil war and even revolution: he also said, in the same speech before the Federalist Society last year, that the U.S. Presidency embodied the “perfected Whig ideal of executive authority” as envisioned by Locke and the English Glorious Revolution — that is, a revolutionary ideal of political authority.

Mao said to Nixon in China that one finds among the Left-wing followers of Marx actual fascists. He was contrite about the results of the Cultural Revolution and admitted its pathology. — Today’s Maoists and DSA Democratic “socialists” ought to listen and take heed. 

It is not a matter of wanting the revolution but rather of its actuality. 

The struggle for socialism will not be according to the fevered fantasies of today’s supposed “revolutionaries.” A socialist revolution will take place — if at all — on the basis of a mass desire to save society, not destroy it. Capitalism will appear as the threat to America, not socialism. 

The problem is the exaggerated rhetoric of mainstream politics today. It expresses a partial if distorted truth, that capitalism recurrently produces crises in society, over which political conflicts take place. We are in the midst of such a crisis now — expressed by the crisis of the major capitalist political parties symbolized by Trump and Sanders. 

It has happened before. The Great Depression brought a sea-change in American and indeed world politics: in the U.S., a change of the political party system through FDR’s New Deal Coalition overturned the more than 50-year post-Civil War and Reconstruction dominance of the Republican Party. The 1960s experienced a new crisis and change of politics with an upheaval among the Democrats and bringing forth not only the New Left but the New Right that triumphed 50 years after the New Deal. 50 years after the 1960s, today we are experiencing another change out of the crisis of the New Right — the crisis of the Reagan Coalition of neoliberalism and neoconservatism and of the culture wars that came out of the New Left and the crisis of American society that followed. 

The Democrats have desperately sought to stem the tide of Trumpian post-neoliberalism — and indeed against the swell of support for Bernie Sanders’s Democratic “socialism.” They have done so on the basis of their prior existing post-’60s neoliberal electoral coalition of wealthy progressives, ethno-cultural and/or “racial” minorities, liberally educated women and others, queers and what remains of organized labor. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and immigrant rights activists have protested not only against Trump, but have hounded Bernie and his Sandernistas, the much-maligned “Bernie Bros” and Millennial hipster straight white male Brocialists more generally — the “Squad” of Congressional Representatives AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley notwithstanding.

Last year’s New York Times 1619 Project led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — aimed at delegitimating Trump after the failure of the Russia collusion hoax, in what Editor Dean Baquet called the “shift from Russia to race” — took the occasion of marking the quart-centenary of the arrival of African slaves in the English colonies and explicitly sought to negate the American Revolutionary founding in 1776.

Trump’s Presidency seems to prove the invalidity of the American Revolution, and indeed has implied that its meaning was confined to privileged white males who must at all cost be cowed in the public sphere. It seems obvious that women, blacks and other minorities have no stake in and must disavow the American Revolution. The idea of a kind word being said about the American Revolutionaries — the Founding Fathers — nowadays seems importune if not simply a provocative offense and outrage — the Tory Alexander Hamilton’s musical fame under Obama notwithstanding.

This is a sad commentary on our historical moment today. It speaks to the utter and complete destruction of the original historical Left, socialism and Marxism —the complete triumph of counterrevolutionary ideology over everything from Classical Liberalism onwards. Such ideology ensures the continuation of capitalism.

However, this is a historical phenomenon only 50 years or so old. And it speaks not to the future but the past. The Millennials blew their chance to relate to history in new ways that challenged and tasked them beyond post-’60s doxa.[1]

The problem is that the recent and ongoing crisis of the post-’60s neoliberal political order has been expressed either by Trump and his new direction for the Republican Party or by a nostalgic desire to reconstitute the old Democratic Party New Deal Coalition that fell apart a half-century ago, symbolized by the old New Leftist Sanders and the reanimation of the post-’60s collapse into the Democratic Socialists of America, both of which date to the Reagan Revolution era of the 1980s and its “resistance” to that time’s neoliberal changes in capitalism. This does not augur new possibilities but holds to old memories from a time many if not most were not yet even alive. Its spectral — unreal — quality is evident.

“The past is not dead; it is not even past.” And: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” — are condemned to be trapped by it. These banal catch-phrases can hide but also reveal a meaningful truth: that we are tasked by history, whether or not we recognize it. American history continues, regardless. The U.S. President is indeed, as is said, “the leader of the free world.” As Trump says, America is the greatest country in world history; as his impeachment prosecution declared, his Senate jury is the “highest deliberative body in the history of the world.” This is simply — and undeniably — true. Why and how it was constituted so, historically, is an unavoidable fact of life, for people here and around the world, now and for the foreseeable future. — Can we live up to its task?

My own rejoinder to Trump’s Make America Great Again is to Make America Revolutionary Again. — But no one else on the Left seems to be seeing the sign of the times. Instead, everyone seems eager to rescue the neoliberal Democrats from the dustbin of history. Even Bernie must genuflect to their PC orthodoxy. — But not Trump!

This is indeed a time of reconsideration of history and its haunting memories. The question is whether they must, as Marx said, remain “traditions of dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” or can they be redeemed by the struggle for freedom in the present. It seems that the Millennial Left of the last two decades has joined the dead generations that came before it. Any rebirth of a true socialist Left and of a Marxist recognition of its actual tasks and possibilities must reckon with the history that has been abandoned by recent generations, starting at least since the 1960s, and pursue its unfulfilled potential.

For the American Revolution still lives. | §

_________________

1. See my “The Millennial Left is dead,” Platypus Review 100 (October 2017), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/10/01/millennial-left-dead/>.

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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Trotsky, Benjamin, Adorno and Greenberg’s critique of “revolutionary art” (audio recording)

Presentation at the 2020 CAA College Art Association conference in Chicago on the panel “Another Revolution: Artistic Contributions to Building New Worlds 1910-30 (Part 1)” with Aglaya K. Glebova and chair Florian Grosser with discussant Monica C Bravo.

Chris Cutrone

The Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky’s book Literature and Revolution (1923) and its critique of the claims of “revolutionary” art at the time was seminal for the subsequent thought of the Marxist critics of modernist art, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg, all of whom addressed socially and politically committed art as varieties of modernism, subject to the same self-contradictions of bourgeois art in capitalism. They took inspiration from Trotsky’s Marxist approach to history in capitalism, specifically his claim, drawing from Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, among others, that the transition beyond capitalism begins only well after the revolution, and that neither revolutionary politics nor ostensible “revolutionary culture” actually prefigure a true socialist or communist society and culture but only exhibit the contradictions of capitalism raised to a heightened and more acute degree. Moreover, modernism as a pathological symptom of capitalism did not exemplify a culture of its own but only a crisis of bourgeois culture that was not a model for a future emancipated culture, but at best was merely a constrained and distorted as well as fragmentary and incomplete projection of capitalism that was authentic only as an exemplar of its specific historical moment.

The history of Marxism is contemporary with and parallels the history of modernism in art. Charles Baudelaire, who coined the term “modernity” to refer specifically to the 19th century, and initiated modernism in both artistic practice and theory, is, like Marx, a figure of the 1848 moment. Modernism in art emerged around this central crisis of the 19th century, namely the capitalism resulting from the Industrial Revolution.

The relationship between modernism and Marxism was a potentially fraught one, however. In the aftermath of the post-WWI revolutionary wave, mostly Marxism became hostile to modernism, describing it as bourgeois decadence — a symptom of the decay of bourgeois society and culture in capitalism. Pre-WWI Marxism had a similar estimation of the culture of advanced capitalism, but less simply derogatorily than the utter condemnation by Stalinist repressive Socialist Realism seen in the 1930s and after. Stalinism regarded modernism as formalist and individualist, and raised earlier bourgeois art as a “Socialist Realist” and Humanist standard against it.

Leon Trotsky, one of the central leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution, was a Marxist, like Lenin himself, whose sensibilities were formed in the pre-WWI era. Called upon to weigh in on debates within the Communist Party about state patronage of art in the Soviet Union, Trotsky wrote his book Literature and Revolution, which sought to clarify the Marxist attitude towards modern art, especially purportedly revolutionary and even supposedly “proletarian” art. Trotsky was unequivocal that there was and could be no such thing as proletarian art, but only bourgeois art produced by working class people. This is because as a Marxist, the terms bourgeois and proletarian were not sociological but rather historical categories. For Marxism, bourgeois society and culture had been proletarianized in the Industrial Revolution, but this did not produce a new society and culture but rather the proletarianized bourgeois society and culture went into crisis, exhibiting self-contradiction — unlike the bourgeois society and culture that had emerged out of Medieval civilization in the Renaissance.

The bourgeois social culture and art in the crisis of capitalism, like its economics and politics, demanded the achievement of socialism. This was the proletarian interest in modern art: the authentic democratization of culture and art that capitalism both made possible and constrained, giving rise to only distorted expressions of possibility and potential. Modernist art for Trotsky could not be considered a new culture but rather an expression of the task and demand for transcending bourgeois society and culture.

This is the value of art as an end in itself, taking itself as its own end or purpose; hence, l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake, is an expression of freedom, in both the bourgeois emancipation of production for its own sake and the Humanistic value of life in itself — a value unknown in traditional culture, which elevated morality above life, and subordinated aesthetic production to ritual or cultic community values.

This meant that the history of society, including its transformation in bourgeois emancipation and crisis in capitalism, could find expression in the history of art. The Marxist approach to art is hence primarily historical in character.

Later, towards the end of his life, in 1938, a decade and a half after his book Literature and Revolution, Trotsky wrote a series of letters to the American journal Partisan Review in which the art and literary critic Clement Greenberg first published. In his letters on “Art and politics in our epoch,” Trotsky described their relation as follows — please allow me to quote from Trotsky at some extended length, for in a few paragraphs he sums up well the attitude of Marxism towards art:

“The task of this letter is to correctly pose the question.
“Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for an harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion. . . .
“The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch. It fears superstitiously every new word, for it is no longer a matter of corrections and reforms for capitalism but of life and death. The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base. Hence new tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the last few decades – Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism – follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.
“To find a solution to this impasse through art itself is impossible. It is a crisis which concerns all culture, beginning at its economic base and ending in the highest spheres of ideology. Art can neither escape the crisis nor partition itself off. Art cannot save itself. It will rot away inevitably . . . unless present-day society is able to rebuild itself. This task is essentially revolutionary in character. For these reasons the function of art in our epoch is determined by its relation to the revolution. . . .
“The real crisis of civilization is above all the crisis of revolutionary leadership. Stalinism is the greatest element of reaction in this crisis. Without a new flag and a new program it is impossible to create a revolutionary mass base; consequently it is impossible to rescue society from its dilemma. But a truly revolutionary party is neither able nor willing to take upon itself the task of “leading” and even less of commanding art, either before or after the conquest of power. . . . Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them. Artistic creation has its laws – even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself. Poets, painters, sculptors and musicians will themselves find their own approach and methods, if the struggle for freedom of oppressed classes and peoples scatters the clouds of skepticism and of pessimism which cover the horizon of mankind.”

There are several key ideas to be noted here. To begin with, that Trotsky — that is to say, Marxism — does not seek to provide an answer but rather only to correctly pose the question of the relation of art to politics in capitalism and any struggle for socialism: it is not prescriptive of a solution, but only diagnostic of a problem. That art is a “protest against reality,” no matter whether “conscious or unconscious, optimistic or pessimistic,” still a “protest,” whether expressing “hope or despair” — a very peculiar proposition that would not apply to art before capitalism, or before modernism. Adorno famously characterized art as the “expression of suffering” — also a description specific to the history of art in capitalism. And that art cannot save society — as the revolutionary cultural modernist Bohemians of the Russian Revolutionary era claimed — indeed, it cannot even save itself. Not least because it is a specialized activity on a very narrow base: the oppressed masses live their own lives, from which art is necessarily separated and exists apart.

So what can art do, according to Trotsky — according to Marxism? It can express the suffering of capitalism in which the “intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions . . . are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions,” and hence express a task, the “ever more burning need for a liberating art” expressed by every “really creative piece of work.” Art can express a need — but could not itself satisfy that need. This is the translation of the famous Marxist formulation, that bourgeois society in capitalism stood at a crossroads of “socialism or barbarism,” or, as Trotsky put it, art along with the greater society will “rot away” inevitably under capitalism.

Clement Greenberg’s essay on “Avant-garde and kitsch,” published the following year after Trotsky’s letters on art in Partisan Review, described the barbarization of bourgeois art in capitalism as its “Alexandrianism.” Art in capitalism became instantly transfixed, and, as such, museumified, leading a paradoxical undead existence or only as a spectral after-life of its emancipation in bourgeois society. Georg Lukács, in History and Class Consciousness, published in the same year as Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, described this greater effect in society as “reification” or thing-ification, as the “spatialization of time,” what Marx called the congealing of human action in capitalism in the form of capital as “dead labor” which dominates living labor. Greenberg described the avant-garde as the attempt to set Alexandrianism in motion, and, as such, imitating the processes of art. Kitsch, in which Greenberg included Socialist Realism, by contrast, imitated the avant-garde, but exhibiting an apparent timeless value, as opposed to the avant-garde’s “superior consciousness of history.” This was modeled on Marxism itself, as the political avant-garde of bourgeois society in capitalism. Marxism distinguished itself from the rest of bourgeois intellectual culture and politics only by its critical historical consciousness, of its fleeting ephemeral specific moment, as Benjamin described it in his “Theses on the philosophy [or, concept] of history,” the “now-time” (Jetztzeit) of revolutionary necessity that “blasts the continuum of history,” to which culture — barbarism — inevitably conforms, as kitsch.

Trotsky’s Marxist assertion that “art is a protest against reality” is based on the earlier bourgeois recognition by Kant and Hegel that art, as Geistig or Spiritual activity, seeks not to express what is, not to affirm what exists, but rather to express what ought to be, the potential and possibility for change: art is the expression of freedom. Greenberg’s avant-garde expresses a fleeting historical potential for transformation that kitsch obviates, neglecting the task of freedom in favor of a timeless naturalization of art. Benjamin wrote in his essay on “The author as producer” (1934) that the task of artists is to teach other artists: as he put it, the artist who doesn’t teach other artists teaches no one. Benjamin called this artistic “quality,” which he distinguished from political “tendency.” Benjamin went so far as to assert that art could not be of the correct — socialist — political tendency if it failed to have formal aesthetic quality. Such quality was primarily educative in value: it demonstrated and educated the potential transformation of aesthetic form itself, for both viewer and producer.

Adorno’s posthumously published draft manuscript Aesthetic Theory — which references Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution as a key departure for his approach — concludes with a criterion for judging the art that lives on in capitalism despite the self-evidence of even its right to exist having been long since lost, that art is the “writing of history” of “accumulated suffering.” Marxism’s essential legacy for considering the history of modern art, especially as consciousness of the condition of failed socialist emancipation from capitalism formulated by Benjamin, Adorno, Greenberg and others in the post-revolutionary crisis era of the 1930s, is this memory of accumulated suffering — the suffering from the unrealized potential of both art and society. | §

Why not Trump again?

Chris Cutrone

Video recording of presentation at SAIC, December 4, 2019.

Presented with an introduction to Marxism in the Age of Trump and “Why I wish Hillary had won” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, December 4, 2019. Published in Platypus Review 123 (February 2020).

“Nothing’s ever promised tomorrow today. . . . It hurts but it might be the only way.”
— Kanye West, “Heard ‘Em Say” (2005)

“You can’t always get what you want / But if you try, sometimes you find / You get what you need.”
The Rolling Stones (1969)

KANYE WEST FAMOUSLY INDICTED President George W. Bush for “not caring about black people.” Mr. West now says that it’s the Democrats who don’t care about black people. But he thinks that Trump does indeed care.

West, who received an honorary doctoral degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago a few years ago, intends to move back to Chicago from Hollywood, which he describes as The Sunken Place.

West’s wife Kim Kardashian convinced President Trump to free Alice Johnson, a black grandmother, from jail, and to initiate the criminal justice sentencing reform legislation called the “First Step Act.” Prisoners are being released to join the workforce in which the demand for labor has been massively increased in the economic recovery under the Trump Administration. The reason for any such reform now, after the end of the Great Recession, will be this demand for workers — no longer the need to warehouse the unemployed.

Trump ran on and won election calling for “jobs, jobs, jobs!,” and now defines his Republican Party as standing for the “right to life and the dignity of work,” which was his definition of what “Make America Great Again” meant to him. This will be the basis now for his reelection in November 2020, for “promises kept.”

The current impeachment farce is indeed what Trump calls it: the Democrats motivated by outrage at his exposure of their shameless political corruption, with the Biden family prominently featured. After trouncing the infamous Clintons in 2016, Trump is keeping this drumbeat going for 2020. Don’t expect it to stop. The Democrats have wanted to impeach Trump from the moment he was elected, indeed even beforehand, but finally got around to it when Trump exposed them — exposed their “frontrunner.”

Trump has held out the offer of bipartisan cooperation on everything from trade to immigration reform. He went so far as to say, when congratulating the Democrats on their 2018 midterm election victories, that he would be potentially more able to realize his agenda with a Democrat-majority Congress, because he would no longer have to face resistance from established mainstream Republicans opposed to his policies. In his State of the Union Address to Congress this year, Trump contrasted the offer of negotiation and cooperation with the threat of investigations. As it turns out, the FBI, CIA and other U.S. government security services personnel who have tried to indict Trump out of political opposition are now finding themselves the targets of criminal investigation. At least some of them are likely go to prison. The bloated national security state is dismayed and in retreat in the face of Trump. — Good!

What is the argument against Trump’s reelection? That he is utterly unbearable as a President of the United States? That Trump must be stopped because the world is running out of time? Either in terms of the time spent by separated children being held under atrocious conditions in appalling immigration detention centers, or that of glaciers falling into the ocean? Both of these will continue unabated, with or without Trump. The Democrats neither can nor will put a stop to such things — not even slow them.

What is the argument for electing the Democrats, then? A Green New Deal? — Will never happen: Obama promised it already in 2008. That they will restore “civility” to American life? Like we had under Obama? In other words, the same conditions, but with a comforting smile instead of an irritating smirk?

But Trump’s supporters became annoyed with Obama, and have been reassured by Trump’s confidence in America: Trump’s smile is not sarcastic; Obama’s often was. Don’t the Democrats deserve that grin?

Will the Democrats provide free quality health care for all? — Not on your life!

Neither will Trump. But not because he doesn’t want to: he definitely does; he thinks that it’s absurd that the wealthiest country in world history cannot provide for its citizens. But what can you do?

The last time national health care was floated as a proposal was by Nixon. But it was defeated by Democrats as well as Republicans. Nixon floated UBI (Universal Basic Income), too — but it was opposed by the Democrats, especially by their labor unions, who — rightly — said that employers would use it as an excuse to pay workers that much less. Abortion was legalized when fewer workers were needed.

But that was a different time — before the general economic downturn after 1973 that led to the last generation of neoliberalism, austerity and a society of defensive self-regard and pessimism. Now, it is likely we are heading into a new generation-long period of capitalist growth — and optimism. — At least, it’s possible. Nixon and Mao agreed that “what the Left proposes we [the Right] push through.”

Are we on the brink of a new, post-neoliberal Progressive era, then? Don’t count on it — at least not with the Democrats! They won’t let their Presidential nominee next year be Bernie Sanders. — Probably, they won’t even let it be Warren, either. And anyway, after Obama, no one is really going to believe them. Even if Bernie were to be elected President, he would face a hostile Democratic Party as well as Republicans in Congress. It’s unlikely the Squad of AOC et al. will continue to be reelected at all, let alone expand their ranks of Democratic “socialists” in elected office. The DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) have already peaked, even before the thankless misery of canvassing for Democrats — not “socialists” — in the next election. The future belongs not to them, but to Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping hosted by Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Climate change must be stopped by China.

(The clearest indicator of American counties voting for Trump in 2016 was density of military families — not due to patriotism but war fatigue: Trump has fulfilled his promise to withdraw from the War on Terror interventions while funding the military, and is the peace President that Obama was supposed to be, drawing down and seeking negotiated settlements with everyone from North Korea to the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan; the Neocons are out and flocking to the Democrats.)

The arguments against Trump by the Democrats have been pessimistic and conservative, distrustful and even suspicious of American voters — to which he opposes an unflappable confidence and optimism, based in faith in American society. Trump considers those who vote against him to be mistaken, not enemies. But the Democrats consider Trump voters to be inimical — deplorable and even irredeemable.

My Muslim friends who oppose Trump — half of them support Trump — said that after his election in 2016 they found their neighbors looking at them differently — suspiciously. But I think it made them look at Americans differently — suspiciously. But it’s the same country that elected Obama twice.

If Trump’s America is really the hateful place Democrats paint it to be, for instance at their LGBTQ+ CNN Town Hall, at which protesters voiced the extreme vulnerability of “trans women of color,” then it must be admitted that such violence is perpetrated primarily not by rich straight white men so much as by “cis-gendered heterosexual men — and women — of color.” — Should we keep them in jail?

The Democrats’ only answer to racism, sexism and homophobia is to fire people and put them in prison. — Whereas Trump lets them out of jail to give them a job.

Perhaps their getting a job will help us, too.

So: Why not Trump again? | §

Realizing Philosophy (interview with Doug Lain for Zero Books)

Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. He is the former head of the often contrarian Marxist group The Platypus Affiliated Society and in this podcast, we discuss the possibility of realizing philosophy.

“Ends of philosophy” essay by Chris Cutrone:

Part 1: (10/6/19 Zero Squared podcast #217)

https://player.fm/series/zero-squared-92560/zero-books-217-realizing-philosophy-wcutrone

Part 2: (10/14/19 Zero Squared podcast #218)

https://player.fm/series/zero-squared-92560/zero-squared-218-realizing-philosophy-pt-2

Unedited audio recording of original interview:

https://archive.org/details/zerobooksinterviewendsofphilosophy073119

Symptomatic Redness podcast — hostile interview with Chris Cutrone

Part 1: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/dietsoap/episodes/2019-06-02T21_36_24-07_00

Part 2 teaser: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/dietsoap/episodes/2019-06-10T17_08_10-07_00

Part 3: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/dietsoap/episodes/2019-06-17T09_55_47-07_00

Full unedited interview: https://archive.org/details/symptomaticredness22319

In this episode of Symptomatic Redness, Derick Varn and Lexi Kay of Swampside chats. Chris Cutrone took on a variety of relatively hostile questions for a few hours. This is part one and is available for everyone. Derick Varn is a former member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Can Cutrone hold his ground when facing hostile questions? Find out.

Redeeming the 20th century

Statism and anarchy today

Chris Cutrone

Prepared opening remarks presented at the closing plenary of the 11th annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, April 6, 2019, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A complete audio recording of the event, including response by Richard Rubin and audience Q&A, is available online at: <https://archive.org/details/Redeeming20thCentury040619>.

Audience at the Platypus convention closing plenary discussion.
http://chriscutrone.platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/redeeming20thcentury040619audience.jpg

The 20th century

A SENIOR TEACHING COLLEAGUE of mine at the University of Chicago revised the college core syllabus, which he said needed to be “brought into the 21st century.” What he really meant by this was brought into the 20th century — specifically, the late 20th century. But the 20th century was determined by the 19th century. There was very little that was new, and most of it was bad. I spoke at previous conventions about 1873–1973, 1917–2017 and 1918–2018.[1] In those discussions, I divided the 100-year cycles into their first and second halves of 50 years. What was new was Marxism and anti-Marxism. As Marxism died and its memory faded in the second half of the last century, there was absolutely nothing new. My colleague invoked ideas that had their genesis in the early 20th century as anti-Marxism: for example, Foucault – Heidegger – Nietzsche.

The Stalinist historian Eric Hobsbawm defined the “short 20th century” as the period 1914–91, from WWI to the fall of the Soviet Union. But perhaps the 20th century could be defined not by the catastrophe of world war in 1914 but the failure of the world socialist revolution in 1919, which was already prefigured by the capitulation of Marxism in 1914 — and the war certainly contributed to not only the crisis and the revolutionary opportunity but also the counterrevolutionary reality, in whose brutality the war continued.[2] 2019 marks the centenary of 1919, which was not the failure of the revolution, as we marked last year in 2018 as a function of both 1918 and 1968, but the triumph of the counterrevolution.

100 years

This year we observe the 100th anniversary of the defeat of the German Revolution in 1919 and the 30th anniversary of the collapse of Stalinism in 1989. It is unclear to me which of these takes priority in my talk now. I therefore want to build upon the last two years of anniversaries I have observed in my remarks at the annual Platypus conventions, namely, the centenaries of 1917 and 1918, and 50 years of 1968.

In my remarks last year on 1918–2018 as the “century of counterrevolution,” I thematized the issue of the presence of the revolution in the counterrevolution as the converse and complement to the issue of 1917 as the presence of the counterrevolution in the revolution. Usually, the 20th century is treated by the “Left” as one of accomplishment. The supposed advances and gains of the 20th century take two forms: the so-called “actually existing socialism” of the East in the Stalinist-ruled states of the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba; and the social-democratic welfare state in the West. Today, in 2019, we are faced with what has been evident for the past few years: the reemergence of the legacies of neo-Stalinism and neo-social democracy, both of which are called “socialism.” In the Democratic Socialists of America and in the Momentum movement of the U.K. Labour Party, we see both tendencies present. In the abiding “continuing struggles” of “anti-imperialism” and “anti-fascism” — including “anti-sexism” and “anti-racism” — we find the united front of neo-social democracy and neo-Stalinism: street-fighting as well as imposed government and para-state civil society — corporate and academic — “hate speech” code restrictions.

This is because, as Trotsky and the Frankfurt School observed already back in the 1930s, the liquidation of historical Marxism after the failure of the world proletarian socialist revolution of 1917–19 was present in both Social Democracy and Stalinism. They are the twin headstones at the grave of Marxism. In the 1930s, Trotsky treated both equally as varieties of reformist opportunism, whose residual differences were actively liquidated at the time in the Popular Front Against War and Fascism. Trotsky anticipated by one year the official announcement of the Popular Front in 1935 with his “French Turn,” having his followers join the official social-democratic parties world-wide in 1934. The fact that these parties had betrayed Marxism both in WWI and in the revolutions that followed, that Social Democracy was on the side of active counterrevolution as opposed to Stalinism’s apparent continuity with the revolution, did not matter one bit to Trotsky: Stalinism was just as proven in his mind to be counterrevolutionary; and social-democratic parties were just as potentially transformable into revolutionary socialist parties as the ostensibly “revolutionary” Communist Parties could have been.

The first assumption I must ask you to entertain is that both Social Democracy and Stalinism were forms of avoidance of the struggle for socialism in the 20th century, and that everything accomplished under their auspices was actually stepping back and away from and not towards socialism. As such, both Stalinism and Social Democracy represented obstacles to socialism. — Here, the anarchists and “Left communist” Marxists would apparently agree. But historically, this was the perspective shared by the Frankfurt School and Trotsky, both of which must be distinguished from and recognized properly in their opposition to such “Left communism” and anarchism, for both Trotsky and the Frankfurt School represented the memory of original historical Marxism, and of its last protagonists, Lenin and Luxemburg, among others.

The forms of the liquidation of Marxism in the post-failed revolutionary aftermath of the 1920s–30s are various, but have continued to endure ever since then: they express the same problems we see on the “Left” today, in both its neo-Stalinist and neo-social democratic guises. — These problems are also present in anarchism and so-called “Left communism.” As such, they express not only problems of the “Left” but the political antinomies of capitalism itself. In this sense, they were not new problems of the 20th century, but old problems that Marxism had already addressed and at least theoretically “overcome” in the 19th century — at least, Marxism had appeared to have overcome these problems. This is the reason for Platypus’s emphasis on pre-WWI Marxist history, to find the sources for 20th century problems that were originally obvious to Marxists historically but in the meantime have become obscure, elusive and intractable today. While it would seem that history proved in fact that the old problems had not actually been overcome by Marxism, such a perspective would assume that we somehow “know better” today, that the 20th century had provided lessons that have been learned — even if some anarchists had already warned of them in the 19th century. So it is incumbent upon me in my defense of and advocacy for Marxism to prove otherwise.

Redemption

The question of the potential “redemption” of the 20th century hinges on the question of historical “progress.” If progress has been made since 1919, then no redemption of the 20th century is really necessary: we can simply build upon past practices in the present and proceed accordingly. So the issue of redemption is actually based on the reverse evaluation, that the 20th century did not progress beyond the original issues of historical Marxism, and indeed regressed below it. This was the assumption of both Trotsky and the Frankfurt School by the 1930s. They regarded the problems of Stalinism and Social Democracy as repetitions of past problems that Marxism had already consciously processed in its history before WWI.

The “Left” has tried to preserve itself through appropriating past history in a certain way. The paradox — actually a contradiction — is as follows: On the one hand, the “Left” treats itself as independent of the dominant society in capitalism, thus treating the society it seeks to change as outside of itself (perhaps treating the presence of capitalist society within itself as an outside contagion to be fought against and expelled); on the other hand, the “Left” claims the supposed “progress” of society in the 20th century as its own, as the result of its own doing.

But this is the way capitalist society always grasps itself: as an autonomous subject trying to take hold of an extrinsic object. Originally, by contradistinction, Marxism characterized itself — “communism” or “proletarian socialism” — as the “actual self-consciousness of the real movement of history.” Both Stalinism and Social Democracy (reformist Revisionism) followed original Marxism in this, by identifying themselves with the real movement of history.

The problem is that history and its movement in capitalism is self-contradictory, and is thus non-identical with itself. So, in identifying oneself with history, one inevitably falls into a partial, one-sided antinomical perspective that privileges some aspects of historical movement over others. The “Left” thus leaves itself at the mercy of capitalism and is merely tossed about by the Sturm und Drang of its contradictions and historical changes. When one looks soberly and honestly at the actual history of the action and thought of the “Left” — Stalinism and Social Democracy, as well as anarchism and “Left communism,” and liberalism, too — in the 20th century, one finds it always on all sides of all issues. The “Left,” in one form or another, has variously justified and supported in certain moments of history even imperialism and fascism. It has been pro-imperialist and anti-imperialist, pro-fascist and anti-fascist — revolutionary and counterrevolutionary. The actual history in its violent vicissitudes is hence forgotten — repressed. The way this is done is to resolve history by ironing it out, and rest content that, through it all, “progress” has been made in the end. — That is, until the next historical shift of capitalism unsettles history once again, throwing progress into doubt.

Antinomies

I have raised one set of antinomies already, namely, anti-imperialism and anti-fascism (the subject of a prior convention talk of mine in 2011[3]). There are others. For instance, parliamentarism-electoralism as opposed to extra-parliamentary activity, or the battle of the “ballots” vs. that on the “streets.” There is also “anti-exploitation” vs. “anti-oppression,” or socio-economic “class” vs. “race, gender and sexuality.” In the time of the historical origins of Marxism, there was also “social” vs. ”political action” — the debate which broke up the First International Workingmen’s Association, in the original split in socialism between anarchism and Marxism. There is also the antinomy of political and economic struggles. What one will find today is that all tendencies on the “Left” are actually riven by such divisions, still. For instance, all these oppositions are present in the DSA and in Labour’s Momentum movement.

This shows that the 20th century is still with us — as is indeed the 19th century. That is actually cause for hope. The fact that such antinomies still beset the “Left” shows that the problem of capitalism as Marxism originally understood it has not been overcome — if only we can continue to recall it.

These antinomies must be regarded properly as forms for the social and political movement of capitalism itself. Capitalism is internally divided and destroys itself periodically, only to reconstitute itself again, through its characteristic social and political struggles, whether between “classes” or “nations,” etc. So the first task of redeeming the 20th century would be to recognize properly that the only “progress” made was progress in capitalism — namely, actually the regression from socialism, at least as far as the political struggle for socialism as Marxism originally understood it is concerned.

Hypothetically, the perpetuation of capitalism also means sustaining the possibility for socialism. The only question is how this potential possibility is manifest and grasped in practice and theory. There, we can observe an obvious regression in political potential for socialism from the early 20th century to today. — Unless we assume that the election and policies of “socialist” Democrats and Labourites and/or demands of those engaged in street fighting or guerilla warfare immediately promise the achievement of socialist revolution, which I think we have reason to doubt: the mid-20th century is not about to be repeated.

Indeed, the implementation of what would now be considered “socialist” policies by either elected officials or leaders of political revolutions in the 20th century can be considered today as part of the history of capitalism — the history for whatever potential for socialism exists concretely in the world today, which is after all how Marxism originally addressed capitalism to begin with: capitalism is the possibility and necessity for socialism.

Oscillation — vicissitude

Towards the end of his life, my old professor Moishe Postone raised the specter of history oscillating between liberal and authoritarian state-centric forms of capital — this was always Postone’s great apprehension and suspicion of Platypus with our positive appraisal of Lenin and Trotsky — so that the state-mediated capitalism succeeding the original liberal forms of capitalism in the early 20th century reverted by the end of the 20th century to neoliberalism, but might be followed by another phase of statist capital as a result of the crisis of neoliberalism in the 21st century. I addressed this phenomenon of reaction against the failure of Marxism in my Platypus convention President’s report in 2012, in the wake of the demise of Occupy Wall Street, on “1873–1973: The century of Marxism: The death of Marxism and the emergence of neo-liberalism and neo-anarchism.”

What is striking now is how, at the terminus of the Millennial Left, anarchism has been nearly completely suppressed in favor of statist forms of “socialism,” in both neo-social democracy and neo-Stalinism. This is very different from where the Millennial Left originally started out, in the new Students for a Democratic Society (established in the same year, 2006, as Platypus), steeped as it was in neo-anarchism, especially as inherited from the 1990s anti-globalization and avowedly “post-“ if not simply “anti-political Left” of Generation X. Despite the anti-imperialism of the anti-war movement at that time, which prioritized defense of Third World regimes against the U.S., this neo-anarchism persisted through #Occupy. It can be seen in the more general anti-austerity movement in response to the post-2008 global economic crisis. But as the Great Recession wore on, eventually there was a turn to state-oriented and capitalist electoral politics, for instance with SYRIZA in Greece, but also Podemos in Spain — despite the latter’s avowedly “anti-political” stance, which, unlike SYRIZA, failed to take power and faded, Podemos having lost out to the traditional Socialists. 

The turn towards the Labour Party in the U.K. through Momentum under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and towards the Democrats, first via Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for President, and then through its ostensibly “socialist” progressive liberal fringe, the Democratic Socialists of America, after the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, shows the utter collapse — indeed, I called it the “death” — of the Millennial “Left.”[4] “Marxism” was originally disputed by the Millennial Left in opposition to both Social Democracy and Stalinism, but now has been completely assimilated to these two latter legacies. Whatever potential possibility and hope for opportunity of historical change that had come with the Millennial Left was expressed by its rejection of the traditional identification of Marxism with statism. Now this has disappeared. This repeated the failure of the 1960s New Left to overcome the problems of its elders in Stalinism and Social Democracy and subsequent assimilation to their legacy.

As I wrote in “The Sandernistas,” about the Millennial Left’s enthusiasm for Bernie, what “socialism” means is merely return to the New Deal and Great Society government programs of the Democratic Party in the 20th century.[5] Similarly, the Corbynistas want to return to the old Labour policies before neoliberalism. Where has the original “anarchist” spirit of the Millennials gone? — This is as striking as the disappearance of ostensible “libertarian” discontents from the Republican Party under Trump, however they are still expressed positively in moves to criminal justice reform as well as “free speech” efforts against Political Correctness that Trump has initiated. Trump remains the central phenomenon of our time, however shadowed by militant neo-social democracy and neo-Stalinism in response to him. The crisis of neoliberalism will deepen before it abates. In any case, the center of action remains the state. What the “Left” wants above all is to unelect Trump and reverse the Brexit vote, to which everything else is subordinated. The calls for increased welfare provisions, nationalization of industry and other capitalist state reforms are just enabling fictions.

Statism and anarchy today

Significantly, I myself would characterize the task of socialism today as essentially “anarchist” in nature, but not as “post-political” as with post-New Left neo-anarchism, but rather pre-political, namely, the necessity to organize the potential for civil-social action independent of the state and capitalist politics, as a precondition for any kind of political formation let alone socialist party-building. This must be distinguished sharply from “movement-“ or “base-building,” however, in that they are, by contrast, dependent on their converse and complementary phenomenon, electoralism: the “movement” is always understood as a pressure-tactic on elected officials, whether in government or legislative-parliamentary opposition. The ostensible “base-building” is according to the model of “community organizing” and NGO activism, that is, as civil society constituencies for electoral parties, especially in the neoliberal mode of privatized outsourcing of political action. In this way, I would distinguish the actual present historical necessity from the past neoliberal model which expressed not a return to but actually the thinning-out of civil society and capitulation to statism, however post-Fordist in character. The “Left” today is stuck in the characteristic post-New Left neoliberal modality of social-movement activism, which is actually just a training ground for NGO lobbyism and its group identity-politics and professional-managerial cultural racketeering. Any pre-socialist organizing today would need to cut sharply across the established divisions in the capitalist-state management of civil society. The crisis of neoliberalism provides an opportunity for this — which the Millennial Left in its death is precisely avoiding.

The new phase of capitalism now emerging from the crisis of its past neoliberal forms since the 1970s will offer possibilities for such organizing, as existing civil society is destroyed and reconstructed according to the new needs of capital. This is an opportunity to return to the original Marxist vision of socialism as immanent to and building upon the foundations of capitalism. The statist turn of the Millennial Left fails at this in its clinging to the established prior forms of neoliberal capitalism embodied by the existing Democrat and Labour Parties, which will be as slow to change now as they were in the face of the neoliberal shift beginning in the 1970s — they didn’t complete their turn for another 20 years, in the 1990s. The Millennials joining them now will be their unopposed official leadership in 20 years’ time, just as Hillary and Bill Clinton came to power in 1992, 20 years after their youthful participation in the (losing) 1972 McGovern Democrat campaign for President. The Millennials will learn through their defeats now how to adapt to capitalist politics in the long run, as usual, through a backward and shamefaced movement — by contrast, the avowed Right will be more straightforward, unabashed, and hence successful. This will give the Millennials’ electoralism and statist orientation an apparently more “principled and responsible” character, by contrast to the more blatant opportunism of the Right in pushing through whatever capitalism requires. But “resistance” or not, the overall drift is the same.

History

By contrast to Postone, I regard neoliberalism as a form of statism and not anti-statism, with anarchism and libertarianism always marginalized fringe ideological phenomena, and so post-neoliberalism will not require any profound changes in capitalist politics at the level of the state, which however requires periodic fine-tuning. The mid-late 20th century New Left, with its characteristic confusions about the capitalist state, mistaking it as a compromise formation with socialism (in this way recapitulating the old opportunist reformist Revisionism), was always deeply ambivalent in its neo-anarchist social-movementism, by the 1980s resigning itself to and even celebrating its powerlessness as some principled virtue — the “Left” itself came to be actually identified with such powerlessness, mocking the original 1960s New Left vision of “be realistic, demand the impossible.” That is not going to change in the least with the present electoral turn of the Millennial Left. The resulting statist managerial professionals emerging from the Millennial generation will always be regarded as bastard children and not recognized as the Left’s own — just as the 1980s yuppies and the 1990s Clintons were never recognized as the offspring of the New Left that they were. But the continuing “Left” on the marginal fringe won’t matter at all, other than as the usual paragon of hypocritical denial for which the New Left has served as eminent historical example. See the “long march through the institutions” through which New Left Maoists gave us academic “Left” blather, charter schools and Obama’s Presidency. Before them, the Old Left Stalinists had always been what they ended up being, bureaucrats of corporate management and the capitalist state — many more of them lived out illustrious post-WWII careers than were purged by McCarthyism, in which they had not been “coopted” or “sold out” but rather fulfilled their original 1930s youthful Great Depression vision for reformed capitalism.

As Lenin observed and Adorno repeated 50 years later, the apparent rebirth of anarchism in the wasteland of the defeat of Marxism was only a symptom of historical failure and never more than a return of a “ghost” (or, as Lenin put it, a “phantasm”).[6] But the ghost was not actually of anarchism itself but rather of what Marxism originally had been, the effective union of social and political action. That the historical mission accepted by Marxism became divided between the reduction of politics to statism and the reduction of social freedom to capitalist anarchy is the symptom that must be worked through towards any possibility for socialism.

Historically, Marxism already traversed this path, in the 1860s–70s, in the prelude to the mass socialist parties of the late 19th – early 20th centuries. Marxism emerged ascendant and anarchism diminished in the 1880s–90s, and the Second Industrial Revolution expanded the ranks of the proletariat and of socialist politics internationally through the Second or Socialist International, as the geopolitical order of capitalism found new players in the rise of Germany, Japan and the United States, and the older 19th century British and French socialist traditions were taken up and subsumed by Marxism. At the same time, Bonapartist states in the industrializing countries led capitalism into a new and even greater era. The freewheeling Gilded Age saw the most massive quantitative transformations in the history of civilization. The Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century resulted in mass socialist parties unprecedented in world history, and within a generation they were prepared to take power.[7] This produced what Luxemburg and Lenin regarded as the welcome “crisis of Marxism” itself, which they took as opportunity to clarify the tasks of socialism. We are nowhere near such a condition today. Indeed, the question of the meaning of socialism is being suppressed through its advocacy: precisely when everyone is claiming to be “socialist” its memory is being buried. Socialism currently is being not constituted but liquidated. The last time this happened was in the mid-20th century, when Stalinism and Social Democracy liquidated Marxism and adapted to continuing capitalism. It is happening yet again.

Redeeming the 20th century, then, means recognizing its repetition today. The reigning statism of the Millennial Left arriving at adulthood, whether neo-social-democratic or neo-Stalinist, is the death-mask imposed upon it by its 20th century forebears, smothering it from birth — especially the 1960s New Left, internalizing, through “anti”-authoritarian rebellion, the mocking face of state “socialism.” Any haunting reminders of anarchism that may trouble its conscience moving forward will be a mere spectral apparition and no living spirit of socialism. That spirit can only find life in a rebirth of Marxism, which for now exists outside and against the stream of the present, and, like Benjamin’s Angel of History, sees not a chain of events, carrying us helplessly from one “damned thing” to another, but only one single mounting catastrophe.[8] As for Benjamin, the only hope is not in the flow of time, but in the monstrous abbreviation and compression of history that can blast the continuity of the present. | P


Notes

[1] See my: “1873–1973: The century of Marxism: The death of Marxism and the emergence of neo-liberalism and neo-anarchism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>; “1917–2017” PR 99 (September 2017), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/08/29/1917-2017/>; and “1918–2018: The century of counterrevolution” PR 106 (May 2018), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2018/05/04/1918-2018-the-century-of-counterrevolution/>.

[2] See my “1914 in the history of Marxism,” PR 66 (May 2014), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2014/05/06/1914-history-marxism/>.

[3] See my: “The ‘anti-imperialist’ vs. ‘anti-fascist’ Left: Some genealogies and prospects,” available online at: <http://chriscutrone.platypus1917.org/?p=1203>.

[4] See my “The Millennial Left is dead,” PR 100 (October 2017), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/10/01/millennial-left-dead/>.

[5] “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s,” PR 82 (December 2015 – January 2016), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2015/12/17/sandernistas-final-triumph-1980s/>.

[6] See V.I. Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920), Chapter 4 “The Struggle Against Which Enemies Within the Working-Class Movement Helped Bolshevism Develop, Gain Strength, and Become Steeled,” available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch04.htm>; and Theodor W. Adorno, “Resignation” (1969), trans. Henry W. Pickford, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 292.

[7] See my “The end of the Gilded Age: Discontents of the Second Industrial Revolution today,” PR 102 (December 2017 – January 2018), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/12/02/end-gilded-age-discontents-second-industrial-revolution-today/>.

[8] Walter Benjamin, “On the concept of history” (1940), AKA “Theses on the philosophy of history,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 253-64. Available online at: <https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html>.

Prospect for a Left politics (interview with Doug Lain for Zero Books)

“Chris Cutrone is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, a professor at The School of Art Institute of Chicago, and a returning guest to the Zero Books podcast. He is the author of a controversial essay entitled “Why Not Trump.” The piece was a half-hearted endorsement of Trump as the better adversary for the left, an opinion that is not at all self-evident today under Trump. However, this week we discuss the late Moishe Postone as well as Adolph Reed in the context of the death of politics.”

Audio:

Video:

http://zero-books.net/blogs/zero/zero-squared-163-prospect-for-a-left-politics/

Ends of philosophy

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 108 | July-August 2018

Prepared opening remarks for an internal discussion by members of Platypus on “Marxism and philosophy” to be held on August 11, 2018.* An audio recording of the event can be found at: <https://archive.org/details/180812PhilosophyAndMarxismAndPlatypus>.

Video recording at: <https://youtu.be/_lq3LOEI7R4>.

Misery

MARXISM CONSIDERED PHILOSOPHY as “bourgeois ideology.” This meant, first and foremost, radical bourgeois philosophy, the modern philosophy of bourgeois emancipation, the thought of the revolt of the Third Estate. But pre-bourgeois philosophy, traditional philosophy, was also addressed as bourgeois ideology, as ideology. But ideology is a modern phenomenon. There’s little point in calling either Aristotle or Augustine “ideology.” It is when philosophy is invoked in bourgeois society that it becomes ideological. (Religion, too!)

So what is meant by philosophy as “ideology”?

This goes to the issue of Marxist “ideology-critique.” What did Marxism mean by ideology as “false consciousness”? “False” in what way? For if bourgeois ideology were considered the ideology of the sociological group of the bourgeoisie — capitalists — then there would be nothing “false” about it: it would be the consciousness adequate to the social being of the ruling class; it would be the true consciousness of the bourgeoisie. So it must be false not for the bourgeoisie but rather for others — for the “proletariat.” This kind of “class analysis” of ideology would be concerned that the workers not fall for the ideology of the ruling class. It would be a warning against the workers adopting the idealism of the bourgeoisie that would blind them to their real social condition in capitalism. The idea here is that somehow the workers would remain ignorant of their exploitation by the capitalists if they remained mired in bourgeois ideology.

Of course Marxism was originally no such “material analysis” — debunking — of wrong thinking. No.

Rather, the original Marxist ideology-critique — Marx and Engels’s ideology-critique of bourgeois society — was the immanent dialectical critique of the way society in capitalism necessarily appears to its members, bourgeois and proletarian — capitalists and workers — alike. It was the critique of the true consciousness of the workers as well as of the capitalists.

Now, that formulation just lost me 99% of ostensible “Marxists” as well as all of the rest of the “Left,” whether socialist or liberal, who do indeed think that the poor benighted workers and other subaltern need us intellectuals to tell them what their true social interests are.

This is not what Marxism — Marx and Engels — originally thought, however.

Marxism began with the critique of socialism, specifically with the critique of the most prominent socialist thinker of Marx and Engels’s formative moment in the 1840s, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon — who coined the term “anarchism” — claimed that he respected only three authorities, intellectually, Adam Smith, Hegel and the Bible!

Marxism is usually thought of as the synthesis of German Idealist philosophy, British political-economy, and French socialist politics. But what Marxism actually was was the immanent dialectical critique of these three phenomena, which Marx and Engels considered three different forms of appearance of the same thing: the most advanced bourgeois ideology of their time, of the early–mid 19th century. They were all true expressions of their historical moment, of the Industrial Revolution. But as such, they were also all false.

Proudhon wrote of the “philosophy of misery,” attacking the heirs of Adam Smith in Utilitarianism — James Mill and Jeremy Bentham — and other contemporary British political economists such as Malthus and David Ricardo and their French counterparts. Marx wrote his first major work on political economy and the class struggle in industrial capitalism as a critique of Proudhon, cleverly inverting its title, The Poverty [Misery] of Philosophy.

I was deeply impressed by this work — and especially by its title — when I first read it as an aspiring young “Marxist” in college. It signified to me a basic truth, which is that the problem of capitalism and its potential overcoming in socialism was not a matter of “philosophy,” not a problem of thinking. Reading further, in Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, I read and deeply internalized Marx’s injunction that “communism is a dogmatic abstraction” which was “one-sided,” expressing the same thing as its opposite, private property, and, like bourgeois society itself, was internally divided, for instance, between collectivism and individualism, and so could not be considered a vision of an emancipated future society, but only a negation of the present. I had read in Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto their critique of “reactionary socialism,” and their observation that everything of which communism stood accused was actually the “specter” of what capitalism itself was already doing — “abolishing private property,” among other things.

This all told me that, for Marx and Engels at least, the problem of bourgeois ideology was not a matter that could be addressed let alone rectified by proper methodology — by a kind of right-thinking opposed to it.

In short, I recognized early on that Marxism was not some better philosophy.

Marxism was not a philosophical critique of philosophy, but rather something else entirely. For instance, Marx and Engels’s critique of the Young Hegelians was not as philosophers, but in their philosophical claims for politics. This was also true of Lenin’s critique of the Machians among the Bolsheviks (in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908). The critique was of the relation between philosophy and politics. It was thus also not a political critique of philosophy.

Ends

I have titled my talk here, “Ends of philosophy,” after the title for the week in our Platypus primary Marxist reading group syllabus when we read Karl Korsch’s 1923 essay on “Marxism and philosophy,” the recommended background reading for today’s discussion. In the syllabus week title as well as here, I intend to play on the multiple meanings of the word “ends.” What are the ends of philosophy, according to Marxism, in terms of its telos, its goals, its purposes, and its satisfaction; what would it take to attain and thus overcome the aspirations of philosophy?

Specifically, what would it take to satisfy bourgeois — that is to say, modern — philosophy? What would make philosophy superfluous?

This is posed in the same way that Marxism sought to make labor as social value superfluous. How does labor seek to abolish itself in capitalism? The same could be said of philosophy.

What would it take to bring philosophy to an end — to its own end? Not by denying the need for philosophy, but by satisfying it.

But there have been other moments, before (and after) Marxism, which sought to overcome philosophy through its satisfaction, through satisfying the need for philosophy.

The need for — the necessity of — philosophy in the modern world is different from its need previously — fundamentally different. The need to account for freedom in bourgeois emancipation was new and different; this did not motivate and inform traditional philosophy. But it fundamentally tasked modern philosophy — at least the philosophy that mattered most to Marxism, the Enlightenment and German Idealism at its culmination. But the need for philosophy in capitalism is also different from its need in the bourgeois revolution.

Please allow me to address several different historical moments of the end of philosophy. I use this concept of moments of the “end of philosophy” instead of alternative approaches, such as varieties of “anti-philosophy,” because I think that trying to address Marxism as an anti-philosophy is misleading. It is also misleading in addressing other such supposed “anti-philosophies,” such as those of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Existentialism, Heidegger, etc., as well as other traditions entirely, such as the Enlightenment philosophes contra “philosophy,” or Empiricism and Analytic Philosophy contra “metaphysics.” (For instance, Heidegger sought the potential end to “thousands of years of Western metaphysics,” going all the way back to Plato.) Yet all these various phenomena express to my mind a common issue, namely the problem of “philosophy” per se in the modern era, both in the era of bourgeois emancipation and subsequently in capitalism.

What is “philosophy,” such that it can experience an end? It is not merely its etymological meaning, the love of knowledge, or wisdom, or the love of thinking. Philosophers are not merely smart or sage — not merely sophists, clever thinkers: philosophy cannot be considered merely the mastery of logic or of semantics. If that were true, then most lawyers would be better philosophers than most avowed “philosophers.”

The end of philosophy cannot be considered an end to sophistry, finally putting the clever fellows down. It cannot be considered an analogue to Shakespeare’s “First, we kill all the lawyers.” It is not meant to be the triumph of Philistinism. Although you might think so from a lot of “Marxist” deprecation of philosophy, especially as “bourgeois ideology.” Such “Marxists” want to put a stop to all mystification by putting a stop to the mystifiers of bourgeois society, the lackeys — the paid liars — of the capitalist bourgeoisie. They want to stop the “philosophers” from pulling the wool down over the eyes of the exploited and oppressed. This is not my meaning. — This was not even Socrates’s (Plato’s) meaning in taking down the Sophists.

Authoritarianism

Philosophy cannot be considered, either negatively or positively, as the arrogation of all thinking: it is not some Queen of the Sciences that is to make proper sense of and superintend any and all human thought in every domain. It is not the King of Reason; not the thought-police. Marxism did not seek to replace philosophy in such a role. No. Yet this seems to be precisely what everyone wants from philosophy — or from anti-philosophy. They want their thinking dictated to them.

Korsch addresses this as “Bonapartism in philosophy:” we seem to want to be told how and what to think by philosophers — or by anti-philosophers. It is an authoritarian impulse. But one that is an authentic expression of our time: capitalism brings forth its own Philosopher Kings.

This is not at all what the immediate predecessors for Marxist thought in philosophy, Kant and Hegel, considered as their task: Kant, in “beginning” philosophy (anew), and Hegel in “completing” this, did not seek to replace the thinking of others. No. Precisely the opposite: they sought to free philosophy, to make it “worldly.” They thought that they could do so precisely because they found that the world had already become “philosophical.”

After them, they thought there would no longer be a need to further develop Philosophy as such, but only the need for philosophical reflection in the various different diverse domains of human activity. Our modern academic institutions reflect this: one receives the PhD, Doctor of Philosophy, in Chemistry, meaning one is qualified to “doctor,” to minister and correct, to treat the methods and attendant thinking — the “philosophy” — of the science of chemistry, without however necessarily becoming an expert specialist “philosopher of science,” or studying the specialized discipline Philosophy of Science per se. According to Lukács, such specialized knowledge as found in academia as well as in the various technical vocations — such as law, journalism, art, etc. — exhibited “reification” in capitalism, a disintegrated particularization of atomized consciousness, in which losing the forest for the trees was the very predicate of experience and knowledge. But this was the opposite of what Kant and Hegel had expected. They expected not disintegration but the organic, living and changing relations of diverse multiplicity.

Marx found a very different world from Kant and Hegel’s, after the Industrial Revolution. It was not a philosophical world in capitalism — not an “enlightened” realm of “sober senses,” to which bourgeois philosophy had aspired, but something much darker. It was a “phantasmagoria” of “commodity fetishism,” full of beguiling “metaphysical subtleties,” for which one needed to refer to the “mist-enveloped regions of religion” for proper models. In capitalism, bourgeois society was sunk in a kind of animism: a world of objects exhibiting “theological niceties.”

There was a need for a new Enlightenment, a Second Enlightenment specific to the needs of the 19th century, that is, specific to the new needs of industrial capitalism, for which the prior thinking of bourgeois emancipation, even at its best, for instance by Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant and Hegel, was not equipped to adequately address. It needed a new recognition of the relation between social being and consciousness.

But for Marx and Engels, this new task of enlightenment was something that could not be accomplished philosophically — could not be brought to fruition in thinking — but only in actual political struggle and the transformation of society.

History

This was because, unlike the emancipation of bourgeois society, which took several centuries and came to consciousness of itself as such only late, no longer cloaking itself in the religious garb of Christianity — the Protestant Reformation as some return to true Christianity of the original Apostles, freed from the corruptions of the Church — and arrived at self-consciousness only at the end of its process of transformation, in the 18th century. As Hegel put it, “The Owl of Minerva [that is, knowledge] flies at dusk:” proper consciousness comes only “post-festum,” after the fact of change.

But Marx and Engels found the task of socialism in capitalism to be motivated by a new need. The proletarianization of the bourgeois social relations of labor — the society of cooperative production in crisis with the Industrial Revolution — required a new consciousness of contradiction, a “dialectical” and “historical” “materialism,” to properly recognize its tasks. As Marx put it, the social revolution of the 19th century — in contradistinction to the bourgeois revolution — could not take its poetry from the past, but needed to take its poetry from the future. This was quite a paradoxical formulation, especially since Marx and Engels explicitly abjured “utopian socialism,” finding it a realm of images of capitalism, and not of a world beyond it.

This was because they found the workers’ struggles against the capitalists to be motivated by bourgeois consciousness, the consciousness of the bourgeois revolution. Socialism was born in the Jacobinism of the French Revolution, for instance, in the former Jacobin Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals, still motivated by the aspirations of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Proudhon, for example, was motivated in his anarchist socialism, avowedly, by Adam Smith and Hegel (and the Bible) — animated, unabashedly, by bourgeois political economy and philosophy.

Marx and Engels didn’t think that this was wrong, but only inadequate. They didn’t offer an alternative to Proudhon — to Smith and Hegel (or the Bible!) — but only a critique of how bourgeois thought mystified the crisis and task of capitalism. The world necessarily appeared in bourgeois terms — there were no other terms. There was no other form of consciousness. There was no other philosophy. Nor was there a need for a new philosophy.

Bourgeois philosophy, for Marx and Engels, had successfully summed up and appropriated all prior philosophical enlightenment. They agreed with Kant and Hegel. Bourgeois social thought had successfully summed up and completed all prior thinking about society. Marx and Engels neither disputed nor sought to replace it. They were concerned only with its self-contradiction in capitalism. Not its hypocrisy, but its authentic antinomies, which both drove it on and left it stuck. The bourgeois “end of history” turned out to be the opposite of what it intended: not a final stage of freedom, but rather a final stage of unfreedom; the crossroads of “socialism or barbarism.”

Impossibility

This affected the status of philosophy. Bourgeois philosophy no longer described freedom but rather unfreedom. Or, more dialectically, it described both: the reproduction of unfreedom in the struggle for freedom. As a result, the task of freedom was no longer expressed by the need for all human activity to achieve an adequate — Hegelian — philosophically reflective self-consciousness, but rather to realize in practice and thus recognize in consciousness the limits of such self-consciousness, of such philosophical reflection. There was a crisis in radical bourgeois philosophy. The crisis and decay of Hegelianism was an authentic historical phenomenon, not a mistake.

Like liberal democracy, philosophy in capitalism was no longer itself, and was no longer tasked with becoming itself, attaining its aspirations, but rather was tasked with overcoming itself, superseding its achievements. The achievements of bourgeois emancipation seemed ruined in the 19th century.

Indeed, capitalism already accomplished such self-overcoming of bourgeois society, but perversely, negating itself without satisfying itself. In so doing, it constantly re-posed the task of achieving itself, as an impossible necessity. Bourgeois philosophy became the opposite of what it was, utopian. Not worldly philosophy, but an ideal, a mere notion, mocked by the real, ugly and anything-but-philosophical world.

Because of this — precisely because of this — bourgeois philosophy did not end but constantly reinvented itself, however on an increasingly impoverished basis. It radically revolutionized itself, but also, in so doing, radically undermined itself.

Philosophy remained necessary but proved impossible. It disintegrated, into epistemology, ontology and ethics. They went their separate ways. But they also drove themselves into blind alleys — dead-ends. This actually indicates the task of philosophy to overcome itself, however in perverted form.

Metaphysics

So, what is philosophy? One straightforward way of answering this is, simply, metaphysics. Kant, following Rousseau, had overcome the division and opposition between Rationalism and Empiricism by finding a new foundation for metaphysics. This was the Kantian “Copernican Turn” and “revolution” in philosophy. But it was not simply a new metaphysics, but rather a new account of metaphysics — of philosophy — itself. Moreover, it was revolutionary in an additional sense: it was not only a revolution, but also accounted for itself as revolutionary. This is because it was a metaphysics of change, and not merely change but radical qualitative transformation: it was a revolutionary account of the fundamental transformability of the substance of philosophy itself. In short, it was a philosophy of freedom. It was the self-reflection of practical freedom in society — that society made human life’s transcendence of nature possible, at all, but in so doing created new problems to be worked through and overcome.

It is precisely this metaphysics of freedom, however, that has gone into crisis and disintegrated in capitalism. This has been the expression of the crisis and disintegration — the decay — of bourgeois society.

The goal of philosophy in overcoming itself is to free thinking from an overarching and underlying metaphysics at all. Kant and Hegel thought that they had done so already, but capitalism — in its crisis of the metaphysics of bourgeois society — revealed that there was indeed an underlying and overarching metaphysics still to be overcome, that of social practice — society — itself. The self-production and self-overcoming of the subject in its socially and practically objective activity — labor — needed to be overcome.

The end of philosophy — the end of a singular metaphysics, or of metaphysics per se — aims at the freeing of both action and thinking from any unitary framework. It is the freeing of an ever-expanding and limitless — without end — diverse multiplicity of new and different forms of acting, being and knowing.

Postmodernism was, as Moishe Postone put it, “premature post-capitalism.” It aimed at the freeing of the “small-s subjects from the big-S Subject.” It also aimed at freedom from capital-H History. It meant overcoming Hegel’s philosophy of history.

We already live in such freedom in bourgeois society, however perverted by capitalism. Diverse activities already inhabit different realms of being and call forth different kinds of ethical judgments. Doctors and lawyers practice activities that define being — define the “rights of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — in different ways, and are hence ethically bound in different ways. Doctors discipline themselves ethically differently from scientists. Among scientists, Biology has a different epistemology from Physics: there are different methods because there are different objects. There is no “philosophy” in the sense of a metaphysical logic that encompasses them all. Lawyers, for example, practice differential ethics: prosecutors and defense attorneys in criminal law are bound by different rules of behavior; the practice of civil law is ethically distinct from criminal law; the rules of evidence are different. We do not seek to bind society to one form of knowledge, one code of conduct, or one way of life. There is no “philosophy” that could or should encompass them all. It would be arrogant to claim that there is one singular logic that can be mastered by anyone for governing everything.

Bourgeois society has already established well the reasonable limits to philosophy and its competence.

In Ancient civilization there were differentiated realms of being, knowing and acting. There was a caste system, in which there were different laws for peasants; for merchants; for artisans (and for different kinds of artisans, for different arts and different sciences); and for the nobility; and for the clergy. But they were unified in a Divine Order of the Great Chain of Being. There was heterogeneity, but all with a single origin in God: all of God’s creatures in all of God’s Creation. That mystery was to remain unknown to Man — known only to God. There was a reason for everything, but only God could know it. There was not philosophy but theology, and theology was not to arrogate to itself the place of the Mind of God, but only ponder Man’s place in and relationship to it. Theology established the limits to man’s knowledge of God: we knew only what God had revealed to us, through his Covenant. We all heard the Word of God; but God told His different creatures different things. In overcoming theology, philosophy did not seek to replace it. It sought to explore the mind of man, not to relate to and limit itself with respect to the Mind of God. It was not concerned with Divine or Natural limits, but with freedom.

There is no possible one single or once-and-for-all account of freedom, for then freedom would not be free. There is no possible account of “being” free, but only of becoming free. And there is only one such account, that of bourgeois emancipation from traditional civilization. It was to set free all the diverse and multiple activities of mankind, in relation to other humans, to Nature, and to ourselves.

Overcoming

Marx was both a Hegelian and departed from Hegel, with a historical and not a philosophical difference. As Marx put it, for Hegel himself the Hegelian system was not ready-made and finished as it was for those who came after. As Marx observed, Hegelianism went into crisis for real historical reasons, not due to misunderstanding by his followers; but rather the crisis came from Hegelian philosophy’s actual contact with the world, and that world had become as internally contradictory in capitalism as Hegelianism became in contact with it. The Hegelian dialectic is both appropriate and inappropriate to the problem of capitalism. The crisis and disintegration of Hegelianism was a crisis of metaphysics — of philosophy — at a higher and deeper and not a lower or more superficial level from Hegelianism. Hegelianism was falsified not in itself but by history. But Hegelianism was also borne out by history as the last word in philosophy — in metaphysics. Marxism cannot be purged of its Hegelianism without becoming incoherent; Marxism remains Hegelian, albeit with what Lukács called an “additional twist” in the “pure historicization of the dialectic.”

If society in capitalism remains bourgeois in its ideals, with the goal of providing opportunities for social labor, materially, it has become its opposite: as capitalist, it prioritizes not labor but capital, and at the expense of labor. This means society is tasked with the material challenge of overcoming its ideals. But, as Marx recognized, this can only be done on the basis of this society’s own ideals, in and through their self-contradiction. In philosophy, this means the task expressed by the self-contradiction of Hegelianism.

Capitalism is the model of the Marxist-Hegelian procedure of immanent dialectical critique: this is how capitalism itself moves, how it reproduces itself through self-contradiction. Capitalism is its own practical critique, reproducing itself by constantly overcoming itself. As Marx put it, the only limit to capital is capital itself; but capital is the transgression of any and all limits. It is the way capitalism overcomes itself, its dynamic process of change, which is its unfreedom, its self-limitation. The Marxian horizon of freedom beyond capitalism is freedom beyond the Hegelian dialectic, beyond the bourgeois dialectic of transformation — beyond labor as a process of self-overcoming through production.

There thus remains a unitary metaphysics binding all social practices, dominating, constraining and distorting their further development in freedom under capitalism: the bourgeois right of labor. The form of total freedom in bourgeois emancipation — self-production in society — has become in capitalism the form of total unfreedom. The social condition for labor has become that of the self-destruction of labor in capital. The goal of labor in capital is to abolish itself; but it can do so only by realizing itself — as self-contradiction. Hegel’s “negative labor of the concept” must be completed; short of that, it dominates us.

Overcoming this will mean overcoming metaphysics — overcoming philosophy. At least overcoming philosophy in any way known — or knowable — hitherto. | P


Further reading

Cutrone

Chris Cutrone, “Book review: Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (2008),” Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2009/09/03/book-review-karl-korsch-marxism-and-philosophy/>.

Cutrone, “Rejoinder on Korsch,” PR 20 (February 2010), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2010/02/26/rejoinder-to-david-black-on-karl-korschs-marxism-and-philosophy/>.

Cutrone, “Book review: Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (1981, 1995 and 2009): Gillian Rose’s ‘Hegelian’ critique of Marxism,” PR 21 (March 2010), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2010/03/15/gillian-roses-hegelian-critique-of-marxism/>.

Cutrone, “Revolution without Marx? Rousseau, Kant and Hegel,” PR 61 (November 2013), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2013/11/01/rousseau-kant-hegel/>.

Cutrone, “Why still read Lukács? The place of ‘philosophical’ questions in Marxism,” PR 63 (February 2014), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2014/02/01/why-still-read-lukacs-the-place-of-philosophical-questions-in-marxism/>.

Cutrone, “Book review: Andrew Feenberg, The Philosophy of Praxis (2014),” Marxism & Philosophy Review of Books (February 14, 2015), available online at: <https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/7988_the-philosophy-of-praxis-review-by-chris-cutrone/>.

Cutrone, “Back to Herbert Spencer! Industrial vs. militant society.” PR 82 (December 2015 – January 2016), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2016/01/12/back-to-herbert-spencer/>.

Korsch

Karl Korsch, “Marxism and philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970 and 2008), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm> [PDF].

Korsch, “The Marxist dialectic” (1923), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxist-dialectic.htm>.

Korsch, “On materialist dialectic” (1924), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1924/materialist-dialectic.htm>.


Introductory remarks on the topic of “Marxism and philosophy”*

Chris Cutrone

August 11, 2018

An audio recording of the internal discussion by members of Platypus on “Marxism and philosophy” can be found at: <https://archive.org/details/180812PhilosophyAndMarxismAndPlatypus>.

Video recording at: <https://youtu.be/_lq3LOEI7R4>.

Earlier this summer, I visited Athens and made a pilgrimage to Aristotle’s Lyceum. I was struck by the idea that perhaps what I am doing in Platypus is essentially the same as what Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were doing back in Ancient Greece. Spencer and I were recently discussing the recurrent trope of Aristotle and Marx, apropos of today’s discussion of Marxism and philosophy, and he recalled his feeling nauseous when reading Castoriadis’s famous essay on Aristotle and Marx, published in the same issue of the journal Social Research alongside Moishe Postone’s seminal essay, “Necessity, Labor and Time.” Spencer said he had felt sick at the thought that nothing had changed since Aristotle’s time.

I recalled how Frantz Fanon wrote, in Black Skin, White Masks, that he would be happy to learn that an African philosopher had corresponded with Plato, but this wouldn’t make a difference for 8 year-olds in Haiti and the Dominican Republic forced to cut sugar cane for a living. This compares well to the former Black Panther Assata Shakur, who, writing from her exile in Cuba on Black Lives Matter, referred to black Americans as “Africans lost in America.” But are blacks any less lost in Africa today? Am I an Italian or Irish lost in America, too? I often feel that way, that my peasant ancestors were dragged into bourgeois society to ill effect, to my present misery. What would it mean not to be lost? Was I returning home, in a sense, when, as an intellectual, I returned to Aristotle’s school in Athens? Was I any less lost in Athens?

Adorno wrote, in his inaugural lecture on “The idea of natural history,” that “I submit myself, so to speak, to the materialist dialectic.” What he meant of course was that he could only speak misleadingly of submitting himself to the materialist dialectic, as if he would not already be dominated by it, whether he was conscious of his submission or not. This reminds us of Trotsky’s statement to his recalcitrant followers who rejected Hegelianism that, “You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”

Why should we be interested in “philosophy,” then? Adorno did not mean that he was submitting himself to Marxism as the “materialist dialectic” in the sense of submitting to Marx’s thought. No. He meant, as we must mean in Platypus, that he accepted the challenge of Marx’s thought as thinking which registered a greater reality, as a challenge and call to task for Adorno’s own thinking.

Foucault wrote about his chagrin that just when one thinks one has overcome Hegel, Hegel is still there smiling back at you. This rather paranoid claim by Foucault as a mental phenomenon has a real meaning, however, which is that Hegel still speaks in some unavoidable way to our real condition. What is meant by “Hegel” here, of course, is the entirety of the alleged “Master Narrative” of the Western philosophical tradition culminating in bourgeois modernity.

Engaging philosophy then, is not being told how to think, but allowing one’s thinking to be challenged and tasked in a specific way. It is a microcosm of how society challenges and tasks our thinking, whether we are inclined to it or not.

Historical philosophers are not some “dead white males” the authority of whose thinking threatens to dominate our own; we do not, or at least ought not, to read philosophy in order to be told how to think. No. The philosophy that comes down to us from history is not the dead weight of the past, but it is part of that past. And the past is not dead or even really past, since past actions still act upon us in the present, whether we like it or not. Marx reminds us that, “Man makes history, but not according to conditions of his own choosing.”

We cannot avoid the past, but we are concerned with the symptomatic attempts to free ourselves from the past by trying to avoid it. Especially on the “Left,” and especially by ostensible “Marxists.”

As Korsch reminds us, among other ways, this can take the form of trying to avoid the “philosophical” aspects of Marxism.

We might recall that Korsch’s essay on “Marxism and philosophy,” the background reading for today, was the very first text we read in the Platypus reading group. This was before it was called Platypus, of course, but it was still our first collective discussion of a reading as a group. Our reading was predicated on opening up, not philosophy, but rather the political foundations for Adorno’s thinking. It was meant to help lead my academic students of Adorno, not from Marxism to philosophy, but rather from philosophy to Marxism.

This is the intention of today’s event as well: we come full circle. Perhaps indeed nothing has changed. | P

1918–2018: The century of counterrevolution

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 106 | May 2018

Presented as the President’s report at the closing plenary of the 10th annual international convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Chicago on April 7, 2018. Full audio recording of discussion available online at: https://archive.org/details/CenturyCounterrevolution

RECENTLY, I CAME ACROSS a 1938 article by the “Left communist” Paul Mattick, Sr., titled “Karl Kautsky: From Marx to Hitler.” In it, Mattick asserted that the reformist social democracy that Kautsky ended up embracing was the harbinger of fascism — of Nazism.[1] There is a certain affinity to Friedrich Hayek’s book on The Road to Serfdom (1944), in which a similar argument is made about the affinity of socialism and fascism. If Marxism (e.g. Kautsky) led to Hitler, as Hayek and Mattick aver, then this is because the counterrevolution was in the revolutionary tradition. The question we face today is whether and how the revolutionary tradition is still within the counterrevolution. For that is what we live under: it is the condition of any potential future for the revolutionary tradition whose memory we seek to preserve.

2018 marks two anniversaries: the 100th anniversary of the failed German Revolution of 1918; and the 50th anniversary of the climax of the New Left in 1968.

Moishe Postone died this year, and his death marks the 50th anniversary of 1968 in a certain way.

A strange fact of history is that both Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Father but bitter political opponent, whose Presidency Jefferson unseated in his Democratic-Republican Revolution of 1800, John Adams, died on the precise 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence to the day, on July 4, 1826. John Adams’s dying words were “Jefferson still lives.” He was mistaken: Jefferson had died several hours earlier. But he was correct in another, more important sense: Jefferson had lived just long enough to see the survival of the American Revolution for its first half-century.

Perhaps Moishe Postone lived just long enough to see the survival of the New Left 50 years later. If that is true, however, then he lived just long enough to see the survival of not the revolution but the counterrevolution.

As I presented all the way back at our very first annual Platypus convention in 2009, in my contribution to The Platypus Synthesis, on “History, theory,” the Spartacists and Postone differ on the character of historical regression: Postone taking it to be the downward trend since the missed opportunity of the New Left in the 1960s; while the Spartacists account for regression since the high-point of the revolutionary crisis after WWI in which the October Revolution took place in 1917. But perhaps we can take the occasion this year to date more precisely the regression affecting both the Spartacists and Postone, the failure of the German Revolution of 1918, whose centennial we mark this year.

The question of historical regression raises its potential opposite, that is, history as Hegel took it to be, the progress in (the consciousness of) freedom. What we face in 2018 is that the last 50 years and the last 100 years have not seen a progress in freedom, but perhaps a regression in our consciousness of its tasks, specifically regarding the problem of capitalism. Where the Spartacists and Postone have stood still, waiting for history to resume, either from 1918 or from 1968, we must reckon with not history at a standstill but rather as it has regressed.

In this we are helped less by Hegel or Marx than by Friedrich Nietzsche, whose essay on “The Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1874/76) I cited prominently in my Platypus Synthesis contribution. There, I quoted Nietzsche that,

“A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. . . . People or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. . . . It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. . . .

“Here it is not righteousness which sits in the judgment seat or, even less, mercy which announces judgment, but life alone, that dark, driving, insatiable self-desiring force. . . .

“[But there is a danger in the] attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. It is always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find a borderline to the denial of the past and because the second nature usually is weaker than the first.”[2]

So the question we have always faced in Platypus is the borderline between freeing ourselves from the past or rather participating in its liquidation. Are we gaining or losing history as a resource? In losing its liability we might sacrifice history as an asset. We must refashion history for use in our present need, but we might end up — like everyone else — abusing it: it might end up oppressing rather than freeing us.

Indiana Jones, who as we know was a Professor of Archaeology, in the 1989 film The Last Crusade, said that “Archaeology is about the search for fact, not the search for truth — for the search for truth, see Philosophy!” If Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can get it, then certainly we should!

In our approach to history, then, we are engaged not with its “facts” but with the truth of history. We are not archeologists: we are not antiquarians or historians at least not affirmatively: we are not historicists. The events and figures of the past are not dead facts awaiting discovery but are living actions — past actions that continue to act upon the present, which we must relate to. We must take up the past actions that continue to affect us, and participate in the on-going transformation of that action. How we do so is extremely consequential: it affects not merely us, today, but will affect the future. History lives or dies — is vital or deadly — depending on our actions.

We are here to consider how the actions of not only 50 years ago in 1968 but 100 years ago in 1918 affect us today. But to understand this, we must consider the past actions that people 100 years ago in turn were affected by. We must consider the deeper history that they inherited and sought to act upon.

Last year we marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the closing plenary panel discussion at our international convention in which I participated, alongside Bryan Palmer and Leo Panitch, I raised the possibility that, after a century, we had the opportunity of approaching this history differently. There, I said that,

“The paradox of 1917 is that failure and success are mixed together in its legacy. Therefore, the fact that 1917 is becoming more obscure is an opportunity as well as a liability. We are tasked not only with understanding the opportunity, but also with trying to make the liability into an asset. The various ways in which 1917 is falsely claimed, in a positive sense — we can call that Stalinism, we can call it all sorts of things — has dissipated. We have to try to make use of that. What has faded is not the revolution, perhaps, but the counter-revolution. In other words, while not entirely gone, the stigmatization of 1917 throughout the 20th century and the horror at the outcome of revolution [i.e., Stalinist repression] — these are fading. In that way we might be able to disentangle the success and the failure differently than it has been attempted in the past.”[3]

This year we must reckon with the changing fortunes over the last century, not of the revolution, but rather of the counterrevolution. If not the revolution but the counterrevolution has disappeared, perhaps this is because it has become invisible — naturalized. It is so much the fundamental condition of our time that we don’t even notice it. But that does not mean that it doesn’t continue to act upon us. It might be so powerful as to not even provoke resistance, like atmospheric pressure or gravity. The effort it takes to read history against the grain — Benjamin said it must be done with the leverage of a “barge-pole”[4] — is in denaturalizing this history of the counterrevolution, to make it visible or noticeable at all. Can we feel it? This has changed over the course of the past century. In the first half-century, from 1918 to 1968, the naturalization of the counterrevolution took certain forms; in the last half-century, since 1968, it has taken other forms. We can say indeed that the action of the counterrevolution provoked more resistance in its first 50 years, from 191868, than it has in its second 50 years, from 1968 to the present. That would mean that 1968 marked the decisive victory of the counterrevolution — to the degree that this was not entirely settled already in 1918.

As Richard [Rubin] pointed out at my presentation at this year’s 4th Platypus European Conference in London, on “The Death of the Millennial Left,” there has been nothing new produced, really, in the last 50 years. I agreed, and said that whatever had been new and different in the preceding 50 years, from 1918 to 1968 — Heidegger’s philosophy, for example — was produced by the counterrevolution’s active burial of Marxism. Max Weber had remarked to Georg Lukács in 1918 that what the Bolsheviks had done in Russia in the October Revolution and its aftermath would mitigate against socialism for at least 100 years. He seems to have been proven right. But since 1968, such active efforts against the memory of Marxism have been less necessary. So we have had, not so much anti-Marxism, as the naturalization of it. Ever since 1968, everyone is already a “Marxist” — as Foucault himself said — precisely because everyone is already an anti-Marxist. This is how things appear especially this year, in 2018. And necessarily so.

The failure of the 1918 German Revolution was not only that, but was the failure of Marxism as a world-historical movement. As Rosa Luxemburg posed the matter, the failure of revolution in Germany was the failure of revolution in Russia. 1918 and 1917 are inextricably linked. But the failure of 1918 has been hidden behind the apparent success of 1917. The failure of 1917 wears the deceptive mask of success because of the forgetting of the failure of 1918.

Marxism failed. This is why it continues to fail today. Marxism has forgotten its own failure. Because Marxism sought to take up the prior — bourgeois — revolutionary tradition, its failure affected the revolutionary tradition as a whole. The victory of the counterrevolution in 1918 was the victory of counterrevolution for all time.

What do we mean by the “counterrevolution”?

Stalin declared the policy — the strategy — of “socialism in one country” in 1924. What did it mean? What was it predicated upon? The events in Germany in 1923 seemed to have brought a definitive end to the post-WWI revolutionary crisis there. Stalin concluded therefore that Russia would not be saved by revolution in Germany — and even less likely by revolution elsewhere — but needed in the meantime to pursue socialism independently of prospects for world revolution. Stalin cited precedent from Lenin for this approach, and he attracted a great deal of support from the Communist Party for this policy.

Robert Borba, a supporter of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), USA, speaking at our 4th European Conference in London earlier this year, addressed the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism in response to Hillel Ticktin on the panel discussion of “50 Years of 1968,” as follows:

“Hillel [Ticktin] defined Stalinism as socialism in one country, which supposedly cannot exist. It is not viable. We should think seriously about what that means. Imagine you are Lenin in 1918. You have led a revolution. You are counting on the German revolutionaries to come to your aid, as you envision this whole process of revolution throughout Europe. But it does not happen. Now what do you do? Say, “This cannot exist, it is not viable,” and give up? Lenin and the Bolshevik Party did not give up. The proletariat had taken power in one country. The imperialists were invading. They did the best they could for the world revolution. They retained a base from which to spread revolution. To give that up would harm the interests of oppressed humanity.”[5]

This blackmail of the necessity to “defend the gains of the revolution” is crucial to understanding how the counterrevolution triumphed within the revolution — how Bolshevism led to Stalinism.

Even supposed “Trotskyists” however ended up succumbing to the exigencies of supposedly “defending the gains” — Trotsky himself said that an inability to defend the gains of the revolution would mean an inability to advance it: Trotsky was still addressing Stalinism as a retreat. His followers today are even more willing than Trotsky himself to defend any and all purported “gains” — but at the expense of possibilities for any advance. What was perhaps a temporary necessity for Trotsky has become permanent for the supposed “Left.”

So-called “Marxism” today is in fact an agency of the counterrevolution has become part of the counterrevolution’s on-going action — which is why it is not surprising that the “Left” today even champions the counterrevolution — by denouncing the revolutionary tradition. But this didn’t happen just recently, but has been going on increasingly over the course of the past century. First, in small ways; but then finally comprehensively. Equivocations became judgments against the revolutionary tradition. It began in marked ways at least as early as the late 1960s. For instance, in 1967 Susan Sontag wrote, in the formerly Communist- and then Trotskyist-affiliated journal Partisan Review, that,

“If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization. This is a painful truth; few of us want to go that far. . . . The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al, don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”[6]

Sound familiar? It is a voice very much for our time! Here, Sontag explicitly rejects the revolution — “parliamentary government,” the “emancipation of women,” and “Marx” included — because of its “eradication of autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads,” and as “what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world.” Let’s accept this characterization of “Western white civilization” by Sontag, but try to grasp it through the revolution. For this is what revolution does: eradicate the prior form of civilization. What is America the “culmination” of, exactly? Let’s look to its Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, and think about the American Revolutionary leader alongside the protagonist of the 1918 German Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg.

I will start with the concluding scene of the 1995 film Jefferson in Paris. Here, Jefferson negotiates a contractual agreement with his slave James Hemings for the freedom of himself and Sally Hemings and her children — Jefferson’s own offspring. It is observed by his white daughter. This scene encapsulates the revolution: the transition from slavery to social contract.

In the 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg, Sonja Liebknecht says to Luxemburg in prison that, “Sometimes I think that the war will go on forever” as it has indeed gone on forever, since we are still fighting over the political geography and territorial results of WWI, for instance in the Middle East and, responding to Luxemburg’s optimism, about the mole burrowing through a seemingly solid reality that will soon be past and forgotten, “But it could be us who will soon disappear without a trace.” In the penultimate scene of the film, Karl Liebknecht reads the last lines of his final article, “Despite Everything,” and Luxemburg reads her last written words, “I was, I am, I shall be!” referring however to “the revolution,” not Marxism![7]

Luxemburg’s “I was, I am, I shall be!” and Liebknecht’s “Despite everything!” — are they still true? Is the revolution still on-going, despite everything? If not Luxemburg’s, then at least Jefferson’s revolution?

But aren’t Thomas Jefferson and Rosa Luxemburg on “opposing sides” of the “class divide” — wasn’t Luxemburg’s Spartakusbund [“Spartacus League”] on the side of the slaves (named after a Roman slave who revolted); whereas, by contrast, Jefferson was on the side of the slave-owners? No!

To quote Robert Frost, from his 1915 poem “The Black Cottage,”

“[T]he principle
That all men are created free and equal. . . .
That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s.
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn’t true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman [Jefferson] got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.”[8]

How will we reconsider it for our age? Apparently, we won’t: Jefferson’s statues will be torn down instead. We will take the “easy way” and “decide” that Jefferson’s revolutionary character “simply isn’t true.” This has long since been decided against Luxemburg’s Marxism, too — indeed, as a precondition for the judgment against Jefferson. As Max Horkheimer said, “As long as it is not victorious, the revolution is no good.”[9] The failure of revolution in 1918 was its failure for all time. We are told nowadays that the American Revolution never happened: it was at most a “slaveholder’s revolt.” But it certainly did not mark a change in “Western white civilization.” Neither, of course, did Marxism. Susan Sontag tells us so!

Platypus began in 2006 and was founded as an organization in 2007, but we began our conventions in 2009. In 2018, our 10th convention requires a look back and a look ahead; last year marked the centenary of 1917; this year marks 1918, hence, this specific occasion for reflecting on history from Platypus’s point of view. What did we already know in 200608 that finds purchase especially now, in 2018? The persistence of the counterrevolution. Hence, our special emphasis on the failure of the 1918 German Revolution as opposed to the “success” of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which has been the case throughout the history of our primary Marxist reading group pedagogy. But we should reflect upon it again today.

I would like to refer to some of my convention speeches for Platypus:

In my 2012 convention President’s report, “18731973: The century of Marxism,” I asserted that the first 50 years saw growth and development of Marxism, as opposed to the second 50 years, which saw the steady destruction of the memory of Marxism.[10]

So today, in regarding 19182018 as the century of counterrevolution, I ask that its first 50 years, prior to 1968, be considered as the active counterrevolution of anti-Marxism, as opposed to the second 50 years, after 1968, as the naturalization of the counterrevolution, such that active anti-Marxism is no longer necessary.

But I would like to also recall my contribution to a prior convention plenary panel discussion in 2014, on “Revolutionary politics and thought,”[11] where I asserted that capitalism is both the revolution and the counterrevolution. To illustrate this, I quoted a JFK speech from 1960:

“We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.”

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.”[12]

With Kennedy, the counterrevolution, in order to be successful, still needed to claim to be the revolution: the counterrevolution still struggled with the revolution. By the end of the 1960s — at the other end of the New Left — however, this was no longer the case.

We can observe today that what was lacking both in 1918 and in 1968 was a political force adequate to the task of the struggle for socialism. The problem of political party links both dates. 1968 failed to overcome the mid-20th century liquidation of Marxism in Stalinism and related phenomena, in the same way that 1918 had failed to overcome the capitulation of the SPD and greater Second International in WWI, and thus failed to overcome the crisis of Marxism.

For this reason, we can say, today, 50 years after 1968, that the past 100 years, since 1918, have been the century of counterrevolution. | P


[1] Available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/1939/kautsky.htm>.

[2] “History, theory,” available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2009/06/14/the-platypus-synthesis-history-theory/>.

[3] Platypus Review 99 (September 2017), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2017/08/29/1917-2017/>.

[4] Walter Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’” (1940), Selected Writings vol. 4 1938–40, Howard Eiland and Michael William Jennings, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 407.

[5] “50 years of 1968,” Platypus Review 105 (April 2018), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2018/04/01/50-years-of-1968/>.

[6] Sontag, “What’s happening in America?,” Partisan Review 34.1 (1967), 57–58.

[7] Karl Liebknecht, “Despite everything” (1919), in John Riddel, ed., The Communist International in Lenin’s Time: The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents 191819: Preparing for the Founding Conference (New York: Pathfinder, 1986), 269–271; Rosa Luxemburg, “Order prevails in Berlin” (1919), available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm>.

[8] In North of Boston, available on-line at: <http://www.bartleby.com/118/7.html>.

[9] Horkheimer, “A discussion about revolution,” in Dawn & Decline: Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69 (New York: Seabury, 1978), 39. Available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/readings/horkheimer_dawnex.pdf>.

[10] Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.

[11] Platypus Review 69 (September 2014), available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2014/09/05/revolutionary-politics-thought-2/>.

[12] Available online at: <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25785>.