Response to Mike Macnair’s critique of Platypus on philosophy of history

Chris Cutrone

I am writing to respond to Mike Macnair’s critique (“Divided by a common language?,” Weekly Worker 872, June 30, 2011) of my article on “The philosophy of history” (June 9).

J.P. Nettl’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg can be plausibly considered his life-work and not ancillary to his primary intellectual concerns because it was the product of almost 20 years of thinking, not the 3 years of intensive writing that produced his book. Nettl’s preface to his book clearly indicates this, that immediately after WWII his imagination was captured by the history of pre-WWI Marxism in the SPD and Luxemburg in particular, but that the controversial nature of the subject made him ruminate long on it, and forgo available sources of support for his study of it, before publishing his 1,000 page book in 1966. Let’s be clear: Nettl was not a Marxist. But that should not anathematize any insights he may have had.

About “imperialism” and “authoritarianism,” I was concerned to show their interrelated character, which I sketched only in very broad outline: the general historical trend of post-1848 Bonapartism, all the way up to the present. As Marx and Engels put it, Bonapartism expressed a situation in which the capitalists could no longer and the workers not yet rule society (see Engels’s 1891 introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France, 1871). I agree with Mike Macnair, that, e.g. Bukharin’s explanation of imperialism’s effect on the socialist workers’ movement, the political compromise of the metropolitan workers with respect to their national states, is better than the idea that they were economically “bought off” (I disagree however that the latter was Lenin and Trotsky’s essential perspective). I agree as well that the virtue of such an emphatically political explanation is that it can account for similar phenomena in the periphery.

But this raises the issue of what I have called “authoritarianism,” or willing support for the status quo and hostility to alternatives, and the subjectivity for doing so, again. Why are the workers more often conservative, even virulently and self-destructively so, than not? The explanation of (some) workers’ support for fascism by reference to their peripheral character (i.e., the unemployed or “lumpenized”) is what indeed “dodges the issue.” While the SPD and KPD’s refusals to fight a civil war against fascism in Germany in 1918–21 and circa 1933 may have been of decisive, conjunctural importance, this itself is what requires explanation (it also leaves aside the Italian case). It cannot be laid simply on bad leadership — on the parties’ bad decisions — without reference to the workers’ fear, or lack of support for better action, which was broken, however briefly, in Germany in 1918–19, but precisely as a civil war among the workers. The contrast of 1918–19 with 1933 could not be more clear: as Adorno put it, 1919 already decided what came later (see “Those Twenties,” 1962, in Henry Pickford, ed., Critical Models, Columbia University Press, 1998).

The issue of Hegelianism is a difficult one: how to include the “subjective factor in history.” I think this turns on how one understands Marx’s critique of Hegel. I don’t think that Marx’s reference to the “real” is in an empiricist sense, but rather in Hegel’s sense of the actuality of the rational in the real. The issue turns on the relation of essence and appearance, or, with what necessity things appear as they do. What is essential is what is practical, and what is practical is subjective as well as objective. Theoretical reflection on the subjective must use metaphysical categories that are not merely handy but actually constitutive of social practices in which one is a subject. The commodity form is not a generalization from experience.

All of this, however, is largely beside the point regarding Platypus. For the conversation we seek to host is not between ourselves and others, but much more widely on the avowed Left, and among those with far greater experience than what is available among our own members. We serve only to facilitate, even if we have to elbow our way in, provocatively, to make the space for such conversation, otherwise foreclosed. We consider the need for such conversation to be more ideological than practical at present.

I am glad that comrade Macnair recognizes that Platypus may “serve a useful anti-sectarian purpose in near-future politics. It is also possible that it serves a useful political purpose by hammering home the bankruptcy of both the ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘anti-fascist’ left.” This is precisely what we intend. Though I think it is potentially much more, if Platypus does successfully what Macnair thinks it might, I for one will be happy to allow the “guide to history” through which we understand our own efforts to be considered a “useful myth.” | §

Originally published in The Weekly Worker 873 (July 7, 2011).

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