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>.

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