Against Debord’s nihilism

Rejoinder to Principia Dialectica (U.K.)

Chris Cutrone

PRINCIPIA DIALECTICA HAS RESPONDED to our critique of their détournement of our “death of the Left” rhetoric with a noisy disclaimer.

But to hold up Guy Debord’s “Situationism” circa 1968 against two centuries of the critical theory and politics of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin, Adorno, et al. — to say nothing of the contributions to enlightenment of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, et al. — requires either a great deal of gall, or is meant only in jest.

We suspect the latter, and so seek, at the very least, to prevent the misappropriation — really, abuse — of Moishe Postone’s work by such bad faith efforts as Principia Dialectica. — Otherwise:

The title of the Principia Dialectica rejoinder to Platypus cites Amy Winehouse’s 2006 song “Rehab,” which sounds like a 1960s-era pop song, another piquant, if immediately dated and musty British appropriation and slick commodification of American culture. But, although Winehouse sang that she wouldn’t “go to rehab, no, no, no,” as it turned out, later she did!

This story does in fact speak to the principal intention of Platypus, to learn from the past and prevent its pathological repetition: The understandable desire to escape the past in a manic fit of ecstatic optimism is tragic to the extent that it is unrealistic and lands one precisely where one has sworn never to return; it is farcical to the degree that this is repeated — over and over again.

Note to advocates of today’s already obsolete early 1990s-era rehabilitation of Situationism and other post-1960s politics of anarchism, autonomia, “post-work,” etc.: If you find yourself disagreeing with all or several of the most outstanding historical Marxist critical theorists and political actors listed above and/or the enlightened thought about modern humanity from the 17th–19th centuries from which the best Marxists drew and developed their insights, you can be sure that you are in denial and not on any road to recovery.

Whether you like it or not, and one way or another, you will find yourself “back to rehab” — in some form of political social democracy, liberalism, conservatism, or worse, or by being simply depoliticized and folded back into the rhythm of mainstream existence — or, in a dead-end of self-destruction, whether intoxicated or not. Debord’s suicide — motivated very differently from Benjamin’s, Debord being more pathetic than tragic — should stand as a warning to any and all of his wannabe followers.

For, going down this highway, you will sooner or later either render yourself entirely useless politically, or you’ll end up dropping the attempt at emancipatory politics altogether — as indeed Debord’s Situationism had done already from the very beginning.

Platypus, by contrast, seeks to foster recognition by a new generation of thinkers and actors that there might be a point to developing and instrumentalizing ourselves for the possibility of human enlightenment and emancipation, and not complacently wasting ourselves away in a narcissistic narcosis of self-dosing on the gaiety of futility.

Note to young contrarian “rebels:” The “system” is going to consume you one way or another, no matter what you do, so it might as well be in ways that push the envelope of possibility and move oneself and others as far in the directions of human betterment and development of further potential as possible.

What Principia Dialectica says about class struggle, “proletarian” empowerment and capital is of course true: this is all immanent to and perpetuating of the “system.” Where Principia Dialectica, as all anarchism, goes wrong (but perhaps instructively) is in their Romantic nihilism. But the system is our reality — in and through it is the only direction in which our hope might lie.

The world doesn’t need any more Hölderlins; as Hegel said, the “unhappy consciousness” is regressive, falls below the threshold with which it is tasked, and so cannot fulfill itself, but must overcome itself.

Debord’s notes on cocktail napkins can’t help us do that. | §

Coda

Anselm Jappe of the Krisis-Gruppe, in his 1993 book Guy Debord cites Debord’s affinity with Lukács with the following quotation, “The only possible basis for understanding this world is to oppose it; and such opposition will be neither genuine nor realistic unless it contests the totality” [also in Jappe’s pamphlet on Guy Debord’s concept of the spectacle, Chapter 1 of his book]. Principia Dialectica also turns to Jappe for the concept of capital as the “automaton” or “automatic subject” (in Jappe’s book Adventures of the Commodity: for a new critique of value, 2003/05). The question, however, is not one of affirming vs. opposing the social “totality” and the proletariat as being already the “subject-object of history,” but rather transforming the alienated totality of domination in an emancipatory manner, and the possibility of the working class becoming an actual subject of social emancipation in the process of overcoming capital: Lukács was not positing something but politically advocating it, and we need to understand why. According to Hegel, one becomes a subject only in the process of self-overcoming and transformation. This side of such an emancipatory process, the proletariat remains an “object” of the “automatic subject” of capital, which is an expression of the industrial working class’s alienated social agency in value production. What is missing from Principia Dialectica is precisely the sense of history — for instance, why Lukács’s book was titled History and Class Consciousness. The question is not what kind of subject the proletariat is, but what it could be — in the activity of its self-abolition, in, through and beyond capital, on the basis of labor as a socially mediating activity that becomes a form of self-domination under capital, its alienated product. But Lukács recognized such revolutionary socialist politics as the “completion” of “reification,” and so that this is not the end goal of emancipation but rather a necessary stage for the possible overcoming of capital. That, in the USSR, etc. and in Stalinist and social democratic and other nationalist-reformist working class politics in the 20th century, the proletariat participated in the reconstitution of capital and not in its revolutionary overcoming, was the result of the failure of the 1917–19 anticapitalist revolution, not its cause — or the original animus of the Marxism of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. Debord’s Situationism is just as much an adaptation to this failure as any other form of the “politics” of post-Marxism in the 20th century. Debord and his followers went along with the lie that Lenin led to Stalin, with all the confusion this entailed. The goal is indeed the overcoming of proletarian labor — the society of work — as mediating and thus dominating modern human history. The question is, how?§

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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“Let the dead bury the dead!”

A response to Principia Dialectica (U.K.) on May 1968

Chris Cutrone

THE NEW MAYDAY MAGAZINE (U.K.) and Platypus have been in dialogue on the issues of anarchism and Marxism and the state of the “Left” today in light of history. (Please see “Organization, political action, history and consciousness” by Chris Cutrone for Platypus, and “Half-time Team Talk” by Trevor Bark for Mayday, in issues #2, February 2008, and #4, April–May 2008, respectively.)

Principia Dialectica, another new British journal, also has taken note of Platypus (see “Weird gonzo leftoid journal,” April 15, 2008), specifically with our interview of Moishe Postone on “Marx after Marxism” (in issue #3, March 2008).

In their note of us, Principia Dialectica cites our interview with Postone to say that “Postone’s reflections on Lukács are certainly bracing, and enough to challenge any cryogenically frozen leftoid stuck in 1917.” Platypus raises the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which Lukács regarded as follows:

Only the Russian Revolution really opened a window to the future; the fall of Czarism brought a glimpse of it, and with the collapse of capitalism it appeared in full view. At the time our knowledge of the facts and the principles underlying them was of the slightest and very unreliable. Despite this we saw — at last! at last! — a way for mankind to escape from war and capitalism.” (1967 Preface to History and Class Consciousness)

But Platypus raises Bolshevism and its historical moment less as a rallying cry than as a question and problem. 1917 should be followed not by an exclamation point but a question mark, but one that has not lost its saliency but only become a more profound enigma in subsequent history. What was to Lukács and others of the time a brief glimpse of emancipatory potential has only become more obscure, but without becoming any less penetrating.

— But today the danger is not being frozen in 1917 but rather 1968.

Principia Dialectica distributed the leaflet “Let the dead bury the dead!” at the May ’68 Jamboree at Conway Hall in London on May 10, 2008. This leaflet uses a great deal of Platypus rhetoric, on the “fossilized” and undead character of today’s “Left,” on anarchism being an enduring “bad conscience” of the failures of Marxism, etc., and involves not only this plagiarism but an unacknowledged response to our statements on the necessary return to the history of the revolutionary Marxist tradition. At the same time, this leaflet rehearses precisely those aspects of a non-/anti-Marxian and/or “anarchist” approach we have addressed previously in our articles in dialogue with Mayday.

The problem with this Principia Dialectica statement is that it has no cognizance of the issue of historical regression. Necessarily, this involves a non-dialectical and non-immanent understanding of capitalism as a “system,” resulting in an insistence on an (historically impossible) “outside” of capitalism. — Regarding the announcement appended below their leaflet, for a meeting on “What is value, and how to destroy it?,” the point, following Marx, is not to “destroy” (the social) “value” (of capital and proletarian labor), but rather to realize and overcome it on its own basis, and so would mean redeeming the very great sacrifices humanity has already made — and continues to make — in the history of capitalism.

Corollary to the one-sided view of and opposition to “value” (and what it means socially) is an unjustified yet assumed progressive view of history. This is unwarranted especially in light of the state of the “Left” today, 40 years after 1968, which has not shown any progress. — Otherwise, why call the “Leftist” commemoration of 1968 that Principia Dialectica picketed with its leaflet, a “wake” conducted by “embalmed” “mummies?” But, like all anarchism, Principia Dialectica has no (need for a) theory of history (of capital).

An incoherent view of capitalism and its recent history both underlies and results from the leaflet’s ambivalent salute and adieu to 1968. As Moishe Postone has pointed out (in his 2006 article on “Theorizing the Contemporary World: Brenner, Arrighi, Harvey”), the combined and equally inappropriate triumphalism and melancholy of post-1968 politics results from the undigested character of the Marxist tradition from which the 1960s “New” Left sought to depart:

[T]he emancipatory potential of general social coordination [i.e., Marxist “planning”] . . . should [not] be dismissed. But that potential can only be realized when it is associated with the historical overcoming of capital, the core of our form of social life. . . . Without such an analysis of capital, however, one that is not restricted to the mode of distribution, but that can, nevertheless, address the emancipatory impulses expressed by traditional Marxism . . . our conceptions of emancipation will continue to oscillate between a homogenizing general (whether effected via the market or the state) and particularism, an oscillation that replicates the dualistic forms of commodity and capital themselves.

As such, the Principia Dialectica leaflet commemorating 1968 is a symptom of what Postone calls the post-1960s postmodernist politics of “premature post-capitalism,” which imagines that the necessity for proletarian labor in mediating the conditions of modern social life and its potential emancipatory transformation has already been overcome in practice, however ripe its overcoming has been historically in theory.

As Lars Lih has pointed out (in his essay “Lenin and the Great Awakening,” in the conference anthology Lenin Reloaded, 2007), the reconsideration of history for an anticapitalist politics adequate to our time would mean indeed redeeming and realizing what Principia Dialectica disdainfully calls “proletarian Messianism.” — Precisely Walter Benjamin’s understanding of the historical significance of such “Messianism,” and its negative philosophy of history in the period of defeat and regression on the Left after 1917–19, provides the necessary guiding insight for such redemption. As Theodor W. Adorno interpreted Benjamin, “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all [historical] things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of [their potential] redemption” (“Finale,” Minima Moralia, 1944–47).

Rather than attempts at redeeming the modern (and still on-going) history of the industrial proletariat, and realizing and fulfilling — and going beyond — this necessity of what Marx called proletarian self-transcendence/self-abolition (Aufhebung), however, the “Left” has (ever since 1917–19, but especially after 1968) regressed behind this task. This is why the revolutionary Marxism of 2nd International radicalism of Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, et al. — as well as the thought and politics of Marx himself — can still “flash up” as a historical image that haunts us and won’t go away, despite all efforts at exorcism by varieties of “post-Marxism.”

The very problematic history of the Marxist revolutionary “tradition” — as well as of the modern workers movement — requires redemption. And this is not simply desirable or possible, but actually unavoidably necessary.

Historical “anarchism” and its various offspring (e.g., Situationism) remain the deserved forms of the “bad conscience” of the failures of historical (“traditional”) Marxism, but anarchism is nevertheless a symptomatic regression to pre-Marxian socialism (of Proudhon et al.).

Marxism was not a mistaken detour because it failed historically. Rather, the continued recrudescence of anarchism proves in a certain sense that a reconstitution of the Marxian point of departure remains necessary. A revisiting — and “repetition” — of the Marxian critique of (pre-Marxian as well as post-Marx-ist) socialism is in order. — As Adorno put it (in “Resignation,” 1969), the return of anarchism “is that of a ghost,” which however “does not invalidate the [Marxian] critique” of it.

For Adorno, anarchism manifested “the impatience with theory.” Ironically, such impatience with theory is corollary to the dismissal of the industrial proletariat as “Subject” of human emancipation (through its self-transformation and overcoming). This dismissal is seen in the Principia Dialectica celebration of the “happy unemployed” and the calls to “never work ever” and thus (try to) remain “outside” the “system.” But as the historical Marxian critique of “actually existing socialism” — and the history of capitalism to date — has shown, there is no secure let alone emancipated state outside of capitalism that has been possible. Capitalism will be overcome from within (its own historical logic), or not at all.

As Adorno put it (in “Imaginative Excesses,” orphaned from Minima Moralia), “Only if the extremes [of the theoretically armed revolutionary intellectuals, and the industrial working class] come together will humanity survive.” — Platypus is noted — and attacked — for being on the one hand too intellectual and on the other hand too committed to a proletarian path to social emancipation beyond capital. Thus our indication of this dual necessity of theory and practice finds its critical affirmation — even when our project remains unacknowledged rather than singled out by our interlocutors.

The history of the failed Marxian attempted departures from symptomatic socialism (from Marx’s departure from Proudhon, to Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Lukács’s departure from the politics of 2nd International Social Democracy and its “vulgar Marxism,” to Trotsky and the Frankfurt School’s departures from Stalinized 3rd International Communism) still tasks us, but not as ritual invocation devoid of the actual content of historical self-understanding, but only as this history allows for its critical apprehension — in the critique of the present and how we got here. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #5 (May–July 2008).

Exchange on “race”

Aay Preston-Myint and Chris Cutrone

Dear Editors,

I would like to respond to Chris Cutrone’s article, “Review: Angela Davis, ‘How does change happen?’” from the March 2008 issue #3. I agree with Cutrone’s general sentiment that we as a country have failed to productively engage the problem of race, and that an honest critique of capitalism is pretty much absent from American politics. However, one does not necessarily follow the other. I disagree that a discussion of capitalism must necessarily displace a discussion of race, a term which Cutrone disrespectfully frames in quotation marks and describes as a “distraction” and “inadequate category.” I appreciate that perhaps therein lies a desire to transcend racism, but the tone of the article make it seem as if Cutrone wants the rest of us to somehow just wake up and get over race so we can talk about the “real” meat of the issue, capitalism. I do agree that the language of race is often counterproductive, complicated by centuries of taboos, underlying resentments, outward hostility, and fear. However, to further marginalize an already difficult subject strikes me as counterproductive, and quite frankly, a bit lazy.

Cutrone mentions in his article that (non-white) race is often just code for poverty, but is it not the other way around as well? When politicians talk about pursuing criminals in the “inner city” and cutting off “welfare mothers,” are they not pandering to fear and resentment towards people of color, and the assumption that non-whites are in poverty? It is certainly true that not all low-income people are brown, but in a nation (and even a world) where so many of our citizens face poverty because they are brown, any useful critique of capitalism must also incorporate discourse on race. I believe that a lack of such discourse is why people of color often balk at the thought of organizing around race-ambivalent or race-neutral philosophies such as Marxism or Anarchism versus organizing around racial identity, even when they have anti-capitalist beliefs.

We must remember that many of the canonical Marxist philosophers were white and were products of much more racially homogeneous societies than ours, and as such, held significant privilege not to think about race if they didn’t want to. Is it possible that they could not have foreseen how concepts of race and class would affect one another other in a country founded by waves of immigrants from around the world, many of whom were (and continue to be) used as disposable labor?

One can argue to an extent that race is a construct. Furthermore, it is a construct that, within a capitalist context, is often employed to justify class-based oppression, exploitation of labor, and imperialism. But however constructed we may believe race to be, it would be disingenuous, and even irresponsible, to pretend that it is not worth discussing. If I walk down the street and get beaten up by a gang of, say, working-class white kids because I am brown, it is just that — I have not been “beaten up” because I am “brown,” and I certainly haven’t been beaten up for being poor.

The anger, resentment and violence brought about by the victims and perpetrators of racism is real, and to that effect we all must do real work to eradicate it, not just hope that it will be spirited away by sprinkling some scare quotes around the issue. The problem of race affects us deeply on a subconscious level, and it is going to be hard to unlearn. Activists in positions of power and privilege must allow people of color the space to define race and racism on their terms, while educating themselves on why and how organizing tactics and philosophies that neglect race (and other facets of identity) so often fail to build successful coalitions. Those affected by racism must also realize that while organizing around racial identity can be a useful tool, we must also act across lines of gender, sexuality, nationality, and class. We need to be open to radical and critical philosophy, especially with regards to analyzing capitalism’s role in our struggle. We must remember not to confuse our aspirations for equality and justice with an amassing of individual power, prestige or wealth — or we will once again be forced look back in a few generations and realize that our achievements are “not the victory for which we have struggled.”

— Aay Preston-Myint, Chicago, IL, April 17, 2008


Chris Cutrone responds:

Analysis

Black people are not poor because they are black — any more than white people are poor because they are white. Poverty and resulting social disempowerment of black people have been rationalized on the basis of anti-black racist assumptions, and poverty among black people has been successfully isolated — “ghettoized” — and so defused as a social-political issue. Welfare programs were eliminated, while most recipients were white, by reference to the idea that society had tried to help poor people for a generation but to no avail, they just cannot be helped, but must be left to sink or swim on their own. Racism played a role in sanctioning such atrocity, but this does not mean that black poverty is caused by racism. Poverty is a structural problem of American society that will not be overcome short of overcoming capitalism. As long as this structural poverty exists without an adequate anticapitalist politics to combat it, racism will take the place of the proper recognition of the social nature of the problem, and thus prevent the politics necessary to overcome it.

History and politics

Those thinkers and actors in a certain anticapitalist critical-theoretical and revolutionary political tradition, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno et al., did not emerge out of a hyper-racialized social context like the U.S. The depth and meaning of anti-black racism in the U.S. is peculiar to its history; it is not a matter of ethnocentrism, national oppression, or any other form of cultural chauvinism, etc. Despite (or perhaps because) Marx did not share the concrete social context of such a racist society as the U.S., he recognized very clearly the stakes of the American Civil War against slavery that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded” (Capital, 1867), a formulation that remains unsurpassed. Black Americans are American, as American as any “white” American could possibly claim to be. At the same time, the history of anti-black racist oppression is inseparable from the development of capitalism. And, historically, socialism has been the most consistently anti-racist form of politics.

It was not any supposed lack of awareness or insensitivity to the issue of racism that caused black radicals of the “Old” Left in the 1920s–30s such as Claude McKay and Paul Robeson, inspired to Communist politics by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to have failed to articulate a “black” power ethos or practical political principle, but because this would have cut against the grain of their actual progressive-emancipatory politics. These figures were not lacking in black “pride” or political militancy, but they were part of the truly heroic (and truly tragic) history of radicalism of the early 20th Century that now lies obscured behind the more recent history of the 1960s and the aftermath of its failures (which were more farcical than tragic). As Davis pointed out in her Jan. 24 lecture I reviewed, the real historical background and basis for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s–60s was the earlier “cross-racial” organizing of workers, in the South — where it meant risking one’s life, white or black — as well as in the North, in the 1920s–30s, when it was actually much more difficult to do this than it would have been in the 1960s, but which the “Left” of the ’60s failed to even try to do, rationalizing their failure with separatist Black Power ideology.

The late-’60s Black Power turn was the result of the failures and frustrations of the limitations of the liberal integrationist politics of Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, et al. But this was not because King et al. were somehow lacking in “black” consciousness — as was scurrilously implied by Malcolm X with his famous “house nigger”-”field nigger” rhetoric — but because the practical politics of liberal-reformist integrationism could not address adequately the issue of capitalism, though King et al. were concerned with labor issues (the 1963 March on Washington was “for jobs and freedom”). Coming as we do today after the manifest inadequacies and failures of the policy reforms of the Civil Rights era, we can fall victim to naturalizing the logic of the Black Power turn of the late ’60s and think of it and the attitudes we inherit from it as some kind of necessary stage. But this would be a mistake, and not only because the Black Power turn was not a turn to the Left, but rather to the Right — the Black Power turn was a conservative recoil, an adaptation to defeat and dashed expectations, a lowering of horizons that involved the unwarranted assumption of the intractability of white racism — a sin much worse on the part of the “white” radicals who embraced this perspective than perhaps for the black radicals who articulated it.

More importantly, we can and must say today, more than 40 years later, that post-Black Power politics has obviously failed — and much more miserably than the Civil Rights Movement — to improve the social conditions for black people in the U.S. — as Adolph Reed, who I cited in my review of Davis, for one, has written about extensively, for instance in “Black Particularity Reconsidered” (AKA “The ‘Black Revolution’ and the Reconstitution of Domination,” 1979/86), pointing out the highly detrimental effects of “posing as politics.” — But whereas earlier black radicals of the 1920s–30s moved on from the charlatanry of Marcus Garvey et al. to the liberal, radical and socialist politics of W. E. B. Du Bois et al., the “politics” informed by the ’60s–’70s “New Left” regressed backwards along the same path, to Ron Karenga inventing holidays like Kwanzaa, etc., by the 1980s even rehabilitating Booker T. Washington’s avowedly conservative notions of “self-help” and waxing nostalgic for the “black community” of the segregated conditions of the Jim Crow era (see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., et al.), and affirming “black culture” as already constituting a valid political realm of “everyday acts of resistance” (see Robin D. G. Kelley et al.) — all the results of political failures on the “Left.” As Bayard Rustin pointed out at the advent of the Black Power turn, “Passionate self-assertion can be a mask for accommodation” (quoted in John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: the life and times of Bayard Rustin, Free Press, 2003, p. 475).

So this is not a matter of whether one chooses to prioritize “race” over “class,” etc., but rather how one understands the problem of racism and how capitalism is understood as a context within which changes in social problems like racism (becoming better or worse) take place. Capitalism is a global social system that determines the value and employment of human activity (or “labor”) and its reproduction in ways over which people have remained relatively powerless as individual and social agents. Capitalism is the reason why there is such a thing as “disposable” labor, why human beings as potential laborers are subject to being “disposed of,” and all the social consequences of this. So both social categories of “race” and socioeconomic “class” find their conditions of greater social context in the dynamics and historical changes of capital. (This is also true of issues of gender and sexuality. See the potentially seminal but largely neglected essays by Juliet Mitchell, “Women: the Longest Revolution,” 1966; and John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” 1973.)

Not simply “race” and “class,” but racism and capitalism and how they are related need to be addressed by any purportedly social emancipatory politics. The ways the “Left” has tried — or failed to try, and found excuse from trying — to address the problems of racism (as one would need to do in organizing the working class) since the 1960s have been worse than inadequate, and have turned into ideological distractions and political dead ends, bogged down in a host of pseudo-problems (that, for instance, Barack Obama was able to identify in his speech — against the desperate last gasp of racist politics by the Clintons et al.), whereas, according to Rustin’s critique of the Black Power turn, “the real cause of racial injustice . . . is not bad attitudes but bad social conditions” (“The Failure of Black Separatism,” Harper’s Magazine, January, 1970). Without a practical political focus on capitalism, the social conditions for racism will remain unaddressed, and racism and the problems affecting black people and others can continue.

Ideology

“Race” is a pseudo-biological category that deserves to be placed in quotation marks because it is not “real;” it is not to be naturalized and taken for granted as a point of departure, but rather needs to be attacked as the very thing to be overcome. An anti-racist politics, a politics opposed to any form of racism, cannot just assume “race” from the start without becoming confused and confounded.

Black “racial” identity is a negative not a positive value and cannot be rehabilitated or inverted for it has only ever meant degradation. We ought not to forget that anti-black racist sentiment — the disqualification of individuals rationalized by reference to their blackness — is just as prevalent among blacks as among whites and other groups in the U.S.

As Frantz Fanon put it very succinctly over 50 years ago, in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), “What is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact,” “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white,” and “The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.” We ought not to forget this.

Because we all share a social destiny in capitalism, one which we must work through and overcome in order to undermine the social conditions of possibility for racism (which are modern in nature), as Fanon also said, perhaps most outrageously, “Long ago the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence.” — I strongly encourage all those interested in the possibility of overcoming racist oppression to read closely and ponder and internalize deeply the theses in the Introduction and Conclusion of Fanon’s brilliant and profound book.

“Sickness and madness”

The world might not have been very ready to overcome capitalism up to now, but it has been more than ready to overcome racism, and so there’s no reason to resign ourselves to it or treat it as more of an obstacle than it need be. The persistence of racism — including the accommodation of it on the “Left” — is the surest sign of the barbarism of our times. And so “racial” consciousness can be nothing other than debilitating and fundamentally depoliticizing. As the late Malcolm X characterized his regrets about his participation in the black nationalist Nation of Islam,

[I] remember the time [when a] white college girl came into the restaurant who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying. . . . Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping Black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then — like all [Black] Muslims — I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years. That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days — I’m glad to be free of them. (Interview with Gordon Parks, 1965)

It’s incumbent upon us on the “Left” to try to root out and eliminate such “sickness and madness” as completely as possible, for it is nothing other than an obstacle to social emancipation or even the possibility of reform.

As the psychoanalyst Fanon pointed out, such “race” consciousness is an expression of wounded narcissism, a traumatic fixation on the past, and resulting paranoia, problematic for a healthy reality principle, and maintaining the past in the present at the expense of the future.

Identifying one’s political consciousness and practice as racially “black” — or “white” — is, as Fanon put it, citing the German Idealist philosophical tradition, an evasion and abdication of working through the “pathology of freedom,” work that must be based on the “refusal to accept the present as definitive.” | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #5 (May–July 2008).

Review: Angela Davis

How does change happen?

Chris Cutrone

ON THE FRIGID WINTER EVENING of Thursday, January 24, Angela Davis, a former Communist Party activist associated in the 1960s–70s with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party, and current Professor in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, gave the annual George E. Kent lecture (in honor of the first black American tenured professor) at the University of Chicago Rockefeller Chapel, to an overflow audience from the campus and surrounding community. The title of Davis’s talk was “How Does Change Happen?,” and, with the looming February 5 Super Tuesday primary elections to determine Democratic Party candidacy for President of the United States, Davis took as her point of departure the current contest between the first effective candidacies by a woman and a black American, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Davis also noted, with wry irony, that the current Republican presidency of George W. Bush is by far the most “diverse” administration in U.S. history.

But Davis stated that such apparent present overcoming of historical social limitations of race and gender was “not the victory for which we have struggled.” This observation of the disparity between social-political struggles and their outcomes formed a central, strong theme of Davis’s talk. Davis elaborated this further through discussion of how “collective demands are transformed into individual benefits.” In Davis’s estimation, individual women and black and Latino Americans such as Clinton, Obama, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas and others have benefited from historically more collective struggles against racial and ethnic discrimination and restrictive gender roles, without greater social justice or equality or collective empowerment being achieved.

Thus Davis came to discuss the question that she said has been presented to her on many occasions by her students of whether the struggles of the 1960s had been “in vain.” While Davis acknowledged that it could certainly appear to be so, she said that she did not wish to “believe” that this was indeed the case. So Davis raised the question of in what ways the 1960s New Left had succeeded, and how it had failed to achieve its goals.

In addressing such issues, Davis placed the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s–60s in greater historical context, pointing to the “cross-racial” struggles of the preceding 1920s–30s Left, for example the organizing of sharecroppers in Alabama by the Communist Party, which Davis said had laid the groundwork for the subsequent Civil Rights movement. This was the strongest point in Davis’s talk. However, perhaps the weakest point came when Davis tried to show such continuity of background in her further historical narrative, after the 1960s, in which she contended that the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast community programs for black schoolchildren had led to the implementation of U.S. federal government Head Start programs. Similarly, Davis’s defense of affirmative action programs since the 1960s did not serve her intention of showing how demands for structural change and collective empowerment had been diverted into more depoliticized individual benefits, for affirmative action had never been an anti-poverty measure and had always been geared specifically to meet “middle class” demands against institutional discrimination.

This contrast in Davis’s characterization of different historical moments of movements against anti-black racism in America, in the 1920s–30s and the 1960s–70s, up to the present, posed the issue of how adequately socialpolitical struggles for improving the social conditions of black Americans and reforming American society can be understood as having been against “racism”—though of course such struggles involved confronting legal segregation and other historical forms of institutionalized racism. In her talk, Davis used the category of “race” unproblematically to reference an irreducible reality of “difference” that she took everyone to already recognize. Davis oscillated between conflicting prognoses of the present, whether anti-black racism has been ameliorated or worsened since the 1960s. The category of “race” works ambivalently in discussing two obvious changes since the 1960s: that legal and institutional racism as well as common racist attitudes have been overcome or diminished while social conditions for most black Americans have worsened. But this only begs the question, which should be at the core of trying to think about how political and social change can and does happen, of the very adequacy or lack of such categories as “race” and “racism” to address the problems facing black Americans and their greater social context today.

In the context of the global economic downturn since 1973, in which the average per capita purchasing power of American workers to meet their needs has decreased by as much as 30 percent while incomes have been massively distributed upwards to a small elite, the possibilities for the simultaneous if paradoxical outcome of overcoming legal and institutional racism while conditions for most black Americans have worsened, could be understood better in terms of changes in capitalism that have involved satisfying, even if in limited ways, historical demands for change in American society such as an end to “racial” (and gender) discrimination. In America, black “race” has coded for poverty and hence realities of socioeconomic “class,” and anti-black racism has functioned to rationalize or at least naturalize poverty in the U.S., masking fundamental structural problems of American society, but this might function differently today than in the past, especially in light of the much-deplored separation of the concerns of the black “middle class” from the greater lot of black Americans since the 1960s. In her talk, Davis missed an opportunity to challenge and educate her audience in favor of calibrating her comments to what she seemed to perceive to be her audience’s conceptions of social-political problems. But such conceptions are in fact the effects of ideas like Davis’s that bear the undigested legacy of failed politics on the Left since the 1960s. As Adolph Reed pointed out in an article on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, “The Real Divide” (The Progressive, November, 2005), “As a political strategy, exposing racism is wrongheaded and at best an utter waste of time,” a distraction from addressing the necessary socioeconomic and political problems facing black Americans.

Davis’s talk lacked a sense of how capitalism as a specific problem and context for social politics subordinates and molds issues like racism historically. But the questions Davis raised in her talk nevertheless pointed in directions of how such an understanding of capitalism might help overcome the apparent paradoxes of changes in the problem of racism since the 1960s.

In the 1960s, Davis had studied with members of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, in Frankfurt, Germany with Theodor Adorno and subsequently in San Diego with Herbert Marcuse. Adorno had discouraged Davis from leaving her studies to participate in student activism while Marcuse had encouraged this.[1] But we might say retrospectively today that had Davis heeded Adorno’s advice instead and given herself the opportunity for a more thorough critical investigation of the role of changes in capitalism in how historical changes such as the transformation and amelioration of anti-black racism could be understood more adequately and hence politically effectively, then Angela Davis, along with other radical intellectuals like her, could have contributed to better thinking and politics that might have helped us avoid the present situation in which one is left with the unsatisfying choice between proclaiming the historical end of racism and trying to address present social-political problems with antiquated and inadequate categories like “race.” | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #3 (March 2008).


1. Angela Y. Davis, “Marcuse’s Legacies” (1998), in John Abromeit and W. Mark Cobb, eds., Herbert Marcuse: a critical reader (Routledge, 2004), 46–47.

On anarchism and Marxism

Organization, political action, history, and consciousness

Chris Cutrone

Socialism is the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind . . . to try to take its history into its own hands; instead of remaining a will-less football, it will take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history.
— Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis of German Social Democracy (1915)

PLATYPUS HAS EARNED RECOGNITION from the new British publication Mayday: magazine for anarchist/libertarian ideas and action, in its inaugural issue #1 (Winter 2007–08) “Introduction: Open letter” (pp. 2–7). Mayday cites the initial Platypus statement, “What is a platypus? On surviving the extinction of the Left:”

Attempts at progressive political renewal are occurring all round the world . . . Platypus in their 2006 document ‘On Surviving the Extinction of the Left’ say: ‘We maintain that past and present history need not indicate the future. Past and present failures and losses on the Left should educate and warn, but not spellbind and enthrall us. Hence, to free ourselves, we declare that the Left is dead. — Or, more precisely, that we are all that is left of it. This is less a statement of fact than of intent. — The intent that the Left should live, but the recognition that it can, only by overcoming itself. And we are that overcoming!’ (2–3)

Mayday goes on to say:

This is a spirit which Mayday has much in common with, although we include the anarchist movement in this assessment, and it is through engagement with such groups who are beginning again that serious progress may occur. (3)

The Platypus assessment of the “death” of the “Left” also applies to anarchism.

But we should distinguish a Marxian approach from anarchism to clarify our engagement. A key distinction is the relation of political organization and historical consciousness. Critical historical consciousness is primary for Platypus, and we are currently addressing classical issues in the history of revolutionary Marxism 1900–40 through a series of discussions in Chicago, reading Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky to approach the relation between history and organization on the Marxist Left, how and why theory and political programme are essential forms of historical memory and consciousness on the Left. Platypus asks: What is the purpose of “revolutionary” organization? Revolutionary “leadership?” — Or, as present “anarchist” aversion to organizational leadership would have it, are such formulations contradictions in terms?

The Mayday “Introduction: Open letter” states that “Mayday was produced because experience within political movements led to dissatisfaction with what already passes for politics and political organisation” (3). Mayday critiques the organizational “conservatism” and “hierarchies” of political groups “more concerned with the continuation of themselves rather than the growth of an independent and free workers movement” (3). Mayday ascribed this phenomenon to “Leninist tactics which are designed to perpetuate the organization not the class struggle” (3). But Mayday thinks “anarchist” groups are not exempt from this problem: “Rather than enabling progressive politics, existing practice was rather sectarian in approach; they practice self-isolating politics, rather than an inclusive and growing approach, and this even from anarchists” (3). Mayday notes the legacy of 1960s New Left activism that the “movement is full of lions led by donkeys,” due to an “anti-intellectualism” that is “also suggestive of hidden hierarchies inside outwardly democratic appearances” (3). Mayday thereby disarticulates a usual but unwarranted and problematic identification of intellectualism with pitfalls of leadership.

Platypus considers that there might be reason for the self-perpetuation of avowedly “revolutionary” organizations, but that this should not be taken for granted and needs to be justified. Perhaps there is a specific relation of organization to consciousness and emancipatory action that is lost in the classic antinomy of spontaneity vs. organization. As Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer J. P. Nettl pointed out, Lenin and Luxemburg each addressed different, complementary questions, but towards the same purpose: How does political action enable transformative organization; and how does political organization enable transformative, emancipatory, and not foreclosing action? How can the Left “live” and take form not deadly to itself?

Nicholas Spencer, in his 1997 essay “Historicizing the Spontaneous Revolution: Anarchism and the Spatial Politics of Postmodernism,” stated the issue as follows:

[T]he Marxist model of a rational or scientific understanding of historical processes . . . culminate[s] in a class-based revolution at the end of dialectical time. . . . Conversely, those of an anarchist persuasion have often criticized the Marxist emphasis on rational history as a counter-revolutionary justification for the authority of the state and political party leaders. Both anarchists and Marxists consider themselves the spokespersons for the authentic political revolution. . . . Luxemburg supported the need for party leaders and organization to guide revolutions according to the historical science of dialectical materialism. . . . According to anarchist philosophy, belief in history is the guarantor of political authority, since change over time implies the need for a centralized body to guide the processes of change. The anarchist appeal to spontaneous revolution is one symptom of the rejection of history. [Available on-line at: http://www.ags.uci.edu/~clcwegsa/revolutions/Spencer.htm]

Platypus pursues the revolutionary Marxist tradition to ask questions of the relation between organization and historical consciousness. What role, if any, does historical consciousness play in emancipatory politics? What is meant by “historical” consciousness?

The relevance of history is not given but made. But “made” in a dialectical sense. As Marx put it in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, humanity makes history but not under conditions of its own choosing. History is made but in ways that also produce us. We make history with what is given under certain conditions, and so need to be conscious of how history is made and reflect upon its significance, rather than taking it for granted. This is why Walter Benjamin spoke, in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” of the “writing” of history, historiography on the Left being urgent for emancipatory politics.

From a Marxian approach to capital, there are two registers for apprehending history: the specificity of modern, capitalist society as an epochal problem distinguished from other historical forms of society; and the historical transformations that occur within the epoch of capital in which social-emancipatory movements take part, since Marx’s time of the Industrial Revolution and related social and political changes starting in the mid-19th century and the emergence of the modern workers’ movement, to the present. The issue of capital thus becomes the question of: What changes while remaining “the same?”

Benjamin’s concept of “constellation” refers to the sense that historical moments might not have pertinence to the present in a linear-progressive way. Rather, these historical constellations appear as structuring figures in the constitution of the present, as sets of enduring problems yet to be worked through. As Benjamin put it, this is a matter of making the past present. Hence something that happened more recently might not have a more immediate relevance to problems of the present than something that happened long ago. Something later might expire faster because it is less essential to the present than something earlier might allow us to grasp.

Such constellations in the appearance of history are importantly involuntary: as Benjamin put it, they “flash up;” as Marx put it, they “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” So history cannot be a simple matter of an inventory of “lessons already learned.” For, as Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe.” The significance of the past changes as a function of the present. History haunts us as a problem in the present. This is why Benjamin spoke of regarding history from the standpoint of its redemption. What value, if any, do past thoughts and actions have for us now? The history of the Left furnishes us with a set of questions and problems that we are tasked to answer in the present. But, as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics (1966), “What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.”

The question of organization can be seen in a limited, one-sided respect if it is treated merely in terms of effective action in the present, if it is not also seen as a problem of historical continuity, through moments of change in which conscious actors have taken part. The organization of emancipatory politics should be understood properly as a matter of self-transformative action. What organization allows for itself to be transformed in and through actions it makes possible? Thus we can see that the present fossilization of the Left, in both theory and practice, presents problems of organization in a certain light. We need to understand the reasons for and significance of this inertia, and how it is a problem that we don’t have the choice to bypass but must try to overcome.

Programmatic organization might be necessary precisely because it can objectify and thus make available for critical reflection problems of changes in consciousness. Problems of organization are not only deplorable in terms of resulting incapacity for effective and sustainable transformative action under changing conditions, but might be important symptoms whose task it is for us to work in and through, and not merely oppose. Perhaps we need to be “conservative” in our “revolutionary” politics in order to be actually radical in the present.

“History” can be accumulated in forms of organizational programme as a problem of consciousness in and of the present, in the results of attempts (but failures) to consciously act effectively. But organization transcends the immediate act; it is its own cause and effect. Hence this is a problem of how we recognize history in the guise of problems of organizational forms, not simply as a matter of their inevitable obsolescence. Not simply that groups and programmes on the Left have become “dead,” but how and why this has become so, for what they were trying to accomplish has hardly become irrelevant but remains to be fulfilled. Such is the only way this history can be made relevant, if at all, to the present. So Platypus asks: What did historical Marxism seek but fail to accomplish that might yet succeed through our efforts?

Hence, the Platypus declaration that “the Left is dead!” is not only a characterization of the present as a place or condition in which we happen to be, but is more importantly a historical characterization of the present, a hypothesis and provocation for recognition of what has led to the present and what it might take to lead ourselves out of it. So it is not merely a question of “where” we “are” vs. where we “were,” as Mayday, among others, asks, but also and perhaps more importantly “when” we are — and “when” was the historical Left? How can the historical Left, specifically the history of revolutionary Marxism, help us situate ourselves in and despite the historical moment of today?

For we do not live in some timeless and perpetual present of oppression and struggle against it, but in what Benjamin called the “time of the now” (Jetztzeit), a time of particular and fleeting possibilities and the ambiguously obscure history that brought them — us — into existence.

The present might not be an opportunity for a break so much as for recovery and reinvention. As Lenin wrote, in the title of his 1901 article that became the basis for What is to be done?, “Where to begin?” — Or, how? Platypus proceeds now that emancipatory social politics is necessarily at a preliminary phase of potential development. Beginning this way gives the history of the Left and questions and problems of our consciousness of it relevance for being able to grasp the very possibility of emancipatory politics today, and what is most essential towards this. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #2 (February 2008).