Left Forum NYC 2010: Iran

The Green Movement and the Left: prospects for democracy in Iran

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Siyaves Azeri (Worker-communist Party of Iran) and Hamid Dabashi (Columbia University) at the Left Forum in New York City, Pace University, March 21, 2010. A previous version of this presentation was given at the Platypus Affiliated Society public forum on “30 years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran: the tragedy of the Left,” with panelists Maziar Behrooz (San Francisco State University), Kaveh Ehsani (DePaul University, Chicago) and Danny Postel, University of Chicago, November 5, 2009, whose transcript was published as a special supplement to Platypus Review #20 (February 2010), and presented as an individual lecture at Loyola University, Chicago, December 3, 2009, and at the University of Chicago, October 29, 2009.

I would like to pose the question: What can the history of the Islamic Revolution in Iran teach the Left?

The 30th anniversary of the toppling of the Shah of Iran witnessed the controversy over the election results in the Islamic Republic, in which the incumbent (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad claimed victory over his opponent (Mir-Hossein) Mousavi, and mass protests against this result were subject to brutal, violent repression.

These two historic moments, those of the birth and crisis of the Islamic Republic of Iran, communicate over time, and can tell us a great deal about the nature and trajectory of the contemporary world, and the role of the demise of the Left in it.

We in Platypus approach the history of the Islamic Revolution in Iran as a specific story in the overall history of the death of the Left — its historical decline and disappearance.  The self-destruction of the Left in Iran is a good entry into investigation of the death of the Left internationally, over the course of at least the past generation.

It is instructive that, where once the Left in Iran was the most vital and potentially significant in the Middle East or Muslim world, today the Left has been completely eradicated in Iran.

Whereas the Shah simultaneously sought to repress and co-opt the Left, the Islamic Republic has brought about its entire elimination in Iran (and has sought to do so elsewhere, for instance in the Lebanese civil war, through its proxies Hezbollah).  It is in this sense that one can meaningfully talk about the reactionary, Right-wing character of the Islamic Republic, relative to what came before it under the Pahlavi dynasty.  There are fewer possibilities for Iranian society today than there were 30 years ago.  This bitter fact is something most try to avoid confronting, but is where I want to focus attention in my presentation.

The Left is defined by potential and possibility, the Right by its foreclosure.  The Left expresses and reveals potential possibilities, while the Right represses and obscures these.

For this reason, the role of the Iranian and international Left in repressing and obscuring the true character of social possibilities in Iran, during the period leading up to Islamic Revolution, is crucial for grasping, not only how the Left destroyed itself, but also, and more importantly, how it destroyed itself as a Left, and thus contributed to the construction of a new Right.  Only justice for past crimes committed by the Left can recover old, and open new possibilities in the present.  Only by confronting its problematic historical legacy can the Left today be a Left at all.  But this is something virtually no-one wants to do.

Slavoj Zizek, in his recent book In Defense of Lost Causes, cites Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism and Foucault’s embrace of the Islamic Revolution in Iran to demonstrate the importance and necessity of what Zizek calls “taking the right step in the wrong direction.”  Zizek is eager, as he expressed in his writing on the recent election crisis in Iran, to find the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam.”  He thinks that a more radical emancipatory potential was grasped, however uncertainly, by Foucault in 1979 (and by Heidegger in 1933!).  I wish to argue the contrary, that Foucault’s — and the rest of the “Left’s” — embrace of Islamism was and continues to be a conservative move, thinly veiled by claims to more radical bona fides.

This phenomenon of seeking the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam” can be traced all the way through the recent election crisis in Iran.  We need to examine the trajectory of the supposedly “Left” Islamist discontents and opposition to the Shah’s regime leading up to the Islamic Revolution, and how this plays out for continuers of such politics such as Mousavi in the Islamic Republic in the present.

The New Left Islamist figure Ali Shariati is key to understanding the relation of the Left to Islamism, both around the 1979 toppling of the Shah and the political divisions in the Islamic Republic of Iran today.  For instance, opposition presidential candidate Mousavi, and especially his wife Zahra Rahnavard, were students of Shariati who worked closely with him politically in the 1960s and ’70s.  The largest political organization on the Left in the 1979 revolution were the MEK (Mojahedin-e-Khalq, or People’s Mojahedin of Iran), who helped organize the street protests that toppled the Shah and participated in the taking of the U.S. embassy, and found inspiration in Shariati’s approach to Islam.

The fact that Mousavi and Rahnavard eventually joined the Khomeini faction, and that there is a significant likelihood that Khomeini’s agents were responsible for Shariati’s untimely death in exile in 1977 at age 44, should not obscure the New Left Islamist roots of the Khomeiniite Islamic Republic, of which Mousavi was Prime Minister from 1981–89, under Khomeini’s “supreme” leadership, approving the slaughter of the Left.  The present controversy in the Islamic Republic establishment is not to be understood in terms of new wine in old bottles but rather the old in the new.  The Islamist politics on both sides is a Right-wing phenomenon, now as before.  Mousavi as standard bearer for discontents in the Islamic Republic is a phenomenon of political confusion, to which any Left must attend.  There are significant problems to be addressed in the relation of ideology to social and political reality.  The point is that Khomeini’s supremacy in the Islamic Revolution was not to be explained by his superior insight and grasp of realities, but rather his successful navigation of them, which is a different matter.  The present dispute between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi amounts to this.

Khomeini did not lead a revolutionary transformation of Iranian society but rather the reconsolidation of Iran after the crisis and fall of the Shah.  The phenomenon of the so-called “Left” (for the most part) calling black white, does not change the fact that Khomeini represented a Right-wing response to the discontents and crisis of Iranian society in the 1970s.  The Left’s support of Khomeini expresses its disorientation and confusion theoretically, and its Right-wing role practically.  There is no mystery here: telling women to cover themselves was not an emancipatory act!

The collapse of the Shah’s regime did not increase but ultimately decreased the possibilities for Iranian society.  The Khomeiniite Islamic Republic was not the expression but the repression of potential, in the context of diminished possibilities.  To understand how this was so, it is useful to consider the historical trajectory of Iran in global context.  The developmental states of the post-colonial world underwent a severe crisis starting with the global downturn of the 1970s.  The 1970s were the period in which, for example, so-called “Third World debt” manifested itself as a serious problem for these states.

Oil revenues could not provide remedy in the case of Iran, because what was encountered, throughout the world in the 1970s, was the crisis of the mid-20th century transformations that went on under the rubric of “modernization.”  In Iran, this was carried out through the Shah’s White Revolution, in which he had been goaded, beginning in the early 1960s, by the U.S. Kennedy Administration, and continued to be by those subsequent.  Khomeini’s rise as a politician originated in protest against the policies of modernization — and social liberalization — implemented by the Shah, under pressure from the U.S.  Khomeini was always clear about this in ways the “Left” has not been.  The Left abdicated from providing an emancipatory response to the changes in Iranian society.  The Shah stood between Right- and Left-wing discontents, but the Left steadily liquidated its own concerns.

Indeed, despite that discontents with the Shah were channeled into New Left “anti-imperialist” politics, the Shah indeed was bucking the “Great Satan” on his own accord.  Not only was the Shah’s regime prompted to transform Iranian society, through the White Revolution reforms of the 1960s–70s, exacerbating social and political discontents, but indeed responsibility for the ultimate demise of the Shah can be laid at the door of U.S. policy, for President Carter refused to support the Shah against the tumult of protests that broke out in 1978.  The U.S. not only supported the Shah’s regime but significantly undermined it as well.  This was not a mistake on the part of the U.S., but expressed the differing interests of U.S. policy as against the Shah.

So much for supposed “anti-imperialism.” — So, what happened in Iran?  Certainly the close if not always happy relationship between the Shah’s regime and the U.S. became symbolic for discontents in Iran.  But symbolic in what sense?  The New Left conception of “imperialism” got in the way of a sober perception of the problems facing Iranian society in the 1970s.  Iran was not suffering from U.S. imperial oppression.  Rather, Iran faced a crossroads in its development in which an insurgent Islamist politics found purchase.  The nature of this Islamist politics was obscured by the Left’s conceptions of the potential social-political divisions in Iranian society and in its greater global context.

Iran was the site for the most significant political Left in the Middle East and Muslim world.  Many thousands of Iranian students with Leftist inclinations studied abroad in Europe and North America.  In their encounter with the metropolitan New Left, they were encouraged to embrace the supposed Muslim roots of Iranian society and find potential there for emancipatory politics.  But emancipation from what, and for whom?

The issue of Islamist politics looms.  The New Left Islamist Shariati considered himself a follower of Frantz Fanon.  Others, including Khomeini, also found resonance with Fanon’s writings (on Algeria and Africa), on what they considered to be the problem of “cultural imperialism.”  So, according to this view, Iran suffered, not from structural and political problems in modern historical context, so much as from cultural problems, of so-called “Westernization,” which was pathologized.  The problems of modernization became the problem of Westernization, which thus needed to be eradicated.  Islamist politics was the means by which the cure for this “disease” has been attempted.

To this day, the Islamic Republic of Iran is premised on a culturalist conception of politics.  Ahmadinejad and others speak of Iran’s “political frontiers” as if they were just lines on a map.  Their “Islamic Revolution” is civilizational and global in reach.  It is not about Iran.  Ahmadinejad wrote an “open letter” to President Bush chastising the failure of “liberal democracy” and urging the principles of Islamist politics instead.

Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, whose legitimate mantle was in dispute between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad in the recent election, is premised on the idea that the entire Iranian population, suffering from the illness of “cultural imperialism” by the West, needed to be held as minority wards of the mullahs.  This is why there is a Guardian Council and a Supreme Leader above all elected officials.  When Ahmadinejad referred to the election protesters as “shit,” this was the social imagination behind it: he considered them to be religiously fallen, culturally corrupted, and hence evil, in a disqualifying, dehumanizing sense.  The powers-that-be of the Islamic Republic, still pursuing the Islamic Revolution, including Mousavi, have moral contempt for the people of Iran — as any Right-wingers do for their subalterns.

This is why it is worse than tragic, indeed, I would argue, criminal, for the Left to continue to embrace today, in whatever form, the presuppositions of such Right-wing politics of Islamism — as the Left did in the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago.  It was worse than a mistake then, and it continues to be so today.  The degree to which the Green Movement espouses or merely accepts the framework of the Islamic Republic, it remains in the thrall of Islamist politics. It is part of the deliberate obscuring of social realities behind bad ideology and worse politics.  The history of the past 30 years proves that Islamism was no way to address the discontents and ameliorate the problems of Iranian or indeed Muslim society. This is not only a lie, but a crime.

Any purported “Left” must treat Islamist politics, not as some kind of framework, but as a deadly obstacle, necessary to overcome. | §

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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Benjamin’s philosophy of history

Freedom in history?

Chris Cutrone

Presented on the panel “Reconsidering Benjamin,” with panelists Alfred Frankowski (University of Oregon) and Donald Hedrick (Kansas State University), at the Rethinking Marxism 2009 conference, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, November 7, 2009. A prior, expanded version was presented at the University of Chicago History of Culture Symposium, May 30, 2008. Draft: not to be cited in present form.

I’d like to begin with a few citations as epigraphs, on the concepts of “freedom” and “history.” The first is from James Miller’s Introduction to the 1992 Hackett edition of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality:

The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility,” . . . suggest that the possibilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless. . . . Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted.  A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared. . . .  As Hegel put it, “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.”

Next, to address the concept of “history,” I’d like to quote from Peter Preuss’s Introduction to the 1980 Hackett edition of Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, which was highly influential for Benjamin:

The nineteenth century had discovered history and all subsequent inquiry and education bore the stamp of this discovery. This was not simply the discovery of a set of facts about the past but the discovery of the historicity of man: man, unlike the animal, is a historical being. Man is not wholly the product of an alien act, either natural or divine, but in part produces his own being. The task of existing is a task precisely because it is not a case of acting according to a permanent nature or essence but rather of producing that nature within the limitations of a situation. History is the record of this self-production; it is the activity of a historical being recovering the past into a present which anticipates the future. With a total absence of this activity man would fall short of humanity: history is necessary.

But what if this activity is perverted? What if, rather than remaining the life-promoting activity of a historical being, history is turned into the objective uncovering of mere facts by the disinterested scholar — facts to be left as they are found, to be contemplated without being assimilated into present being? . . . [T]his perversion has taken place — and history, rather than promoting life, has become deadly. This, then, is the dilemma: . . . history is necessary, but as it is practiced it is deadly.

The third and final epigraph I’d like to cite, also on “history,” is from Louis Menand’s Introduction to the 2003 republication of Edmund Wilson’s 1940 book To the Finland Station, which addressed the history of the Left from its emergence in the French Revolution all the way up to the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917:

In pre-modern societies, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life: people do things in their generation so that the same things will continue to be done in the next generation. Meaning is immanent in all the ordinary customs and practices of existence, since these are inherited from the past, and are therefore worth reproducing. The idea is to make the world go not forward, only around. In modern societies, the ends of life are not given at the beginning of life; they are thought to be created or discovered. The reproduction of the customs and practices of the group is no longer the chief purpose of existence; the idea is not to repeat, but to change, to move the world forward. Meaning is no longer immanent in the practices of ordinary life, since those practices are understood by everyone to be contingent and time-bound. This is why death, in modern societies, is the great taboo, an absurdity, the worst thing one can imagine. For at the close of life people cannot look back and know that they have accomplished the task set for them at birth. This knowledge always lies up ahead, somewhere over history’s horizon. Modern societies don’t know what will count as valuable in the conduct of life in the long run, because they have no way of knowing what conduct the long run will find itself in a position to respect. The only certain knowledge death comes with is the knowledge that the values of one’s own time, the values one has tried to live by, are expunge-able. . . .

Marxism gave a meaning to modernity. It said that, wittingly or not, the individual performs a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a trajectory, and that modernity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. Historical change is not arbitrary. It is generated by class conflict; it is faithful to an inner logic; it points toward an end, which is the establishment of the classless society. Marxism was founded on an appeal for social justice, but there were many forms that such an appeal might have taken. Its deeper attraction was the discovery of meaning, a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself. When Wilson explained, in his introduction to the 1972 edition of To the Finland Station, that his book had been written under the assumption that “an important step in progress has been made, that a fundamental ‘breakthrough’ had occurred,” this is the faith he was referring to. . . . Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment.

The relevance of history is not given but made, in a dialectical sense. As Marx put it, humanity makes history but not under conditions of its own choosing (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852). History is made but in ways that also produce us, and so we need to be conscious of how history is made and reflect upon its significance, rather than taking it for granted. Furthermore, “history” itself is a modern discovery: history is historical. This is not least 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, for the possibilities for social emancipation are not only historical but point to potentials beyond the historical, to the possibility of getting beyond history, for which capital might be the beginning and the end.

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 enduring problems yet to be worked through. Hence something that happened more recently might not have more immediate relevance to problems of the present than something that happened longer 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 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 an inventory of “lessons already learned.” According to Nietzsche, responding to the Hegelian account of history as the story of reason and freedom, there is in history a dialectic of enlightenment and mythologization. For, as Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe.” The significance of the past changes as a function of the present. The meaning of history is itself a symptom to be worked through. This is why Benjamin spoke of regarding history from the standpoint of its redemption. What value do past thoughts and actions have? The history of the Left furnishes a set of questions and problems that we are tasked to answer according to the way the problem of freedom presents to us. 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.”

For Benjamin, this non-linear function of the past in the present constitutes the critical purchase of the melancholic-neurotic compulsion to repeat, the capture of the present by the past, but as a symptom yet to be worked through, in the Freudian sense that a symptom potentially yields, together, both knowledge and freedom.

For Benjamin, the problem of historical meaning was inextricably bound up with the dynamic of capital that provoked consciousness of history itself. “History” was a product of modernity, and was itself a form of appearance of social modernity under capital. “History” was historical, and thus subject to a “historico-philosophical” critique of what its appearance signaled and meant.

With the phrase “philosophy of history,” two figures immediately come to the fore: Hegel and Nietzsche. Both Nietzsche and Hegel sought to interrogate and problematize the very possibility of a philosophy of history, or of grasping a coherent meaning to history, and so both are foundational for and help to situate Benjamin’s attack on the “historicism” originating in the 19th century and symptomatically characterizing “historical” consciousness since then. The question becomes what it means to think about history. Furthermore, for Benjamin, Marx’s observation that history “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” is related to Nietzsche’s observation that (modern) historical consciousness was pathological and symptomatic, and potentially, if not manifestly, invidious for (present) life. For Marx and Nietzsche, (each in their own way) following Hegel, (the meaning of) history was something, not to be deified, but rather transformed and overcome.

So, crucially, for Benjamin, neither Hegel nor Nietzsche can be considered “historicist” thinkers, despite (myriad mistaken) attempts (from Right-Hegelian German academicism to “post-modern” Foucauldian “genealogies”) to base an epistemology or method on their critical philosophical investigations into the meaning of history, their attempts to raise the appearance of history to critical self-consciousness. Marx sought to follow Hegel in such a critical specification of history, and Nietzsche can be considered a contributor to Benjamin parallel to Marx, whose work gained a renewed importance as a kind of bad conscience to the vulgarization of Marxism in the late 19th century, when Marxism began exhibiting the same hypostatized progressive view of history that liberalism had demonstrated earlier. Vulgarized Marxism thus had become an affirmative philosophy of history to which, for Benjamin, Nietzsche’s thought could be productively opposed and brought into tension.

An early (pre-Marxist) writing by Benjamin, the “Theologico-Political Fragment” circa 1920, introduces metaphysical categories important for Benjamin’s later engagements with the problem of historical meaning.

[Read Benjamin, “Theologico-Political Fragment.”]

Benjamin raises two dimensions of historical temporality, one, in the “profane” direction of the pursuit of happiness, which is understood as informed by the temporality of the “eternal passing away” of mortal nature, and, the other, in the “sacred” direction of Messianic eschatology, with the consummation of history in redemption at the end of time, the end of all temporality, with its paradoxical image of (the restitutio in integrum or) bodily resurrection.

Several schema are raised by Benjamin to help situate the stakes of the meaning of history along these axial tensions of the opposed pursuit of happiness and demand for redemption. The failure to attain happiness is what produces the demand for redemption. Happiness is sacrificed in pursuit of redemption, and redemption is abrogated, its promise forgotten in the pursuit of happiness. So history as the story of happiness’s failure is necessarily accompanied by the story of history as the demand for redemption. According to Benjamin, this means that the pursuit of mortal happiness nevertheless “assists” the coming of the “Messianic Kingdom” of redemption by “its quietist approach.” Thus Benjamin attempts to establish a dialectic of happiness and redemption, which also involves a dialectic of cyclical and linear temporality: linear by way of an “end” in redemption, and cyclical by way of the temporality of nature’s “eternal passing away.”

A famous phrase by Marx describes how, under capital, changes in the cultural and political “subjective” “superstructure” occur more slowly than those of the “objective” socioeconomic “base,” which is constantly revolutionized according to a linear-progressive dynamic of a limitless drive of value maximization. Failing to recognize the key aspect of this phrase, about changes occurring “more slowly” in the “superstructure” than in the “base,” subsequent supposed “Marxists” have generalized from the descriptive (and subordinate) imagery of “base” and “superstructure” as if this distinction was Marx’s epistemological point. And mistaking Marx’s understanding of the relation of “political economy” to the totality of social life under capital, the further vulgarization of this mis-generalization has assumed that Marx was addressing a distinction between a more fundamentally “real” “economic” basis and a more “epiphenomenal” and arbitrary political and cultural sphere. But this loses Marx’s sense that concrete forms of material production in the economy are themselves “epiphenomenal” and subject to a more “fundamental” alienated temporal dynamic of the value-form in capital. Forms of industrial production in factories etc. are not the fundamental reality of capital but rather its disposable effects as human beings have tried (and failed) to master its value dynamic.

It is this incessantly dynamic field of “revolutions” in concrete ways of life, for which according to Marx “all that is solid melts into air,” that gives rise to a new and exacting consciousness of “history,” beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Human beings living under the capital dynamic become tasked to try to make sense of these dramatic — and destructive as well as “productively” progressive — changes, to make sense of history and question whether and how human agency exists in and through history. The “Left,” to which this history first gave birth (in the French Revolution), is itself inextricably part of this historical dynamic, for which emancipation and enlightened consciousness are inseparably tied. The “Left” seeks to be the most adequate consciousness and effective action in service of fulfilling concrete emancipatory possibilities presented in the history of capital, while grasping the underlying dynamic as the greatest threat and so limit to the possibilities for further developing the social emancipation the capital dynamic makes possible in people’s concrete ways of life.

What Benjamin offered was not an opposition of regression to progress but a necessary corrective to a mistaken and tragic identification with the aggression of the progressive dynamic of modern life and its incessant transformations. For melancholia is not really about the past but rather the present and its problems, for which the past offers a grasp and way to cope, as well as an indication of the failed mastery it expresses. Benjamin sought to make the demands that consciousness of history presents symptomatic in the sense of what Adorno, after Benjamin, called “consciousness of suffering.”

A sense of history that remains cognizant of both the potential for freedom and the suffering that results from its constraint, of the struggle for happiness and the redemption of its cruelest disappointments, of a present that is structured by past failures, is what Benjamin sought in his “negative” philosophy of history, which was neither an enchantment nor a disenchantment of progress, but the consciousness of the regression involved in the “progress” which is none under capital, and the memory that it might have been and so yet could be otherwise. | §

Book review: Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy

korschmarxismphilosophy2008Translated by Fred Halliday. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970 and 2008.

Chris Cutrone

[Marx wrote,] “[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence.”[1] This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch.

As scientific socialism, the Marxism of Marx and Engels remains the inclusive whole of a theory of social revolution . . . a materialism whose theory comprehended the totality of society and history, and whose practice overthrew it. . . . The difference [now] is that the various components of [what for Marx and Engels was] the unbreakable interconnection of theory and practice are further separated out. . . . The umbilical cord has been broken.

— Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923)

The problem of “Marxism and Philosophy” — Korsch and Adorno on theory and practice

KARL KORSCH’S SEMINAL ESSAY “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) was first published in English, translated by Fred Halliday, in 1970 by Monthly Review Press. In 2008, they reprinted the volume, which also contains some important shorter essays, as part of their new “Classics” series.

The original publication of Korsch’s essay coincided with Georg Lukács’s 1923 landmark collection of essays, History and Class Consciousness (HCC). While Lukács’s book has the word “history” in its title, it follows Marx’s Capital in addressing the problem of social being and consciousness in a primarily “philosophical” and categorial manner, as the subjectivity of the commodity form. Korsch’s essay on philosophy in Marxism, by contrast, is actually a historical treatment of the problem from Marx and Engels’s time through the 2nd International to the crisis of Marxism and the revolutions of 1917–19. More specifically, it takes up the development and vicissitudes of the relation between theory and practice in the history of Marxism, which is considered the “philosophical” problem of Marxism.

Independently of one another, both Korsch’s and Lukács’s 1923 works shared an interest in recovering the Hegelian or “idealist” dimension of Marx’s thought and politics. Both were motivated to establish the coherence of the Marxist revolutionaries Lenin and Luxemburg, and these 2nd International-era radicals’ shared grounding in what Korsch called “Marx’s Marxism.” Their accomplishment of this is all the more impressive when it is recognized that it was made without benefit of either of the two most important texts in which Marx explicitly addressed the relation of his own thought to Hegel’s, the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (first published in 1932) or the notes for Capital posthumously published as the Grundrisse (1939), and also without access to Lenin’s 1914 notebooks on Hegel’s Science of Logic (1929). Due to a perceived shortcoming in the expounding of revolutionary Marxism, the problem for Korsch and Lukács was interpreting Marxism as both theory and practice, or how the politics of Lenin and Luxemburg (rightly) considered itself “dialectical.” Both Lukács and Korsch explicitly sought to provide this missing exposition and elaboration.

Lukács and Korsch were later denounced as “professors” in the Communist International, a controversy that erupted after the deaths of Luxemburg and Lenin. (Another important text of this moment was Lukács’s 1924 monograph in eulogy, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought.) In the face of this party criticism, Lukács acquiesced and made his peace with Stalinized “orthodoxy.” Eventually disavowing History and Class Consciousness as a misguided attempt to “out-Hegel Hegel,” Lukács even attempted to destroy all the existing copies of the unpublished “Tailism and the Dialectic,” his brilliant 1925 defense of HCC. (Apparently he failed, since a copy was eventually found in Soviet archives. This remarkable document was translated and published in 2000 as A Defence of History and Class Consciousness.)

Korsch responded differently to the party’s criticism. Quitting the 3rd International Communist movement entirely, he became associated with the “Left” or “council” communism of Antonie Pannekoek, Paul Mattick, et al. Though making a choice very different from Lukács and distancing himself from official “Marxism-Leninism,” Korsch also came to disavow his earlier argument in “Marxism and Philosophy.” Specifically, he abandoned the attempt to establish the coherence of Lenin’s theory and practice with that of Marx, going so far as to critique Marx’s own Marxism. Thus, in “The Present State of the Problem of ‘Marxism and Philosophy:’ An Anti-Critique” (1930), included in Marxism and Philosophy, Korsch argues that, to the degree Marx shared a common basis with Lenin, this was an expression of limitations in Marx’s own critical theory and political practice. Indeed, for Korsch it was a problem of “Marxism” in general, including that of Kautsky and Luxemburg. Ultimately, Korsch called for “going beyond” Marxism.

The complementary, if divergent, trajectories of Korsch and Lukács are indicative of the historical disintegration of the perspective both shared in their writings of 1923. Both had understood the “subjective” aspect of Marxism to have been clarified by Lenin’s role in the October Revolution. The figure of Lenin was irreducible, and brought out dimensions of the Marxian project that otherwise lay unacknowledged. As Theodor W. Adorno put it in private discussion with Max Horkheimer in 1956,

I always wanted to produce a theory that would be faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin. . . . Marx was too harmless; he probably imagined quite naïvely that human beings are basically the same in all essentials and will remain so. It would be a good idea, therefore, to deprive them of their second nature. He was not concerned with their subjectivity; he probably didn’t look into that too closely. The idea that human beings are the products of society down to their innermost core is an idea that he would have rejected as milieu theory. Lenin was the first person to assert this.[2]

In this discussion, Adorno also proposed to Horkheimer that they “should produce a reworked [version of Marx and Engels’s] Communist Manifesto that would be ‘strictly Leninist’.”[3]

No less than Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy” inspired the work of the Marxist critical theorists associated with the Frankfurt School — Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin, and Adorno. But the reputation of Korsch’s work has been eclipsed by that of Lukács. What the usual interpretive emphasis on Lukács occludes is that the Frankfurt School writers grappled not only with the problem of Stalinism but “anti-Stalinism” as well.[4] Both Korsch’s and Lukács’s post-1923 trajectories were critiqued by the Frankfurt School writers.[5] As Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics (1966),

First Karl Korsch, later the functionaries of Diamat [Dialectical Materialism] have objected, that the turn to nonidentity would be, due to its immanent-critical and theoretical character, an insignificant nuance of neo-Hegelianism or of the historically obsolete Hegelian Left; as if the Marxist critique of philosophy had dispensed with this, while simultaneously the East cannot do without a statutory Marxist philosophy. The demand for the unity of theory and praxis has irresistibly debased the former to a mere underling; removing from it what it was supposed to have achieved in that unity. The practical visa-stamp demanded from all theory became the censor’s stamp. In the famed unity of theory-praxis, the former was vanquished and the latter became non-conceptual, a piece of the politics which it was supposed to lead beyond; delivered over to power. The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and the ban on thinking contributed to bad praxis; that theory wins back its independence, is the interest of praxis itself. The relationship of both moments to each other is not settled for once and for all, but changes historically. Today, since the hegemonic bustle cripples and denigrates theory, theory testifies in all its powerlessness against the former by its mere existence.[6]

In this passage Adorno was addressing, not the Korsch of the 1923 “Marxism and Philosophy,” but rather the later Korsch of the 1930 “Anti-Critique,” distanced from the problem Adorno sought to address, of the constitutive non-identity of theory and practice. Adorno thought, like Korsch and Lukács in the early 1920s, that Lenin and Luxemburg’s theoretical self-understanding, together with their revolutionary political practice, comprised the most advanced attempt yet to work through precisely this non-identity.[7]

In Adorno’s terms, both the later Korsch and official “Diamat” (including Lukács) assumed “identity thinking,” an identity of effective theory and practice, rather than their articulated non-identity, to which Korsch had drawn attention earlier in “Marxism and Philosophy.” Such constitutive non-identity was, according to Korsch’s earlier essay, expressed symptomatically, in the subsistence of “philosophy” as a distinct activity in the historical epoch of Marxism. This was because it expressed a genuine historical need. The continued practice of philosophy was symptomatic expression of the need to transcend and supersede philosophy. Instead of this recognition of the actuality of the symptom of philosophical thinking, of the mutually constitutive separation of theory and practice, Korsch, by embracing council communism and shunning Marxian theory in the years after writing his famously condemned work, succumbed to what Adorno termed “identity thinking.” By assuming the identity of theory and practice, or of social being and consciousness in the workers’ movement, Korsch sought their “reconciliation,” instead of discerning and critically grasping their persistent antagonism, as would necessarily be articulated in any purported politics of emancipation.

Just as Adorno tried to hold fast to the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness in the face of Lukács’s own subsequent disavowals, the first sentence of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics reiterated Korsch’s statement in “Marxism and Philosophy” that “Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized” (97):

Philosophy, which once seemed outmoded, remains alive because the moment of its realization was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world is itself crippled by resignation before reality, and becomes a defeatism of reason after the transformation of the world failed.[8]

Philosophy’s end was its self-abolition. What Korsch prefaced to his statement helps to illuminate what Adorno meant. Korsch specified precisely what “the realization of philosophy” involves:

Just as political action is not rendered unnecessary by the economic action of a revolutionary class, so intellectual action is not rendered unnecessary by either political or economic action. On the contrary it must be carried through to the end in theory and practice, as revolutionary scientific criticism and agitational work before the seizure of state power by the working class, and as scientific organisation and ideological dictatorship after the seizure of state power. If this is valid for intellectual action against the forms of consciousness which define bourgeois society in general, it is especially true of philosophical action. Bourgeois consciousness necessarily sees itself as apart from the world and independent of it, as pure critical philosophy and impartial science, just as the bourgeois State and bourgeois Law appear to be above society. This consciousness must be philosophically fought by the revolutionary materialistic dialectic, which is the philosophy of the working class. This struggle will only end when the whole of existing society and its economic basis have been totally overthrown in practice, and this consciousness has been totally surpassed and abolished in theory. (97)

This was the original Marxist “defense” of philosophy that Adorno reiterated in Negative Dialectics. Over four decades previously, in 1923, Korsch had explicitly tied it to Lenin’s treatment of the problem of the state in The State and Revolution (1917). Just as, with the overcoming of capitalism, the necessity of the state would “wither,” and not be done away with at one stroke, so too the necessity of “philosophical” thinking as it appeared in the epoch of capital would dissolve. This side of emancipation, “theoretical” self-reflection, thought’s reflecting on its own conditions of possibility, remains necessary, precisely because it expresses an unresolved social-historical problem.

In “Marxism and Philosophy,” Korsch analyzed Marxism as emergent from and historically continuous with the “revolt of the Third Estate,” of the “bourgeois” liberal-democratic revolutionary epoch that preceded it. Korsch was concerned with Marx’s continuity with Kant and Hegel. A problem that occurred to them, namely, of theory and practice, repeated itself, if in a more acute way, for Marx. It is a problem of the philosophy of revolution, or of the “theory of social revolution.” This problem presents itself only insofar as it is conceived of as part and parcel of the social-historical process of transformation and not as contemplation from without. As it was for Hegel, Marx’s fundamental “philosophical” issue is this: How is it possible, if however problematic, to be a self-conscious agent of change, if what is being transformed includes oneself, or, more precisely, an agency that transforms conditions both for one’s practical grounding and for one’s theoretical self-understanding in the process of acting?

Korsch addressed the question of revolution as a problem indicated by the liquidation and reconstitution of “philosophy” itself after the crisis and “decay of Hegelianism” (“Marxism and Philosophy,” 29). Why did philosophical development take a hiatus by 1848 and only appear to resume afterwards? What changed about “philosophy” in the interim? For Korsch recognized there was a curious blank spot or gap in the history of philosophy from the 1840s–60s, the period of Marxism’s emergence. Korsch divided the relation of Marx’s thought to philosophy roughly into three periods: pre-1848, circa 1848, and post-1848. These periods were distinguished by the different ways they related theory and practice: the first period was the critique of philosophy calling for its simultaneous realization and self-abolition; the second, the sublimation of philosophy in revolution; and the third, the recrudescence of the problem of relating theory and practice.

Korsch’s third period in the history of Marxism extended into what he termed the “crisis of Marxism” beginning in the 1890s with the reformist “revisionist” dispute of Eduard Bernstein et al. against the “orthodox Marxism” of the 2nd International — when the “revolutionary Marxism” of Luxemburg and Lenin originated — and continuing into the acutely revolutionary period of 1917–19, from the Russian Revolution of 1917 through the German Revolution and civil war of 1918–19, to the Hungarian Soviet Republic (in which Lukács participated) and the workers’ council movement in Italy (in which Antonio Gramsci participated) in 1919.

It was in this revolutionary period of the early 20th century that “Marx’s Marxism” circa 1848 regained its saliency, but in ways that Korsch thought remained not entirely resolved as a matter of relating theory to practice. In “Marxism and Philosophy,” Korsch found that while Lenin and Luxemburg had tried to better relate Marxian theory and practice than 2nd International Marxism had done, they had recognized this as an on-going task and aspiration and not already achieved in some finished sense. In the words of the epigraph from Lenin that introduces Korsch’s 1923 essay, “We must organize a systematic study of the Hegelian dialectic from a materialist standpoint” (“On the Significance of Militant Materialism,” 1922). If Marxism continued to be subject to a “Hegelian dialectic,” thus requiring the “historical materialist” analysis and explanation that Korsch sought to provide of it, this was because it was not itself the reconciled unity of theory and practice but remained, as theory, the critical reflection on the problem of relating theory and practice — which in turn prompted further theoretical development as well as practical political advances. As Adorno put it to Walter Benjamin in a letter of August 2, 1935,

The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness. . . . [P]erfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria.[9]

Marxism was caught in the “phantasmagoria” of capital, while “exploding” it from within.

For the Korsch of “Marxism and Philosophy,” Lenin and Luxemburg’s “revolutionary Marxism” was bound up in the “crisis of Marxism,” while advancing it to a new stage. As Korsch commented,

This transformation and development of Marxist theory has been effected under the peculiar ideological guise of a return to the pure teaching of original or true Marxism. Yet it is easy to understand both the reasons for this guise and the real character of the process which is concealed by it. What theoreticians like Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Lenin in Russia have done, and are doing, in the field of Marxist theory is to liberate it from the inhibiting traditions of [Social Democracy]. They thereby answer the practical needs of the new revolutionary stage of proletarian class struggle, for these traditions weighed “like a nightmare” on the brain of the working masses whose objectively revolutionary socioeconomic position no longer corresponded to these [earlier] evolutionary doctrines. The apparent revival of original Marxist theory in the Third International is simply a result of the fact that in a new revolutionary period not only the workers’ movement itself, but the theoretical conceptions of communists which express it, must assume an explicitly revolutionary form. This is why large sections of the Marxist system, which seemed virtually forgotten in the final decades of the nineteenth century, have now come to life again. It also explains why the leader of the Russian Revolution [Lenin] could write a book a few months before October [The State and Revolution, 1917] in which he stated that his aim was “in the first place to restore the correct Marxist theory of the State.” . . . When Lenin placed the same question theoretically on the agenda at a decisive moment, this was an early indication that the internal connection of theory and practice within revolutionary Marxism had been consciously re-established. (67–68)

Korsch thus established the importance for what Adorno called the “historically changing” relation of theory and practice, making sense of their vicissitudes in the history of the politics of revolutionary Marxism. Furthermore, by establishing the character of the crisis of Marxism as a matter of theoretical reflection, Korsch re-established the role of consciousness in a Marxian conception of social revolution, why the abandonment or distancing of the practical perspective of revolution necessitates a degradation of theory.

Korsch and the 1960s “New Left” — the problem of “Leninism”

The 1970 publication of Korsch was an event for the Anglophone New Left. As Adolph Reed wrote,

Leninism’s elitism and denigration of consciousness had increasingly troubled me, but I feared I had no recourse without sacrificing a radical commitment. Korsch opened an entirely new vista, the “hidden dimension” of Western Marxism, and led to Lukács, a serious reading of Marcuse, and eventually the critical theoretical tradition.[10]

Reed’s brief comment is cryptic and can be taken in (at least) two opposed ways, either that Korsch provided the redemption of Lenin or an alternative to Leninism.

Such 1960s-era “New Left” ambivalence about “Leninism” can be found in attenuated form in Fred Halliday’s Translator’s Introduction. In it, Halliday sticks closely to a biographical narrative of Korsch’s work, seeking to bring out the coherence of Korsch’s early and later periods, before and after “Marxism and Philosophy,” while acknowledging the “erratic” character of Korsch’s thought over the course of his life, and calling Korsch’s tragic trajectory away from Lenin and Luxemburg’s revolutionary Marxism a “fatal consequence” of the failure of the revolution (26). By casting the issue of Korsch’s work as “interesting” (if “erratic”), Halliday remained somewhat equivocal about the relevance of Korsch’s key text, “Marxism and Philosophy,” and thus about the continued pertinence of the revolutionary Marxism that Lenin shared with Luxemburg. What remained unresolved?

Halliday also suggests that Korsch’s pre-1917 interests in the “syndicalist movement,” the “positive content and actively democratic aspects of socialism, by contrast with the orthodox Marxism of the 2nd International which he thought defined itself merely negatively as the abolition of the capitalist mode of production” (7–8), came to be expressed some years after the October Revolution, which witnessed “the decline in activity and the need for more critical reflection.” At that time, Korsch returned to his earlier concerns, but with the tragic consequence of “lapsing into ultra-leftism and becoming cut off from the working class” (26).

Perhaps the motivation for Halliday’s 1970 translation and publication of Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy” was an affinity, after 1968, with Korsch’s moment of “critical reflection” circa 1923. It may have expressed Halliday’s hope that Korsch’s further trajectory and fate might be avoided by the 1960s “New Left.” In the wake of 1968, Halliday and others wanted to avoid the choice of either ultra-Leftism (“Luxemburgism”) and “becoming cut off from the working class,” or official “Leninism,” and the 1923 Korsch seemed to provide a way out, through specific reflection on the problem of revolutionary political means and ends, in terms of articulating theory and practice.

Forgetting the theory-practice problem — Korsch on spontaneity vs. organization and 1848 vs. 1917

In his 1930 “Anti-Critique” of the 1923 “Marxism and Philosophy,” Korsch wrote,

When the SPD became a “Marxist” party (a process completed with the Erfurt Programme written by Kautsky and Bernstein in 1891) a gap developed between its highly articulated revolutionary “Marxist” theory and a practice that was far behind this revolutionary theory; in some respects it directly contradicted it. This gap was in fact obvious, and it later came to be felt more and more acutely by all the vital forces in the Party (whether on the Left or Right) and its existence was denied only by the orthodox Marxists of the Centre. This gap can easily be explained by the fact that in this historical phase “Marxism,” while formally accepted by the workers’ movement, was from the start not a true theory, in the sense of being “nothing other than a general expression of the real historical movement” (Marx). On the contrary it was always an ideology that had been adopted “from outside” in a pre-established form. In this situation such “orthodox Marxists” as Kautsky and Lenin made a permanent virtue out of a temporary necessity. They energetically defended the idea that socialism can only be brought to the workers “from outside,” by bourgeois intellectuals who are allied to the workers’ movement. This was also true of Left radicals like Rosa Luxemburg. (113–115)

According to Korsch, the Revolution of 1848 and the role of the workers’ movement in it had provided “a rational solution for all the mysteries” of the contradiction between theory and practice that later 2nd International Marxists tried to sidestep by simply adopting Marxism as an ideology. Korsch commented that,

[A]lthough [Second International Marxism’s] effective practice was now on a broader basis than before, it had in no way reached the heights of general and theoretical achievement earlier attained by the revolutionary movement and proletarian class struggle on a narrower basis. This height was attained during the final phase of the first major capitalist cycle that came to an end towards 1850. (116)

Since the mid-19th century, Marxism, according to the Korsch of the “Anti-Critique,” had grown ideological. Even Marx’s Capital expressed a certain degeneration:

[T]he theory of Marx and Engels was progressing towards an ever higher level of theoretical perfection although it was no longer directly related to the practice of the worker’s movement. (117)

In other words, the mature theory of Marx (and its development by Engels and their epigones) was itself “anachronistic” and thus unassimilable by the resurgent workers’ movement of the last third of the 19th century.

Korsch abandoned his 1923 conception of Lenin and Luxemburg’s rearticulation of 1848 in the theory and practice of 1917–19, the “transformation and development of Marxist theory . . . effected under the peculiar ideological guise of a return to the pure teaching of original or true Marxism.” Marx’s Marxism, especially in his mature writings, could only be the elaboration of 1848, in isolation from the workers’ subsequent actual political practice, to which it became ideologically blind and blinding. No adequate “theory,” that is, no “general expression of the real historical movement,” had emerged since. This non-identity and divergence of theory and practice that began in the period of Marx’s maturity and continued into the 20th century meant, for the Korsch of the 1930s, that Marxism, even in its most revolutionary forms, as with Lenin and Luxemburg, had developed, not to express, but rather to constrain the workers’ movement. Marxism had become an ideology whose value could only be relative, not qualitatively superior to others.[11] When he died in 1961, Korsch was working on a study of Marx’s rival in the 1st International Workingmen’s Association, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.[12]§

Originally published in The Platypus Review #15 (September 2009). Abbreviated for presentation at the Historical Materialism conference, York University, Toronto, May 14, 2010.


1. Karl Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

2. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “Diskussion über Theorie und Praxis” (1956), in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften (GAS) Vol. 19 (Nachträge, Verzeichnisse und Register) (S. Fischer, 1996), 69–71; quoted in Detlev Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 233.

3. Claussen, 233; Horkheimer, GAS 19, 66. Furthermore, while “Marx wrote his critique of the [SPD, German Social-Democratic Party’s] Gotha Programme in 1875[,] Adorno had for some time planned to write a critique of the Godesberg Programme [in which the SPD formally renounced Marxism in 1959]” (Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 598).

4. From Phil Slater, Origin and Significance of the Frankfurt School: A Marxist Perspective (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977):

[Horkheimer wrote, in “The Authoritarian State” (1940),]

“The concept of a transitional revolutionary dictatorship was in no way intended to mean the monopoly of the means of production by some new elite. Such dangers can be countered by the energy and alertness of the people themselves. . . . [The revolution that ends domination is as far-reaching as the will of the liberated. Any resignation is already a regression into prehistory. . . . The recurrence of political reaction and a new destruction of the beginnings of freedom cannot theoretically be ruled out, and certainly not as long as a hostile environment exists. No patented system worked out in advance can preclude regressions. The modalities of the new society are first found in the process of social transformation.] The theoretical conception which, following its first trail-blazers [such as Lenin and Luxemburg], will show the new society its way — the system of workers’ councils — grows out of praxis. The roots of the council system go back to 1871, 1905, and other events. Revolutionary transformation has a tradition that must continue.” (66)

The Frankfurt School’s respect for [Lenin] was due in large measure to his ability to retain the dynamic unity of party, theory and class, a unity subsequently lost. Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism [1958] is here representative of the entire Frankfurt School:

“During the Revolution, it became clear to what degree Lenin had succeeded in basing his strategy on the actual class interests and aspirations of the workers and peasants. . . . Then, from 1923 on, the decisions of the leadership increasingly dissociated from the class interests of the proletariat. The former no longer presuppose the proletariat as a revolutionary agent but rather are imposed upon the proletariat and the rest of the underlying population.” (66–67)

Looking round for a possible practical exponent of [the] views of the Frankfurt School, one immediately encounters the figure of Trotsky. . . . [Trotsky maintained that the bureaucratism of the USSR] completely disregarded Lenin’s conception of the dialectical interaction of party and class. . . . [Trotsky wrote that] the Marxist theoretician must still retain the concrete historical perspective of class struggle:

“[The causes for the downfall of the Social Democracy and of official Communism must be sought not in Marxist theory and not in the bad qualities of those people who applied it, but in the concrete conditions of the historical process.] It is not a question of counterposing abstract principles, but rather of the struggle of living social forces, with its inevitable ups and downs, with the degeneration of organizations, with the passing of entire generations into discard, and with the necessity which therefore arises of mobilizing fresh forces on a new historical stage. No one has bothered to pave in advance the road of revolutionary upsurge for the proletariat. [With inevitable halts and partial retreats it is necessary to move forward on a road crisscrossed by countless obstacles and covered with the debris of the past.] Those who are frightened by this had better step aside” [Trotsky, “To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew,” July 1933].

The Frankfurt School, while upholding a number of principles (which became “abstract” in their passivity and isolation), did indeed, in this sense, step aside. (68–70)

One is not without some justification in asking whether Council Communism could perhaps be a concrete embodiment of many of the principles of the Frankfurt School. . . . [But] the Council Communists did not point out the soviets’ [workers’ councils’] own responsibility for the collapse of the revolutionary wave of 1918–19. (73)

5. The reverse was also true. Korsch, in distancing himself from his 1923 work that was so seminal for the Frankfurt School writers, also came to critique them:

[Korsch] intended to try and interest Horkheimer and the [Frankfurt] Institute [for Social Research] in Pannekoek’s book Lenin as Philosopher (1938) [which traced the bureaucratization of the USSR back to the supposedly crude materialism of Lenin’s 1909 book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism]. . . . [Either] Korsch [or, the Director of the Institute, Horkheimer himself] would write a review for [the Institute’s journal] the Zeitschrift. . . . Yet no such review appeared. . . . [Korsch suffered] total disillusionment with the Institute and their “impotent philosophy.” Korsch [was] particularly bitter about the “metaphysician Horkheimer” (Slater, 73–74).

The record for Korsch’s deteriorating relations with the Frankfurt Institute in exile is found in his private letters to Paul Mattick, editor of the journal Living Marxism: International Council Correspondence.

6. Translated by Dennis Redmond, 2001. The first sentence of this passage, mentioning Korsch, is inexplicably missing from the 1973 Continuum edition of Negative Dialectics translated by E. B. Ashton (see “Relation to Left-wing Hegelianism,” 143).

7. In a lecture of November 23, 1965, on “Theory and Practice,” Adorno said,

I should like to say that there is no intention here of advocating a relapse into contemplation, as was found in the great idealist philosophies and ultimately even in Hegel, despite the great importance of practice in the Hegelian system. . . . The late Karl Korsch . . . criticized Horkheimer and myself even more sharply, already in America and also later on, after the publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment. His objection was that we had regressed to the standpoint of Left Hegelianism. This does not seem right to me because the standpoint of pure contemplation can no longer be sustained. Though we should note, incidentally, that the polarity Marx constructs between pure contemplation on the one hand and his own political philosophy on the other does only partial justice to the intentions of Left Hegelianism. This is a difficult question . . . although we cannot deny the impressive political instincts which alerted Marx to the presence of the retrograde and, above all, nationalist potential in such thinkers as Bruno Bauer, Stirner and Ruge. (Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics [Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2008], 52–53.)

8. Translated by Redmond.

9. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Vol. 3 (1935–38) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 54–56; Adorno et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1980), 111–113.

10. Reed, “Paths to Critical Theory,” in Sohnya Sayres, Social Text Staff, eds., The 60s Without Apology (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 257–258; originally published in Social Text 9/10 (Spring–Summer 1984).

11. Such eclecticism on the Left has only deepened and become more compounded since Korsch’s time, especially since the 1960s. However Marx may come up for periodic reconsideration, certain questions central to the Marxian problematic remain obscured. As Fredric Jameson has written,

A Marx revival seems to be under way, predating the current [2007–09] disarray on Wall Street, even though no clear-cut political options yet seem to propose themselves. . . . The big ideological issues — anarchism, the party, economic planning, social classes — are still mainly avoided, on the grounds that they remind too many people of Communist propaganda. Such a reminder is unwanted, not so much because it is accompanied by the memory of deaths and violence . . . as simply and less dramatically because such topics now appear boring. (“Sandblasting Marx,” New Left Review 55 [January–February 2009].)

For further discussion of the fluctuating currency and fortunes of Marxian approaches as a feature of modern history, see my “Symptomology: Historical transformations in social-political context,” The Platypus Review 12 (May 2009).

12. A. R. Giles-Peter, “Karl Korsch: A Marxist Friend of Anarchism,” Red & Black (Australia) 5 (April 1973). (Available on-line at: http://www.geocities.com/capitolHill/Lobby/2379/korsh.htm.) According to Giles-Peter, Korsch came to believe that the “basis of the revolutionary attitude in the modern bourgeois epoch would be an ethic Marx would have rejected as ‘anarchist’,” and thus “explicitly rejected the elements of Marxism which separate it from anarchism.”

As Korsch himself put it, in “Ten Theses on Marxism Today” (1950), translated by Giles-Peter in Telos 26 (Winter 1975–76) and available on-line at: http://libcom.org/library/ten-theses-korsch,

Marx is today only one among the numerous precursors, founders and developers of the socialist movement of the working class. No less important are the so-called Utopian Socialists from Thomas More to the present. No less important are the great rivals of Marx, such as Blanqui, and his sworn enemies, such as Proudhon and Bakunin. No less important, in the final result, are the more recent developments such as German revisionism, French syndicalism, and Russian Bolshevism.

Whereas Korsch in 1923 had grasped the essential and vital if transformed continuity between Marx and his precursors in the “revolutionary movement of the Third Estate” of the bourgeois liberal-democratic revolutions, by 1950 he wrote,

The following points are particularly critical for Marxism: (a) its dependence on the underdeveloped economic and political conditions in Germany and all the other countries of central and eastern Europe where it was to have political relevance; (b) its unconditional adherence to the political forms of the bourgeois revolution; (c) the unconditional acceptance of the advanced economic conditions of England as a model for the future development of all countries and as objective preconditions for the transition to socialism; to which one should add; (d) the consequences of its repeated desperate and contradictory attempts to break out of these conditions.

Adorno in 1969

Adorno’s Marxism and the problem and legacy of the 1960s Left in theory and practice

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the one-day conference “Adorno 40 Years On,” commemorating the 40th anniversary of Adorno’s death, University of Sussex, U.K., August 6, 2009. Prior versions were presented at the Rethinking Marxism 2006 conference, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, October 26, 2006, and at the University of Chicago Social Theory Workshop, October 23, 2006. Draft: not to be cited in present form.

Introduction — précis

A certain legend of the 1960s New Left has it that the Marxist critical theorist Theodor [Wiesengrund] Adorno had been hostile to student radicalism.  This placed Adorno’s legacy for progressive politics in doubt for at least two decades after 1969.  Adorno had defended his junior colleague Jürgen Habermas’s warning of “left fascism” among 1960s student radicals, and challenged Herbert Marcuse’s support for student radicalism, questioning its emancipatory character.  Adorno’s collaborator Max Horkheimer commented about the ’60s radicalism, “But is it really so desirable, this revolution?”  Infamously, Adorno called the police to clear demonstrators from the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in 1969.  Students protested that “Adorno as an institution is dead.”  Some months later, while hiking on vacation, Adorno suffered a heart attack and died.

Eulogizing Adorno in 1969, Habermas raised two issues for the post-1960s reception of Adorno’s work: 1.) Adorno’s work was both inspiring and frustrating for the critique of modern society; and 2.) Adorno left little to suggest directions to take beyond a “meager reprise of Marxism.”

Fredric Jameson and others began revisiting Adorno’s legacy around 1989, the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to challenge the politics of “postmodernism” and its relation to “neo-liberal” capitalism: ironically, it was the seemingly “out-of-date” character of Adorno’s Marxism in the 1960s that now made his critical theory relevant again, after the passing of the administered, “one-dimensional” society of the Fordist/welfare state.  The controversy over Adorno since the 1960s has been over the nature and character of Adorno’s Marxism, formed in the 1920s–30s, which has not been given a proper account.  For now there are two registers for the problem of recovering Adorno’s Marxism: the 1960s “New” Left; and the 1920s–30s “Old” Left, obscured behind the ’60s. 

Habermas, “calling into his master’s open grave”

Soon after Adorno died in 1969, Habermas wrote a eulogy to him titled “The Primal History of Subjectivity — Self-Affirmation Gone Wild.”  The title itself says quite a bit.  Habermas took this opportunity to offer a critique indicative of the problems in the reception of Adorno’s work in the 1960s.  It was as if Adorno had represented something of the block with which one was always struggling but failing to overcome.

For Habermas, Adorno was exemplary of “the bourgeois subject, apprehended in the process of disappearance,” “which is still for itself, but no longer in itself.”  Habermas introduced Adorno’s character in order to explain the possibility for real insights — but also “enchanting analyses:”

In psychological terms . . . Adorno never accepted the alternatives of remaining childlike or growing up. . . .  In him there remained vivid a stratum of earlier experiences and attitudes.  This sounding board reacted hyper-sensitively to a resistant reality, revealing the harsh, cutting, wounding dimensions of reality itself.

In this characterization, Habermas rehearsed the idea that Adorno, as a last “Mandarin” intellectual, was grounded in an earlier historical epoch, the liberal capitalism of the 19th century.  However, this fails to consider that the formative experiences for Adorno’s thought were those that defined 20th century history.

Habermas concluded Adorno’s “aid [had been] indispensable” to understanding the “situation” of the present.  Habermas was anxious to defend Adorno against the criticisms of some of his more “impatient” students in 1969 — for, as Habermas put it, “they do not realize all that they are incapable of knowing in the present state of affairs.”  This was the basis for Habermas’s defense of the “rational core” of Adorno’s critical theory.

“All that they are incapable of knowing” — for Habermas, Adorno’s critical theory had failed to render the social world of 1969 critically intelligible.  At best, Adorno’s work brought to manifest and acute presentation what had yet to be understood; at worst, it contributed to false understanding, that “the theory that apprehended the totality of society as untrue would actually be a theory of the impossibility of theory.  The material content of the theory of society would then also be relatively meager, a reprise of the Marxist doctrine.”  For Habermas, Marx’s critical theory of capitalism might have been adequate to its 19th century moment, but had become outdated.

The “meager reprise of Marxism” — this was Habermas’s way of addressing the theoretical tradition from which Adorno’s thought originated, and which was experiencing a certain (if ambiguous) renaissance during the final years of Adorno’s life: the “New” Left.  For the late 1960s saw the beginning of the last important “return to Marx,” which regained the saliency of Adorno’s critical theory, even if this was confronted by the demand from his students not only for social theory but, more emphatically, for social transformation and emancipation.  Cautioning against the conclusion that Adorno’s critical theory had resigned from the task of social emancipation, Habermas wrote that “after Adorno’s opening talk to the sixteenth German Congress of Sociology in 1968 on ‘Late Capitalism or Industrial Society’ [translated and published in English that same year in the journal Diogenes under the title “Is Marx Obsolete?”], one could not maintain this [criticism of Adorno] in the same fashion.”

But Habermas added that “the point [of this criticism] remains.”  Habermas cited contemporary criticism of Adorno, for instance by Adorno’s student Albrecht Wellmer, of

the danger that arises when the dialectic of enlightenment is misunderstood as a generalization[,] in the field of [the] philosophy of history[,] of the critique of political economy[,] and tacitly substituted for it.  Then . . . the critique of the instrumental spirit can serve as the key to a critique of ideology, to a depth hermeneutics[,] that starts from arbitrary objectifications of the damaged life, that is self-sufficient and no longer in need of an empirical development of social theory.

Such a misunderstanding was one into which, however, Habermas maintained, “Adorno never let himself fall.”

Habermas did object to the fact that it “was [seemingly] sufficient for [Adorno] to bring in a little too precipitously the analyses handed down from Marx,” adding that “Adorno was never bothered by political economy.”  Habermas resolved that “the decodifying of the objective spirit by ideology critique, to which Adorno had turned all his energy in such a remarkable way, can be easily confused with a theory of late-capitalist society,” a theory to whose lack Habermas attributed the problems and character of social discontents and rebellion in 1969 — “all that they are incapable of knowing.”

Habermas expressed sympathy with the gesture of Adorno’s student who had “called into his master’s open grave, [that] ‘He practiced an irresistible critique of the bourgeois individual, and yet he was himself caught within its ruins’.”  Habermas ventured “that praxis miscarries may not be attributed to the historical moment alone.”  Instead, Habermas considered “the imperfection of [Adorno’s Marxist] theory,” and wished to caution against any possible direct appropriation of Adorno’s work, what could only be a “meager reprise” of Marxism.

However, thought-figures seeking to elaborate Marx’s critique of social modernity — capital — permeate literally every phrase in Adorno’s corpus.  To grasp this requires more direct attention to the formative moment of Adorno’s thought than has been attempted.

The origins of Adorno’s Marxism

The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was the formative event of the 20th century.  The emancipatory moment of the Russian Revolution was the lodestar for all subsequent Marxism.  From a decade after 1917, in Horkheimer’s late Weimar Republic-era writings [from Dämmerung (1926–31)], we read that,

The moral character of a person can be infallibly inferred from his response to certain questions. . . .  In 1930 the attitude toward Russia casts light on people’s thinking. . . .  I do not claim to know where the country is going; there is undoubtedly much misery. . . .  [But] [a]nyone who has the eyes to see will view events in Russia as the continuing painful attempt to overcome [the] terrible social injustice [of the imperialist world].  At the very least, he will ask with a throbbing heart whether it is still under way. . . .

When Kant received the first news of the French Revolution [of 1789], he is said to have changed the direction of his customary stroll from then on.

In 1919 Horkheimer had been in Munich during the short-lived Munich Council/Soviet Republic that was inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution, and he had to flee from the violence of its counterrevolutionary suppression.  The trajectory of revolution, counterrevolution and reaction, of world war and civil war, formed the substance of the concerns of Marxism in the 20th century, including that of the Frankfurt School.

At the time of the October Revolution, Adorno (b. 1903) was 14 years old.  He did not experience directly the radicalization that the German defeat in the war brought in 1918–19, as, for instance, Horkheimer and Marcuse had.  During this time the teenage Adorno was still living in his relatively quiescent hometown of Frankfurt, being tutored in philosophy by his family’s friend Siegfried Kracauer, with whom he discussed Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

However, Adorno became the thinker in Frankfurt School Critical Theory whose work most consistently incorporates the concerns and critically reflects upon the legacy of the emancipatory potential expressed by the moment of 1917–19; such concerns and reflections were sustained in Adorno’s work through his very last writings of 1968–69.

The writings of Adorno’s last year, [1968–69,] the time of the climax and crisis of the 1960s “New” Left, help to define and evaluate the terms of the late reception of Adorno’s work, after his death.  The politics informing Adorno’s work is obscured behind the 1960s, for Adorno’s Marxism was formulated in the 1920s–30s, the period of social and political crisis in the wake of the revolutions of 1917–19.

The Bolshevik Revolution and the radicalism of its historical moment had prompted a “return to Marx” in the early 1920s whose most brilliant expositions were made by Georg Lukács in History and Class Consciousness (1923) and Karl Korsch in “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923).  Both these sought to recover the critical intent and purchase of Marx’s theory and politics in the aftermath of the collapse of international Social Democracy with WWI and the failure of international anticapitalist revolution in 1917–19.  Their work, inspired by and picking up from the radical Left of pre-war international Social Democracy that informed the Bolshevik Revolution, the politics of both the Bolsheviks and Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacists, provided the departure for subsequent, “Frankfurt School” critical theory.  The ultimate failure of the anticapitalist revolution that had opened most fully in Russia, but also manifested significantly elsewhere, prompted critical reflection on the social-emancipatory content of Marxist politics, in hope of its further development.  However, because of the contrast of such radically searching work with the stifling repression of Stalinist reaction in Russia under the rubric of “orthodoxy”, this critical Marxism came to be known by the misnomer of “Western” Marxism.  Beginning in the 1920s–30s, and extending through the 1960s, Adorno’s work sought to sustain this critical “return to Marx” in the period of triumphant counterrevolution that characterized the high 20th century.

In this period, Marxism itself became an affirmative ideology of reactionary, “advanced” capitalism, for its emancipatory content — and hence its profoundest critique of modern society — was lost.  Just as Marx’s thought originated in the attempt at the progressive critique of the Left of the 19th century, Adorno’s thought, his sustained engagement with the critical theory of 20th century capitalism, necessarily pursued the immanent critique of Marxism, to register the disparity between theory and practice, not only how Marxism had failed, but how it might yet point beyond itself.

The “return to Marx” that occurred in the two periods of the 1920s–30s and the 1960s–70s can be characterized well by referring to certain seminal statements, such as found in writings by Korsch from the early 1920s, and by C. Wright Mills, Martin Nicolaus, and Leszek Kolakowski from the 1960s.  Bringing these into communication with Adorno’s work from the 1960s illuminates the social-political desiderata of Adorno’s Marxism through his very last writings and helps situate Adorno’s Marxism and the state of its legacy today to the extent that we might recognize the history for problems of any possible “Left” for our present in Adorno’s critical prognosis on the 1960s.

The “New” Left of the 1960s (1): motivations for a return to Marx

In 1960, [C. Wright] Mills wrote a letter to the newly founded British journal New Left Review, delivering a series of suggestions and caveats to the younger generation of self-styled Leftists.  Mills accounted for the emergence of a “New” Left in the crisis of liberalism, at the levels both of ideology and practical politics, manifesting in a combination of what he termed the “liberal rhetoric and conservative default” that amounted to political “irresponsibility.”  Furthermore, directing his comments specifically to his British readers and their Labor Party, Mills took issue with the attenuated politics of contemporary socialism/social democracy, afflicted by, as he termed it, a “labor metaphysic.”  The politics of this “labor metaphysic,” while apparently privileging the working class as “the historic agency of change,” in actuality treated the workers merely as “The Necessary Lever,” really the object and not, as was claimed, the subject of socialist politics. So what would be the adequate “subject” of emancipatory politics?  For Mills, it was precisely discontented consciousness, in the ideological forms it takes.  For this reason, Mills’s greatest ire was reserved for “end of ideology” Cold War liberalism (and social democracy).  Mills castigated “end of ideology” writers like apostate Marxist (and Adorno’s former research assistant) Daniel Bell for their “attack on Marxism . . . in the approved style.”  Citing Marx repeatedly throughout his “Letter,” Mills encouraged his readers to the return to Marx, if not to “Vulgar Marxism.”  Most remarkably, Mills inveighed in favor of the most radical politics of 20th century Marxism:

Forget Victorian Marxism [i.e., the late 19th century Marxism of social democracy], except whenever you need it; and read Lenin again (be careful) — Rosa Luxemburg, too.

The thrust of Mills’s “Letter” is its emphasis on the importance of ideology for Leftist politics.  Mills’s acute term for this was “utopianism.”  Mills suggested attention to the forms of discontent that had manifested in the post-WWII period, which he found among “intellectuals.”  It was in this spirit that Mills encouraged reconsideration of prior generations of radicalized intellectuals, such as the Marxists Luxemburg and Lenin, against the quiescent “labor metaphysic” of the late “Vulgar Marxism” in Western Social Democracy and Soviet-inspired Communism that had become uncritical, and hence implicated in political “irresponsibility.”

The recognition of the importance of critical consciousness had been formative for the thinkers like Adorno in the 1920s–30s.  As pointed out by the historian of the Frankfurt Institute Helmut Dubiel [in Theory and Politics (1978)], as regards the role of consciousness, there had been no difference between Luxemburg and Lenin.  From early on, the Frankfurt School critical theorists shared this perspective with their more directly political Marxist forebears:

[The] ascription of a continuum — that is, of a mediated identity — between proletarian class consciousness and socialist theory — united even such [apparently] divergent positions as those of Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. . . .  Georg Lukács formulated this conception in History and Class Consciousness (1923).  Although this idea was traditionally held by the socialist intelligentsia . . . [this] speculative identity of class consciousness and social theory formed the self-consciousness of those socialist intellectuals who were not integrated into the SPD [German Social-Democratic Party] and KPD [German Communist Party] in the 1920s.

By comparison, the Marxist “orthodoxy” of both Stalinized international Communism and rump, post-WWI Social Democracy became ensnared in the antinomy presented by the contradiction — the important, constitutive non-identity — of social being and consciousness, practice and theory (or, as in debates around historic Bolshevism, spontaneity and organization), whose dialectic had motivated the critical consciousness of practice for Marx, as well as for the radicals in pre-1914 Social Democracy like Luxemburg and Lenin.  Marxists had become stuck on the question of why the workers were not making the revolution.  But, as Karl Korsch put it in “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923),

As scientific socialism, the Marxism of Marx and Engels remains the inclusive whole of a theory of social revolution . . . a materialism whose theory comprehended the totality of society and history, and whose practice overthrew it. . . .  The difference [now] is that the various components of [what for Marx and Engels was] the unbreakable interconnection of theory and practice are further separated out. . . .  The umbilical cord has been broken.

The Left is tasked with discovering the basis for its own discontents.  Usually, this has taken the form of imputing interests to classes, but in the 20th century this became an evasion and abdication of critical consciousness, and Marxism became an affirmative ideology for society based on and social existence justified through “labor.”

Among the thinkers who tried to break out of this quandary of self-understanding for critical consciousness that beset “orthodox” Marxism in the 20th century was the dissident Polish Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski.  Their critical Marxist dissidence came after the crisis of international Communism in 1956 that had come with the Khrushchev “revelations” of Stalin’s crimes, and with the suppression of the Hungarian revolt (in which Marxist radicals of the preceding generation like Lukács had also participated).

Kolakowski’s essay “The Concept of the Left” (1968) emphasizes the productive role of ideology for the Left, stating that

The concept of the Left remains unclear to this day. . . .  Society cannot be divided into a Right and a Left. . . .  The Left must define itself on the level of ideas . . . the Left must be defined in intellectual and not class terms.  This presupposes that intellectual life is not and cannot be an exact replica of class interests. . . .  The Left . . . takes an attitude of permanent revisionism toward reality . . . the Left strives to base its prospects on the experience and evolutionary tendencies of history [rather than] capitulation toward the situation of the moment.  For this reason the Left can have a political ideology. . . .  The Left is always to the left in certain respects with relation to some political movements . . . the Left is the fermenting factor in even the most hardened mass of the historical present.

Against the naturalization of “class interests” Kolakowski maintained that it was not society that was divided into Right and Left but ideology.  Kolakowski recognized the Left as the critical element in progressive politics at the level of consciousness, and as such destined to remain always a spirited “minority.”

Such recovery of the essentially critical, intellectually provocative role of the Left was motivated precisely by the attempt to see beyond the “present,” and conditioned by Kolakowski’s recognition that Soviet Communism had long since become implicated and responsible for the status quo.  The reconsideration of Marx that could be motivated through the emphasis on ideology, on the critical aspects of his work for provoking consciousness of unfulfilled emancipatory potential, was marked by the writings of dissident French Communist Louis Althusser and others such as André Gorz and Martin Nicolaus, those who had been termed (for instance by the president of the U.S. Students for a Democratic Society Carl Oglesby) “neo-Marxists.”  Modern Marxism, to remain critical, was tasked with pursuing recognition of its constitutive conditions, the conditions of possibility for critical social consciousness.

Nicolaus’s 1968 essay on “The Unknown Marx” (1968) sought to recover neglected aspects of Marx’s thought on the basis of the Grundrisse, a collection of unpublished writings from Marx’s notebooks that had garnered little substantial attention.  Nicolaus arrayed Marx’s mature writings such as Capital, using the Grundrisse to inform his approach, against interpretations derived primarily from Marx’s more influential early writings such as the Manifesto of the Communist Party, and concluded that “the most important Marxist political manifesto remains to be written.”

The “New” Left of the 1960s (2): the political and intellectual pitfalls of post-Marxism

Examples of the similar kinds of obscuring of the social-emancipatory content of Marxian critical theory, and the blind alleys in which contemporary Marxists had found themselves can be drawn from writings of the late 1960s by Adorno’s colleague Herbert Marcuse.  For instance, “The End of Utopia” begins with a broadside against Marx, that

Marx says . . . that the only thing that can happen . . . is for labor to be organized as rationally as possible and reduced as much as possible.  But it remains labor in and of the realm of necessity and thereby unfree.  I believe that one of the new possibilities, which gives an indication of the qualitative difference between the free and the unfree society, is that of letting the realm of freedom appear within the realm of necessity — in labor and not only beyond labor.

(Marcuse was influenced here by Schiller’s account of the “play drive:” work was to become play.)  Thus Marcuse’s articulation expresses precisely the kind of “labor metaphysic” about which Mills had warned, the political incoherence that manifested with the attenuation of historical agencies of social change like the socialist working class movement — and the dearth of political imagination that Nicolaus marked, what stood in need of commensuration with Marx’s mature insights into the implications of the surplus-value dynamic of capitalism found in the Grundrisse.  Concomitantly, in “The Question of Revolution,” Marcuse stated that “the conception of freedom by which revolutionaries and revolutions were inspired is suppressed in the developed industrialized countries with their rising standard of living,” confusing economics and social politics.  Marcuse’s late writings thus belied the kind of conflation Kolakowski had critiqued, the inadequate conception of the Left that derived principally from the status of empirical social groups (“classes”) rather than from the very ideological dynamics of social consciousness.  Hence, Marcuse manifested precisely the failure of social imagination decried by Mills.

For example, Marcuse made much of the brute oppression and stark life-and-death struggle supposedly motivating political movements in Vietnam and other parts of the Third World as a salutary factor for emancipatory politics:

[T]he revolutionary concept of freedom coincides with the necessity to defend naked existence: in Vietnam as much as in the slums and ghettos of the rich countries.

By characterizing the military campaigns of the North Vietnamese Communist regime and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam — not to say the Civil Rights Movement! — in terms of a defense of “naked existence,” Marcuse evacuated politics, eliminating any potential basis for progressive critique, and crudely instrumentalizing the horror of their realities.  Adorno laconically remarked that “it would be difficult to argue that Vietnam is robbing anyone of sleep, especially since any opponent of colonial wars knows that the Vietcong for their part practice Chinese methods of torture,” questioning Marcuse’s less than critical support for the Vietnamese and other Third World Communists — and the late-’60s student radicalism that saw itself acting in solidarity with them.

Taking Marcuse to task on the issue of support for the student movement/New Left, Adorno sums up their differences as follows:

You think that praxis — in its emphatic sense — is not blocked today; I think differently.  I would have to deny everything that I think and know about the objective tendency if I wanted to believe that the student protest movement in Germany had even the tiniest prospect of effecting a social intervention.

For Adorno, a critique of the Left was in order, no less in the 1960s than it had been in the 1920s–30s.  For — especially for intellectuals — remaining critical is the most effective form of solidarity and participation in struggles against oppression and for emancipatory possibilities.

Adorno, in his last major monograph, Negative Dialectic (1966), argued for critical theory in the context of attenuated “objective” conditions for emancipatory social-political transformative practice — as Mills had argued in his 1960 “Letter to the New Left” (e.g., decline of liberal civic associations and decline of the radicalism of the workers’ movement).  Adorno’s work needs to be disenchanted and resituated in its specific critique of the crisis of the Left that had begun at least as early as the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution in the 1920s, but was in a terminal phase by the ’60s.  It was in this context that Adorno tried to steer the hard road between the Stalinophobia of Cold War liberalism and social democracy (for instance of the late Horkheimer), and the abdication of the critique of Third World-ist Stalinism (by Marcuse).

While Adorno had indeed supported the earlier configuration of student protest in 1968, in tandem with workers’ organizations, against the proposed “emergency laws” [Notstandgesetze] in the Federal Republic of Germany, by late 1968 and 1969, as Adorno pointed out, the student movement was in crisis and sought infantile provocations to sustain its existence, as witnessed in the 1969 student takeover of the Frankfurt Institute organized by Adorno’s doctoral student Hans-Jürgen Krahl that prompted Adorno to call the police.  Among those evincing the regressive social-political consciousness of the ’60s radicals was the French student leader Danny “the Red” Cohn-Bendit.  In his 1969 book Obsolete Communism: A Left-Wing Alternative, Cohn-Bendit called for making the revolution “here and now,” reserving his most strident protests against the “deadly love-making on the [cinema] screen.”  While Marcuse insisted that those like Cohn-Bendit were marginal to the movement, Adorno knew that they were indicative of the greater problem.  Even Marcuse acknowledged a fatal mixture, “Rational and irrational, indeed counter-revolutionary demands are inextricably combined.”

Such a combination should not have disqualified the student radicalism of the 1960s, but for the lack of their critical self-awareness.  The critique and opposition Adorno had to the ’60s radicalism was not due to the juxtaposition of the orthodoxy of the 1930s against the movements of the 1960s.  As Adorno put it in his “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (1969),

Praxis is a source of power for theory but cannot be prescribed by it.  It appears in theory, merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what is being criticized . . . this admixture of delusion, however, warns of the excesses in which it incessantly grows.

Hence, critical consciousness is tasked with reflexively recognizing this delusionary aspect of any possible emancipatory social-political practice: an unavoidable but constitutive problem. 

Adorno in 1969: the non-identity of subject and object

For Adorno, the subject mediates the object, or, in sociological terms, the individual mediates society, and, in philosophical terms, consciousness mediates reality.  This mediation takes place in the commodity form, of which the human being is both subject and object.  The non-identity of subject and object is a non-identity of social being and consciousness.  Adorno’s critique of the reconciliation philosophy of Hegel and others is based on the desideratum of subjectivity: as yet there is no subject, only critical consciousness of its possibility, there can be only a negative recognition, a recognition of the present absence of effective social subjectivity.

For Adorno, it is precisely the non-identity of social being and consciousness and of theory and practice that is salutary for their critical relation.  Capitalism is the dialectical source of the theory-practice problem, which is symptomatic and hence indicative of the potential for getting beyond it, but not as something that can be overcome in the here and now, as the ’60s radicals (and those later) thought.  As Adorno put it in the “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,”

If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake — except for the mature Marx.

In his Negative Dialectic (1966), in a section titled “Objectivity and Reification,” Adorno had written of the emancipatory aspect of the vision for “planning” in a socialist society in preserving the non-identity of subject and object:

In the realm of things there is an intermingling of both the object’s [non]identical side and the submission of men to prevailing conditions of production, to their own functional context which they cannot know.  The mature Marx, in his few remarks on the character of a liberated society, changed his position on the cause of reification [or alienation], [which he had attributed, earlier, to] the division of labor.  He now distinguished the state of freedom from original immediacy.  In the moment of planning — the result of which, he hoped, would be production for use by the living rather than for profit, and thus, in a sense, a restitution of immediacy — in that planning he preserved the alien thing; in his design for a realization of what philosophy had only thought, at first, he preserved its mediation.

The “functional context which [we] cannot know” is capitalism, which generates not only (critical) subjectivity, but the theory-practice problem itself, as a non-identity of subject and object of practice.  For Marx, “alienation” is not empirical but social-contextual.  By comparison, the 1960s radicals had anticipated overcoming the separation of theory and practice immediately through their own efforts at (personal) transformation.  Such a mistaken configuration of the problem was to the detriment both of practice and of critical consciousness, including to the present.  In this they had been encouraged by thinkers like Marcuse in their abandonment of the emancipatory desiderata of history accumulated in the most radical exponents of Marxist politics that the critical theory of the earlier Frankfurt School thinkers had sought to preserve against the “vulgar Marxism” of both Social Democracy and Stalinism in the 1920s–30s — in the aftermath of failed and betrayed revolution after 1917–19, the moment in which social-political possibilities for overcoming capitalism opened to their greatest extent to date.

Following Adorno, properly accounting for the actual emancipatory contents of possible social-politics, as Marx and later Marxist radicals tried to do, continues to task the present. | §

The failure of the Islamic Revolution

The nature of the present crisis in Iran

Chris Cutrone

THE ELECTION CRISIS THAT UNFOLDED after June 12 has exposed the vulnerability of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), a vulnerability that has been driving its ongoing confrontation with the U.S. and Europe, for instance on the question of acquiring nuclear technology and its weapons applications.

While the prior U.S. administration under Bush had called for “regime change” in Iran, President Obama has been more conciliatory, offering direct negotiations with Tehran. This opening met with ambivalence from the Islamic Republic establishment; some favored while others opposed accepting this olive branch offered by the newly elected American president. Like the recent coup in Honduras, the dispute in Iran has been conditioned, on both sides, by the “regime change” that has taken place in the United States. A certain testing of possibilities in the post-Bush II world order is being mounted by allies and opponents alike. One dangerous aspect of the mounting crisis in Iran has been the uncertainty over how the Obama administration might address it.

The U.S. Republican Party and neoconservatives, now in the opposition, and recently elected Israeli right-wing politicians have demanded that the U.S. keep up the pressure on the IRI and have expressed skepticism regarding Iranian “reform” candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. European statesmen on both Right and Left have, for their part, made strident appeals for “democracy” in Iran. But Obama has tried to avoid the pitfalls of either exacerbating the confrontation with the IRI or undermining whatever hopes might be found with the Iranian dissidents, whether of the dominant institutions of the Islamic Republic such as Mousavi or of the more politically indeterminate mass protests. Obama is seeking to keep his options open, however events end up resolving in Iran. While to some this appears as an equivocation or even a betrayal of Iranian democratic aspirations, it is simply typical Obama realpolitik. A curious result of the Obama administration’s relatively taciturn response has been the IRI’s reciprocal reticence about any U.S. role in the present crisis, preferring instead, bizarrely, to demonize the British as somehow instigating the massive street protests.

The good faith or wisdom of the new realpolitik is not to be doubted, however, especially given that Obama wants neither retrenchment nor the unraveling of the Islamic Republic in Iran. As chief executive of what Marx called the “central committee” of the American and indeed global ruling class, Obama might not have much reasonable choice for alternative action. The truth is that the U.S. and European states can deal quite well with the IRI so long as it does not engage in particularly undesirable behaviors. Their problem is not with the IRI as such — but the Left’s ought to be.

The reigning confusion around the crisis in Iran has been expressed, on the one hand, in statements defending Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim to electoral victory by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and by individual writers in the supposedly leftist Monthly Review and its MRZine web publication (which also has republished without comment official Iranian statements on the crisis), and on the other hand by supporters of Iranian dissidents and election protesters such as Danny Postel, Fred Halliday, and the various Marxist-Humanist publications in the U.S.[1]

Slavoj Žižek has weighed in on the question with an interesting and sophisticated take of his own, questioning prevailing understandings of the nature of the Iranian regime and its Islamist character.[2] Meanwhile, the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens has pursued his idiosyncratic brand of a quasi-neoconservative “anti-fascist” denunciation of the Islamic Republic, pointing out how the Islamic Republic itself is predicated on Khomeini’s “theological” finding of Velayat-e Faqui, that the entire Iranian population, as victims of Western “cultural imperialism,” needed to be treated as minority wards of the mullahs.[3]

Halliday addresses the current protests as if they are the result of a “return of the repressed” of the supposedly more revolutionary aspirations of the 1978–79 toppling of the Shah, characterizing the Islamic Republic as the result of a “counter-revolution.” In a recent interview published in the Platypus Review #14 (August 2009), historian of the Iranian Left Ervand Abrahamian characterizes the present crisis in terms of demands for greater freedoms that necessarily supersede the accomplished tasks of the 1979 revolution, which, according to Abrahamian, overthrew the tyranny of the Pahlavi ancien régime and established Iranian “independence” (from the U.S. and U.K.).

All told, this constellation of responses to the crisis has recapitulated problems on the Left in understanding the Islamic Revolution that took place in Iran from 1978–83, and the character and trajectory of the Islamic Republic of Iran since then. All share in the fallacy of attributing to Iran an autonomous historical rhythm or logic of its own. Iran is treated more or less as an entity, rather than as it might be, as a symptomatic effect of a greater history.[4] Of all, Žižek has come closest to addressing this issue of greater context, but even he has failed to address the history of the Left.

Two issues bedevil the Left’s approach to the Islamic Republic and the present crisis in Iran: the general character of the recent historical phenomenon of Islamist politics, and the larger question of “revolution.” Among the responses to the present crisis one finds longstanding analytic and conceptual problems that are condensed in ways useful for critical consideration. It is precisely in its lack of potential emancipatory or even beneficial outcome that the present electoral crisis in Iran proves most instructive. So, what are the actual possibilities for the current crisis in Iran?

Perhaps perversely, it is helpful to begin with the well-reported statements of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, who warned of the danger of a “velvet revolution” akin to those that toppled the Communist Party-dominated Democratic Republics of Eastern Europe in 1989. The Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev sought to reform but only ended up undoing the Soviet Union. So it is not merely a matter of the intentions of the street protesters or establishment institutional dissidents such as Mousavi that will determine outcomes — as the Right, from Obama to the grim beards of the Revolutionary Guards and Basiji, do not hesitate to point out. By comparison with such eminently realistic practical perspectives of the powers-that-be, the Left reveals itself to be comprised of daydreams and wishful thinking. The Revolutionary Guards might be correct that the present crisis of protests against the election results can only end badly.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad and those behind him, along with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, will prevail, and the protests against the election outcome will dissipate and those involved be punished, repressed, or eliminated. Or, perhaps, the protests will escalate, precipitating the demise of the Islamic Republic. But, were that to happen, maybe all that will be destroyed is the “republic” and not its Islamist politics, resulting in a rule of the mullahs without the accoutrements of “democracy.” Perhaps the protests will provoke a dictatorship by the Revolutionary Guards and Basiji militias. Or perhaps even these forces will weaken and dissolve under the pressure of the protesters. Perhaps a civil war will issue from the deepened splitting of the extant forces in Iran. In that case, it is difficult to imagine that the present backers of the protests among the Islamic Republic establishment would press to undermine the state or precipitate a civil war or a coup (one way or the other). Perhaps the present crisis will pressure a reconsolidated regime under Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to continue the confrontation with the U.S. and Europe, only more hysterically, in order to try to bolster their support in Iran. If so, this could easily result in military conflict. These are the potential practical stakes of the present crisis.

Žižek has balanced the merits of the protests against the drive to neo-liberalize Iran, in which not only American neoconservatives but also Ahmadinejad himself as well as the “reformers” such as Mousavi and his patron, the “pistachio king” and former president of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, have all taken part. In so doing, however, Žižek rehearses illusions on the Left respecting the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as, for instance, when he points to the traditional Shia slogans of the protesters, “Death to the tyrant!” and “God is great!,” as evidence of the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam,” as an alternative to the apparent inevitability of neoliberalism. But this concession to Islamist politics is gratuitous to the extent that it does not recognize the ideological limitations and practical constraints of the protest movement and its potential trajectory, especially in global context. The protests are treated as nothing more than an “event.”

But if the protests were to succeed, what would this mean? It could mean calling a new election in which Mousavi would win and begin reforming the IRI, curtailing the power of the Revolutionary Guards and Basiji, and perhaps even that of the clerical establishment. Or, if a more radical transformation were possible, perhaps a revolution would take place in which the IRI would be overthrown in favor of a newly constituted Iranian state. The most likely political outcome of such a scenario can be seen in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, a “soft” Islamist state more “open” to the rest of the world, i.e., more directly in-sync with the neoliberal norms prevailing in global capital, without the Revolutionary Guards, Inc., taking its cut (like the military in neighboring Pakistan, through its extensive holdings, the Revolutionary Guards comprise perhaps the largest capitalist entity in Iran). But how much better would such an outcome really be, from the perspective of the Left — for instance, in terms of individual and collective freedoms, such as women’s and sexual liberties, labor union organizing, etc.? Not much, if at all. Hence, even a less virulent or differently directed political Islamism needs to be seen as a core part of the problem confronted by people in Iran, rather than as an aspect of any potential solution.

Žižek has at least recognized that Islamism is not incompatible with, but rather shares in the essential historical moment of neoliberal capital. More than simply being two sides of the same coin, as Afghanistan and Iraq show, there is no discontinuity between neoliberalism and Islamism, despite what apologists for either may think.

Beyond Žižek, others on the Left have sought to capture for the election protests the historical mantle of the 1979 Revolution, as well as the precedents of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution and the “Left”-nationalist politics of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, overthrown in a U.S.- and British-supported coup in 1953. For instance, the Tudeh (“Masses”) Party (Iranian Communist Party), the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK, “People’s Mujahedin of Iran”) and its associated National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCORI), and the Worker-Communist Party of Iran (WPI, sister organization of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, the organizers of the largest labor union federation in post-U.S. invasion and occupation Iraq) have all issued statements claiming and thus simplifying, in national-celebratory terms, this complex and paradoxical historical legacy for the current protests. But some true democratic character of Iranian tradition should not be so demagogically posed.

The MEK, who were the greatest organizational participants on the Left in the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79 (helping to organize the massive street protests that brought down the Shah, and participating in the U.S. embassy takeover), were originally inspired by New Left Islamist Ali Shariati and developed a particular Islamo-Marxist approach that became more avowedly and self-consciously “Marxist” as they slipped into opposition with the rise to supremacy of Khomeini.[5] Shariati considered himself a follower of Frantz Fanon; Jean-Paul Sartre once said, famously, “I have no religion, but if I were to choose one, it would be that of Shariati.” The 44-year-old Shariati died under mysterious circumstances in 1977 while in exile in London, perhaps murdered by Khomeini’s agents. Opposition presidential candidate Mousavi, and especially his wife Zahra Rahnavard, despite eventually having joined the Khomeini faction by 1979, were students of Shariati who worked closely with him politically in the 1960s–70s.

A Mujahidin-i-khalq demonstration in Tehran during the Revolution. To the left, the figure of Dr. Ali Shariati; to the right, Khomeini.

A Mujahidin-i-khalq demonstration in Tehran during the Revolution. To the left, the figure of Dr. Ali Shariati; to the right, Khomeini.

However disoriented and hence limited the MEK’s inspiration, Shariati’s critique of modern capitalism, from the supposed perspective of Islam, was, it had the virtue of questioning capitalist modernity’s fundamental assumptions more deeply than is typically attempted today, for instance by Žižek, whose take on the “emancipatory potential” of “good Islam” is limited to the rather narrow question of “democracy.” So the question of how adequate let alone well-advised the “democratic” demands such as those of the present Iranian election protesters cannot even be posed, let alone properly addressed. 2009 is not a reprise of 1979, having much less radical potential, and this is both for good and ill.

On the Left, the MEK has been among the more noisy opposition groups against the Islamic Republic, for instance using its deep-cover operatives within Iran to expose the regime’s nuclear weapons program. Most on the Left have shunned the MEK, however. For instance, Postel calls it a “Stalinist death cult.” But the MEK’s New Left Third Worldist and cultural-nationalist (Islamist) perspective, however colored by Marxism, and no matter how subsequently modified, remains incoherent, as does the ostensibly more orthodox Marxism of the Tudeh and WCPI, for instance in their politics of “anti-imperialism,” and thus also remains blind to how their political outlook, from the 1970s to today, is bound to (and hence responsible for) the regressive dynamic of the “revolution” — really, just the collapse of the Shah’s regime — that resulted in the present theocracy. All these groups on the Iranian Left are but faint shadows of their former selves.

Despite their otherwise vociferous opposition to the present Islamist regime, the position of the Left in the present crisis, for instance hanging on every utterance by this or that “progressive” mullah in Iran, reminds one of the unbecoming position of Maoists throughout the world enthralled by the purge of the Gang of Four after Mao’s death in the late 1970s. Except, of course, for those who seek to legitimize Ahmadinejad, everyone is eager if not desperate to find in the present crisis an “opening” to a potential “progressive” outcome. The present search for an “emancipatory” Islamist politics is a sad repetition of the Left’s take on the 1979 Revolution. This position of contemplative spectatorship avoids the tasks of what any purported Left can, should, and indeed must do. From opportunist wishful thinking and tailing after forces it accepts ahead of time as beyond its control, the so-called Left resembles the Monday quarterbacking that rationalizes a course of events for which it abdicates any true responsibility. The Left thus participates in and contributes to affirming the confused muddle from which phenomena such as the Iranian election protests suffer — and hence inevitably becomes part of the Right.

This is the irony. Since those such as Žižek, Halliday, Postel, the Marxist-Humanists, liberals, and others on the Left seem anxious to prove that the U.S. neoconservatives and others are wrong in their hawkish attitude towards the Islamic Republic, to prove that any U.S. intervention will only backfire and prevent the possibility of a progressive outcome, especially to the present crisis, they tacitly support the Obama approach, no matter how supposedly differently and less cynically motivated theirs is compared to official U.S. policy.

Like the Obama administration, the Left seems more afraid to queer the play of the election protesters than it is eager to weigh in against the Islamic Republic. This craven anxiety at all-too-evident powerlessness over events considers itself to be balancing the need to oppose the greater power and danger, “U.S. imperialism,” producing a strange emphasis in all this discourse. Only Hitchens, in the mania of his “anti-fascism,” has freed himself from this obsequious attitude of those on the Left that sounds so awkward in the context of the present unraveling of what former U.S. National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once, rightly, called a “loathsome regime” — a sentiment about the Islamic Republic that any purported Left should share, and more loudly and proudly than any U.S. official could.

Indeed, the supporters of the election protesters have trumpeted the rejection of any and all help that might be impugned as showing the nefarious hand of the U.S. government and its agencies.[6] Instead, they focus on a supposed endemic dynamic for progressive-emancipatory change in Iranian history, eschewing how the present crisis of the Islamic Republic is related to greater global historical dynamics in which Iran is no less caught up than any other place. They thus repeat the mistake familiar from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the reactionary dynamics of which were obscured behind supposed “anti-imperialism.” The problems facing the Left in Iran are the very same ones faced anywhere else. “Their” problems are precisely ours.

With the present crisis in Iran and its grim outlook we pay the price for the historical failures — really, the crimes — of the Left, going back at least to the period of the 1960s–70s New Left of which the Islamic Revolution was a product. The prospects for any positive, let alone progressive, outcome to the present crisis are quite dim. This is why it should be shocking that the Left so unthinkingly repeats today, if in a much attenuated form, precisely those mistakes that brought us to this point. The inescapable lesson of several generations of history is that only an entirely theoretically reformulated and practically reconstituted Left in places such as the U.S. and Europe would have any hope of giving even remotely adequate, let alone effective, form to the discontents that erupt from time to time anywhere in the world. Far from being able to take encouragement from phenomena such as the present election crisis and protests in Iran, the disturbing realization needs to be had, and at the deepest levels of conscious reflection, about just how much “they” need us.

A reformulated Left for the present and future must do better than the Left has done up to now in addressing — and opposing — problems such as political Islamism. The present manifest failure and unraveling of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is a good occasion for thinking through what it might mean to settle this more than thirty year old score of the betrayed and betraying Left. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #14 (August 2009). A slightly revised version was published in The International Journal of Žižek Studies 3.4 (2009).


1. In particular, see Danny Postel’s Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, 2006; Fred Halliday’s “Iran’s Tide of History: Counterrevolution and After,” OpenDemocracy.net, July 17; and the Marxist-Humanist periodical News & Letters, as well as the web sites of the U.S. Marxist-Humanists and the Marxist-Humanist Initiative.

2. See Žižek’s “Will the Cat above the Precipice Fall Down?,” June 24 (available at http://supportiran.blogspot.com), based on a June 18 lecture at Birkbeck College, London, on “Populism and Democracy,” and followed by the more extended treatment in “Berlusconi in Tehran,” London Review of Books, July 23.

3. See Hitchens, “Don’t Call What Happened in Iran Last Week an Election,” Slate, June 14.

4. For excellent historical treatments of the Islamic Revolution and its local and global context, please see: Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (1982) and The Iranian Mojahedin (1992); Maziar Behrooz, Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran (2000); Fred Halliday, “The Iranian Revolution: Uneven Development and Religious Populism” (Journal of International Affairs 36.2 Fall/Winter 1982/83); and David Greason, “Embracing Death: The Western Left and the Iranian Revolution, 1979–83” (Economy and Society 34.1, February 2005). The critically important insights of these works have been largely neglected, including subsequently by their own authors.

5. The MEK have been widely described as “cult-like,” but perhaps this is because, as former participants in the Islamic Revolution, in their state of betrayal they focus so much animus on the cult-like character of the Islamic Republic itself; the official term used by the Khomeiniite state for the MEK is “Hypocrites” (Monafeqin), expressing their shared Islamist roots in the 1979 Revolution. But the success of the MEK over Khomeini would have hardly been better, and might have indeed been much worse. Khomeini’s opportunism and practical cynicism in consolidating the Islamic Revolution might have not only produced but also prevented abominable excesses of “revolutionary” Islamism.

Of all the organized tendencies in the Iranian Revolution, the MEK perhaps most instantiated Michel Foucault’s vision of its more radical “non-Western” character (see Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, 2005). But just as Foucault’s enthusiasm for the Islamic Revolution in Iran ought to be a disturbing reminder of the inherent limitations and right-wing character of the Foucauldian critique of modernity, so should the MEK’s historical Shariati-inspired Islamism stand as a warning against all similar post-New Left valorizations of “culture.”

More recently, the MEK has found advocates among the far-Right politicians of the U.S. government such as Representative Tom Tancredo, Senators Sam Brownback and Kit Bond and former Senator and Attorney General John Ashcroft — precisely those who are most enchanted by the ideological cult of “America.” The MEK’s former patron, the Baathist Saddam Hussein, had unleashed the MEK on Iran in a final battle at the close of the Iran-Iraq war 1980–88, after which Khomeini ordered the slaughter of all remaining leftist political prisoners in Iran, as many as 30,000, mostly affiliated with the MEK and Tudeh, in what Abrahamian called “an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history — unprecedented in form, content, and intensity” (Tortured Confessions, 1999, 210). After the 2003 invasion and occupation, the U.S. disarmed but protected the MEK in Iraq. However, since the U.S. military’s recent redeployment in the “status of forces” agreement with the al-Maliki government signed by Bush but implemented by Obama, the MEK has been subjected to brutal, murderous repression, as its refugee camp was raided by Iraqi forces on July 28–29, seemingly at the behest of the Iranian government, of which the dominant, ruling Shia constituency parties in Iraq have been longstanding beneficiaries.

The grotesque and ongoing tragedy of the MEK forms a shadow history of the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath, eclipsed by the Khomeiniite Islamic Republic, but is essential for grasping its dynamics and trajectory.

6. See, for instance, Sean Penn, Ross Mirkarimi and Reese Erlich, “Support Iranians, not U.S. Intervention,” CommonDreams.org, July 21.

The Platypus Synthesis: History, theory

The Platypus Synthesis: History, theory, and practice

Presented at the Platypus Affiliated Society 1st annual international convention, Chicago, June 14, 2009. (Audio recording.)

History, theory

Chris Cutrone

I WANT TO BEGIN, straightaway, with something Richard raised, on which I would like to try to elaborate, by way of properly motivating the more “positive” aspect of Platypus’s theory. Not how we are misrecognized, as either neoconservatives, crypto-Spartacists or academic Left-liberals, and what this says “negatively” about our project, as if in a photonegative, as Richard has discussed, but rather how we positively think about the intellectual content of our project.

Let me begin with a thought experiment: What if the Spartacist critique of the 1960s New Left and Moishe Postone’s critique of the New Left, as disparate and antithetical as they might appear, were both correct? In other words, what if, paradoxically, the problem of the 1960s New Left was that it was simultaneously “too traditional” and “not traditional enough” in its Marxism?

What if the Spartacists were right that Stalinism and Trotskyism (and Bolshevism more generally) were not to be conflated, as they were in both Stalinophilic New Leftism, of Maoism and Che Guevarism, etc., and Stalinophobic neo-anarchism, Situationism, etc.? And what if Postone was correct, that Trotskyism, as part of “traditional Marxism,” was unable to deal with the problem of mid-20th century capitalism’s differences from earlier forms, and not able to address why revolutionary proletarian class consciousness, as it had previously manifested, did not continue, but seemed to become either irrelevant or, worse, affirmative of the status quo of the “administered society” of “organized” capitalism in the mid-20th century?

What both the Spartacists and Postone are unable to address, however, is why neither of their perspectives, which purported to grasp the problem of capital more deeply and in broader historical context than others in the post-1960s New Left, found virtually no adherents. If we in Platypus say that both the Spartacists and Postone are correct, but both fail to adequately account for their own forms of consciousness, this raises an interesting paradox that points back to issues of historical interpretation for the Spartacists and Postone’s points of departure, namely, Bolshevism as revolutionary Marxism, and Marx’s own Marxism.

We could say that the problem of the Spartacists and Postone point to two different aspects of temporality in the history of the Left, that the Spartacists act as if no historical time intervenes between themselves and 1917, and Postone acts as if the progression of historical transformation leaves the Marxist tradition permanently superseded.

Both the Spartacists and Postone acknowledge, in however a limited fashion, the problem of regression; in the case of the Spartacists, the regression is post-1917, and for Postone it is post-1968, but both consider regression in only a linear and static manner, as if the emancipatory moments of 1917 and 1968 wait to be resumed at some time in a future that never comes. — And, behind both of these, lies 1848, which also continues to haunt our world, as taken up by the Situationists, “Left-” and “council” or “libertarian” communists and “anarchists.” What if all three are correct, that we are indeed haunted by 1848, 1917 and 1968, that these moments actually circumscribe present possibilities? Then the question would be: How so?

The point would be, contra both the Spartacists and Postone, to grasp how and why the pertinence of history changes and fluctuates, over time, and as a function of the present. The point would be to be able to grasp a non-linear conception of historical progression — and regression. If, according to the Spartacists, the moment of the Bolshevik Revolution remains permanently relevant, and, for Postone, Marx remains permanently relevant, this side of overcoming capital, then we ought to be able to explain how this is so, and in ways the Spartacists and Postone themselves have been unable to do. This is precisely what Platypus sets out to do.

Please let me begin again, with 4 quotations, to be considered in constellation. The first is from Walter Benjamin’s 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History:”

Karl Kraus said that “Origin is the goal.” History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.

In attempting to read the history of the accelerated demise and self-liquidation of the Left after the 1960s, reading it, as Benjamin put it, “against the grain,” we in Platypus face a problem discussed by Nietzsche in his 1873 essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life:”

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. [Nietzsche translation by Ian Johnston at: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/history.htm]

However, as Karl Korsch wrote, in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy:”

[Marx wrote (in his 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) that] “[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence.” [But] this dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch. [Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Marxism and Philosophy (NLB: New York and London, 1970), 58]

As Adorno wrote, in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics:

The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that ‘world history is the world tribunal’. 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. [T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (Continuum: New York, 1983), 143–144]

We in Platypus consider ourselves, quite self-consciously, to be a function of such a return, under changed circumstances, to what was “cast aside but not absorbed theoretically.” We think that such an approach as ours is only possible by virtue of the ways history, in failing to be transcended, continues to “fester,” “yielding its truth content,” but “only later.” Our approach is informed by prior models for such an endeavor, namely, Trotsky and Adorno, and those who succeeded them, namely, the Spartacists and Moishe Postone.

We think that figures of historical thought and action such as Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno have an apparently fluctuating pertinence, but we consider them to remain in constellation with the present, however distantly, precisely because these historical figures “remain painful [because they were] thwarted,” and because “history rolled over [their] positions” without their having been actually transcended and superseded, but only mistakenly “dismissed as obsolete.” As Adorno put it, in one of his last essays, “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” or “Is Marx Obsolete?,” if Marx has become obsolete, this obsolescence will only be capable of being overcome on the basis of Marx’s own thought and model of historical action. We in Platypus think the same goes for Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, and Adorno himself.

If these historical figures are obsolete but still remain capable of holding our attention and imagination, then we are tasked with explaining any continued pertinence they have by reference to their own models of historical thought and action, and thus, in a sense, “transcending” them, but only through “remembering” them, and on the basis that they themselves provide for our understanding them. We want to transform the ways these figures haunt us in the present into a matter of actual gratitude as opposed to guilt (as Horkheimer and Adorno put it, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, following Freudian psychoanalysis, about “The Theory of Ghosts”).

We recognize that Marx and the best Marxists, such as Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, will be transcended only by being fulfilled. We want to actually make them obsolete, whereas we find their (pseudo-)“obsolescence” declared by the “Left” today to be a function of trying to repress or ward them off instead. We begin with the discomfort of their memory, as an important symptom of history in the present.

But this involves a rather complicated historical approach, one that goes on in Platypus under the rubrics of “regression” and “critical” history, or history “against the grain” of events, which I would like to explicate now.

Nietzsche described what he called “critical history,” or an approach to history that is critical of that history from the standpoint of the needs of the present. Let me cite further from the passage of Nietzsche’s “Use and Abuse of History for Life” I’ve already quoted to illustrate this point.

Nietzsche said that,

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.

So the question becomes, how, if at all, does memory of historical Marxism serve the needs of the present? We in Platypus recognize both the obscurity of the heritage of revolutionary Marxism and the ways the alternative, non-revolutionary lineage of the “Left” in its decline has been naturalized and so is no longer recognized as such. Our point of departure is the hypothesis that the history of the Left, however obscure, is the actual history of the present, or, more accurately, in Hegelian terms, how the history of the Left is the history of the present in its “actuality,” in its potential for change and transformation, and in its constraint of such potential. We are bound by the history of the Left, whether we recognize this or not.

For example, we follow Trotsky’s caveat about the danger of being Stalinist in “method” if not in avowed “politics,” and judge the “Left” today to be beholden to Stalinism in importantly unacknowledged ways. Ian wrote an article in the May issue of The Platypus Review (#12), on “Resurrecting the ’30s,” in which he cited C. Wright Mills on how the “nationalization” of the Left in the 1930s–40s was “catastrophic.” We recognize this “nationalization,” the narrowing of horizons for Leftist politics that has been taken for granted by the Left, especially after WWII, to be the very essence of Stalinism and its historical legacy in the present. More importantly, we recognize that such “nationalization” of Left politics was utterly foreign to the perspectives of Marx and the 2nd International radical Marxists, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. Hence, we find in their example a potential critical vantage-point regarding the subsequent historical trajectory of the Left.

Furthermore, Nietzsche described the danger of

[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.

Richard, in his comments at our panel on “The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century” Friday night, spoke of how Trotsky and Benjamin provide the “hidden” or esoteric history of the 20th century, by contrast with its “real” history, exemplified by FDR and Hitler. Our present world is more obviously descended from the history of Hitler and FDR, who in this sense made the world what it is today, as the effect of their actions. But how might we (come to) be descended also from Benjamin and Trotsky? Can we claim their history as ours, or are we condemned to being only the products of the history of Hitler, FDR and Stalin (and those who followed them)?

Does the historical possibility represented by Trotsky and Benjamin have any meaning to us today? Clearly their historical legacy of opposition is weaker than the other, dominant and victorious one. But was Trotsky and Benjamin’s opposition to Stalin, FDR and Hitler so fruitless that we cannot make use of them in fighting against the continued effects of, and perhaps one day overcoming entirely, the legacy of the latter? It is in this sense that we can discuss the critique of the present available in history.

Benjamin contrasted such “critical history,” of the “vanquished,” which is related to but the converse of Nietzsche’s, a critique of the present from the standpoint of history, as opposed to Nietzsche’s critique of history from the standpoint of the present, to the affirmative history of the “victors,” the affirmation of history as it happened. — But, first, we need to be very clear about what Benjamin meant by the “vanquished,” who were not merely history’s victims, but the defeated, those who actually struggled and lost: Benjamin’s example was Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League in the German Revolution and Civil War of 1918–19. It was on behalf of such historically “vanquished” that Benjamin wrote that history needed to be read “against the grain” of the victories of the status quo that comprise the present. It is in memory of their sacrifices, the “anger and hatred” that emanates from the image of “enslaved ancestors,” that Benjamin thought the struggle for emancipation in the present could be motivated by history, that history could serve the present, contrary to the way it otherwise oppresses it, in its affirmation of the status quo.

It is in this sense that we in Platypus do not claim so much that Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, et al. were right, but rather we seek to make them right, retroactively. We do not claim their relevance, but seek to make them relevant. For they did not seek merely to find the crisis of capital, but to bring it about. Our critique of the present, initially, is what is available historically: how the present can be critiqued from the vantage-point of history.

The founder of the Spartacist League, James Robertson, once put it very well, in 1973 — in the aftermath of the ’60s — that,

The truth is historically conditioned; that is, the outlook of the Communist movement of the first four congresses of the Communist International rested upon a historic and successful upheaval of the revolutionary proletariat [in 1917]. A comparable theoretical breakthrough and generalization accompanied this massive revolutionary achievement. . . . It is as though the theoretical outlook of the proletarian vanguard in the period 1919–23 in the International stood atop a mountain. But since that time, from the period of the Trotskyist Left Opposition until his death and afterward, the proletariat has mainly witnessed defeats and the revolutionary vanguard has either been shrunken or its continuity in many countries broken. One cannot separate the ability to know the world from the ability to change it, and our capacity to change the world is on a very small scale compared to the heroic days of the Communist International.

Robertson pointed out how deeply mistaken, and indeed “arrogant,” it was for us to assume that we know better than revolutionaries historically did. Our point is not to idolize the past but rather to instill an appropriate sense of humility towards it. Furthermore, the point is to be able to think in light of the past, how the past might help us think in the present. For, not only might we not know their past moments better than they did, but we might not know our present moment better than they might be able to prompt us to think about it. As Adorno wrote, in 1963,

The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago — and usually better the first time around.

But repetition is regression. The second time around may not be better, but it might yet be productive in certain ways.

For it is not a matter of how these historical thinkers and actors we find important can be emulated in the present, practically, so much as it is a question of how far their perspective might see into the present. Not what would they do in the present, but what might they say to our present and its historical trajectory? So, initially, it is a matter of theory more than practice. Engaging the historical thought and action of our revolutionary Marxist forebears is not a matter of applying a ready-made theory, but rather tasks our own interpretative abilities. It demands that we think — not a simple matter. As Trotsky wrote to his followers in the 1930s, we must “learn to think,” again. This is what distinguishes us from other supposedly “Marxist” organizations. And this is what informs our practice, what we actually make happen in the world, as Ian will discuss.

Approaching history this way allows us to pose certain questions. It does not provide answers. The positive content of historical ideas is in their ambiguity: this is what makes them live for us today, by contrast with the dead positivity of the pseudo-ideas — really, the suppression of thinking — that we find on the fake “Left” today. For there is not merely the question of what we think about the past; but, also, and, perhaps most importantly, in our regressive moment today, the reciprocal one: what the past might think of us.

As Benjamin put it, history needs to be approached from the standpoint of its potential redemption. We think that the historical thought and action of Marxism demands to be redeemed, and that our world, dominated by capital, will continue to suffer so long as this task remains undone. We think that the constitutive horizon of our world was already charted, however preliminarily, by the revolutionary politics of historical Marxism, but that this horizon has become only blurred and forgotten since then. We in Platypus set ourselves the task of initiating thought about this problem, from deep within the fog of our present. We look back and see the revolutionary Marxists looking towards us from that faraway mountaintop. In their fleeting gaze we find an unfulfilled hope — and a haunting accusation. | §

Symptomology

Historical transformations in social-political context

Chris Cutrone

Marx ridiculed the idea of having to “prove” the labor theory of value. If Marxian theory proved to be the means whereby the real relations of bourgeois society could be demonstrated in their movement, where they came from, what they were, and where they were going, that was the proof of the theory. Neither Hegel nor Marx understood any other “scientific” proof.

The more concrete the negation of the need, the more abstract, empty and flamboyant becomes the subjective mediation.

— C. L. R. James, “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity” (1947)

THE PRESENT CRISIS has prompted numerous calls for a reconsideration of “socialism” and even for a return to Marx.[1] It seems to augur fundamental changes, changes met with no less fear than desire.

We in Platypus have anticipated, since our inception in 2006, the possibility of a “return to Marx,” and have sought to inform the terms in which this might take place. We have sought the re-opening of historical issues on the Left with the intention of their fundamental recon­sideration, taking nothing for granted, so that we could definitively close the books on stale “debates” in which the “Left” has remained stuck for more than a genera­tion, since at least the 1960s. Given the confusion reign­ing on the “Left” today, the urgency for this is evident.

The difficulty in addressing the present crisis of capi­talism is that almost all commentaries on it, not least those emerging from the Left, begin with a fundamen­tal misrecognition. We are not so much living through the crisis of capitalism as capitalism itself is the crisis. Capitalism is the — permanent — crisis of modern society. Only conjuncturally does capitalism become appreciably worse. But the history of capitalism is, whether in a fine-grained or a broad-gauged way, the history of going from one crisis to the next. It is in this sense that present circumstances and future prospects for capitalism must be addressed.

The election of President Obama is being regarded as an ambivalent phenomenon in this respect: On the one hand, Obama is saddled with responsibility of resolv­ing the crisis merely in order to restore some status quo ante, whether this is conceived as the 1990s heyday of Clintonism, before George W. Bush messed things up, or the post-WWII welfare state of the Roosevelt to Nixon years. On the other hand, Obama’s election is taken to express or indicate the possibility for more radical change, towards which his administration might be pushed. But perhaps neither response to Obama is appropriate. Such prognostication ignores the history of transformations in capitalism, of which the present crisis might be only the latest occasion.

Whatever changes may or may not be brought about by Obama (or despite him) in response to the present crisis, his administration cannot solve the problems of capitalism but only transform them. The changes that take place will matter to the extent that they lay the groundwork for the next period of history under capital, structuring the conditions under which any future struggle against capitalism must take place — just as contemporary social forms are the accumulated effects of prior attempts to master the dynamic of capital in modern history.

To grasp the stakes of the present, we need to antici­pate potential changes, rather than simply getting swept up in them. We need, paradoxically, to try to remain “ahead of the curve,” precisely because, like everyone else, we are conditioned by and subject to forces beyond our control.[2] For what is missing is any agency adequate to intervening against capital (or, more accurately, to intervening from within its unfolding process) with more democratic results.

The historical forces currently at work are beyond anyone’s, including Obama’s, control. However, the danger that the crisis presents is worse than this, which is, after all, the persistent characteristic of capital. The danger lies rather in the illusion that because of the economic crisis the workings of capital, which before had remained hidden, have now somehow revealed themselves to plain view. To grasp such workings requires more than experience. It requires us to attend to the vicissitudes in the history of theory, to distinguish affirmations and apologetics from critical recognitions.

The fate of Michel Foucault’s critique of modern soci­ety in the mid-20th century, during its last third and the first decade of the 21st century, can tell us a great deal about both the historical changes since the 1960s–70s “New Left” and the high 20th century social-political forms against which Foucault’s critique was directed.

Foucault’s work of the 1960s–70s retains great cur­rency in our time because it expresses discontent in a form that can find affirmation in the transformed society that came after its initial formulation and publication.[3] Foucault’s work was susceptible to being transformed from critique into affirmation and even common sense. This fact alone tells us a great deal about the historical changes with which Foucault’s work is bound up.

If Foucault’s work was expressive of forms of discon­tent that helped give rise to post-Fordist, neo-liberal capitalism since the 1970s, if the re-found “anarchism” with which his work has such great affinity has become the predominant form of radical social-political discon­tent on the supposed “Left,” this is because Foucault’s critique inadequately grasped its object, the Fordist capitalism of the mid-20th century. Consequently, when we read Foucault now, his work tells us — and affirms us in — what we already know. Only rarely, and, so to speak, despite itself, does it task us in the present. Only rarely does it help us to separate the critical from the affirma­tive, so that the one is not smuggled in under cover of the other. Hence, the question necessarily arises: Does Foucault’s work actually challenge us? Or does it merely entertain?

Film still, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Film still, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

The “New Left” in the 1960s–70s thought it was rebel­ling against capitalism, and thought it was doing so more profoundly than the preceding “Old” Left was able to do. But now it is difficult to deny that it was responding to one particular form of capitalism, one already in the pro­cess of dissolution. The New Left did not reach deeply enough to affect much of the subsequent transforma­tion of capitalism in the 1980s–90s, but it did serve to legitimize the replacement of what had grown obsolete. We read and accept, e.g., Foucault’s work, though we no longer have Fordist capitalism to critique. What we have instead is post-Fordism, of which Foucault’s work and other New Left thinking has become apologetic. If we find affirmation in Foucault, it is because we have long since flown the cuckoo’s nest of Fordist capital and are no longer in the care of Nurse Ratched.

By contrast with theories such as Foucault’s, Marx’s critical theory of capital has come up for repeated reconsideration since its origins in the mid-19th century, and will continue to do so, so long as capitalism as Marx understood it continues to exist. The other social thinkers whose work remain subject to such reconsid­eration — whose thought continues to haunt us in the present — are those bound up in the historical trajectory from which Marx’s thought emerged, those that predate, are roughly contemporaneous with, or are immediately successive to Marx, such as Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Freud. Beyond these, the thinkers after Marx who primarily claim our interest are those who most rigorously pursue the Marxian prob­lematic, such as Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács, Benjamin and Adorno. This is because, like Marx, the best 20th century Marxists were able to perceive and grasp both the most fundamental, perennial historical problems of life in capital as well as the problems of the struggle to overcome them. The recurrent “return to Marx” is thus a feature of our objective social life and will remain so. There is a reason why Marx does not fade as other thinkers do.

In his important 1989 work The Condition of Post­modernity, David Harvey provided an excellent account of how transformations of capitalism do not leave old forms entirely behind, but rather reconstitute them. For instance, Harvey argues convincingly that the form of capitalism that emerges after 1973 ought to be under­stood as post-Fordist, as the transformation of Fordism rather than its overcoming, just as 20th century Fordism was a transformation of the preceding, 19th century “liberal” form of capital.[4]

So the present crisis of post-Fordist/”neo-liberal” capitalism points not to the end of neo-liberalism, but rather to its transformed continuation. We will be mov­ing into a period in which are accumulated and recon­figured the historical legacies of all previous periods of capitalism: the liberal one of the mid- to late 19th century; the era of monopoly capitalism and imperial­ism of the late 19th to the early 20th century; the Fordist era of the high/middle 20th century; and the neo-liberal era of the late 20th century. The question is whether this compounding of the problems of capitalism since Marx’s time makes it more politically and theoretically intractable.

Preceding forms of discontent with capitalism histori­cally found their expression (however uncertainly) on the Left, and these were transformed along with capitalism itself. The history of the Left is thus closely bound up with changes in the problem it has sought to overcome since the mid-19th century. The exhaustion and underly­ing despair of the “Left” today can be traced to its be­coming lost in a tangle of seemingly insoluble problems that have accumulated since Marx’s time. None of the problems raised in the history of preceding generations of the Left have been successfully worked through. All continue to haunt us.

What makes the present transformation of capital­ism very different from preceding ones, however, is the absence of a Left, an absence that points to a problem of consciousness. If we are haunted by the past, this is largely in a repressed way. By treating the past as “an­cient history” we proclaim it to be no longer relevant. For this very reason, it is unclear whether and to what extent the problems of contemporary capitalism have been brought to conscious recognition.

While every historical crisis in capitalism has been met with (premature) announcements of its demise (whether welcomed or regretted), a history of the Left’s conception of capitalism can help us understand the changes that capitalism has undergone. Specifically, such a history would tell us how acutely (or not) the problem of capitalism and its potential overcoming have been grasped on the Left historically, and this, in turn, would help to reveal lingering theoretical problems. By helping us to better grasp the problem of capitalism, we could better understand how it has survived up to now.

The disadvantage with which we approach the present crisis is conditioned by the absence of a Left that could be meaningfully critiqued and practically challenged, as Marx and the best Marxists did in prior periods. There is no Left to push forward. This severely constricts our ability to actually get a handle on the present.

Whereas prior periods provided the Left with a rich symptomology that could be critically interrogated and thereby advanced, the pathologies we must work through today threaten to be entirely phantasmal. We might be left in coming years wondering why anyone ever made such a great fuss about “credit default swaps” and the like. The sufferings of the present might strike future considerations of them as having been quaint.

To better understand the world we need to try to change it. But the paralyzed consciousness on the “Left” prevents any attempt from whose failure we might learn. Still, a critical encounter with the enigmas of past attempts to change the world might help motivate our thinking and action in the present. The restive dead will continue to haunt us, though they might be made to speak. They are the only meaningfully acute symptoms available in the present. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #12 (May 2009).


1. For instance, see: Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas, “We Are All Socialists Now” in Newsweek February 16, 2009; and the on-going forum on “Reimagining socialism” in The Nation, with contributions by Michael Albert, Tariq Ali, Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher, Jr., Doug Henwood, Christian Parenti, Robert Pollin, Rebecca Solnit, Immanuel Wallerstein, et al., beginning in the March 23, 2009 edition with Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s article “Rising to the Occasion.” See also my letter in response, published in the April 20, 2009 edition, on the relation of Marx­ism to reality, utopia and the necessity for revolution.

2. See, for instance, recent Nobel Laureate in economics Paul Krugman’s “loyal opposition” — supposedly from the “Left” — to the Obama administration’s policies, signaled by a New York Times op-ed column on how the policies were slipping “Behind the Curve” (March 8, 2009), followed by another column, “Conscience of a Liberal” (March 21, 2009) and the Newsweek cover story on Krugman by Evan Thomas, “Obama’s Nobel Headache” (March 28, 2009).

3. See, for instance, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966), The Archaeology of Knowledge (1971) and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975).

4. Harvey’s more recent work, beginning at least with The New Imperialism (2003), up to and including his recent essay published in the Platypus Review 11 (March 2009), “Why the U.S. Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail,” has become more ambigu­ous if not incoherent, politically. He has therefore fallen below the threshold of the insight of his earlier work, which recognized the pitfalls of the nostalgia for Fordist capitalism that his more recent work evinces. This nostalgia is apparent in Harvey’s call, like others on the “Left” in the grip of the memory of the 1930s–40s, for a “new New Deal.” On the other hand, Harvey repeats standard post-1960s warnings about supposed imperial “decline” that have proven unwarranted through the several cri­ses the U.S. has weathered successfully since the Vietnam War debacle and the collapse of the post-World War II Bretton Woods system under Nixon.

“Re-imagining socialism”

Chris Cutrone

Letter in The Nation April 20, 2009. [PDF]

Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.’s article, and the forum in reply, exhibit a glaring disparity between the breadth and depth of the crisis and the timidity of response, in particular Robert Pollin’s reversal of the 1960s-era slogan “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” to “Be utopian, demand the realistic” to push Obama’s reforms further.

There was an earlier formulation of reality and utopia by C. Wright Mills in his 1960 “Letter to the New Left,” the injunction that any purported left “be realistic in our utopianism.” After the 1950s declaration of the “end of ideology,” Mills recognized that the only realistic possibility of political responsibility was in the “utopian” and frankly “ideological” program of socialism, which Ehrenreich and Fletcher treat as the dirty S-word.

Mills warned that socialism needed to be reinvented, on the basis of the best of the Marxist tradition. He enjoined his readers to “forget Victorian Marxism” and “re-read Lenin and Luxemburg” and recall what socialism once meant. But we now have a rehash of the worst of socialism. The global problems of capitalism will not find solutions derived from Lula’s Brazil or Chávez’s Venezuela, 1970s-’80s Swedish policies, takeovers of closed factories in Argentina or community gardens in Detroit’s emptied lots. Mills called such perspectives the politically irresponsible combination of “liberal rhetoric and conservative default” in the ongoing absence of a true left.

While there are much worse things than living under the Swedish welfare state or eating homegrown vegetables, this is not a realistic prospect for saving the majority of the world’s people, or even the majority of Americans, from the ravages of capitalism.

When Christian Parenti–-who, with Liza Featherstone and Doug Henwood, wrote a fine critique of “Left anti-intellectualism” in Action Will Be Taken, invoking Adorno’s critique of unthinking “actionism”–-notes the virtue of Marxism so even a semiliterate Indian public could grasp the dynamics of international capitalism better than their US counterparts, we have arrived at the reversal of Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, that hitherto we have tried only to understand the world, while the point is to change it.

Only what the present “left” deems “utopian,” “full-throttle socialism”–-starting and pursued to conclusion in the United States, the core of global capital, where the crisis and its potential solution find their nexus–-has any hope of making a true diagnosis of our problems and a prognosis for overcoming them. While the revolution envisioned by Marx has never occurred, it still might and, indeed, must if we are to begin to address the manifest problems of capitalism recognized clearly so long ago. | §

1917

The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century

Toward a Theory of Historical Regression

Presented at the Left Forum in New York City, Pace University, April 18, 2009, and revised and expanded for presentation at the 1st annual Platypus international convention, Chicago, June 12, 2009. The panel, “The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century: Toward a Theory of Historical Regression,” was organized around four significant moments in the progressive diremption of theory and practice over the course of the 20th century: 2001 (Spencer A. Leonard), 1968 (Atiya Khan), 1933 (Richard Rubin), and 1917 (Chris Cutrone), introduced by Benjamin Blumberg. (Video recording.)

1917

Chris Cutrone

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
— Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

Hegel links the freedom of each to the freedom of all as something of equal value. But in doing so he regards the freedom of the individual only in terms of the freedom of the whole, through which it is realized. Marx, by contrast, makes the free development of each the precondition for the correlative freedom of all.
— Karl Korsch, Introduction to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1922)

THE YEAR 1917 is the most enigmatic and hence controversial date in the history of the Left. It is therefore necessarily the focal point for the Platypus philosophy of history of the Left, which seeks to grasp problems in the present as those that had already manifested in the past, but have not yet been overcome. Until we make historical sense of the problems associated with the events and self-conscious actors of 1917, we will be haunted by their legacy. Therefore, whether we are aware of this or not, we are tasked with grappling with 1917, a year marked by the most profound attempt to change the world that has ever taken place.

The two most important names associated with the revolution that broke out in 1917 in Russia and in 1918 in Germany are the Second International Marxist radicals Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, each of whom played fateful roles in this revolutionary moment. Two Marxian critical theorists who sought to follow Luxemburg and Lenin to advance the historical consciousness and philosophical awareness of the problems of revolutionary politics, in the wake of 1917, are Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch.

While neither Lenin nor Luxemburg survived the revolutionary period that began in 1917, both Lukács and Korsch ended up disavowing and distancing themselves from their works, both published in 1923, that sought to elaborate a Marxian critical theory of the revolutionary proletarian socialist politics of Lenin and Luxemburg. Lukács adapted his perspective to the prevailing conditions of Stalinism in the international Communist movement and Korsch became a critic of “Marxist-Leninist” Bolshevism, and an important theorist of “Left” or “council communist” politics. Meanwhile, Luxemburg was pitted against Lenin in a similar degeneration and disintegration of the revolutionary consciousness that had informed the revolution of 1917.

The forms that this disintegration took involved the arraying of the principles of liberalism against those of socialism, or libertarianism against authoritarianism. Lenin and Lukács became emblems of authoritarian socialism, while Luxemburg and Korsch became associated with more libertarian, if not liberal, concerns.

But what remains buried under such a misapprehension of the disputed legacy of 1917 is the substance of agreement and collaboration, in the revolutionary Marxist politics of that moment, among all these figures. Behind the fact of Luxemburg’s close collaboration and practical political unity with Lenin lies the intrinsic relationship of liberalism with socialism, and emancipation with necessity. Rather than associating Lenin with revolutionary necessity and Luxemburg with desirable emancipation in such a one-sided manner, we need to grasp how necessity, possibility, and desirability were related, for both Luxemburg and Lenin, in ways that not only allowed for, but actually motivated their shared thought and action in the revolution that opened in 1917.

Both Lenin and Luxemburg sought to articulate and fulfill the concerns of liberalism with socialism—for instance in Lenin’s (qualified) endorsement of self-determination against national oppression.

Lukács and Korsch were among the first, and remain the best, to have rigorously explored the theoretical implications of the shared politics of Luxemburg and Lenin, in their works History and Class Consciousness and “Marxism and Philosophy,” respectively. Both Lukács and Korsch approached what they considered the practical and theoretical breakthrough of the Third International Marxist communism of Luxemburg and Lenin by returning to the “Hegelian” roots of Marxism, a reconsideration of its “idealist” dimension, as opposed to a “materialist” objectivistic metaphysics that lied behind “economism,” for example.

This involved, for Lukács and Korsch, an exploration of Lenin and Luxemburg’s break from the objectivistic “vulgar Marxism” of the politics and theory of the Second International, exemplified by Karl Kautsky. Lukács’s term for such objectivism was “reification”; Korsch addressed it by way of Marx’s approach to the philosophical problem of “theory and practice,” which, he argued, had become “separated out” in the Second International period, their “umbilical cord broken,” while Lenin and Luxemburg had tried to bring them back into productive tension and advance their relation through their revolutionary Marxism.

Ironically, while the title of Lukács’s work is History and Class Consciousness, it was concerned with a more “philosophical” exposition and categorial investigation of the problem of “reification” and the commodity form as socially mediating, following Marx in Capital. Meanwhile, Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy” actually addressed the historical vicissitudes of the theory-practice problem in Marx and Engels’s lifetime and in the subsequent history of the Marxism of the Second International. In both cases, there was an attempt to grasp the issue of subjectivity, or the “subjective” dimension of Marxism.

But it was this focus on subjectivity from which both Lukács and Korsch broke in their subsequent development: Lukács disavowed what he pejoratively called the attempt to “out-Hegel Hegel,” making his peace with Stalinist “dialectical materialism,” while (later) attempting to found a “Marxist ontology.” Korsch, on the other hand, distanced himself from what he came to call, pejoratively, the “metaphysical” presuppositions of Marxism — even and, perhaps, especially as practiced by Lenin, though also, if to a lesser extent, by Luxemburg and even by Marx himself — pushing him ultimately to call for “going beyond Marxism.”

In this complementary if divergent trajectory, Lukács and Korsch reflected, in their own ways, the return of the “vulgar Marxism” that they had sought to supersede in their theoretical digestion of 1917 — a return marked by the Stalinization of the international Communist movement beginning in the 1920s. For example, Theodor W. Adorno was excited to meet Lukács in Vienna in 1925, only to be repulsed at Lukács’s disavowal of the work that had so strongly inspired Adorno and his colleagues in the Frankfurt School, such as Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer. Korsch, who had also, like Lukács, been associated with the Frankfurt School from its inception, had come by the end of the 1930s to scorn the Frankfurt critical theorists as “Marxist metaphysicians,” while in the 1960s Lukács wrote contemptuously of them as having taken up residence at the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” explicitly deriding them for following his early work. In such disavowals can be found evidence for the repression of the problems Lukács and Korsch had sought to address in elaborating Marxian theory from Lenin and Luxemburg’s revolutionary thought and action in 1917–19.

Likewise, in subsequent history, the relation between “means” and “ends” for the Marxist radicals Lenin and Luxemburg in the moment of 1917 became obscured, Lenin being caricatured as believing, in some Machiavellian fashion, that the “ends justified the means,” or exemplifying “revolutionary will.” Luxemburg was equally caricatured as an upholder of principled emancipatory means in extolling the virtues of practical defeat, seemingly happy to remain a Cassandra of the revolution. Biographically, this is crudely reconciled in the image of Luxemburg’s quixotic martyrdom during the Spartacist uprising of 1919, and Lenin’s illness and subsequent removal from political power at the end of his life, condemned to watch, helpless, the dawn of the Stalinist authoritarianism to which his political ruthlessness and pursuit of revolutionary ends had supposedly led.

In either case, rather than serving as an impetus for a determined investigation of these revolutionary Marxists’ thought and action at the level of the basis for their self-understanding and political judgment — models from which we might be able to learn, elaborate, and build upon further — they have been regarded only as emblems of competing principles, in the abstract (e.g., on the question of the Constituent Assembly, over which they had differed only tactically, not principally). So Lenin’s writings and actions are scoured for any hint of authoritarian inhumanity, and Luxemburg’s for anything that can be framed for its supposedly more humane compassion. At the same time, the futility of both their politics has been naturalized: It is tacitly understood that neither what Lenin nor Luxemburg aspired to achieve was actually possible to accomplish — either in their time or in ours.

In the words of Adorno’s writing on the legacy of Lenin, Luxemburg, Korsch, and Lukács, in his last completed book, Negative Dialectics, this way of approaching 1917 and its significance evinced “dogmatization and thought-taboos.”[1] The thought and action of Lenin and Luxemburg are now approached dogmatically, and they and their critical-theoretical inheritors, Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin, and Adorno, are approached only with a powerful thought-taboo firmly in place: that the revolutionary moment of 1917 was doomed to failure, and that its fate was tragically played out in the character of the revolutionary Marxism of its time. Their Marxism is thus buried in an attempt to ward off the haunting accusation that it did not fail us, but rather that we have failed it — failed to learn what we might from it. But, like Lukács and Korsch in their subsequent development, after they convinced themselves of the “errors of their ways,” we have not recognized and understood, but only rationalized, the problematic legacy of 1917.

1917 remains a question — and it is the very same question that Lenin and Luxemburg went about trying address in theory and practice — whether we ask it explicitly of ourselves now or not. It is the great tabooed subject, even if that taboo has been enforced, either by a mountain of calumny heaped upon it, or the “praise” it earns in Stalinist — or “Trotskyist” — “adherence.”

For example, it remains unclear whether the “soviets” or “workers’ councils” that sprung up in the revolutions of 1917–19 could have ever been proven in practice to be an adequate social-political means (for beginning) to overcome capitalism. The Lukács of the revolutionary period recognized, in “The Standpoint of the Proletariat,” the third part of his essay on “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” the danger that

[As Hegel said,] directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable. . . . [I]n the age of the dissolution of capitalism, the fetishistic categories collapse and it becomes necessary to have recourse to the “natural form” underlying them.[2]

Lukács recognized that the “producers’ democracy” of the “workers’ councils” in the revolutionary “dictatorship of the proletariat” was intrinsically related to, and indeed the political expression of, an intensification of the “reification” of the commodity form. Nevertheless, it seems that the attempt, by Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks, to bring “all power to the soviets” in the October Revolution of 1917, and by Luxemburg’s Spartacists in the German Revolution that followed, is something we can learn from, despite its failure. For this revolutionary moment raises all the questions, and at the most profound levels, of the problematic relationship between capitalism and democracy that still haunt us today.

Similarly, Korsch recognized that the revolutions of 1917–19 were the outcome of a “crisis of Marxism” that had previously manifested in the Second International, in the reformist “revisionist” dispute, in which the younger generation of radicals, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky, first cut their teeth at the turn of the century. But, according to Korsch in 1923, this “crisis of Marxism” remained unresolved. The unfolding of 1917 can thus be said to be the highest expression of the “crisis of Marxism” that Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky — and Korsch and Lukács after them — recognized as manifesting the highest expression of the crisis of capitalism, in the period of war, revolution, counterrevolution, civil war, and reaction that set the stage for subsequent 20th century history. Arguably, the world never really overcame or even recovered from this crisis of the early 20th century, but has only continued to struggle with its still unresolved aftermath.

In this sense 1917 was not, in the self-understanding of its thinkers and actors, an attempt to leap from the realm of necessity, but rather the attempt to advance a necessity — the necessity of social revolution and transformation — to a higher stage, and thus open a new realm of possibility. The enigmatic silence surrounding the question of 1917 is masked by a deafening din of opprobrium meant to prevent our hearing it. It remains, as Benjamin put it, an “alarm clock that in each minute rings for sixty seconds,” whether we (choose to) hear it or not.[3] But the degree to which those who have come later have done so, the repression of 1917 has been achieved only at the cost of a regression that, as Benjamin put it, ceaselessly consumes the past and our ability to learn from it, ceding the meaning of history and its sacrifices to our enemies, and rendering those sacrifices in past struggles vain.

Recognizing the nature of the difficulty of 1917, that the problems we find in this moment comprise the essence of its potential pertinence for us, may be the first step in our recognizing the character of the regression the Left has undergone since then. Like a troubling memory in an individual’s life that impinges upon consciousness, the memory of 1917 that troubles our conceptions of social-political possibilities in the present might help us reveal the problems we seek to overcome, the same problems against which Lenin and Luxemburg struggled. Even if a failure, theirs was a brilliant failure from which we cannot afford to be disinherited. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #17 (November 2009).


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, translated by E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 2007), 143.

[2] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, translated by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 208.

[3] Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1927–1930, edited by Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 218.