What is critique?

The relevance of Critical Theory to art today

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with J. M. Bernstein, Lydia Goehr, and Gregg Horowitz at What is Critique?, Parsons, the New School for Design, New York, November 20, 2010 (video recording).

The scholar of Benjamin and Adorno’s work Susan Buck-Morss, in her response to the October art journal’s 1996 Visual Culture Questionnaire, provided a pithy formulation for defining the tasks of both art and criticism in the modern era, “[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience; our job as critics is to recognize this.” Two aspects of Buck-Morss’s formulation of the work of artists need to be emphasized, “sustaining the critical moment” and “aesthetic experience.” The subjective experience of the aesthetic is what artists work on. And they do so in order to capture and sustain, or make available, subjectivity’s “critical moment.”

Adorno, in his 1932 essay on “The Social Situation of Music,” analogized the position of modern art to that of critical social theory. The role of both was to provoke recognition. Furthermore, Adorno warned that there can be no progress in art without that of society. Adorno’s posthumously published but unfinished monograph Aesthetic Theory can be considered to have a central theme organizing all its discussion of the modern experience of art, the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of art. In this, Adorno was elaborating in the aesthetic realm his thesis in Negative Dialectics, the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of philosophy and critical theory. What does it mean to practice art in an epoch of its simultaneous continuing necessity and impossibility? A clue can be found in Adorno’s claim in Negative Dialectics, that “philosophy lives on because its moment of realization was missed.”

Philosophy of art

Adorno’s treatment of philosophy and art are modeled on Marx’s treatment of capital. The potential for a dialectical historical transformation, in which capital would be simultaneously realized and abolished, became for Adorno the question of what it would mean to simultaneously realize and overcome the aspirations of modern philosophy and art. What would it mean to overcome the necessity that is expressed in modern practices of art? The Hegelian thought-figure of art’s attaining to its own concept while transcending it, through a qualitative transformation, was mobilized by Adorno to grasp both the history of modern art and the desire to overcome its practices.

The Hegel scholar Robert Pippin, in his response to the 2003 Critical Inquiry journal’s forum on the current state and potential future for critical theory, described postmodernism as a repetition of the “Romantic recoil” from modernity. Specifically, Pippin pointed to modern literary and artistic forms as derived from such Romanticism, of which postmodernism was the mere continuation, but in denial of its repetition. But Pippin also pointed out that such repetition is in fact a “regression,” because consciousness of the historical condition of the problem had grown worse.

Hegel had posed the question of the “end” of art. But Hegel meant by this not the cessation of practices of art, but rather their ability to make the activity of “Spirit” appear in a self-contained manner. While religion had been superseded by art, art had come to be superseded by “philosophy.” What did Hegel mean by this? Nothing but that art needed philosophical interpretation to be able to mean what it meant. Art needed criticism in order to be itself. This was a specifically modern condition for art, which Hegel addressed in a rather optimistic manner, seeing such need for criticism in art as a hallmark of enlightenment rather than a disability of art.

But Adorno took this Hegelianism of art and turned it, from a historical explanation of its condition, into a critique of such circumstances of history. Like Marx who had turned Hegel “on his head,” or put Hegel back “on his feet,” Adorno inverted the significance of Hegel’s philosophical observation. Where Hegel had, for instance, regarded modern politics as the realm of reflection on, the self-objectification of civil society in the state, Marx regarded the modern state and civil society distinction as expressing the pathological necessity of capital, in which the self-contradiction of capital was projected. Adorno similarly addressed the complementary necessities of art and criticism, as expressing a self-contradiction in (aesthetic) subjectivity.

As Adorno put it, however, this did not mean that one should aspire to a “reconciliation” of art and philosophy or theory. Just as Marx critiqued the Left Hegelians for their Romantic desire to dissolve the distinction between state and “civil” society, the separation was regarded, by Marx and Adorno alike, as the hallmark of freedom. In a late essay, the “Marginalia on Theory and Practice” (1969), Adorno attacked “Romantic socialism” for wanting to dissolve the distinction and critical relationship between theory and practice, maintaining that, by contrast with traditional society, the modern separation of theory and practice was “progressive” and emancipatory. So was the separation in meaning between art, as “non-conceptual knowledge,” and criticism, informed by “theoretical” concepts.

Artistic modernism

So Adorno, like Marx, looked forward, not to a return to a pre-modern or pre-capitalist unity of theory and practice and reconciliation of form and content, as had been the case in traditional culture, but a qualitative transformation of the modern division of meaning in art and criticism, in which each would be simultaneously realized and abolished, as presently practiced. The problem is that, rather than being raised to ever more acute levels, already in Adorno’s time there was a retreat from the productive antagonism, the dialectic of theory and practice, or art and criticism.

Adorno drew upon and sought to further elaborate the approach of his friend and mentor Walter Benjamin, who argued, in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer,” that no art could be of correct political “tendency” unless it was also of good aesthetic “quality.” Furthermore, Benjamin argued that every great work of art “either founds or dissolves a genre.” As Benjamin put it, the work of art that fails to teach artists teaches no one. Artists do not “distribute” aesthetic experience but produce it. New art re-works and transforms, retrospectively, the history of art. Benjamin argued that there can be progress in society without that of art, for necessarily involved in both is the transformation of subjectivity.

Politics of art

The history of modern art, as Benjamin and Adorno recognized, presents a diverse multiplicity of practices, none of which have been able to come to full fruition. Benjamin described this poignantly in his Arcades Project as “living in hell.” Benjamin and Adorno’s thought-figure for such historical consciousness of modern art comes from Trotsky, who pointed out, in a 1938 letter to the editors of the American journal Partisan Review, that the modern capitalist epoch displayed the following phenomenon in its historical course:

[N]ew tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the [first] few decades [of the 20th century] — cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism — follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.

This was because, as Trotsky put it,

The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch. . . . The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base.

Trotsky said of art that, “a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.” And not merely rebellion against existing conventions of art, but the greater conditions for life in capitalist modernity.

So, what would be a “liberating art?” Adorno addresses this in terms of the aspiration for “artistic autonomy,” or the self-justification of aesthetic experience. This is related to how Kant had described the experience of the beautiful, in nature or art, as the sympathetic resonance the subject experiences of an object, which thus appears to embody “purposiveness without purpose,” or a telos, an end-in-itself. Except, for Adorno, this empathy between subject and object in Kant’s account of aesthetic experience, is not to be affirmative but critical. In Adorno’s account of the modern experience of art, the subject recognizes, not the power of experiential capacities, and the transformative freedom of the human faculties, but rather their constraint and unfreedom, their self-contradictory and self-undermining powers. The subject experiences not its freedom in self-transformation, but rather the need for transformation in freedom. Adorno emphasized that the autonomy of art, as of the subject, remains, under capitalism, an aspiration rather than an achieved state. Works of art embody the striving for autonomy that is denied the subject of the modern society of capital, and thus also embody failure. Hence, the history of art furnishes a rich inventory of failed attempts. This is why its history is unsettled and constantly returns. Modern works of art are necessarily failures, but are nonetheless valuable as embodiments of possibility, of unfulfilled potential.

The constrained possibilities embodied in modern art are, according to Benjamin’s formulation, approached by the subject with a combination of “desire and fear.” Modern artworks embody not only human but “inhuman” potentials, or, the possibilities for the qualitative transformation of humanity. They thus have simultaneously utopian and dystopian aspects. Modern artworks are as ambivalent as the historical conditions they refract in themselves, “prismatically.” But it is in such ambivalence that art instantiates freedom. It is the task of theory, or critique, to register and attempt to bring the non-conceptual within the range of concepts. As Adorno put it, the aspiration of modern art is to “produce something without knowing what it is.” In so doing, art acts not only on the future, but also on history.

Art history

Modern artworks find inspiration in art history. This is the potentially emancipatory character of repetition. Artists are motivated by art history to re-attain lost moments by achieving them again, but differently. Artists produce new works that, in their newness, unlock the potentials of past art, allowing us to re-experience history. But this work on history is not without its dangers. As Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe” from the ambivalent “progress” of history, which unfolds in capital as a “mounting catastrophe.” The history of modern art, like that of capital more generally, furnishes a compendium of ruins. The simultaneously progressive and regressive dynamics of history find their purchase in this, that historical forms of experience and consciousness inform present practices, for better or worse. It is the work of critique to attempt to better inform, through greater consciousness, the inevitable repetition in the continuing practices of art, and thus attempt to overcome the worst effects of the regression involved in such practices.

In the Hegelian sense adopted by both Marx and Adorno, the greater consciousness of freedom is the only available path for freedom’s possible realization. Consciousness is tasked to recognize the potential that is its own condition of possibility. This is why Adorno and Benjamin addressed works of art as forms of consciousness. Art can be ideological or it can enlighten, provoking consciousness to push itself further.

The dialectic of art and criticism is necessary for the vitality of art. The self-abnegation of criticism, the disenchantment of consciousness that characterized “postmodernism” has clearly demonstrated the barrenness of such abdication of responsibility, on the part of critics and theorists even more than artists, who were thus left at the mercy of poor, unclarified concepts. The challenge posed by modern critical-theoretical approaches to art have been warded off rather than engaged and pushed further.

Artists’ work continues to demand critical recognition, whether the “critics” recognize this or not. What such critical recognition, of the work of history taken up by art, would mean is what Marxist critical aesthetic theorists like Adorno and Benjamin pursued, and from whose efforts we can and indeed must learn. For a new condition of art has not been attained, but only an old set of conditions repeated, however without their being properly recognized. The relation between art and social modernity, or capital, continues to task both art and theory. Art is not merely conditioned by, but is itself an instance of the modern society of capital. But, like society, for art to progress, theory must do its work. | §


“The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today” video recording:

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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The Marxist hypothesis

A response to Alain Badiou’s “communist hypothesis”

Chris Cutrone

Against Badiou

ALAIN BADIOU’S RECENT BOOK (2010) is titled with the phrase promoted by his and Slavoj Žižek’s work for the last few years, “the communist hypothesis.”[1] This is also the title of the Badiou’s 2008 essay in New Left Review[2] on the historical significance of the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy to the French Presidency.[3] There, Badiou explains his approach to communism as follows:

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, “communist” means, first, that the logic of class — the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity — is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.[4]

Badiou goes on to state that,

As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear. Popular revolts — the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer — might be identified as practical examples of this “communist invariant.” With the French Revolution, the communist hypothesis then inaugurates the epoch of political modernity.[5]

Badiou thus establishes “communism” as the perennial counter-current to civilization throughout its history.

Badiou divides what he calls the modern history of the “communist hypothesis” into two broad periods, or “sequences,” from 1792–1871 and from 1917–76. The first, from Year One of the revolutionary French Republic through the defeat of the Paris Commune, Badiou describes as the “setting in place of the communist hypothesis.” The second, from the October 1917 Revolution in Russia to Mao’s death and the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, Badiou calls the sequence of “preliminary attempts at . . . [the] realization [of the communist hypothesis].”[6]

The two periods remaining in this historical trajectory sketched by Badiou, 1871–1917 and 1976 to the present, Badiou describes as “intervals” in which “the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable,” “with the adversary in the ascendant.”[7]

But the period from 1871–1917 saw the massive growth and development of Marxism (alongside and indeed bound up with the last great flowering of bourgeois society and culture in the Belle Époque[8]), and culminated in the crisis of war and revolution, which Badiou’s account avoids — or, more precisely, evades. That is, this period raises the question of Marxism as such, and its significance in history.

The Marxist hypothesis

A very different set of historical periodizations, and hence a different history, focused on other developments, might be opposed to Badiou’s. Counter to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a “Marxist hypothesis” would seek to grasp the history of the specifically modern society of capital, the different historical phases of capital as characterized by Marx’s and other Marxists’ accounts, beginning in the mid-19th century. But, as the Nietzsche scholar Peter Preuss put it, “the 19th 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.”[9]

Marx is the central figure in developing the critical recognition of history as an invention of the 19th century.[10] (The other names associated with this consciousness of history are Hegel and Nietzsche; relating these three thinkers is a deep problem, long pondered by Marxists.[11])

The Marxist hypothesis is based on Marx’s theoretical and political engagement with the problem he articulated throughout his life, from the Communist Manifesto to Capital, and includes the political thought and action inspired by and seeking to follow and develop upon Marx. This problem is the historical specificity of capital — and hence of history itself. For the Marxist hypothesis is that capital is the source of what Kant called “universal history.”[12]

By contrast with Badiou’s history of the “communist hypothesis,” a history of the “Marxist hypothesis” will be complicated, layered, not quite linear, and non-evental. It is divided into the different periods in the history of Marxism: from 1848–95, the publication of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto to Engels’s death, to 1914–19, the crisis of Marxism in war and revolution; and from 1923–40, post-Bolshevik Marxism, to 1968–89, the “New Left” and the collapse of “Communism.” These are periods in the history of Marxism, which are conceived as the history of what Marx called “capital.” This is the history of capital and its potential overcoming, as expressed in the history of Marxism.[13]

Such history is motivated by the need for what Karl Korsch called, in his 1923 essay “Marxism and Philosophy,” the historical-materialist analysis and critique of Marxism itself, or a Marxist history and theory of Marxism.[14] This would be a history of the emergence, crisis, and decline of Marxism as expressing the possibility of getting beyond capital, as Marx and the best Marxists understood this. Today, as opposed to Korsch’s time in 1923, this would include consideration of the possibility that the potential Marxism expressed missed its chance, and has carried on only in a degenerate, spectral way, until passing effectively into history. That such an account is possible at all is what motivates the fundamental “hypothesis” of Marxism, or the Marxist hypothesis — the hypothesis that Marxism, as a perspective and politics, could be the vital nerve center of modern history. For Marxism is the grandest of all Grand Narratives of history, with reason. Today, the question is what was Marxism?

For most Marxists in the 20th century (and hence also for Badiou), the period of Marxism from 1871–1917, which saw the foundation and growth of the parties of the Second International, was the era of “revisionism,” in which Marxist revolutionary politics was swamped by reformism. But this was also the period of the struggle against the reformist revision of Marxism by Marx and Engels’s epigones, such as Bebel, Bernstein, Kautsky, and Plekhanov. This struggle against reformism was conducted by the students of these very same disciples of Marx, and involved a complex change, itself an important historical transition, in which the students were disappointed by and came to surpass their teachers.[15]

The greatest achievement of the struggle against reformism in the Second International was the Bolshevik leadership of the October Revolution, followed by the (however abortive) revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Italy, and the establishment of the Third “Communist” International.[16] The world crisis of war and revolution 1914–19 should be regarded properly as the Götterdämmerung of Marxism, which raised the crisis of capital to the realm of politics, in a way not seen before or since. The crisis of Marxism 1914–19 was a civil war among Marxists. On one side, the younger generation of radicals that had risen in and ultimately split the Second International and established the Third International, most prominently Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, led the greatest attempt to change the world in history. They regarded their division in Marxism as expressing the necessity of human emancipation.[17] That their attempt must be judged today a failure does not alter its profound — and profoundly enigmatic — character.[18]

The stakes of the Revolution attempted by the Second International radicals, inspired by Marx, cannot be overestimated. For Marx and his followers, the epoch of capital was both the culmination of history and marked the potential end of pre-history and the true beginning of human history, in communism.[19] As Walter Benjamin put it, “humanity is preparing to outlive culture, if need be”[20] — that is, to survive civilization, as it has been lived for an eon.[21]

The specter of Marx

While Marx and Engels had written of the “specter” of communism, today it is the memory of Marx that haunts the world. This difference is important to register: Marx and Engels could count on a political movement — communism — that they sought to clarify and raise to self-consciousness of its historical significance. Today, by contrast, we need to remember not the historical political movement so much as the form of critical consciousness given expression in Marxism. This must be traced back to the thought and political action of Marx himself.

If Marx is mistaken for an affirmer and promulgator of “communism” as opposed to what he actually was, its most incisive critic (from within), we risk forgetting the most important if fragile achievement of history: the consciousness of potential in capital. As Marx wrote early on, in an 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge that called for the “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction and . . . only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle and is infected by its opposite, private property.”[22]

The potential for emancipated humanity expressed in communism that Marx recognized in the modern history of capital is not assimilable without remainder to pre- or non-Marxian socialism. Marx’s thought and politics are not continuous with the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome or the teachings of the Apostles — or with the radical egalitarianism of the Protestants or the Jacobins. As Marx put it, “Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.”[23] Communism, as a form of discontent in capital, thus demanded critical clarification of its own meaning, and not one-sided endorsement. For Marx thought that communism was a means and not an end in itself.

So what does it mean that, today, we continue, politically, to have “communism” — in Badiou’s sense of demands for “radical democratic equality” — but not “Marxism?” Badiou’s periodization of the history of modern communism in the history of civilization dissolves Marxism into one of its constituent parts — or at least submerges it in this history. But Marx sought, in his own thought and politics, to comprehend and transcend the specifically modern phenomenon of communism, that is, the modern social-democratic workers’ movement emerging in the 19th century, as a constituent of capital, as a historically specific form of humanity. So, what would it mean, today, to view the history of the modern society of capital through the figure of Marx? The possibility of such a project is the Marxist hypothesis.

“Marx-ism”

It goes a long way in making sense of the most important historical figures of communism after Marx, such as Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Bukharin, Lukács, Stalin, and Mao, among others, to evaluate them as followers of Marx. It is significant that they themselves sought to justify their own political thought and action in such terms — and were regarded for this by their political opponents as sectarian dogmatists, disciples of Marxism as a religion. But how did they think that they were following Marx? What are we to make of the most significant and profound political movement of the last two centuries, calling itself “Marxist,” and led by people who, in debate, never ceased to quote Marx at each other? What has been puzzled over in such disputes, and what were — and are still, potentially — the political consequences of such disagreement over the meaning of Marx?

Certainly, Marxism has been disparaged as a religion, and Marx as a prophet. (For instance, Leszek Kolakowski dismissed Marxism as the “farcical aspect of human bondage.”[24]) But what of Marx as a philosopher? If Marx has been widely discredited as a political thinker, nevertheless, in 2005, for instance, a survey of BBC listeners polled Marx as the “greatest philosopher of all time,” well ahead of Socrates, Kant, Nietzsche, and others. On the face of it, this does not seem like a particularly plausible judgment of Marx, either in terms of his own thinking and practice or of “philosophy” as a discipline, unless Marx’s philosophy is understood as indicating how we have not yet overcome the problems he identified in modern society.[25] As far as the reputation of Marx as a thinker is concerned, we seem to have been left with “Marxism” but without Marx’s own “communist” politics: “Marxism” has survived as an “analysis,” but without clear practical importance; “communism” has survived as an ethic without effective politics. How might we make sense of this?

The Marxist hypothesis is that the relation between Marx and “communism” needs to be posed again, but in decidedly non-traditional ways, casting the history of Marxism in a critical light. For it is not that communism found a respected comrade in Marx — perhaps more (or less) estimable than others — but that Marx’s thought and political action form an irreducibly singular model that can yet task us, and to which we must still aspire. Hence, the continued potential purchase of “Marx-ism.” The question is not, as Badiou would have it, what is the future of communism, but of Marx.

To address any potential future of Marxism, it is necessary to revisit Marx’s own Marxism and its implications.

Marx in 1848

Marx pointed out about the revolution in Germany, in which he immediately involved himself after writing the Manifesto, that the capitalists were more afraid of the workers asserting their bourgeois rights than they were of the Prussian state taking away theirs. This was not because of a conflicting class interest between the capitalists and Junkers (Prussian landed aristocracy), but rather because of the emerging authoritarianism in post-Industrial Revolution capital, at a global scale. For such authoritarianism was also characteristic of the revolution of 1848 in France, in which Napoleon’s nephew Louis Bonaparte’s rule, as the first elected President of the Second Republic (1848–52), and then, after his coup d’etat, as Emperor of the Second Empire (1852–70), could not be characterized as expressing the interest of some non-bourgeois class (the “peasants,” whom Marx insisted on calling, pointedly, “petit bourgeois”), but rather of all the classes of bourgeois society, including the “lumpenproletariat,” in crisis by the mid-19th century.[26] As Marx put it mordantly, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), bourgeois fanatics for order were shot down on their balconies in the name of defense of the social order.[27] The late 19th century rule of Napoleon III and Bismarck — and Disraeli — mirrored each other. Marx analyzed the authoritarianism of post-1848 society, in which the state seems to rise over civil life, as a situation in which the bourgeoisie were no longer and the proletariat not yet able to master capital.[28] This was the crisis of bourgeois society Marx recognized. Badiou’s account, on the other hand, is rather a history of ruling class power opposed by the resistance of the oppressed. As early as 1848 Marx was not a theorist of classes but capital, of which modern socio-political classes were “phantasmagorical” projections.[29] Marx sought to situate, not capital in the history of class struggle, but history in capital,[30] to which social struggles and their history were subordinate.[31]

Napoleon III and Bismarck after the French defeat at Sedan, 1870.

Capitalism, communism, and the “state of nature”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau had raised a hypothetical “state of nature” in order to throw contemporary society into critical relief. In so doing, Rousseau sought to bring society closer to a “state of nature.” Liberal, bourgeois society was a model and an aspiration for Rousseau. For Rousseau, it was human “nature” to be free.* Humans achieved a higher “civil liberty” of “moral freedom” in society than they could enjoy as animals, with mere “physical” freedom in nature. Indeed, as animals, humans are not free, but rather slaves to their natural needs and instincts. Only in society could freedom be achieved, and humans free themselves from their natural, animal condition.[32] When Rousseau was writing, in the mid-18th century, the promise of freedom in bourgeois society was still on the horizon. Bourgeois society aspired to proximity to the “state of nature” in the sense of bringing humanity, both collectively and individually, closer to its potential, to better realize its freedom. With Marx, communism, too, aimed for the realization of this potential. The imagination of a “primitive communism,” closer to a “state of nature” of unspoiled human potential, recapitulated the Rousseauian vision of bourgeois society as emancipation. But, in capitalism, bourgeois society had come to violate its own promised potential. It had become a “state of nature,” not in Rousseau’s sense, but rather according to Hobbes, a “war of all against all” — a conception that Rousseau had critiqued. Society was not to be the suspension of hostilities, but the realization of freedom. Moreover, humanity in society exhibited a “general will,” not reducible to its individual members: more than the sum of its parts. Not a Leviathan, but a “second nature,” a rebirth of potential, both individually and collectively. Human nature found the realization of its freedom in society, but humans were free to develop and transform themselves, for good or ill. To bring society closer to the “state of nature,” then, was to allow humanity’s potential to be better realized. Communism, according to Marx, was to follow Rousseau, not Hobbes, in realizing bourgeois society’s aspirations and potential. But, first, communism had to be clear about its aims.

Communism: not opposed to, but in, through, and beyond the bourgeois society of capital

The Marxist hypothesis is that Marx’s thought and politics correspond to a moment of profound transformation in the history of modern society, indeed, in the history of humanity: the rise of “industrial capital” and of the concomitant “social-democratic” workers’ movement that attended this change. This was expressed in the workers’ demand for social democracy, which Marx thought needed to be raised to greater self-consciousness to achieve its aims.[33] Marx characterized the moment of industrial capital as marking the crisis in modern society — or even, an event and crisis in “natural history”[34] — in which humanity faced the choice, as Luxemburg put it (echoing Engels) of “socialism or barbarism.”[35] This was because classical bourgeois forms of politics that had emerged in the preceding era of the rise of manufacturing capital in the 17th and 18th centuries, liberalism and democracy, proved to be inadequate to the problems and tasks of modern society since the 19th century — Marx’s moment. With Marx, humanity faces a new, unforeseen task. However, unfulfilled, this task has fallen into neglect today.[36]

In the transformed circumstance of capital, liberalism and democracy became necessary precisely in their impossibility, and thus pointed to their “dialectical” Aufhebung — completion and transcendence through negation, or self-overcoming.[37] Liberalism and democracy became not only mutually contradictory but each became self-contradictory in capital. It is thus not a matter of communism versus liberal democracy — as Badiou and Žižek take it to be. Communism was, for Marx, the political movement that pointed to the possibility of overcoming the necessity of liberalism and democracy, or the transcending of the need for “bourgeois” politics per se. But this was to be achieved through the politics of the demands for the bourgeois rights of the working class. Marx regarded the socialism and communism that had emerged in his time as expressing a late, and hence self-contradictory and potentially incoherent form of bourgeois radicalism — expressing the radicalization of bourgeois society — but that demanded redemption. Marx sought the potential in capital of going beyond demands for greater liberalism and democracy. Subsequent “communism” lost sight of Marx on this, and disintegrated into the 20th century antinomy of socialism and liberalism.[38] The Marxist hypothesis is that Marx recognized the possibility, not of opposition, but of a qualitative transformation, in, through, and beyond bourgeois society. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #29 (November 2010).


1. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London: Verso, 2010). The book is printed in a pocket-sized red hardcover on which is emblazoned a gold star — a Little Red Book (viz., Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung) for our time?

2. Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis,” New Left Review 49 (January–February 2008), 29–42.

3. The other book to originate from Badiou’s 2008 essay in New Left Review is The Meaning of Sarkozy (London: Verso, 2008).

4. Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis,” 34–35.

5. Ibid., 35.

6. Ibid., 35–36.

7. Ibid., 36–37.

8. See Theodor W. Adorno, “Those Twenties,” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 41–48, originally published in 1961, in which Adorno stated that, “Already in the twenties, as a consequence of the events of [the failure of the German Revolution in] 1919, the decision had fallen against that political potential that, had things gone otherwise, with great probability would have influenced developments in Russia and prevented Stalinism.” So, “that the twenties were a world where ‘everything may be permitted,’ that is, a utopia . . . only seemed so” (43). Indeed, according to Adorno, “The heroic age . . . was actually around 1910” (41). See note 13, below.

9. Peter Preuss, Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 1.

10. See Louis Menand’s 2003 Introduction to the republication of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003), originally published in 1940, in which Menand cites Wilson’s statement that “Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment” (xvi). Furthermore, Menand points out that,

Marxism gave a meaning to modernity. . . . 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. (xiii)

11. See, for example, Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964–65, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2006).

12. Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” trans. Lewis White Beck, in Kant on History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 11–25.

13. For instance, the title of Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) indicates what the historical era of “imperialism” meant to Lenin and other contemporary Marxists: the eve of revolution. The self-understanding of the Marxists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries grounded the history of Marxism itself in the history of capital, even if their propagandistic rhetoric had the unfortunate character of calling the crisis of capital expressed by Marxism “inevitable.” See note 18, below.

14. See Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008). Originally published in 1923. Also available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm>.

15. See Lars T. Lih’s extensive work on Lenin’s “Kautskyism,” for instance in Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).

16. In a portentous first footnote to his book What is to be Done? (1902), available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/i.htm>, Lenin put it this way:

Incidentally, in the history of modern socialism [there] is a phenomenon . . . in its way very consoling, namely . . . the strife of the various trends within the socialist movement. . . . [In] the disputes between Lassalleans and Eisenachers, between Guesdists and Possibilists, between Fabians and Social-Democrats, and between Narodnaya Volya adherents and Social-Democrats . . . really [an] international battle with socialist opportunism, [will] international revolutionary Social-Democracy . . . perhaps become sufficiently strengthened to put an end to the political reaction that has long reigned in Europe?

17. See Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” a June 18, 1938 letter to the editors of Partisan Review, available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm>:

Not a single progressive idea has begun with a “mass base,” otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in its last stage that the idea finds its masses — if, of course, it answers the needs of progress. All great movements have begun as “splinters” of older movements. . . . The group of Marx and Engels came into existence as a “splinter” of the Hegelian Left. The Communist [Third] International germinated during [WWI] from the “splinters” of the Social Democratic [Second] International. If these pioneers found themselves able to create a mass base, it was precisely because they did not fear isolation. They knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity. These “splinters” . . . carried within themselves the germs of the great historical movements of tomorrow.

18. See Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy:

[A] 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. (67–68)

I have elaborated further on the significance of Korsch’s important essay in my review of Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (2008), Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2009/09/03/book-review-karl-korsch-marxism-and-philosophy/>.

19. Adorno, in “Reflections on Class Theory” (originally written in 1942), provides the following unequivocally powerful interpretation of the perspective of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto:

According to theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . . By extending the concept of class to prehistory, theory . . . turns against prehistory itself. . . . By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole. . . . All history is the history of class struggles because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory. (Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003], 93–94.)

20. Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty,” Selected Writings vol. 2 1927–34 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 735. Originally published in 1933.

21. The term used to describe this effect is the “Anthropocene.” Jeffrey Sachs, in the second of his 2007 Reith Lectures, “Survival in the Anthropocene” (Peking University, Beijing, April 18, 2007, available online at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2007/lecture2.shtml>), characterized it this way:

“The Anthropocene” — a term that is spectacularly vivid, a term invented by one of the great scientists of our age, Paul Crutzen, to signify the fact that human beings for the first time have taken hold not only of the economy and of population dynamics, but of the planet’s physical systems, Anthropocene meaning human-created era of Earth’s history. The geologists call our time the Holocene — the period of the last thirteen thousand years or so since the last Ice Age — but Crutzen wisely and perhaps shockingly noted that the last two hundred years are really a unique era, not only in human history but in the Earth’s physical history as well.

22. Marx, “For the ruthless criticism of everything existing,” letter to Arnold Ruge (September, 1843), in Robert Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 12–15. Also available online at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm>.

23. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 93. Also available online at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm>.

24. Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents in Marxism (New York: Norton, 2005), 1212.

25. See Robert Pippin, “Critical Inquiry and Critical Theory: A Short History of Nonbeing,” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (Winter 2004), 424–428, also available on-line at: <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/issues/v30/30n2.Pippin.html>. Pippin wrote that,

[T]he dim understanding we have of the post-Kantian situation with respect to, let’s say, “the necessary conditions for the possibility of what isn’t” . . . is what I wanted to suggest. I’m not sure it will get us anywhere. Philosophy rarely does. Perhaps it exists to remind us that we haven’t gotten anywhere. (428)

26. See Marx, The Class Struggles in France 1848–50 (1850) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

27. Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader:

Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an “attempt on society” and stigmatized as “socialism.” . . . Bourgeois fanatics for order are shot down on their balconies by mobs of drunken soldiers, their domestic sanctuaries profaned . . . in the name of property, of family . . . and of order. . . . Finally, the scum of bourgeois society forms . . . the “saviour of society.” (602–603)

28. Engels summed this up well in his 1891 Introduction to Marx, The Civil War in France (1871), in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 620.

29. See Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 165.

30. See my “Capital in History: The need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left,” Platypus Review 7 (October 2008), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/capital-in-history-the-need-for-a-marxian-philosophy-of-history-of-the-left/>.

31. See Platypus Historians Group, “Introduction to the History of the Left: Changes in the meaning of class struggles,” Platypus Review 3 (March 2008), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2008/03/01/introduction-to-the-history-of-the-left-changes-in-the-meaning-of-class-struggles/>.

32. See Rousseau, The Social Contract, Ch. 8 “Civil Society,” trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin, 1968), 64–65. Originally published in 1762.

33. See Marx, “For the ruthless criticism of everything existing.”

34. See note 21, above. See also Adorno, “The Idea of Natural History” (originally written in 1932), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, Telos 57 (1985): “[I]t is not a question of completing one theory by another, but of the immanent interpretation of a theory. I submit myself, so to speak, to the authority of the materialist dialectic” (124).

35. See Luxemburg, The Crisis in German Social Democracy (AKA The Junius Pamphlet, originally published in 1915), available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/index.htm>.

36. See Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy:

[Marx wrote, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), 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.” This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch. (58)

37. On this point, see some of Marx’s earliest writings, which provided the points of departure for his more mature work, such as “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1843), “On [Bruno Bauer’s] The Jewish Question” (1843), and The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).

38. But, for Marx and Engels, there was no necessary contradiction between the freedom of the individual and that of the collective, or, in this sense, between liberalism and socialism: “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” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 491, also available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm>).

For further discussion of this antinomic degeneration and disintegration of the original Marxian perspective, see my “1917” in The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century: Toward a theory of historical regression, Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/>. See also: Platypus Historians Group, “Friedrich Hayek and the legacy of Milton Friedman: Neo-liberalism and the question of freedom (in part, a response to Naomi Klein),” Platypus Review 8 (November 2008), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2008/11/01/friedrich-hayek-and-the-legacy-of-milton-friedman-neo-liberalism-and-the-question-of-freedom/>; and my “Obama and Clinton: ‘Third Way’ politics and the ‘Left’,” Platypus Review 9 (December 2008), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2008/12/01/obama-and-clinton-third-way-politics-and-the-left/>.

* As James Miller, author of The Passion of Michel Foucault (2000), put it in his 1992 introduction to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992),

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.” (xv)

An incomplete project? Art and politics after postmodernism

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, October 26, 2010. Originally published in 491 #2 (November 2010).

What was postmodernism? — Habermas’s critique

Postmodernism challenged the institutionalized modernism of the mid-20th century, offering more radical forms of social discontents and cultural practice. It meant unmasking the values of progress as involving ideologies of the political status-quo, the problems of which were manifest to a new generation in the 1960s. But, more recently, postmodernism itself has begun to age, and reveal its own concerns as those of the post-1960s situation of global capitalism rather than an emancipated End of History.

In 1980, Jürgen Habermas, on the occasion of receiving the Adorno prize in Frankfurt, predicted the exhaustion of postmodernism, characterizing its conservative tendencies. Habermas called this situation the “incomplete project” of modernity, a set of unresolved problems that have meant the eventual return of history, if not the return of “modernism.” How does Habermas’s note of dissent, from the moment of highest vitality of postmodernism, help us situate the concerns of contemporary art in light of society and politics today?

In his Adorno prize talk, Habermas emphasized the question of the “aesthetic experience . . . drawn into individual life history and . . . ordinary life,” and “not [already] framed by experts’ critical judgments” (12–13). Habermas thinks that such aesthetic experience “does justice to . . . Brecht’s and Benjamin’s interests in how artworks, having lost their aura, could yet be received in illuminating ways,” a “project [that] aims at a differentiated re-linking of modern culture with an everyday praxis that [would be impoverished by mere traditionalism][, a] new connection [that] that can only be established on condition that societal modernization will also be steered in a different direction [than capitalism].” (13). Habermas admitted that “the chances for this today are not very good” (13).

Instead, Habermas points out at that, “The disillusionment with the very failures of those programs that called for the negation of art and philosophy has come to serve as a pretense for conservative positions” (13–14). This is how Habermas characterized postmodernism, an anti-modernism that was an ideology of the “young conservatives,” namely Foucault and Derrida (among others).

Habermas drew a parallel of the postmodernism of Derrida and Foucault to the “neo-conservatives,” for which he took the Frankfurt School critical theorists Horkheimer and Adorno’s former secretary, in their time of exile in the U.S. during WWII, Daniel Bell, as representative. Bell had described the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” as resulting in what he called “antinomian culture,” which produced a nihilistic “culturati” in a “counterfeit” high culture of “multiples,” hedonism for the middle class, and a “pornotopia for the masses.” What Bell, as a self-styled “conservative,” deplored, such as the “conformism” of a liberal “heterodoxy” that became a “prescription in its confusions,” postmodernists celebrated. But they agreed on what Habermas called the destructive aspects of the “negation of art and philosophy,” against which various “hopeless” “Surrealist revolts” had been mounted, as an inevitable result of modernity. Whereas Bell, for instance, explicitly called for the return of religion as a way of staving off the nihilism of modernity, the postmodernists implicitly agreed with the conservative diagnosis of such nihilism, for they explicitly abandoned what Habermas called modernity’s “incomplete project” of enlightenment and emancipation. Postmodernism was a form of anti-modernity.

Critical art, liquidated

So, how does art figure in such a project of enlightened emancipation? The scholar of Benjamin and Adorno’s work Susan Buck-Morss wrote, in response to the postmodernist art journal October’s 1996 Visual Culture Questionnaire, that, “[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience. Our work as critics is to recognize it.” Buck-Morss protested against what she called the “liquidation” of art in the move of “attacking the museum,” “producing subjects for the next stage of global capitalism” by replacing concern with the “critical moment of aesthetic experience” with a discourse that “legitimates culture.” In so doing, Buck-Morss pointed out that failing to properly grasp the social stakes of aesthetic experience resulted in the “virtuality of representation,” ignoring how, for Benjamin and the Surrealists he critically championed “images in the mind motivate the will” and thus have “effect in the realm of deeds.”

Indeed, prominent October journal writer Hal Foster had, in the 1982 essay “Re: Post,” gone so far as to call for going “beyond critique,” really, abandoning it, for in critique Foster found precisely the motor of (deplorable) “modernism,” which he characterized as consciousness of “historical moment” that “advanced a dialectic.” Foster stated unequivocally that critical “self-reflexivity” needed to be abandoned because it (supposedly) “enforces closure.” Foster called the Brechtian terms “defamiliarization” and “estrangement” “quintessentially modernist.” But Foster remained equivocal regarding the matter of art’s potential to “initiate new ways of seeing,” even if he stayed suspicious of “the old imperative of the avant-garde and its language of crisis.”

The crisis of criticism — driving art underground

But the concern, for Foster, as with the other leading October writers (such as Rosalind Krauss and Douglas Crimp), was reduced, from social problems, to problematizing art: (in Crimp’s words) “on the museum’s ruins.” But the museum is still standing. The question is whether it still houses art. As Buck-Morss pointed out, the museum is the “very institution that sustains the illusion that art exists.” What this means is that, disenchanted with art, the “realm of deeds,” in which “images in the mind motivate the will,” abandoned by the critics, is ceded instead to the “advertising industry.” The museum, lacking a critical response, is not overcome as an institution of invidious power, but, instead of sustaining the socially necessary “illusion” that “art exists,” however domesticated, becomes an embodiment of the power of kitsch, that is, predigested and denatured aesthetic experience, to affirm the status-quo: high-class trash. Art becomes precisely what the postmodernists thought it was. The museum has not faced the crisis of meaning the postmodernists wished of it, only the meaning has become shallower. In Adorno’s terms, the museum has become an advertising for itself, but the use of its experience has become occulted, in favor of its exchange-value: the feeling of the worth of the price of the ticket. But the experience of art is still (potentially) there, if unrecognized.

For Buck-Morss, there is indeed a crisis — of (lack of) recognition. Criticism, and hence consciousness of aesthetic experience objectified in artistic practices, was in crisis in postmodernism. Critical theory ceased to be critical — and thus became affirmative, even if it was confused about this. This was the result, in Habermas’s terms, of the “postmodernist” turning away from the “incomplete project” of modern art’s critical response to social modernity: a conservative result, by default, even if under the “pretense” that it was progressive or even radical.

Against such postmodernist abdication and thus affirmation of existing “culture,” Buck-Morss called for approaching art “emblematically and symptomatically, in terms of the most fundamental questions of social life,” “bringing to consciousness what was before only dimly perceived, so that it becomes available for critical reflection.” Otherwise, Buck-Morss warned that “tomorrow’s artists may opt to go underground,” and “do their work esoterically, while employed as producers of visual culture.” We might also say that there is the option of continuing to make “art,” but without recognition of its stakes by critics, impaired by a discourse of “visual culture” and supposed “institutional” critique or opposition — that is, an institutionalized opposition to the institution (such as effected by the October writers, who have since entered the canon of academicism, for instance in the academic art of the postmodernist art school). This outcome represses, or drives “underground,” the concerns of artists regarding aesthetic experience, which, according to Habermas and Buck-Morss, following Benjamin and Brecht, are potentially “vital” and “fundamental” to “questions of social life.”

“Relational” aesthetics

The question of the more recent phenomenon of “relational aesthetics” needs to be addressed in such terms, for “relational aesthetics” claims to be about mobilizing attention to the aesthetic experience of the social for critical ends, in society as well as art.

Several important critical accounts of relational aesthetics have been attempted. Claire Bishop has addressed the problem of relational aesthetics raising the social at the expense of recognition of social antagonisms. Stewart Martin has questioned the relational aesthetics opposition of the social to the (autonomous) art object of traditional (modernist) aesthetics. But Martin has also interrogated the hypostatization of the social, whether considered either as a relatively unproblematic value in itself or as a zone of antagonism, as in Bishop’s criticism. Additionally, Martin has addressed shared problems of the late paradigmatic but opposed attempts on the Left to politicize aesthetics by Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou. Martin has deployed a sophisticated understanding of Marx and Adorno on the commodity form towards these ends. Thus it becomes possible for Martin to address relational aesthetics practices’ “naïve mimesis or aestheticization of novel forms of capitalist exploitation,” in treating art as a “form of social exchange” that advocates an “inter-subjective art of conviviality” (370–371), as well as address the potential political stakes of various approaches to art. — Conversely, it becomes possible for Martin to address what he calls the otherwise naturalized “commodity form of the political” (372).

Martin is concerned to be able to preserve a social-critical approach to what he calls the “arty non-art of late capitalist culture.” It is necessary, according to Martin, to avoid the “Hegelian trap” of “harmonious rapprochement,” through a dialectic of “anti-art and pure art,” resulting in an “artification of the world” that however “breaks” with attempts to “critique bourgeois culture.” Instead, Martin recalls Adorno’s recognition that art’s “autonomy,” its simultaneously “anti-social” and “non-subjective” or “objective” aspect, was inherent both in its commodity character and in its “resistance to commodification,” through “immanent critique or self-criticism” (373). It is this aspect of art, common to both “anti-art” and “pure art,” that, for Martin, “relational” aesthetics, with its emphasis on the supposedly “inter-subjective” character of the social, occludes.

Historical temporality of artworks not linear succession

John Roberts, in his recovery of Adorno, has focused as well on the “asocial” aspect of art as the potential source of its critical value. Roberts recovers the key idea, from Benjamin and Adorno, of artworks’ “pre-history” and “after-life” in history, in order to introduce the problem of the historical temporality of the experience of works of art, which is not reducible to their immediate aesthetic experience or the thoughts and feelings of the artists who produced them. Works of art are “objective” in that they are non-identical with themselves, in the sense of non-identity in time. In Adorno’s terms, artworks have a “historical nucleus,” a “truth-content” revealed only as a function of transformations in history. According to Benjamin, this is how artworks can gain stature and power with time.

The example Roberts uses is the late, delayed reception of early 20th century avant-garde artworks in the 1960s, which inspired artists. This is a very different account from the notion, common in postmodernist criticism, of artists rebelling against the preceding styles and art criticism and historical discourses of abstract expressionism. Artists may have remained innocent of the cloistered disputes of the art critics and historians, though their works were used as evidence in these disputes; and they may have remained more sympathetic to abstract expressionism as art than the postmodernist critics were. The pendulum-swing or grandfather-rule accounts of the vicissitudes of history are inadequate to the non-linear temporality Roberts highlights.

Roberts discusses works of art as forms of “deferred action” in history, with which artists and viewers engage in new forms of art production and reception, which belie notions of successions of styles traditional to art history. This allows works of art to be understood as embodiments of objectified experience that change as a function of historical transformations, as potentially informing a proliferation of experiences unfolding in history, rather than, as Foster, for example, feared, forms of “closure.”

Neo-avant garde or neo-modernist?

It is important that neither Habermas (nor Bell) nor Buck-Morss accepted the idea that gained traction in the 1970s of a division between modernist and avant-garde art. For neither did Benjamin or Adorno. (Peter Bürger’s influential study, Theory of the Avant-Garde, was, importantly, a critique of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory on this score.)

What Martin calls the “dialectic” of “anti-art” and “pure art” has continued, though not necessarily in terms of opposed camps, but rather in what Adorno recognized as the necessary element of the non-artistic in artworks. Now that postmodernism has been exhausted as a trend in criticism (as seen by significant reversals on the part of its standard-bearers such as Foster), it becomes possible to recognize how postmodernism reacted inadequately and problematically to this dialectic, conflating realms of art and social life, and thus repressed it, obscuring its operations from proper recognition.

The emergence of “relational” aesthetics in the 1990s marked the exhaustion of postmodernism, as both its culmination and its negation (it is significant that Foster was hostile, calling it a mere “arty party”), but also a terminal phase of the recrudescence of the problem of the social and of politics, long wandering lost through the postmodernist desert of the 1970s and ’80s, during which Adorno, for example, could only be received as an old-fashioned modernist. But, since the 1990s, critics and theorists have found it increasingly necessary to reconsider Adorno.

Today, which may be considered a post-postmodernist moment, art practices can be broadly grouped into two seemingly unrelated tendencies, neo-avant garde (such as in relational aesthetics) and neo-modernist (in the revival of the traditional plastic arts of objects such as painting and sculpture). The task would be to understand what these apparently independent tendencies in art have in common as phenomena of history, the society and politics with which art practices are bound up. Postmodernist art criticism has made it impossible to properly grasp such shared history of the present, hence its exhaustion today, leaving current art unrecognized.

But, in the midst of the high era of postmodernist criticism, Habermas sounded an important note of dissent and warning against this trend, reminding of what postmodernism left aside in terms of society and politics. For it is with respect to society and political ideology that art remained potentially vital and necessary, if under-recognized as such. In his Adorno prize talk, Habermas raised the problem of art as an exemplary task for the “critical intellectual.” This is because, as more recent critics such as Bishop, Martin and Roberts have noted, art, in its dialectical transformations, allows for the recognition of history, the present as historical, revealing not only the history of art, but of modern capitalist society and its unfulfilled forms of discontent, as registered in aesthetic experience. | §


Sources

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997).

Daniel Bell, “Foreword: 1978,” The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978), xi–xxix.

Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), 69–82.

Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004), 51–79.

Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” Artforum (February 2006), 179–185.

Susan Buck-Morss, Response to the Visual Culture Questionnaire, October 77 (Summer 1996), 29–31.

Hal Foster, “Re:Post,” Art after Modernism, ed. Brian Wallis (Boston: David R. Godine, 1992), 189–201.

Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity An Incomplete Project,” The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983), 3–15.

Stewart Martin, “Critique of Relational Aesthetics,” Third Text 21.4 (July 2007), 369–386.

John Roberts, “Avant-gardes after Avant-gardism,” Chto Delat? / What is to be Done? 17 (August 2007).

John Roberts, “Art after Deskilling,” Historical Materialism 18.2 (2010), 77–96.

A critique of the RCP, USA on Alain Badiou

Chinoiserie

A critique of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA’s “New Synthesis”

Review of Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, Manifesto from the RCP, USA; and Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya, and K. J. A., “Alain Badiou’s ‘Politics of Emancipation’: A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World” Demarcations 1 (Summer–Fall 2009).[1]

Chris Cutrone

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, portrait painted by Maurice-Quentin La Tour (1754).

Prologue

DAVID BHOLAT ADOPTED, as epigraph for his essay “Beyond Equality,” the following passage from Joseph Schumpeter’s classic 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy:

First and foremost, socialism means a new cultural world…. But second — what cultural world?… Some socialists are ready enough with folded hands and the smile of the blessed on their lips, to chant the canticle of justice, equality, freedom in general and freedom from “the exploitation of man by man” in particular, of peace and love, of fetters broken and cultural energies unchained, of new horizons opened, of new dignities revealed. But that is Rousseau adulterated with some Bentham.[2]

Bholat’s essay follows Schumpeter in seeking to demonstrate the inadequacy and problematic character of the call for social “equality,” for which he finds warrant in Marx’s critique of capital. This is most notable in Marx’s statement, echoing the French socialist Louis Blanc, that an emancipated society beyond capital would be governed by the principle of providing “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”[3]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) argued, in his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, that society alone produced “inequality,” since in nature there are only “differences.” Marx sought to fulfill Rousseau’s demand for a society freed from the necessity of commensurability, of making alike what is unlike, in the commodity form of labor — a society freed from the exigencies of the exchange of labor.

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the founder of Utilitarian philosophy at the end of the 18th century, famously called for society to provide “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Marx considered his project to fulfill this aspiration as well.

The modern society of capital has indeed sought to achieve these various desiderata, of the individual diversity of incommensurable difference, as well as increased wellbeing of all its members, but has consistently failed to do so. A Marxian approach can be regarded as the immanent critique of capital, the critique of capital on its own ground, as expressed by the classical “bourgeois” liberal thinkers such as Rousseau and Bentham at the dawn of modern capitalist society, in that capital fails to fulfill its promise, but it would be desirable to accomplish this.

Schumpeter, writing in the mid-20th century, thought that modern society was moving inexorably toward “socialism,” and that this was due to the unique and potentially crucial role that modern society allowed “intellectuals” to play. The far greater access to education that modern capitalist society made possible entailed the emergence of a stratum of people who could articulate problems for which they were not directly responsible, on behalf of social groups to which they did not belong. This meant the possibility of a more radical critique and the fostering and mobilizing of broader social discontents than had been possible in pre-capitalist society. This role for intellectuals, combined with the inherent structural social problems of capital and the rise of “democratic” politics, created a potentially revolutionary situation in which “socialism,” or the curtailment of capitalist entrepreneurship, was the likely outcome.

Bholat concluded his essay “Beyond Equality” by citing favorably Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Derrida’s critiques, respectively, of “Marx’s tolerance for the defects of first-phase communism,” and of the principle of “equality before the law.”[4]

The possibility of a “dialectical” transformation, the simultaneous negation and fulfillment of capital, its Aufhebung through a “proletarian socialist” politics, as capital’s simultaneous historical realization and overcoming — as Marx conceived it, following Hegel — has proven elusive, but continues to task theoretical accounts inspired by Marxism.

Entre nous

The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), USA published in 2008 the manifesto, Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage. This was followed, in short order, by the launching of a new theoretical journal, Demarcations, whose inaugural issue included a lengthy critique of Alain Badiou by RCP members* Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya, and K. J. A., titled “Alain Badiou’s ‘Politics of Emancipation’: A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World.” Taken together, these and other recent writings of the RCP amount to a significant departure and change in orientation for their tendency of American Maoism. This is noteworthy as they are one of the most prominent Marxist Left organizations in the U.S., helping to organize, for instance, the major anti-war group The World Can’t Wait. The RCP’s spokesperson Sunsara Taylor is regularly invited to represent the radical Left on Fox News and elsewhere. Recently, the RCP has conducted a campaign of interventions featuring Lotta and Taylor as speakers at college and university campuses, including the top elite schools throughout the U.S., on the topic of communism today, in light of the history of the 20th century revolutions in Russia and China and their defeats. In this, the RCP demonstrates a reorientation towards intellectuals as potential cadres for revolutionary politics.[5]

The RCP’s critique of the latter-day and post-Maoist “communist” Alain Badiou’s conception of “radical, anarchic equality” is a part of their program of demonstrating “How Communism Goes Beyond Equality and Why it Must.” It strongly resembles David Bholat’s critique of the traditional Marxist Left in “Beyond Equality.” For, as Bholat wrote, “in light of the world-historical failure of Marxism,” the “one-sided emphasis of historical left movements on equity… might be reevaluated today,” for such discontents remained “vulnerable to fascist elements motivated by ressentiment and revenge” that “represented a reactionary desire… to return to a romanticized, precapitalist moment.”[6]

So, some clarification — and radicalization — of discontents has appeared necessary. For what is offered by such apparently disparate perspectives as Bholat and the RCP is what might be called a “post-postmodernist” politics, in which the radical reconsideration of the experience of 20th century Marxism seems in order. This links to Badiou and Žižek’s attempts to advance what they call the “communist hypothesis.” Žižek has spoken of “the Badiou event” as opening new horizons for both communism and philosophy. Badiou and Žižek share a background in Lacanian and Althusserian “post-structuralist” French thought, in common with other prominent post-New Left thinkers — and former students of Louis Althusser — such as Etienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. Althusser found, in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, a salutary challenge to the notion of the Hegelian “logic of history,” that revolutionary change could and indeed did happen as a matter of contingency.[7] Althusser took great inspiration from Mao in China and Lenin in Russia for advancing the possibility of emancipation against a passive expectancy of automatic evolution in the historical process of capital. Michel Foucault took Althusser as license to go for an entire historiography of contingency.[8] For Badiou, this means that emancipation must be conceived of as an “event,” which involves a fundamental reconsideration of ontology.[9] There is a common background for such postmodernist politics, also, in Sartre’s “existentialist” Marxism, the anti-Cartesian phenomenology of Henri Bergson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the “Spinozist” materialism of Georges Bataille.[10] The coincidence of vintage 1960s Maoist New Left Marxism with contemporaneous French thought — Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida — has resulted in a veritable chinoiserie prominent in reconsiderations of Marxism today.[11] But what does the — distinctively French — image of China say about the potential for a reformulated Leftist politics?[12]

Rousseau

The mid-18th century Enlightenment philosophe Rousseau stands as the central figure at the critical crossroads for any consideration of the historical emergence of the Left.[13] Rousseau has haunted the self-understanding of Marxism, and indeed of revolutionary politics more generally, if only for the problematic influence he exercised on the pre-Marxian Left, most infamously in the ideas of the radical Jacobins such as Robespierre in the Great French Revolution. Lenin famously described himself as a “Jacobin indissolubly joined to the organization of the proletariat, which has become conscious of its class interests.”[14] Modern conservatism was in an important sense founded by Edmund Burke’s (1729–97) anti-Jacobin critique of Rousseau.

In his critique of Bruno Bauer’s The Jewish Question (1843), the young Marx cited the following from Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762):

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.

Marx wrote that this was “well formulated,” but only as “the abstract notion of political man,” concluding that,

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.[15]

The RCP’s Lotta, Duniya and K.J.A., under the chapter heading “Why Alain Badiou is a Rousseauist, and Why We should not be,” point out that Rousseau’s perspective is that of “bourgeois society:”

The forms and content of equality in bourgeois society correspond to a certain mode of production: capitalism, based on commodity production and the interactions it engenders: private ownership, production for profit not need, and exploitation of wage-labor. Commodity production is governed by the exchange of equivalents, the measure of the labor time socially necessary to produce these commodities; that is, by an equal standard.[16]

Like Bholat following Derrida in “Beyond Equality,” Lotta, Duniya, and K.J.A. attack “the standard of ‘equality before the law’ of bourgeois jurisprudence [as] a standard that serves the equal treatment of the capitalist property holders in a society governed by capitalist market relations,” adding that, “for the dispossessed, formal equality masks the condition of fundamental powerlessness.” What Lotta et al. dismiss as “formal equality” is not the liberal conception formulated by Rousseau that Marx cited favorably, precisely in its recognition of the “alienation” of the “changing” of “human nature” in society. Rather, the RCP writers let slip back in the one-sided conception of “politics” that Marx criticized and sought to overcome. For them, the opposition between the social and political that Marx diagnosed as symptomatic of modern capitalist society becomes instead the rigged game between exploiters and exploited. Note the need that Marx identified for the “individual” to “[recognize] and [organize] his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power,” something quite different from simply removing the “mask” of false “equality” from the condition of the “dispossessed” in “bourgeois democracy.” Where does the RCP’s perspective of revolutionary politics originate? This is made apparent in the central section of their critique of Badiou over the interpretation of the Shanghai Commune, an event in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in China.

La Commune

The GPCR is dear to both Badiou and the RCP. This was the greatest event in the history of Marxism to take place in the era of the 1960s–70s New Left, and it exerted a profound attraction and influence over many at the time. The RCP is a direct product of its broad international impact. It seemed to justify Mao’s claim to be the leading international (and not merely Chinese) opponent of “revisionism,” i.e. of the abdication of proletarian socialist revolution in favor of reformism. Apart from factual questions about what really happened during the Cultural Revolution and the substance of Mao’s own politics, both in China and internationally (thoughtful Maoists do not deny the distortion of Mao’s politics by nationalism, but they tend to gloss over the intra-bureaucratic aspects of the GPCR), the issue of what the Cultural Revolution and Maoism more generally might mean to people, both then and now, is of more pressing concern. After all, the two most forthright arguments in favor of “communism” today are made by Maoists, Badiou and the RCP. It is also significant that both favor the appellation of “communist” over “Marxist,” which both do on the grounds of their understanding of the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution is the basis for regarding Mao as making a unique and indispensable contribution to communism. What the Cultural Revolution means to Maoists is fundamentally informed by their conception of capitalism. So, rather than taking sides in or analyzing the social and political phenomenon of the Cultural Revolution per se, it is necessary to examine what has been taken to be its significance. The Chinese Cultural Revolution is perhaps the most significant recent “Jacobin” moment in the history of Marxism, raising again, in the latter part of the 20th century, long-standing questions about the relation between socialism and democracy — the issue of “communism,” in the strict sense.

The significance of the Shanghai Commune of 1967 is contested by Badiou and the RCP. For Badiou it was a model akin to the 1792–94 radical Jacobin period of the French Revolution. In the Shanghai Commune radicalized students (“Red Guards”) overthrew the local Communist Party apparatus, spreading into a workers’ revolt.  While initially enthusiastic about this spontaneous “anti-revisionist” upsurge against conservative elements in the CP, Mao and his followers ultimately rejected the Shanghai Commune as a model. They advocated instead the “revolutionary committee” in which the Maoist Communist Party cadres’ paramount leading political character could be preserved. Badiou criticizes this straitjacketing of communism in the “party-state,” whereas the RCP defends Mao’s politics of rejuvenating the Party and purging it of “capitalist roaders” as the necessary and sole revolutionary path.

Badiou, by contrast, sees Mao’s eventual rejection of the Shanghai Commune as a betrayal of “egalitarianism.” For him, the “party-state” is a brake on the radical “democratic” egalitarianism that characterizes “communism” as a historically recurrent political phenomenon. The RCP critiques this conception of “equality” and “direct democracy” as “concealing class interests” and thus being unable to “rise above particular interests.” For instance, according to the RCP, as long as there remains a distinction between “intellectual and manual labor,” intellectuals can come to dominate the social process, even under socialism, thus reproducing a dynamic constantly giving rise to the possible return to capitalism, which is understood primarily as a matter of social and political hierarchy. To the RCP, Badiou is thus prematurely egalitarian.

Badiou conceives of the relation between freedom and equality as an ontological one, in the mathematical terms of set theory, transhistoricizing it. The RCP, while recognizing the historically specific nature of capitalist class struggle, conceives of the role of the revolutionary proletarian party as the political means for suppressing tendencies towards social inequality. In either case, neither Badiou nor the RCP conceives of the transformation of the capitalist mode of production that would allow for overcoming the socially pernicious aspects of specifically capitalist forms of inequality, the dangers of which are understood by Badiou and the RCP rather atavistically. Marx, by contrast, looked forward to the potential for overcoming the conditions of possibility for the reproduction of capitalist class dynamics in the mode of production itself: capital’s overcoming of the need to accumulate the value of surplus labor-time. Marx saw the historical potential to overcome this socially mediating aspect of labor in automated machine production. However, Marx also foresaw that, short of socialism, the drive to accumulate surplus-value results in producing a surplus population, an “industrial reserve army” of potential “workers” who thus remain vulnerable to exploitation. A politics based only in their “democratic” discontents can result, not in the overcoming of the social need for labor, but only in the (capitalist) demand for more labor. Or, as Max Horkheimer, director of the Marxist Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, put it, machines “have made not work but the workers superfluous.”[17]

For the RCP, Mao in the Cultural Revolution addressed in new and effective ways problems of the “transition to socialism” never attempted under Stalin. The RCP criticizes Stalin for his failed “methods” in advancing the transition to socialism, a failure Mao overcame in the Cultural Revolution in China 1966–76. The RCP celebrates the egalitarian-emancipatory impulse of the Cultural Revolution while also praising Mao’s guidance and political leadership of the process by which the “capitalist” road to China’s development was politically overcome and avoided. This struggle ended, according to the RCP, with Mao’s death and the subsequent purging of his followers, known as the “Gang of Four,” in 1976, embarking China upon its capitalist development up to the present.

Badiou explicitly attacks the limitations of Marxism in general, and not merely the “party-state” form of political rule (for which he holds Marxism responsible), for failing to recognize how the emancipatory striving of “equality” goes “beyond class.” This is why he favors the designation “communism” to “Marxism.” The RCP (rightly) smells a rat in this attempt by Badiou to take communism “beyond” anti-capitalist class-struggle politics. But in so doing they do not pause to reflect on the subordinate position of class struggle in Marx’s own conception of the possibility of overcoming capital.

For Marx, the political-economic struggle of the specifically modern classes of capitalists and workers is a projection of the contradiction of capital. The RCP, by contrast, regards the class struggle as constituting the social contradiction in capital. This flows from their understanding of the contradiction of capital as existing between the socialized forces of production and the privatized and hence capitalist relations of production. Privileged empowerment, whether in the form of capitalist private property or in more developed intellectual capacities, is the source rather than the result of the contradiction of capital in the RCP’s traditional “Marxist” view. For the RCP, Badiou’s perspective of radical democratic “equality” does not address such inherent social advantage that intellectuals would enjoy even under socialism, presenting the constant threat of defeating the struggle for socialism.[18]

But the RCP does not stop at upholding Mao in the Cultural Revolution as a model for revolutionary politics. Rather, they attempt a “new synthesis” in which the relation of Marx, Lenin and Mao as historical figures is reformulated to provide for a 21st century socialist politics that could still learn from but overcome the limitations of the 20th century experience of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions.

The “new synthesis”

According to a traditional Maoist view, the RCP considers the historical trajectory from Marx through Lenin to Mao as a progress in the theory and practice of the struggle for socialism. But they also detect distinct limitations among all three historical figures and so regard them as importantly complementary rather than successive. For the RCP’s “new synthesis,” Marx and Lenin can still address the shortcomings of Mao, rather than the latter simply building upon the former. How so?

It is important first to consider the significance of this change in the RCP’s thinking from traditional Maoism. The RCP’s “new synthesis” was the cause of a split in the RCP, with some, including Mike Ely, going on to form the Kasama Project. The RCP replies to criticism of their current articulations of the limitations of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions with reference to earlier criticism of the RCP, over the course of the past three decades, for reducing Communism to a “tattered flag” in their reconsideration of this history. But the RCP should be commended for taking this risk.

The RCP struggles in explaining and relating the limitations of the three principal thinkers in the tradition they look towards for “communism.” With Marx, there is the limitation of relatively lacking historical experience of socialist revolution. Only the Paris Commune figures for this history. With Lenin, the limitations of the Bolshevik Revolution are displaced in the RCP’s evaluation of, not Lenin, but Stalin’s attempt to build “socialism” in the 1920s–30s. Like the disastrous Great Leap Forward in China (1958–61), the first Five-Year Plan in the Soviet Union (1928–33), a period of “revolutionary” militancy in the history of Stalin’s rule, is glossed over by the RCP in evaluating the Russian and Chinese 20th century experiences of attempts to “build socialism.”[19]

For the RCP, Mao represents a breakthrough. Through his leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the limitations of the experience of Stalinism in the Soviet Union were overcome, in the Cultural Revolution in China of the 1960s–70s. But none of these are examples of success — socialism, let alone communism, has not yet been achieved — and they do not exactly add up, but rather require a “synthesis.”

Mao provides a salutary contribution only the degree to which the Cultural Revolution overcame the problem of Stalinist “methods,” which are considered bureaucratic and authoritarian in the sense of stifling revolutionary initiative: Stalin did the right things but in the wrong ways. Not secretly manipulated purge “trials,” but people’s justice would have been the better way to stave off the threat of the “capitalist road” in the USSR of the 1930s. Most telling about the RCP’s “new synthesis” is how they conceive its first two figures. For the RCP, a combination of Marx and Lenin taken without Mao becomes a perspective of “Eurocentric world revolution.” This is because, in the RCP’s estimation, there is a significant difference between Lenin and “Leninism,” the degree to which the former, according to the RCP, “did not always live up” to the latter, and the latter is assimilated to what are really phenomena of Stalinism and Maoism, building “socialism in one country,” in which Mao’s own practice, especially in the Cultural Revolution, takes priority. But this begs the question of the Marxist perspective on “world revolution” — and the need for revolution in the U.S., which Marx and Lenin themselves thought was key. Instead, the problem of socialism in China dominates the RCP’s historical imagination of revolution.

World revolution

Kant, in his theses in “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” (1784), addressed Rousseau as follows. Kant warned of the danger that,

[T]he vitality of mankind may fall asleep…. Until this last step to a union of states is taken, which is the halfway mark in the development of mankind, human nature must suffer the cruelest hardships under the guise of external well-being; and Rousseau was not far wrong in preferring the state of savages, so long, that is, as the last stage to which the human race must climb is not attained…. [Mere civilization,] however, is nothing but pretense and glittering misery. In such a condition the human species will no doubt remain until… it works its way out of the chaotic conditions of its international relations.[20]

Marx considered his political project to be a continuation of Kant’s, no less than Rousseau’s or Bentham’s, albeit under the changed historical conditions of post-Industrial Revolution capitalism, in which “international relations” expressed not merely an unenlightened state, but the social contradictions of the civilization of global capital.[21] Writing on the Paris Commune of 1870–71, Marx addressed the antithetical forms of cosmopolitanism in capital:

If the Commune was thus the true representative of all the healthy elements of French society, and therefore the truly national government, it was, at the same time, as a working men’s government, as the bold champion of the emancipation of labor, emphatically international. Within sight of that Prussian army, that had annexed to Germany two French provinces, the Commune annexed to France the working people all over the world…. The [preceding] Second Empire [by contrast] had been the jubilee of cosmopolitan blackleggism, the rakes of all countries rushing in at its call for a share in its orgies and in the plunder of the French people.[22]

The RCP remains hampered by the Stalinist perspective of building “socialism in one country,” at the expense of a direct politics of world revolution that characterized the Marxism of Marx’s own time, in the First International. And so the RCP fails to recognize the degree to which Marx’s own politics was “emphatically international” in nature. As Marx scholar Moishe Postone put it,

Now, the revolution, as imagined by Trotsky — because it’s Trotsky who really influences Lenin in 1918 — entailed the idea of permanent revolution, in that, revolution in the East would spark revolution in the West. But I think Trotsky had no illusions about the Soviet Union being socialist. This was the point of his debate with Stalin. The problem is that both were right. That is, Trotsky was right: there is no such thing as “socialism in one country.” Stalin was right, on the other hand, in claiming that this was the only road that they had open to them once revolution failed in the West, between 1918–1923. Now, did it have to be done with the terror of Stalin? That’s a very complicated question, but there was terror and it was enormous, and we don’t do ourselves a service by neglecting that. In a sense it becomes an active will against history, as wild as claiming that “history is on our side.”[23]

Bob Avakian, the leader of the RCP, writing about “Leninism as the bridge,” put the matter of the relation between Marx, Lenin and Mao this way: “Marxism without Leninism is Eurocentric social-chauvinism and social democracy. Maoism without Leninism is nationalism (and also, in certain contexts, social-chauvinism) and bourgeois democracy.”[24] But Avakian and the RCP have a fundamental ambivalence about Lenin. In the same article, Avakian wrote that, “as stressed before there is Leninism and there is Lenin, and if Lenin didn’t always live up to Leninism, that doesn’t make Leninism any less than what it is.” This is because, for the RCP, “Leninism” is in fact Stalinism, to which they recognize Lenin’s actual politics cannot be assimilated. It is therefore a standing question of what remains of Marx and Lenin when they are unhitched from the Stalinist-Maoist train of 20th century “communism,” the eventual course of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions to which the RCP points for inspiration and guidance. But the RCP’s imagination has always been fired more by the Chinese than the Russian experience. If “Leninism” was a historical “bridge,” it led to Mao’s China.

The image of China

China has provided a Rococo mirror reflecting global realities, whether in the 18th or the 20th and 21st centuries. The Middle Kingdom has stood, spectacular and confounding, for attempts to comprehend in social imagination both civilization and barbarism, now as then. The ancien régime at Versailles awaiting its historical fate would have liked to close itself up in a Forbidden City; the fervid imaginations of the 18th century philosophes such as Rousseau would have liked to breach the walls of its decadent customs. Both projected their world through the prism of China, which seemed to condense and refract at once all the splendors and horrors — Kant’s “glittering misery” — of society. This has also been true of the Left from the latter part of the 20th century to the present. The very existence of China has seemed to suggest some obscure potential for the future of humanity, both thrilling and terrifying. What if China were indeed the center of the world, as many on the Left have wished, ever since the 1960s?

If today China strikes the imagination as a peculiar authoritarian “communist” capitalist powerhouse that may end up leading the world in the 21st century, in the 1960s the Cultural Revolution symbolized China. Immediately prior to the student and worker upheaval in France of May 1968, Jean-Luc Godard directed his film La Chinoise (1967) about young revolutionaries in Paris. At around the same time, Horkheimer worried about the appearance of “Chinese on the Rhine,” as students began reading and quoting from Mao’s Little Red Book. If in the 18th century the Jacobin revolutionaries wanted France not to be China, in the 1960s would-be French revolutionaries wanted China to be the revolutionary France of the late 20th century.

In his critique of Jacobinism, Burke wrote that,

[T]he age of chivalry is gone: that of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded…. The unbought grace of life… is gone!… All the pleasing illusions… which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order…. On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings… laws are to be supported only by their terrors, and by the concern, which each individual may find in them, from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests.[25]

Still, the Jacobin terror continues. Today in Communist China, a bribery case in producing chemically adulterated pharmaceuticals, baby milk formula, and pet food results in a death sentence, to prevent any decrease in demand from the United States. Chinese authorities dismiss the criticism made on human rights grounds, pointing to the need to be vigilant against a constant threat of “corruption.” No doubt American consumers wonder what such swift “justice” could do to improve corporate behavior in the U.S.

The connection between revolutionary France and China in the bourgeois epoch, from the 18th century through the 20th century to the present, is summed up well in an apocryphal quip supposedly made by the Chinese Communist Premier Zhou Enlai, in response to a question about the historical significance of the French Revolution: Zhou said it was still “too soon to tell.” Because of its Revolution in the 20th century, China came to have cast upon it the long shadow of Jacobinism and Rousseau’s 18th century critique of social inequality. But, as Marx discovered long ago, inequality is not the cause but the effect of capital. Such confusion has contributed to the perspective of “Third World” revolution that had its heyday in the post-WWII Left — after the 1949 Chinese Revolution — and that still stalks the imagination of emancipatory politics today. Not only post-postmodernist neo-communists such as Badiou, but also Maoists in the more rigorous 1960s–70s tradition such as the RCP, remain beholden to the specter of inequality in the modern world.

China, as a result of its 20th century revolutionary transformation, has gone from being like the India of the 18th century, its traditional ways of life breaking down and swamped in pre-capitalist obscurity, confronted with the dynamics of global capitalism, to becoming something like a potential Britain of the 18th century — the manufacturing “workshop of the world” — albeit in the profoundly changed circumstances of the 21st century. As Marx, in a 1858 letter to Engels, pointed out about his own time,

There is no denying that bourgeois society has for the second time experienced its 16th century, a 16th century which, I hope, will sound its death knell just as the first ushered it into the world. The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market…. For us, the difficult question is this: [in Europe] revolution is imminent and will, moreover, instantly assume a socialist character. Will it not necessarily be crushed in this little corner of the earth, since the movement of bourgeois society is still, in the ascendant over a far greater area?[26]

What the 16th century meant to Marx was the “primitive accumulation of capital,” the process by which society was transformed, through the liquidation of the peasantry, in the emergence of the modern working class and the bourgeois social relations of its existence. If this process continued in the 19th century, beyond Britain, through the rest of Europe and the United States and Japan, in the 20th century it proceeded in Asia — through the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. The reconstitution of capital in the 19th century, unleashing a brutal process of late colonial expansion, was, to Marx’s mind, not only unnecessary and hence tragic, but also regressive and potentially counterrevolutionary. Marx’s warning should have resounded loudly through the “revolutionary” history of Marxism in the 20th century, but was instead repressed and forgotten.

For Marx and Engels, it was not a matter of China and other countries, newly swept into the maelstrom of capitalist development by the mid-19th century, “catching up” with Britain and other more “advanced” areas, but rather the possibility of the social and political turbulence in such “colonial” zones having any progressive-emancipatory impact on global capital at its core. As Marx wrote, in The Class Struggles in France, 1848–50, about the relation of England to other countries,

Just as the period of crisis began later [elsewhere] than in England, so also did prosperity. The process originated in England, which is the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos. [Elsewhere] the various phases of the cycle repeatedly experienced by bourgeois society assume a secondary and tertiary form…. Violent outbreaks naturally erupt sooner at the extremities of the bourgeois body than in its heart, because in the latter the possibilities of accommodation are greater than in the former. On the other hand, the degree to which revolutions [elsewhere] affect England is at the same time the [barometer] that indicates to what extent these revolutions really put into question bourgeois life conditions, and to what extent they touch only their political formations.

On this all the reactionary attempts to hold back bourgeois development will rebound just as much as will all the ethical indignation and all the enraptured proclamations of the democrats.[27]

This means that the “democratic” politics that engenders “ethical indignation” at the rank inequality in global capital remains woefully inadequate to the task of overcoming the “bourgeois world” within which the RCP accuses Badiou et al. of remaining “locked.” For subsequent history has clearly shown that the Chinese Revolution under Mao remained trapped in global capital, despite the “socialist” ferment of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that gripped the imagination of the international Left of the time, “Maoist” and otherwise.[28] Without revolutionary socialist consequences in the “heart” of the bourgeois world, revolutions in countries such as China cannot, according to Marx, “really put into question bourgeois life conditions” but “touch only their political formations.” As Engels put it, in a 1882 letter to the leading German Social Democratic Party Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky,

[T]he countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated… must be taken over for the time being by the [world] proletariat and led as rapidly as possible towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say… [Such places] will perhaps, indeed very probably, produce a revolution… and [this] would certainly be the best thing for us. We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganized [in socialism], and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilized countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. Economic needs alone will be responsible for this. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organization, we to-day can only advance rather idle hypotheses.[29]

“Locked within the confines of the bourgeois world”

Despite the RCP’s critique of the post-1960s New Left neo-communism of Badiou, and its partial recognition that Marx and the best of Marxism sought to go beyond “bourgeois” discontents and demands for equality in capital, the RCP perspective on Marxism remains compromised by its focus on capitalist inequality. This leads to an ambivalent and confused conception of the potential role of “intellectuals” in revolutionary politics — a role highlighted in the mid-20th century by even such unreservedly “bourgeois” perspectives such as that of Joseph Schumpeter, and also by figures influential for the 1960s New Left such as C. Wright Mills.[30] The RCP, along with other tendencies of post-New Left politics preoccupied by problems of inequality and hierarchy, such as neo-anarchism, suspects intellectuals of containing the germ for reproducing capitalism through inequality. Likewise, the RCP remains confused about the supposed problem of a “Euro-” or “Western”-centric perspective on “world revolution.” In this sense, the RCP remains trapped by the preoccupations of 1960s-era New Left Maoism in which they originated, despite their attempts to recover the critical purchase of the earlier revolutionary politics of Marx and Lenin. Despite their intended critical approach to this history, they fail to consider how Maoism may have represented a retreat rather than an advance from such revolutionary Marxism. For, as Lenin recognized, the best of Marxist revolutionary politics was not opposed to but rather necessarily stood within the tradition of Rousseau and the radical bourgeois intellectual “Jacobin” legacy of the 18th century, while attempting to transcend it.[31] Like it or not, and either for ill or for good, we remain “locked in the bourgeois world,” within whose conditions we must try to make any possible revolution. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #26 (August 2010).

* Correction: It should not be assumed that writers for Demarcations are members of the RCP.


1. For Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, see <http://www.rwor.org/Manifesto/Manifesto.html>. Lotta et al. is available online at <http://www.demarcations-journal.org/issue01/demarcations_badiou.html>.

2. David Bholat, “Beyond Equality,” Rethinking Marxism vol. 22 no. 2 (April 2010), 272–284.

3. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 2nd ed., 1978), 531.

4. Bholat, “Beyond Equality,” 282.

5. See “An Open Letter from Raymond Lotta to Tony Judt and the NYU Community on the Responsibility of Intellectuals to the Truth, Including and Especially the Truth about Communism,” in Revolution #180 (October 25, 2009), available online at <http://revcom.us/a/180/Lotta_Open_Letter-en.html>, in which Lotta states that,

Yes, revolutionary power must be held on to: a new state power and the overall leadership of a vanguard party are indispensable. But leadership must be exercised in ways that are, in certain important and crucial respects, different from how this was understood and practiced in the past. This [RCP’s] new synthesis recognizes the indispensable role of intellectual ferment and dissent in socialist society.

6. Bholat, “Beyond Equality,” 282.

7. See Louis Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination” (1962), New Left Review I/41 (January–February 1967), 15–35. Also in For Marx (1965), trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1977), 87–116.

8. See, for instance, Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (1971), in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. D. F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 139–164, available online at <http://www.scribd.com/doc/4475734/foucault-nietzsche-genealogy-history>, in which Foucault ignored that Nietzsche’s famous On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) was “a polemic” against any such “genealogy,” and so turned Nietzsche, in keeping with Foucault’s own intent, from a philosopher of freedom into freedom’s “deconstructionist”:

In this sense, genealogy returns to the… history that Nietzsche recognized in [his 1874 essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”]…. [But] the critique of the injustices of the past by a truth held by men in the present becomes the destruction of the man who maintains knowledge by the injustice proper to the will to knowledge. (164)

9. See Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2007).

10. See the interview with Badiou by Filippo del Luchesse and Jason Smith, conducted in Los Angeles February 7, 2007, “ ‘We Need a Popular Discipline’: Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative,” Critical Inquiry 34, no. 4 (Summer 2008), 645–659.

11. See Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

12. See Peter Hallward’s essay on Badiou’s Logiques des Mondes (Logics of Worlds), “Order and Event,” New Left Review 53 (September–October 2008).

13. As James Miller, author of The Passion of Michel Foucault (2000), put it in his 1992 introduction to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992),

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.” (xv)

14. Quoted by Rosa Luxemburg in Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy (1904), available in English translation as Leninism or Marxism? in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), available online at <http://www.marxistsfr.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/ch01.htm>. Luxemburg’s pamphlet was a critique of Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Crisis in our Party (1904), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1904/onestep/q.htm>

15. Marx, “On The Jewish Question,” in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 46.

16. Raymond Lotta, Nayi Duniya, and K. J. A., Alain Badiou’s “Politics of Emancipation:” A Communism Locked Within the Confines of the Bourgeois World. Available online at <http://www.demarcations-journal.org/issue01/demarcations_badiou.html>.

17. Max Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State” (1940), in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds. (New York: Continuum, 2005), 95.

18. There is an important affinity here with the anarchism of Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, who consider Marxism to be an ideology of the aspirations to social domination by the “coordinator class” of intellectuals, which is how they understand the results of, e.g., the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. In this view, Marxism is the means by which the intellectuals harness the class struggle of the workers for other, non-emancipatory ends. Their understanding of the “party-state” is the regime of the coordinator class.

19. The first Five-Year Plan in the USSR saw the accelerated collectivization of agriculture, in which the Communists unleashed “class struggle” in the countryside, with great popular participation. This coincided with the Communist International’s policy of refusing any political alliances with reformists, whom they dubbed “social fascists,” during this period, which they considered the advent of revolution, following the Great Crash. Such extremism caused, not only mass starvation and brutalization of life in the USSR — whose failures to “build socialism” were blamed on “Trotskyite wreckers,” leading to the Purge Trials in the mid- to late 1930s — but also the eventual victory of the Nazis in Germany. Just as the Purge Trials in the USSR were in response to failures of the Five-Year Plans, the Cultural Revolution in China was a response to the failure of the Great Leap Forward.

20. Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” trans. Lewis White Beck, in Kant on History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 11–25. Also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/kant/universal-history.htm>.

21. See, for instance, the British Trotskyist Cliff Slaughter’s argument, in “What is Revolutionary Leadership?” (1960), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/slaughter/1960/10/leadership.html>, in which he pointed out about Stalinism that,

As a part of [the process of Stalinization], certain theoretical distortions of Marxism play an important part. Above all, Marxism is twisted into an economic determinism. The dialectic is abstracted from history and reimposed on social development as a series of fixed stages. Instead of the rich variety and conflict of human history we have the natural series of slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism through which all societies pass…. An apparent touch of flexibility is given to this schematic picture by the doctrine that different countries will find their “own” roads to Socialism, learning from the USSR but adapting to their particular national characteristics. This is of course a mechanical caricature of historical materialism. The connection between the struggles of the working class for Socialism in, say, Britain, Russia and Vietnam, is not at all in the greater or lesser degree of similarity of social structure of those countries, but in the organic interdependence of their struggles. Capitalism is an international phenomenon, and the working class is an international force.

22. Marx, The Civil War in France, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 638. Also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm>.

23. Moishe Postone, “Marx after Marxism,” interview by Benjamin Blumberg and Pam C. Nogales C., Platypus Review 3 (March 2008). Available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2008/03/01/marx-after-marxism-an-interview-with-moishe-postone/>.

24. Bob Avakian, Conquer the World? The International Proletariat Can and Must, III. “Leninism as the Bridge,” available online at <http://www.rwor.org/bob_avakian/conquerworld/index.htm#section_III>.

25. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France [1790], J. C. D. Clark, ed. (Standford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 239–240. Also available online at <http://www.constitution.org/eb/rev_fran.htm>.

26. See “Europocentric World Revolution,” in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 676. The selection in Tucker, which omits the first sentence, is from a letter from Marx to Engels of October 8, 1858, available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1858/letters/58_10_08.htm>.

27. Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 593. Also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/ch04.htm>.

28. For instance, even many avowed “Trotskyists” were fascinated and inspired by the GPCR. See, for example, Gerry Healy and David North’s International Committee of the Fourth International’s British journal Newsline of January 21, 1967, where an article by Michael Banda stated that “the best elements led by Mao and Lin Piao have been forced to go outside the framework of the Party and call on the youth and the working class to intervene [in this] anti-bureaucratic [fight].” See David North, The Heritage We Defend: A Contribution to the History of the Fourth International (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1988), 424. North, who became critical of Banda’s positive perspective on Mao in the Cultural Revolution, is currently the leader of the international tendency of which the Socialist Equality Party is the U.S. section.

29. See “Europocentric World Revolution,” in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 677. The complete letter from Engels to Kautsky of September 12, 1882 is also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1882/letters/82_09_12.htm>.

30. See C. Wright Mills, “Letter to the New Left,” New Left Review I/5 (September–October 1960), 18–23.

31. Georg Lukács addressed such transcendence in his eulogy, “Lenin — Theoretician of Practice” (1924), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/xxxx/lenin.htm>. It is also included as part of the “Postcript 1967,” in Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, trans. Nicholas Jacobs (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), in which Lukács described Lenin as follows:

In the chain of democratic revolutions in modern times two types of leaders, poles apart, made their appearance, embodied by men such as Danton and Robespierre, in both reality and literature….

Lenin is the first representative of an entirely new type, a tertium datur, as opposed to the two extremes. (93)

But Marx was also a representative of this new type of revolutionary intellectual.

A critique of Cindy Milstein on anarchism and Marxism

Against dogmatic abstraction

Chris Cutrone

AT THE LEFT FORUM 2010, held at Pace University in New York City in March, Cindy Milstein, director of the Institute for Anarchist Studies, spoke at a panel discussion on anarchism and Marxism, chaired by Andrej Grubacic, with fellow panelists Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz and Andrew Curley. The topic of Milstein’s talk was the prospect for the “synthesis of anarchism and Marxism” today.[1] The relation between anarchism and Marxism is a long-standing and vexing problem, for their developments have been inextricably intertwined.

Milstein began her talk by remarking on the sea-change that had occurred over the course of the last “10–20 years,” in which the “default pole on the Left” had gone from “authoritarian to libertarian,” so that now what she called “authoritarian perspectives” had to take seriously and respond to libertarian ones, rather than the reverse, which had been the case previously. Authoritarian Marxists now were on the defensive and had to answer to libertarian anarchists.[2] Milstein commented on her chagrin when she realized that a speaker she found favorable at a recent forum was in fact from the ISO (International Socialist Organization), because the speaker had “sounded like an anarchist.” For Milstein, this was important because it meant that, unlike in the past, the Left could now potentially proceed along essentially “libertarian” lines.

Milstein offered two opposed ways in which the potential synthesis of anarchism and Marxism has proceeded to date, both of which she critiqued and wanted to surpass. One was what she called the prevalent “anarchistic activism” today that found expression, for example, in the Invisible Committee’s 2005 pamphlet The Coming Insurrection and in the rash of campus occupations at the height of the recent financial crisis. While Milstein praised aspects of this contemporary expression of a certain anarchistic impulse, she expressed concern that it also replicated “the worst aspects of Marxism, its clandestine organizing and vanguardism.” Milstein found a complementary problem with the Marxist Left’s attempts (e.g., by the ISO, et al.) to “sound anarchist” in the present circumstances, for she thought that they did so dishonestly, in order to recruit new members to Marxism. The way Milstein posed these problems already says a great deal about her sympathies and actual purpose in posing the question of a potential synthesis of anarchism and Marxism. For, in her view, whereas the anarchistic Left of the Invisible Committee and campus activists makes an honest mistake, the Marxists have more nefarious motives.[3] Milstein’s critique of the contemporary anarchistic politics expressed by the Invisible Committee’s manifesto and associated ethic of “occupy everything” was that, in its extreme emphasis on “autonomy,” it is subject to what she called “individualist nihilism,” and so lost sight of the “collective.”

Milstein sought to reclaim the moniker of the “Left” exclusively for a revolutionary politics that does not include social democratic or liberal “reformist” political tendencies. (She made a special point, however, of saying that this did not mean excluding the history of “classical liberalism,” of Thomas Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others, which she still found relevant.) Her point was to raise the question of how it might be possible to achieve a non-authoritarian or “libertarian” version of “socialism,” or anti-capitalism informed by Marxism. Milstein identified the problem, common to both Marxism and present-day forms of anarchism, as the failure to properly prefigure an emancipated society of “libertarian socialism” in revolutionary politics. Marxism, on this view, retains a crucial role to play. Milstein asserted that anti-capitalism was the sine qua non of any purported revolutionary politics. According to Milstein, what was missing from contemporary anarchism, but which Marxism potentially provided, was the “socialist,” or revolutionary anti-capitalist dimension that could be found in Marx’s critical theoretical analysis of capitalism in Capital. To Milstein, this was the key basis for any possible rapprochement of anarchism and Marxism.

It is therefore necessary to address the different conceptions of capitalism, and thus anti-capitalism, that might lie behind anarchism and Marxism, in order to see if and how they could participate in a common “libertarian socialist” anti-capitalist politics, moving forward.

Historically, anarchists have complained of the split in the First International Workingmen’s Association, in which the Marxists predominated and expelled the anarchists. The history of the subsequent Second or Socialist International, which excluded the anarchists, was peppered with anarchist protest against their marginalization in this period of tremendous growth in the revolutionary socialist workers’ movement.[4] The crisis in the Second International that took place in the context of the First World War (1914–18) saw many former anarchists joining the radicals Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky in forming the Third International at the time of the Russian, German, Hungarian and Italian working class revolutions of 1917–19. (For instance, the preeminent American Trotskyist James P. Cannon had, prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, been an anarchist militant in the Industrial Workers of the World.)[5] To be sure, there were many anarchists who remained inimical to, sought to compete politically with, and even fought militarily against Marxism throughout this later period (as in the case of the Russian Civil War), but the splits and realignments among anarchists and Marxists at that time have been a bone of contention in the history of revolutionary socialism ever since then. These two moments, of the First and Third Internationals, are joined by the further trauma of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, in which Marxists again fought anarchists.

So how does this “ancient history” appear in the present? Milstein is content to continue a long tradition among anarchists and “left” or libertarian communists and socialists, in which anarchism is opposed to Marxism along the lines of libertarian versus authoritarian politics. But is this indeed the essential, crucial difference between anarchism and Marxism?

Although Milstein approached the question of a present-day synthesis of anarchism and Marxism in an apparently open way, her perspective was still that of a rather dogmatic anarchism, adhering to principles rather than historical perspectives. What Milstein offered was the possibility, not of a true synthesis, but rather of re-assimilating Marxism back into its pre- and non-Marxian or “socialist” historical background.

Two figures of historical anarchism not mentioned by Milstein in her talk, but who can be regarded in terms of the emergence and further development of Marx’s own perspectives on capitalism and socialism, are, respectively, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76). Marx’s thought responded in its initial stages to the formulation of socialism by Proudhon, who was perhaps the most influential socialist at the time of Marx’s youth. Bakunin, on the other hand, started out as an admirer of Marx’s work, completing the first Russian translation the Communist Manifesto while also attempting to undertake a translation of Capital (the latter project was abandoned unfinished).

One figure Milstein did mention, Murray Bookchin (1921–2006), who taught her anarchism, was a famous critical interlocutor with Marxism, writing the New Left pamphlet Listen, Marxist! (1969). Bookchin was himself a former Marxist, first as a mainstream Third International Communist, later a Trotskyist, before ultimately turning to anarchism out of disenchantment with Marxism. More precisely, it was disenchantment with the practice of Marxist politics that motivated Bookchin’s turn to anarchism. Like her mentor, Milstein’s approach appears to be motivated by a Marxist anti-capitalism in theory and a libertarian anarchist politics in practice. But how does this relate to the actual historical differences between anarchism and Marxism, in both theory and practice?

Marx’s critique of capital was formulated and emerged strongly out of his critical engagement with Proudhon’s “anarchist” socialism. Proudhon could be considered the first “libertarian socialist.” Proudhon in fact invented the term “anarchism.” He also famously coined the phrase “property is theft.” Proudhon, like Marx, engaged and was influenced by not only British political economy and French socialism, but also Hegelian philosophy. Proudhon admitted to having only “three masters: the Bible, Adam Smith, and Hegel.” Marx’s personal relationship with Proudhon was broken by Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s 1847 book, System of Economical Contradictions: or, The Philosophy of Poverty. Marx’s book-length critique was titled, in his typically incisive style of dialectical reversal, The Poverty of Philosophy. It is significant that Marx worked towards a critique of Proudhonian socialism at the same time as he was beginning to elaborate a critique of the categories of political economy, through the case of Proudhon’s 1840 book What is Property?, in the unpublished 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.

By addressing Proudhon’s opposition to capital as symptomatic, and trying to get at the shared presuppositions of both capitalist society and its discontents, as expressed by Proudhon, Marx attempted to grasp the historical essence of capital more fundamentally, and the possibility of capital being reproduced in and through the forms of discontent it generated. This meant taking a very historically specific view of capital that could regard how the prevailing forms of modern society and its characteristic forms of self-understanding in practice, and their discontents, in political ideology, shared a common historical moment in capital. Proudhon’s thought, Marx argued, was not simply mistaken, but, as an acute symptom of capital, necessitated a critical understanding of what Proudhon was trying to grasp and struggle through. Marx’s “critique of political economy,” and attempt to “get at the root” of capital in “humanity itself,” as a historical phenomenon, can thus be said to have begun with his critique of Proudhon.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his children (1853), painting by Gustave Courbet.

For Marx, Proudhon offered not the overcoming, but rather the purest expression of the commodity form in capital, in the call to “abolish private property.” The unintended effect of the abolition of property would, according to Marx, actually render society itself into one great “universal capitalist” over its members. For Marx understood “capital” as the contradiction of modern society with itself.[6] Just as each member of capitalist society regarded himself as his own property, a commodity to be bought and sold, so society regarded itself as capital. As Marx put it, in the 1844 Manuscripts,

Karl Marx in 1839.

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation [of humanity in capital], and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.[7]

This is what Proudhon, according to Marx, did not recognize about “socialism.”

It is precisely such historical specification of the problems of capital and its discontents, and of any purported attempts to get beyond capital, that distinguishes Marx’s approach from that of anarchism and non-Marxian socialism. In his critique of capital and its discontents, Marx did not pose any principles against others, abstractly, but rather tried to understand the actual basis for the principles of (anti)capitalism from within.

This relates to Marx’s later dispute with his erstwhile admirer Bakunin. Bakunin was most opposed to what he believed to be Marx’s and Marx’s followers’ embrace of the “state” in their concept of political revolution leading to socialism. Where Bakunin, in characteristic anarchist manner, claimed to be opposed to the state per se, Marx and his best followers — such as that great demon for anarchists, Lenin,[8] in The State and Revolution (1917) — sought to grasp the necessity of the state as a function of capital, seeking to attack the conditions of possibility of the need for something like state authority in capital itself. Departing from regarding the state as an invidious cause of (political) unfreedom, Marx and the best Marxists sought to find out how the state, in its modern, capitalist, pathological, and self-contradictory form, was actually an effect of capital. The difference between Marxism and anarchism is in the understanding of the modern capitalist state as a historically specific phenomenon, a symptom, as opposed to a transhistorical evil.

Milstein’s mentor Bookchin provides a good example of this kind of problem in anarchism with respect to historical specificity in opposition to capitalism. Opposed to the individualistic “egoism” of Proudhonian anarchism and of others such as Max Stirner,[9] Bookchin sought to find an adequate form of social life that in principle could do away with any pernicious authority. Bookchin found this in the idea, taken from Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), of local communitarian “mutualism,” as opposed to the tyranny of the capitalist state. For Bookchin, the anarchist opposition to capital comes down to a matter of the most anthropologically appropriate principle of society. (It is notable that Noam Chomsky offers a similar anarchist perspective on human nature as inherently socialist.)

Milstein’s diagnosis and prescription for what ails today’s Left is concerned with its supposed lack of, or otherwise bad principles for, proper political organizing, in terms of both an adequate practice of anti-capitalist revolutionary politics and the emancipated society of “libertarian socialism” towards which it strives.

The eminently practical political issue of “how to get there from here” involves an understanding and judgment of not only the “how” and the “there,” but also the “here” from which one imagines one is proceeding. The question is whether we live in a society that suffers from bad principles of organization, extreme hierarchy, and distantly centralized authority, or from a deeper and more obscure problem of social life in modern capitalism that makes hierarchy and centralization both possible and indeed necessary. Where Marx and a Marxian approach begin is with an examination of what anarchism only presupposes and treats a priori as the highest principle of proper human social life. Marxists seek to understand where the impulse towards “libertarian socialism” originates historically. Marxists consider “socialism” to be the historical product and not simply the antithesis of capitalism. Marxists ask, what necessity must be overcome in order to get beyond capital? For socialism would be not simply the negation, but also the completion of capitalism. Marx nonetheless endorsed it as such. This was the heart of Marx’s “dialectical” approach to capital.

By contrast, for Milstein, following Bookchin, socialism differs fundamentally in principle from capitalism. The problem with Marx and historical materialism was that it remained too subject to the exigencies of capitalism in the 19th to early 20th century era of industrialization. Similarly, the problem with the historical anarchism of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin was that it had not yet adequately formulated the proper political principles for the relations of the individual in society. Bookchin thought that the possibility for this had been achieved in the late 20th century, in what he called “post-scarcity anarchism,” which would allow for a return to the social principles of the traditional human communities that had been destroyed by capitalism and the hierarchical civilizational forms that preceded it.[10] Even though Bookchin thought that Marx’s fundamental political perspective of proletarian socialism had been historically superseded, he nevertheless found support for his approach in Marx’s late ethnographic notebooks.[11]

On the contrary, an approach properly following Marx would try to understand and push further the aspiration towards a socialist society that comes historically as a result of and from within capital itself. Rather than taking one’s own supposed “anti-capitalism” simply as given, a Marxian approach seeks — as Marx put it in a famous 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge calling for the “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” including first and foremost the Left[12] — to “show the world why it is struggling, and [that] consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it wishes or not.”[13]

For Milstein, the problems afflicting today’s “anti-capitalist movement” can be established and overcome in principle a priori. According to Milstein, the Left must only give up its “individualistic nihilism” and “conspiratorial vanguardism” in organized politics in order to achieve socialism. This means Marxists must give up their bad ideas and forms of organization and become anarchists, or “libertarian socialists,” if they are to serve rather than hinder the revolution against capital.

But, as the young, searching 25 year-old political radical Marx wrote (in his 1843 letter to Ruge),

In fact, the internal obstacles seem almost greater than external difficulties. For . . . the question “where to?” is a rich source of confusion . . . among the reformers, but also every individual must admit to himself that he has no precise idea about what ought to happen. . . . [However] we do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old. I am therefore not in favor of our hoisting a dogmatic banner. Quite the reverse. We must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their ideas. In particular, communism is a dogmatic abstraction and . . . only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle and is infected by its opposite, private property. The abolition of private property is therefore by no means identical with communism and communism has seen other socialist theories, such as those of . . . Proudhon, rising up in opposition to it, not fortuitously but necessarily, because it is only a particular, one-sided realization of the principle of socialism. And by the same token, the whole principle of socialism is concerned only with one side, namely the reality of the true existence of man. . . . This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctrinaire principles and proclaim: Here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall develop for the world new principles from the existing principles of the world. . . . Our programme must be: the reform of consciousness not through dogmas but by analyzing . . . consciousness obscure to itself. . . . It will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality.[14]

Marx counterposed his own unique perspective sharply against that of other “socialists,” whom he found to be unwittingly bound up in the categories of capital against which they raged. This has remained the case for virtually all “anti-capitalists” up to the present. Marx grasped this problem of anti-capitalism at the dawn of the epoch of industrial capital that arose with the disintegration of traditional society, but to whose unprecedented and historically specific social and political problems we continue to be subject today.

Marx departed from anarchism and other forms of symptomatic “socialism” with reason, and this reason must not be forgotten. Marx’s task remains unfinished. Only this “clarification” of “consciousness obscure to itself” that Marx called for can fulfill the long “dream” of anarchism, which otherwise will remain denied in reality. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #25 (July 2010).


1. Video documentation of Milstein’s talk at the Left Forum 2010 can be found online at <www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9GiPNPDLDM>.

2. It is unclear by her “10–20 year” periodization whether Milstein meant this negatively, with the collapse of Stalinism or “authoritarian/state socialism” beginning in 1989, or positively, with the supposedly resurgent Left of the “anti/alter-globalization” movement exemplified by the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the World Social Forum starting in 2001 at Porto Alegre, Brazil. Milstein was probably referencing both.

3. Ever since the Marx-Bakunin split in the International Workingmen’s Association or First International, anarchists have characterized Marxists as authoritarians hijacking the revolutionary movement.

4. See James Joll, The Second International 1889–1914 (New York: Praeger, 1956).

5. See Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left 1890–1928 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

6. For example, Proudhon advocated replacing money with labor-time credits and so did not recognize, as Marx noted early on and elaborated in detail later in Capital, how, after the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of machine production, labor-time undermined itself as a measure of social value.

7. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Robert C. Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 93. Also available online at <www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm>.

8. Lenin wrote, in “Left-Wing” Communism — An Infantile Disorder (1920) that,

[D]riven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism . . . anarchism is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another — all this is common knowledge. . . .

Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other. (Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology (New York: Norton, 1975), 559–560.)

9. See Max Stirner, The Ego and its Own (London: Rebel Press, 1993). Originally published 1845. Sometimes translated as The Individual and his Property.

10. See Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1970); “Beyond Neo-Marxism,” Telos 36 (1979); and Toward an Ecological Society (1980).

11. These writings by Marx are also the subject of a recent book by the Marxist-Humanist Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

12. Elsewhere, Marx wrote, “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, and much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies; and in maintaining this our position we gladly forego cheap democratic popularity.” (“Gottfried Kinkel,” in Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch-Ökonomische Revue No. 4, 1850.  Available online at <www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/04/kinkel.htm>).

13. Marx, letter to Arnold Ruge (September, 1843), in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 12–15. Also available online at <www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm>.

14. Marx, letter to Ruge.

Adorno and Freud

The relation of Freudian psychoanalysis to Marxist critical social theory

Chris Cutrone

ADORNO’S HABILITATIONSSCHRIFT WAS ON KANT AND FREUD.  It ended with Marx.  Why did Adorno think that Marx addressed the problems of both Kantian and Freudian accounts of consciousness?

The distinction between Kant and Freud turns on the psychoanalytic concept of the “unconscious,” the by-definition unknowable portion of mental processes, the unthought thoughts and unfelt feelings that are foreign to Kant’s rational idealism. Kant’s “critical” philosophy was concerned with how we can know what we know, and what this revealed about our subjectivity. Kant’s philosophical “critiques” were investigations into conditions of possibility: Specifically, Kant was concerned with the possibility of change in consciousness. By contrast, Freud was concerned with how conscious intention was constituted in struggle with countervailing, “unconscious” tendencies: how the motivation for consciousness becomes opaque to itself. But like Kant, Freud was not interested in disenchanting but rather strengthening consciousness.

For both Kant and Freud, the greater possibilities for human freedom are to be found in the conquests of consciousness: To become more self-aware is to achieve greater freedom, and this freedom is grounded in possibilities for change. The potential for the qualitative transformation of consciousness, which for both Kant and Freud includes affective relations and hence is not merely about “conceptual” knowledge, underwrites both Kantian philosophy and Freudian psychotherapy.

But both Kantian and Freudian accounts of consciousness became utopian for Adorno. Adorno’s Marxist “materialist” critique of the inadequacies of Kant and Freud was concerned with redeeming the desiderata of their approaches to consciousness, and not simply “demystifying” them. For Adorno, what Kant and Freud both lacked was a critical theory of capital; a capacity for the self-reflection, as such, of the subjectivity of the commodity form. Marx provided this. For Adorno, both Kant and Freud were liable to be abused if the problem of capital was obscured and not taken as the fundamental historical frame for the problem of freedom that both sought to address. What was critical about Kantian and Freudian consciousness could become unwittingly and unintentionally affirmative of the status quo, as if we were already rational subjects with well-developed egos, as if we were already free, as if these were not our tasks. This potential self-undermining or self-contradiction of the task of consciousness that Adorno found in Kant and Freud could be explicated adequately only from a Marxian perspective. When Adorno deployed Freudian and Kantian categories for grasping consciousness, he deliberately rendered them aporetic. Adorno considered Kant and Freud as providing descriptive theories that in turn must be subject to critical reflection and specification — within a Marxian socio-historical frame.

For Adorno, the self-opacity of the subject or, in Freud’s terms, the phenomenon of the “unconscious mental process,” is the expression of the self-contradiction or non-identity of the “subject” in Hegelian-Marxian terms. Because Kantian consciousness is not a static proposition, because Kant was concerned with an account of the possibility of a self-grounded, “self-legislated” and thus self-conscious freedom, Adorno was not arraying Freud against Kant. Adorno was not treating Kant as naïve consciousness, but rather attending to the historical separation of Freud from Kant. Marx came between them. The Freudian theory of the unconscious is, for Adorno, a description of the self-alienated character of the subjectivity of modern capital. Freud can be taken as an alternative to Marx — or Kant — only the degree to which a Marxian approach fails to give adequate expression to historical developments in the self-contradiction of the subjectivity of the commodity form.

One thinker usually neglected in accounts of the development of Frankfurt School Critical Theory is Wilhelm Reich. For Adorno, perhaps the key phrase from Reich is “fear of freedom.”[1] This phrase has a deeper connotation than might at first be apparent, in that it refers to a dynamic process and not a static fact of repression. “Repression,” in Freud’s terms, is self-repression: it constitutes the self, and hence is not to be understood as an “introjection” from without. The potential for freedom itself produces the reflex of fear in an intrinsic motion. The fear of freedom is thus an index of freedom’s possibility. Repression implies its opposite, which is the potential transformation of consciousness. The “fear of freedom” is thus grounded in freedom itself.

Wilhelm Reich's former laboratory, now a museum dedicated to the memory of his work, in Rangeley, Maine.

Reich derived the “fear of freedom” directly from Freud. Importantly, for Freud, psychopathology exists on a spectrum in which the pathological and the healthy differ not in kind but degree. Freud does not identify the healthy with the normal, but treats both as species of the pathological. The normal is simply the typical, commonplace pathology. For Freud, “neurosis” was the unrealistic way of coping with the new and the different, a failure of the ego’s “reality principle.” The characteristic thought-figure here is “neurotic repetition.” Neurosis is, for Freud, fundamentally about repetition. To free oneself from neurosis is to free oneself from unhealthy repetition. Nonetheless, however, psychical character is, for Freud, itself a function of repetition. The point of psychoanalytic therapy is not to eliminate the individual experience that gives rise to one’s character, but rather to allow the past experience to recur in the present in a less pathological way. This is why, for Freud, to “cure” a neurosis is not to “eliminate” it but to transform it. The point is not to unravel a person’s psychical character, but for it to play out better under changed conditions. For it is simply inappropriate and impractical for a grown person to engage adult situations “regressively,” that is, according to a pattern deeply fixed in childhood. While that childhood pattern cannot be extirpated, it can be transformed, so as to be better able to deal with the new situations that are not the repetition of childhood traumas and hence prove intractable to past forms of mastery. At the same time, such forms of mastery from childhood need to be satisfied and not denied. There is no more authoritarian character than the child. What are otherwise “authoritarian” characteristics of the psyche allow precisely these needs to be satisfied. “Guilt,” that most characteristic Freudian category, is a form of libidinal satisfaction. Hence its power.

Perhaps the most paradoxical thought Reich offered, writing in the aftermath of the 1933 Nazi seizure of power, was the need for a Marxian approach to attend to the “progressive character of fascism.” “Progressive” in what sense? Reich thought that Marxism had failed to properly “heed the unconscious impulses” that were otherwise expressed by fascism. Fascism had expressed the emergence of the qualitatively new, however paradoxically, in the form of an apparently retrograde politics. Reich was keen to point out that fascism was not really a throwback to some earlier epoch but rather the appearance of the new, if in a pathological and obscured form. Walter Benjamin’s notion of “progressive barbarism” similarly addressed this paradox, for “barbarism” is not savagery but decadence.

Reich thought that learning from Freud was necessary in the face of the phenomenon of fascism, which he regarded as expressing the failure of Marxism. It was necessary due to Freud’s attention to expanding and strengthening the capacity of the conscious ego to experience the new and not to “regress” in the neurotic attempt to master the present by repeating the past. Freud attended to the problem of achieving true, present mastery, rather than relapsing into false, past forms. This, Freud thought, could be accomplished through the faculty of “reality-testing,” the self-modification of behavior that characterized a healthy ego, able to cope with new situations. Because, for Freud, this always took place in the context of, and as a function of, a predominantly “unconscious” mental process of which the ego was merely the outmost part and in which were lodged the affects and thoughts of the past, this involved a theory of the transformation of consciousness. Because the unconscious did not “know time,” transformation was the realm of the ego-psychology of consciousness.

For Reich, as well as for Benjamin and Adorno, from the perspective of Marxism the Freudian account of past and present provided a rich description of the problem of the political task of social emancipation in its subjective dimension. Fascism had resulted from Marxism’s failure to meet the demands of individuals outpaced by history. Reich’s great critique of “Marxist” rationalism was that it could not account for why, for the most part, starving people do not steal to survive and the oppressed do not revolt.

By contrast, in the Freudian account of emancipation from neurosis, there was both a continuity with and change from prior experience in the capacity to experience the new and different. This was the ego’s freedom. One suffered from neurosis to the degree to which one shielded oneself stubbornly against the new.  This is why Freud characterized melancholia, or the inability to grieve, as a narcissistic disorder: it represented the false mastery of a pre-ego psychology in which consciousness had not adequately distinguished itself from its environment. The self was not adequately bounded, but instead engaged in a pathological projective identification with the object of loss. The melancholic suffered not from loss of the object, but rather from a sense of loss of self, or a lack of sense of self. The pathological loss was due to a pathological affective investment in the object to begin with, which was not a proper or realistic object of libidinal investment at all. The melancholic suffered from an unrealistic sense of both self and other.

In the context of social change, such narcissism was wounded in recoil from the experience of the new. It thus undermined itself, for it regressed below the capacities for consciousness. The challenge of the new that could be met in freedom becomes instead the pathologically repressed, the insistence on what Adorno called the “ever-same.” There is an illusion involved, both of the emergently new in the present, and in the image of the past.[2] But such “illusion” is not only pathological, but constitutive: it comprises the “necessary form of appearance,” the thought and felt reality of past and present in consciousness. This is the double-movement of both the traumatically new and of an old, past pathology. It is this double-movement, within which the ego struggles for its very existence in the process of undergoing change within and without that Adorno took to be a powerful description of the modern subject of capital. The “liquidation of the individual” was in its dwindling present, dissolved between past and future. The modern subject was thus inevitably “non-identical” with itself. Reich had provided a straightforward account of how accelerating social transformations in capital ensured that characteristic patterns of childhood life would prove inappropriate to adult realities, and that parental authority would be thus undermined. Culture could no longer serve its ancient function.

Freud’s account of the “unconscious mental process” was one salient way of grasping this constitutive non-identity of the subject. Freud’s ego and id, the “I” and “it” dimensions of consciousness, described how the psychical self was importantly not at one with itself. For Adorno, this was a description not only of the subject’s constraint but its potential, the dynamic character of subjectivity, reproductive of both a problem and a task.

In his 1955 essay “Sociology and Psychology,” Adorno addressed the necessary and indeed constitutive antinomy of the “individual” and “society” under capital. According to Adorno, there was a productive tension and not a flat contradiction between approaches that elaborated society from the individual psyche and those that derived the individual from the social process: both were at once true and untrue in their partiality. Adorno’s point was that it was inevitable that social problems be approached in such one-sided ways. Adorno thus derived two complementary approaches: critical psychology and critical sociology. Or, at a different level, critical individualism and critical authoritarianism. Under capital, both the psychical and social guises of the individual were at once functionally effective and spurious delusional realities. It was not a matter of properly merging two aspects of the individual but of recognizing what Adorno elsewhere called the “two torn halves of an integral freedom to which however they do not add up.” It was true that there were both social potentials not reducible to individuals and individual potentials not straightforwardly explicable from accounts of society.

The antagonism of the particular and the general had a social basis, but for Adorno this social basis was itself contradictory. Hence there was indeed a social basis for the contradiction of individual and society, rather than a psychical basis, but this social basis found a ground for its reproduction in the self-contradiction of the psychical individual. A self-contradictory form of society gave rise to, and was itself reproduced through, self-contradictory individuals.

The key for Adorno was to avoid collapsing what should be critical-theoretical categories into apologetic or affirmative-descriptive ones for grasping the individual and society. Neither a social dialectic nor a split psyche was to be ontologized or naturalized, but both required historical specification as dual aspects of a problem to be overcome. That problem was what Marx called “capital.” For Adorno, it was important that both dialectical and psychoanalytic accounts of consciousness had only emerged in modernity. From this historical reality one could speculate that an emancipated society would be neither dialectical nor consist of psychological individuals, for both were symptomatic of capital. Nevertheless, any potential for freedom needed to be found there, in the socially general and individual symptoms of capital, described by both disciplines of sociology and psychology.

Hence, the problem for Adorno was not a question of methodology but of critical reflexivity: how did social history present itself through individual psychology (not methodological individualism but critical reflection on the individuation of a social problem). The “primacy” of the social, or of the “object,” was, for Adorno, not a methodological move or preferred mode of analysis, let alone a philosophical ontology, but was meant to provoke critical recognition of the problem he sought to address.

In his speech to the 1968 conference of the German Society for Sociology, titled “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” Adorno described how the contradiction of capital was expressed in “free-floating anxiety.” Such “free-floating anxiety” was expressive of the undermining of what Freud considered the ego-psychology of the subject of therapy. Paranoia spoke to pre-Oedipal, pre-individuated problems, to what Adorno called the “liquidation of the individual.” This was caused by and fed into the further perpetuation of authoritarian social conditions.

For Adorno, especially as regards the neo-Freudian revisionists of psychoanalysis as well as post- and non-Freudian approaches, therapy had, since Freud’s time, itself become repressive in ways scarcely anticipated by Freud. Such “therapy” sought to repress the social-historical symptom of the impossibility of therapy. Freud had commented on the intractability of narcissistic disorders such as melancholia, but these had come to replace the typical Freudian neuroses of the 19th century such as hysteria. The paranoiac-delusional reality of the authoritarian personality had its ground of truth, a basis, in society. The “fear of freedom” was expressed in the individual’s retreat from ego-psychology, a narcissistic recoil from an intractable social reality. Perhaps this could be recognized as such. This, for Adorno, was the emancipatory potential of narcissism.

In his essay “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (1951), Adorno characterized the appeal of fascist demagogy precisely in its being recognized by its consumers as the lie that one chooses to believe, the authority one spites while participating in it by submitting to it in bad faith. This was its invidious power, the pleasure of doing wrong, but also its potential overcoming. An antisocial psychology, not reducible to the sociopathic, had been developed which posed the question of society, if at a different level than in Freud’s time. It was no longer situated in the “family romance” of the Oedipal drama but in society writ large. But this demanded recognition beyond what was available in the psychotherapeutic relationship, because it spoke not to the interaction of egos but to projective identification among what Freud could only consider wounded narcissists. For Adorno, we are a paranoid society with reason.

There had always been a fine line between therapy, providing for an individual’s betterment through strengthening the ego’s “reality principle,” and adaptation to a bad social reality. For Adorno, the practice of therapy had come to tip the balance to adaptation — repression. The critical edge of Freudian psychoanalysis was lost in its unproblematic adoption by society — in its very “success.” Freudian psychoanalysis was admitted and domesticated, but only the degree to which it had become outmoded. Like so much of modernism, it became part of kitsch culture. This gave it a repressive function.  But it retained, however obscurely, a “utopian” dimension: the idea of being an ego at all. Not the self constituted in interpellation by authority, but in being for-itself.

After Freud, therapy produced, not problematic individuals of potential freedom, but authoritarian pseudo-individuals of mere survival. For Freud it was the preservation of the individual’s potential for self-overcoming and not mere self-reiteration that characterized the ego. For Adorno, however, the obsolescence of Freudian ego-psychology posed the question and problem of what Adorno called “self-preservation.” For Adorno, this was seen in individuals’ “unworthiness of love.”

If psychoanalytic therapy had always been above all pragmatic, had always concerned itself with the transformation of neurotic symptoms in the direction of better abilities to cope with reality, then there was always a danger of replacing neuroses with those that merely better suited society. But if, as Freud put it early on (in “The Psychotherapy of Hysteria,” in Studies on Hysteria), as a result of psychotherapy the individual finds herself pressing demands that society has difficulty meeting, then that remained society’s problem. It was a problem for the individual, but not simply of or “with” the individual. Freud understood his task as helping a neurotic to better equip herself for dealing with reality, including, first and foremost, social realities — that is, other individuals. Freud recognized the challenge of psychoanalysis. It was not for Freud to deny the benefits of therapy even if these presented new problems. Freud conceived psychical development as an open-ended process of consciousness in freedom.

The problem for Adorno was how to present the problem of society as such. Capital was the endemic form of psychology and not only sociology. What was the psychological basis for emancipatory transformation? For the problem was not how the individual was to survive society, but rather how society would survive the unmet demands presented by its individuals — and how society could transfigure and redeem the suffering, including psychically, of individual human beings.  These human beings instantiated the very substance of that society, and they were the individuals who provided the ground for social transformation.

An emancipated society would no longer be “sociological” as it is under capital, but would be truly social for the first time. Its emancipated individuals would no longer be “psychological,” but would be truly “individual” for the first time. They would no longer be merely derivative from their experience, stunted and recoiled in their narcissism. In this sense, the true, diverse individuation, what Adorno called “multiplicity,” towards which Freudian psychoanalytic therapy pointed, could be realized, freed from the compulsions of neurotic repetition, including those of prevailing patterns of culture. At the same time, the pathological necessity of individual emancipation from society would be overcome. Repetition could be non-pathological, non-repressive, and elaborated in freedom. The self-contradiction of consciousness found in the Freudian problematic of ego-psychology, with its “unconscious mental process” from which it remained alienated, would be overcome, allowing for the first time the Kantian rationalism of the adequately self-aware and self-legislating subject of freedom in an open-ended development and transformation of human reason, not as a cunning social dialectic, but in and through individual human beings, who could be themselves for the very first time. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #24 (June 2010). An earlier draft was presented on the panel “Hybridizing Critical and Psychoanalytic Theory,” with panelists Julie Walsh (University of Cambridge), Tim Jung (Loyola University Chicago) and Andrew J. Pierce (Loyola University Chicago), at the 7th annual Social Theory Forum: Critical Social Theory: Freud and Lacan for the 21st Century, University of Massachusetts, Boston, April 7, 2010.


1. Wilhelm Reich, “Ideology as a Material Force,” in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/46), trans. Vincent Carfagno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 31. All references to Reich in what follows are from this text.

2. See Robert Hullot-Kentor, Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno (New York, Columbia University Press, 2006), 83:

[Siegfried] Kracauer . . . pointed out [in his review of Adorno’s Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic] that . . . [Adorno’s] methodology derived from the concept of truth developed by Benjamin in his studies of Goethe and the Baroque drama: “In the view of these studies [i.e., Benjamin’s] the truth-content of a work reveals itself only in its collapse. . . . The work’s claim to totality, its systematic structure, as well as its superficial intentions share the fate of everything transient, but as they pass away with time the work brings characteristics and configurations to the fore that are actually images of truth.” This process could be exemplified by a recurrent dream: throughout its recurrences its images age, if imperceptibly; its historical truth takes shape as its thematic content dissolves. It is the truth-content that gives the dream, the philosophical work, or the novel its resilience. This idea of historical truth is one of the most provocative rebuttals to historicism ever conceived: works are not studied in the interest of returning them to their own time and period, documents of “how it really was,” but rather according to the truth they release in their own process of disintegration.

Sexuality and gender in capital

On Juliet Mitchell, “Women: The Longest Revolution” (1966)

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the University of Chicago, May 18, 2010.

In my presentation, I will be drawing from but not citing a variety of readings we do in Platypus, including Georg Lukács’s book History and Class Consciousness (1923), Theodor W. Adorno’s essay “Sexual Taboos and the Law Today” (1963) and John D’Emilio’s essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983), as well as University of Chicago Professor Moishe Postone’s interpretation of Marx’s critique of capital (in Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 1993).

I want to start with a quotation from Juliet Mitchell’s groundbreaking essay “Women: The Longest Revolution,” published in the New Left Review in 1966, that will establish some categories I wish to explore in considering a Marxist approach to problems of sexuality and gender in capital:

Socialism will be a process of change, of becoming.  A fixed image of the future is in the worst sense ahistorical. . . .  As Marx wrote (in Precapitalist Economic Formations): “What is progress if not the absolute elaboration of humanity’s creative dispositions . . . unmeasured by any previously established yardstick[,] an end in itself . . . the absolute movement of becoming?” . . .  The liberation of women under socialism will [be] . . . a human achievement, in the long passage from Nature to Culture which is the definition of history and society. (37)

Here, Mitchell concludes her essay with an emphasis on the issue of “becoming,” or the open-ended transformation of gender and sexuality that capital makes possible but constrains.

To illustrate the problem regarding the history of the Left, including Marxism, on issues of gender and sexuality, it should suffice to address a poorly registered shift that occurred in the 20th century in the social imagination and ideology of discontents with capital between two crucial periods, the early 20th century “Old Left” of the 1930s and ’40s, and the “New Left” of the 1960s and ’70s.  In the earlier period, of the “Old” Left, the predominant form of discontent and grievance regarding capitalism, which had some continuity with similar forms of the 19th century workers’ movement, was how capitalism undermined the working class family and sexual life, breaking up the “hearth and home,” and denying the benefits of the bourgeois family to the workers, in exploiting not only men but also women and children.  In the late 20th century “New Left,” by contrast, there was a reversal of the discontent and grievance with capitalism, in that it made women and children (and men) prisoners of the “bourgeois” family.  Where once capitalism was seen as barring the family life of the workers, now capitalism was seen as depending upon and thus keeping workers constrained in the conventional family.  Where once the demand was to have the freedom to have a family, there arose the demand to abolish the family along with capitalism.  Where once, in supposed “Marxism-Leninism,” that is, Stalinist, Maoist, and Guevarist, etc., Communism, the family was regarded as the “fighting unit of socialism,” for “New Left” Marxists, the family was seen as a bulwark of capitalism.  Similarly, where once, in such supposed “Marxism,” homosexuality and other “deviance” was seen as the result of “bourgeois decadence,” for the “New Left,” sexual liberation found pride of place.  What accounts for this shift?

As shown by the fact that today, paradoxically, a central concern of politics around homosexuality is the demand for equal rights to marital and “family” status, it is not a simple matter of “progress,” in which at one time Marxists had been unaware of the depth of issues of gender and sexual oppression, and then came to be aware, trying to incorporate issues of gender and sexuality into their critiques of capital.  For, as Mitchell points out, not only Marx and Engels themselves, but also later Marxists, such as the German Social-Democratic Party leader August Bebel, as well as younger Marxist political activists, such as Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Trotsky, were very much aware of how gender and sexual liberation were central concerns for overcoming capital.  For instance, in the late 19th century, August Bebel was the first modern parliamentarian to call for the decriminalization of homosexuality.  When Bebel’s party later inherited power in the Weimar Republic after the German Revolution of 1918 at the end of the First World War, it became the first modern democratic state to decriminalize homosexuality, but only after the Bolsheviks had already done so in the Russian Revolution of 1917.  It was the demise of the Weimar Republic with the 1933 Nazi seizure of power that recriminalized homosexuality (and, incidentally, this was one of very few laws implemented by the Nazis that was not repealed with their defeat at the end of World War II).  In the Soviet Union, it was only in the process of conservatization that occurred through Stalinism, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, that homosexuality was recriminalized, and the conventional heterosexual family was reinforced (for instance through the recriminalization of abortion and the restoration of legal obstacles to divorce) around the same time, in the 1930s.  As a result, subsequent “Marxists” took as axiomatic the celebration of heterosexuality and the family, and the pathologization of homosexuality, neither of which had been the case for earlier Marxist radicals.

Thus, conventional but false “Marxist” accounts that came later have posed the issue of “gender vs. class,” or, in “socialist feminist” versions, have tried to demonstrate the “interconnectedness” of “gender, sexuality and class,” where what needed to be addressed was how gender or sexuality could, equally as well as socioeconomic “class” accounts could do, describe the problem of capital, in terms of the problem of emancipatory transformation.  To do so it would be necessary to show how gender and sexuality are in themselves issues of class, or, perhaps more importantly, how class is an issue of sexuality and gender. For gender and sexuality are capital. That is, they comprise its conditions of reproduction, as much as socioeconomic classes do. And, like modern classes, gender and sexuality have themselves been formed by the history of capital.

One way to disentangle the problems that have usually beset and confounded purported “Marxist” anticapitalist approaches to gender and sexual liberation is to recognize that a Marxian account of capital is concerned with conditions of possibility and not causal-deterministic explanations for oppression.  So, the question would not be how capitalism causes sexual and gender oppression, which could indeed be shown, but, rather, how capital could be grasped as the historically specific social condition of possibility for forms of sexual and gender constraint and oppression.  This is especially important with regard to how, in the modern era, sexuality and gender roles have taken a variety of forms, but all nonetheless remained problematical and ultimately constraining of social possibilities for developing greater human potential.

The modern era of capital, beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, has demonstrated a great deal of potential, in a variety of different forms, for sexual life and gender relations.  Such potential has been inherent in the overcoming of traditional ways of life in capital.  Conservatives have responded to such changes as the dangerous break-down of traditional values, but, from the beginning, Marxists, among other bohemian socialists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, had been interested in how to push such potential further, in an open-ended way.  They regarded capital as a constraint, an obstacle to this.  At the same time, however, they regarded capital as the inevitable condition of possibility for emancipatory transformation.  As regards changes already underway, Marxists found them expressing potential capital already embodied.  Marxists thus distinguished themselves sharply from conservative responses to capital’s dynamic of change.  Capital undermined traditional ways of life, but not nearly enough, according to Marxism, because modern capitalist society allowed for the reproduction of (new forms of) gender and sexual oppression.  Capital not only undermined, but allowed the recrudescence of the worst forms of supposed “traditional” ways of life.

An example I’d like to raise is the phenomenon of the return of the traditional sexual prostitution of boys in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led NATO coalition ousted the Taliban.  This has been chronicled in a recent PBS Frontline documentary.  Whereas the former Soviet client regime and the Taliban radical Islamic fundamentalists, each in their own ways and for their own reasons, had suppressed the practice of the “dancing boys” in Afghanistan, the post-U.S. invasion and occupation regime, while formally outlawing it, has largely tolerated its return.  This is because the Mujahideen fighters (for instance of the Russian- and Indian- and then U.S.-backed Northern Alliance) that had fought the Soviet-backed regime and then had been ousted in turn by the Taliban, but now form pillars of the new, post-NATO intervention regime, had cultivated the practice of “dancing boy” prostitution among themselves over the course of the past 30 years.  Indeed, their opposition to Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet regime in the 1970s and ’80s could be attributed almost as much to their adherence to this “traditional” sexual practice as to their opposition to the unveiling, education, public life and rights of women.  As one adherent put it in the Frontline documentary, “Women are for children, but boys are for pleasure.”  In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, the nexus of pressure of a money economy with conditions of wretched, abject poverty, massive social dislocation, including conditions of far-ranging migrant labor markets, and some dubious “traditional” cultural values, results in the worst of both modern and traditional forms of social life.  How would a Marxist approach address a phenomenon like the Afghan “dancing boys?”

While there is no simple, straightforward answer, it is clear that “dancing boy” prostitution in Afghanistan today bears only superficial resemblance to anything that was practiced traditionally in a prior historical era, itself nothing to celebrate.  So the practice can and should be condemned, as in the liberal sensibility of the Frontline documentary, directed at scandalizing a Western audience towards opposing present U.S. and NATO/European policy in Afghanistan that tolerates such abuses by the regime they have fostered there.  But opposing the prostitution of the “dancing boys” on the basis of some “hetero-normative” (and hence homophobic) assumption of conventional sexual and gender life elsewhere, such as found in America and Europe, is problematic, to say the least, however much it may appear to be a possible improvement, as advocates in Afghanistan seeking to put an end to the “dancing boys” may imagine.

Such supposed “traditional” practices of male inter-generational, pederastic homosexuality that finds grotesque expression today in Afghanistan can obviously in no way be found to express the full potential of male homosexuality — or of child sexuality, for that matter.  So, the solution is not to try to get Afghan men to adopt a more “normal” sexual orientation towards relations with (adult) women and the modern (Western) marriage based on love and (heterosexual) intimacy, which is highly unlikely under present social conditions in a place like Afghanistan, anyway.  And, as anyone concerned with sexual and gender emancipation in places like America and Europe would point out, not only the conventional forms of intimate life and family practices that take place hegemonically “here,” but also those found in the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender subcultures, are hardly the final word in terms of sexual and gender emancipation.  And, just as importantly, as can be observed in the society of “law and order” such as practiced in places like the U.S., criminalization of sexual practices of any kind offers no solution.

Another example I’d raise is female genital mutilation, as “traditionally” practiced in parts of Africa and the Middle East and also among immigrant communities from such places in North America and Europe.  While socio-biologists have desperately tried to find a biological-evolutionary “reason” for female orgasm, it turns out to be entirely extraneous from survival imperatives of natural selection.  As one writer put it, female orgasm, unlike the male orgasm, seems to exist naturally just “for fun.”  Biology is a condition, and not a “destiny.”  There is nothing simply “natural” about human biological conditions.  But these can indeed play out in a variety of different ways, depending on society.  It can also, for instance, allow whole cultures to practice the sexual mutilation of — the excising of sexual pleasure from — female children, as occurs routinely for millions of girls around the world each year.  It is a “voluntary” practice, by and among women.  But this is only an extreme example of how “culture” shapes “nature,” or, how society forms “sexuality,” through gender roles, among other practices, all of which, to one degree or another, could be understood as forms of “mutilation,” including psychologically, when seen from the standpoint of potential emancipation.  How would Marxists respond? — Especially, as regards female genital mutilation, when what is at stake concerns marital eligibility, and, hence, a whole host of life-chances for women, if the “traditional” practice is abrogated.  We could broaden this concern in addressing the phenomenon of “honor killings” of women for sexual infractions, including involuntary ones such as being raped, in the Arab world and elsewhere.  Even more broadly, sex work, especially as a global phenomenon, for instance among millions of migrant workers, points to problems of life chances, for the men who are clients no less than for the women who are prostituted.  It is not merely a matter of gender oppression, although gender oppression as a condition certainly plays a key role.  Clearly, as in the case of the Afghan “dancing boys,” what is required is some kind of increased scope for both individual and collective possibilities.  The task is to grasp capital, the social-historical moment of the present in a process of becoming, as a matter of economics, politics and culture, including gender and sexuality, as embodying both potential and constraint for such possibilities.  How could a less destructive way for humanity be opened?

Addressing capital as the fundamental and global context for such phenomena is a challenging but necessary requirement for even beginning to approach the question and problem of what it would take to open possibilities for gender and sexual practices for the vast majority, if not simply the totality of humanity in our modern epoch.  In the forms of purportedly “inhuman” practices as can be found in the phenomena of gender and sexuality with which the present world is rife, can be seen, in however distorted form, potential possibilities for becoming human, in ways that can only be barely imagined today.  As Mitchell warned in her essay more than 40 years ago, we need to attend to the problem of our present discontents taking static, hypostatized forms, and beware of the normative principles we may be tempted to offer against manifest destructive practices we face and want to overcome.  For what is necessary is to grasp the “movement of becoming” in capital that must be transformed, from the break-down of tradition, as well as the specious re-positing of “tradition” in the face of the onslaught of modernity, into a truly “human achievement” of emancipation. | §

Adorno and Korsch on Marxism and philosophy

Chris Cutrone

Presented on the panel “Reconsiderations in Western Marxism: Lukács, Korsch, Adorno, Marcuse,” with panelist Baolinh Dang, at the Historical Materialism conference, York University, Toronto, May 14, 2010; and on the panel “Hegel, Marx, and Modern Philosophy,” with panelists Patrick Murray and Richard Westerman at the Weissbourd 2011 Annual Conference, the University of Chicago, May 6, 2011. Excerpted from “Book review: Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy” and “Rejoinder on Korsch,” originally published in The Platypus Review (#15, September 2009, and #20, February 2010).

The publication of Karl Korsch’s seminal essay “Marxism and Philosophy” in 1923 coincided with the publication of Georg Lukács’s landmark collection of essays, History and Class Consciousness. 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 what Korsch called the “crisis of Marxism” and the revolutions of 1917–19. More specifically, Korsch’s essay takes up the development and vicissitudes of the relation between theory and practice in the history of Marxism, which Korsch 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 own Marxism.” 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. In the face of this party criticism, Lukács acquiesced and made his peace with “orthodoxy,” disavowing his work of 1919–24 as comprising a misguided attempt to “out-Hegel Hegel.”

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 and Paul Mattick. 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. Thus, in the 1930 essay “The Present State of the Problem of ‘Marxism and Philosophy:’ An Anti-Critique,” Korsch argued 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 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. No less than Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, Korsch’s essay on “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. Both Korsch’s and Lukács’s post-1923 trajectories were critiqued by the Frankfurt School writers.[1] Korsch, in the 1930 “Anti-Critique,” distanced himself from the problem Adorno sought to address, of the constitutive non-identity of theory and practice. Writing 40 years later, in Negative Dialectics (1966), 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.

In Adorno’s terms, both the later Korsch and official “dialectical materialism” (including the later Lukács) assumed “identity thinking,” an identity of effective theory and practice, rather than their articulated non-identity, to which Korsch and Lukács had drawn attention earlier. 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” — just as Lukács had done in adapting to Stalinist “orthodoxy.” 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” (“Marxism and Philosophy,” in Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday [NY: Monthly Review Press, 1970 and 2008], 97). As Adorno put it,

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.[2]

In 1923, Korsch had explicitly tied the question of “philosophy” 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, specifically the critical reflection on the relation of theory and practice, 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.

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, post-1848, extended into what he termed the “crisis of Marxism” beginning in the 1890s with the reformist “revisionist” dispute of Eduard Bernstein 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’ uprisings in Italy (in which Antonio Gramsci participated) in 1919.

It was in this revolutionary period of the early 20th century that “Marx’s own Marxism” of 1848, as expressed in the Communist Manifesto, 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.

For Korsch in the 1923 “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. . . . [T]he internal connection of theory and practice within revolutionary Marxism had been consciously re-established. (67–68)

Korsch thus established the importance for what Adorno later called the “historically changing” relation of theory and practice, making sense of their vicissitudes in the history of the politics of 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.

Adorno, in one of his last writings, the “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (1969), stated that,

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.[3]

According to Adorno, Marx had a critical theory of the relation of theory and practice — recognizing it as a historically specific and not merely “philosophical” problem, or, a problem that called for the critical theory of the philosophy of history — and a political practice of the relation of theory and practice. Adorno noted that the relation of theory and practice is “not settled once and for all, but fluctuates historically.”[4] There is not simply a theoretical or practical problem, but also, and more profoundly, a problem of relating theory and practice. It is not a matter of finding either a correct theory or correct practice, but of trying to judge and affect their changing relation and recognizing this as a problem of history. This is a function of the past’s problematic legacy in the present.

The revolutionary politics of Lenin and Luxemburg, following Marx, which inspired the Marxian critical theory of Lukács, Korsch and Adorno, recovered and struggled through the problem of theory and practice for their time, precipitating a crisis in Marxism, and thus potentially advancing it. Overcoming the “vulgar Marxist” ossification of theory and practice in the 2nd International opened the way to their critical relation, which Adorno elaborated. This meant the Marxist critique of Marxism, or, a Left critique of the Left. This was not a finished but an on-going task. Adorno’s focus, following Korsch, on the constitutive non-identity of theory and practice, is key to recovering a Marxian approach to the problem of an emancipatory, “dialectical” politics, an unresolved but neglected problem in the history of Marxism. | §


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

2. Translated by Dennis Redmond (2001).

3. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” in Critical Models, trans. by Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 266. This essay, a “dialectical epilegomenon” to his book Negative Dialectics that Adorno said intended to bring together “philosophical speculation and drastic experience” (Critical Models, 126), reflected his dispute with fellow Frankfurt School critical theorist Hebert Marcuse over the student protests of the Vietnam War (see Adorno and Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” trans. by Esther Leslie, New Left Review I/233, Jan.–Feb. 1999, 123–136). As Adorno put it in his May 5, 1969 letter to Marcuse,

[T]here are moments in which theory is pushed on further by practice. But such a situation neither exists objectively today, nor does the barren and brutal practicism that confronts us here have the slightest thing to do with theory anyhow. (“Correspondence,” 127.)

4. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. by E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1983), 143.

Art and politics

The politics of the culture industry: art today

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the Platypus Affiliated Society public forum on “The Politics of the Culture Industry: Art Today” with panelists Stephen Eisenman (Northwestern University) and Claire Pentecost (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April 27, 2010.

The German Marxist critical social theorist and practicing musician and composer Theodor W. Adorno, in his 1932 essay on “The Social Situation Music,” observed that the “contradictions and flaws which cut through present-day society” are traced in the “clearest possible lines” through art, and that, “at the same time,” art is “separated from this same society by the deepest of all flaws produced by this society itself” (Adorno, Essays on Music, 391). He pointed out that art finds itself in the same position as “social theory,” tasked with provoking recognition (393). Art, like theory, must “decide whether and how the entrance into social reality might be made” (393).

Susan Buck-Morss, in her response to the October art journal’s 1996 “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” wrote that “the role of artists is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience; the role of critics is to recognize this.”  In saying so, Buck-Morss cut against almost 20 years at that point of “postmodernism,” which was concerned, as Hal Foster, one of the principal writers for October, who we recently interviewed in The Platypus Review, argued in the early 1980s, to get out from under the constraints of modernism by moving “beyond critique.”  Buck-Morss argued, to the contrary, that what was needed was precisely critique and not merely discourses whose role is to “legitimate culture.”  Without this, Buck-Morss argued, artists might “opt to go underground” and express the critical content of aesthetic experience only “esoterically,” as producers for the culture industry. This has indeed happened.

The topic of “culture industry” is notoriously difficult and so is easily misconstrued. One common way of misapprehending Adorno’s critique of the culture industry is to address it only in terms of concrete institutions. It is misunderstood that art outside Hollywood, museums, or the art market’s galleries is somehow outside, resistant to or otherwise opposed to the culture industry. But, for Adorno, the culture industry, a term he used as an alternative to the more misleading categories of mass or popular culture, was the cultural guise of capital. The culture industry was a concept meant by Adorno to grasp the overall social context for cultural production, and was inclusive of both the industrially distributed products of the emphatic “industry” and of the most hermetically produced and experienced works of art. The stakes of Adorno’s critique were the stakes of aesthetic experience in modern society, the forms of subjectivity that Adorno considered social in nature, and thus characteristic of the historical moment of capital. The politics of aesthetic experience was thus engaged by Adorno.

Walter Benjamin famously wrote, at the end of his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that whereas fascism aestheticized politics, communism responded by politicizing art. Earlier, in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer,” Benjamin wrote that not only poverty but the struggle against poverty could be turned into an object of aesthetic contemplation. Benjamin wrote that art that doesn’t teach artists teaches no one, and that only work of good aesthetic quality could be of good, emancipatory political tendency. Benjamin is usually interpreted on the “Left” in ways that deprecate the aesthetic in favor of the political. But a further and different interpretation than is usually offered on the “Left” of Benjamin’s point — and Adorno’s following him, regarding the culture industry — is that the problem with both art and politics is that the essential dialectic of art and politics, in which it becomes possible to have a political critique of aesthetic experience and an aesthetic critique of politics, has been forgotten and thus repressed.

This is an era of bad art because of bad politics, and bad politics due to bad art. Good art would involve not only the critique of bad art but of bad politics; good politics would involve not only the critique of bad politics but of bad art. For bad art is bad politics, and bad politics is bad art.

When Benjamin called for politicizing art, this did not mean for him suspending the aesthetic but rather inquiring into and critiquing the political stakes of aesthetic experience. What would it mean to critique and problematize, and thus politicize, the aesthetic experience of bad politics as bad art, and bad art as bad politics?  It means challenging established patterns of feeling and thinking that constitute our subjectivity, whether for the experience of art or participation in politics. For what Benjamin was concerned with, along with Adorno following him, was the transformation of the subject for both art and politics. By giving up on addressing questions and problems of aesthetic form, a deeper engagement with problematic forms of politics is abdicated. For both aesthetics and politics involve social forms, even and perhaps especially when such social forms seem to take place only within the hermetic realm of private aesthetic experience. The abjection of the aesthetic in postmodernism is a form of political repression — a repressive form of politics.

Fredric Jameson, in his 1991 book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, wrote that,

It is . . . necessary to add about the “media” that it . . . failed to come into being; it did not, finally, become identical with its own “concept,” as Hegel liked to say, and can thus be counted among innumerable “unfinished projects” of the modern and the postmodern. . . . What we have now, what we call “media” is not that, or not yet that, as might be demonstrated by one of its more revealing episodes. In modern North American history, of course, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a unique event, not least because it was a unique collective (and media, communicational) experience, which trained people to read such events in a new way. . . .

[T]he projection of a new collective experience of reception . . . this event was something like the coming of age of the whole media culture. . . . Suddenly, and for a brief moment (which, however, lasted several long days), television showed what it could really do and what it really meant — a prodigious new display of synchronicity and a communicational situation. . . . Yet this inaugural event . . . gave what we call a Utopian glimpse into some collective communicational “festival” whose ultimate logic and promise is incompatible with our mode of production. . . .

No wonder, then, that the small screen longs for yet another chance at rebirth by way of unexpected violence; no wonder also that its truncated afterlife is available for new semiotic combinations and prosthetic symbioses of all kinds, of which the marriage to the market has been the most elegant and socially successful.

Media populism, however, suggests a deeper social determinant, at one and the same time more abstract and more concrete, and a feature of whose essential materialism can be measured by its scandalousness for the mind, which avoids it or hides it away like plumbing. (355–356)

The event of “unexpected violence” that gave the media yet another chance at rebirth was, of course, the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack — also, as media art.

A subsequent, recent work of art that recalls the 9/11 attack is (the School of the Art Institute alumnus) Paul Chan’s 2005 video installation 1st Light.

[Watch Paul Chan, 1st Light.]

The morning of the 9/11 attack, I moved through my day in a disjointed, out-of-body way, floating in an unreal reality, a timeless time, under an absolutely clear blue sky without a plane anywhere to be seen, a dream-world impelled by a real nightmare. All the while I trembled like the nervously frenetic flickering or vibrating electrical lines in the sky of Chan’s video.

Chan has described his work as “light and the lack of light — light struck through” referring to its use of silhouette imagery.[1] Chan said he was “wary” of its “hypnotic” effect (225). His interviewer, Adam Phillips, observed the paradox that viewers “looked into it as though it had tremendous depths. Which of course it does” (225). Chan commented, in response to Phillips’s question about how the “relationship between . . . political activism and art . . . would no longer be of any interest,” that those asking such questions “don’t know that they’re uncomfortable talking about art . . . because there’s no quick and easy and right solution to it” (227). But Chan concluded that art is “a shared conflict in which [he] want[s] to invest as much time as possible, because [he] [doesn’t] know what other form provides the opportunity, the challenge, to reimagine the contradictions in such a way” (227).

Chan’s piece captures well what his interviewer called the “anti-redemptive” but “gentle” trauma — of the 9/11 attack (225). Chan’s work is a good representation of us, as we are. But (how) does it present potential possibilities for how we could and indeed should be?  How, if redemption is ruled out of court, along with any notion of freedom that goes beyond “mistakes,” or the “failure” to be “like everyone else,” in which, as Chan put it, “things [can] become light. They can move in a way in which they were not originally intended to move” (224), like so much debris of a terror attack?

The question is whether and how work such as Chan’s makes available, for critique, this feeling, or merely exemplifies it, in a readily readable way, for its viewers. What is the politics of endlessly contemplating ourselves in such a suspended manner, and how could practices of art challenge such politics? | §


1. Paul Chan interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Adam Phillips, in Utopias: Whitechapel Gallery Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Richard Noble (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 224–227.

Adorno’s Leninism

Adorno’s political relevance

Chris Cutrone

Presented at Loyola University, Chicago, April 21, 2010 (audio recording), Woodlawn Collaborative, Chicago, May 8, 2010, and the Platypus Affiliated Society 2nd annual international convention, Chicago, May 29, 2010.

Adorno

Theodor W. Adorno, who was born in 1903 and lived until 1969, has a continuing purchase on problems of politics on the Left by virtue of his critical engagement with two crucial periods in the history of the Left: the 1930s “Old” Left and the 1960s “New Left.”  Adorno’s critical theory, spanning this historical interval of the mid-20th century, can help make sense of the problems of the combined and ramified legacy of both periods.

Adorno is the key thinker for understanding 20th century Marxism and its discontents. As T. J. Clark has put it (in “Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?,” 2003), Adorno “[spent a lifetime] building ever more elaborate conceptual trenches to outflank the Third International.” The period of Adorno’s life, coming of age in the 1920s, in the wake of the failed international anticapitalist revolution that had opened in Russia in 1917 and continued but was defeated in Germany, Hungary and Italy in 1919, and living through the darkest periods of fascism and war in the mid-20th century to the end of the 1960s, profoundly informed his critical theory. As he put it in the introduction to the last collection of his essays he edited for publication before he died, he sought to bring together “philosophical speculation and drastic experience.”  Adorno reflected on his “drastic” historical experience through the immanent critique, the critique from within, of Marxism. Adorno thought Marxism had failed as an emancipatory politics but still demanded redemption, and that this could be achieved only on the basis of Marxism itself. Adorno’s critical theory was a Marxist critique of Marxism, and as such reveals key aspects of Marxism that had otherwise become buried, as a function of the degenerations Marxism suffered from the 1930s through the 1960s. Several of Adorno’s writings, from the 1930s–40s and the 1960s, illustrate the abiding concerns of his critical theory throughout this period.

In the late 1920s, the director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research Max Horkheimer wrote an aphorism titled “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom” that is an excellent conspectus on the politics of Marxism.

[Read Horkheimer, “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom.”]

The “Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom” that Horkheimer calls for is the usually neglected aspect of Marxism. Marxism is usually regarded as an ideology of material redistribution or “social justice,” championing the working class and other oppressed groups, where it should be seen as a philosophy of freedom.

There is a fundamentally different problem at stake in either regarding capitalism as a materially oppressive force, as a problem of exploitation, or as a problem of human freedom. The question of freedom raises the issue of possibilities for radical social-historical transformation, which was central to Adorno’s thought. Whereas by the 1930s, with the triumph of Stalinist and social-democratic reformist politics in the workers’ movement, on the defensive against fascism, Marxism had degenerated into an ideology merely affirming the interests of the working class, Marx himself had started out with a perspective on what he called the necessity of the working class’s own self-abolition (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843).

Marx inquired into the potential overcoming of historical conditions of possibility for labor as the justification for social existence, which is how he understood capitalist society. Marx’s point was to elucidate the possibilities for overcoming labor as a social form. But Marx thought that this could only happen in and through the working class’s own political activity. How was it possible that the working class would abolish itself?

Politics not pre-figurative

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  This ethic of “pre-figuration,” the attempt to personally embody the principles of an emancipated world, was the classic expression of the moral problem of politics in service of radical social change in the 20th century. During the mid-20th century Cold War between the “liberal-democratic” West led by the United States and the Soviet Union, otherwise known as the Union of Workers’ Councils Socialist Republics, the contrasting examples of Gandhi, leader of non-violent resistance to British colonialism in India, and Lenin, leader of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and of the international Communist movement inspired by it, were widely used to pose two very different models for understanding the politics of emancipation. One was seen as ethical, remaining true to its intentions, while the other was not. Why would Adorno, like any Marxist, have chosen Lenin over Gandhi?  Adorno’s understanding of capitalism, what constituted it and what allowed it to reproduce itself as a social form, informed what he thought would be necessary, in theory and practice, to actually overcome it, in freedom.

Adorno, as a Marxist critical theorist, followed the discussion by Leon Trotsky, who had been the 26 year-old leader of the Petersburg Soviet or Workers’ Council during the 1905 Revolution in Russia, of the “pre-requisites of socialism” in his 1906 pamphlet Results and Prospects, where he wrote about the problem of achieving what he called “socialist psychology,” as follows:

Marxism converted socialism into a science, but this does not prevent some “Marxists” from converting Marxism into a Utopia. . . .

[M]any socialist ideologues (ideologues in the bad sense of the word — those who stand everything on its head) speak of preparing the proletariat for socialism in the sense of its being morally regenerated. The proletariat, and even “humanity” in general, must first of all cast out its old egoistical nature, and altruism must become predominant in social life, etc. As we are as yet far from such a state of affairs, and “human nature” changes very slowly, socialism is put off for several centuries. Such a point of view probably seems very realistic and evolutionary, and so forth, but as a matter of fact it is really nothing but shallow moralizing.

It is assumed that a socialist psychology must be developed before the coming of socialism, in other words that it is possible for the masses to acquire a socialist psychology under capitalism. One must not confuse here the conscious striving towards socialism with socialist psychology. The latter presupposes the absence of egotistical motives in economic life; whereas the striving towards socialism and the struggle for it arise from the class psychology of the proletariat. However many points of contact there may be between the class psychology of the proletariat and classless socialist psychology, nevertheless a deep chasm divides them.

The joint struggle against exploitation engenders splendid shoots of idealism, comradely solidarity and self-sacrifice, but at the same time the individual struggle for existence, the ever-yawning abyss of poverty, the differentiation in the ranks of the workers themselves, the pressure of the ignorant masses from below, and the corrupting influence of the bourgeois parties do not permit these splendid shoots to develop fully. For all that, in spite of his remaining philistinely egoistic, and without his exceeding in “human” worth the average representative of the bourgeois classes, the average worker knows from experience that his simplest requirements and natural desires can be satisfied only on the ruins of the capitalist system.

The idealists picture the distant future generation which shall have become worthy of socialism exactly as Christians picture the members of the first Christian communes.

Whatever the psychology of the first proselytes of Christianity may have been — we know from the Acts of the Apostles of cases of embezzlement of communal property — in any case, as it became more widespread, Christianity not only failed to regenerate the souls of all the people, but itself degenerated, became materialistic and bureaucratic; from the practice of fraternal teaching one of another it changed into papalism, from wandering beggary into monastic parasitism; in short, not only did Christianity fail to subject to itself the social conditions of the milieu in which it spread, but it was itself subjected by them. This did not result from the lack of ability or the greed of the fathers and teachers of Christianity, but as a consequence of the inexorable laws of the dependence of human psychology upon the conditions of social life and labour, and the fathers and teachers of Christianity showed this dependence in their own persons.

If socialism aimed at creating a new human nature within the limits of the old society it would be nothing more than a new edition of the moralistic utopias. Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a pre-requisite to socialism but at creating socialist conditions of life as a pre-requisite to socialist psychology. [Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects (1906), in The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects 3rd edition (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1969), 82, 97–99.]

In this passage, Trotsky expressed a view common to the Marxism of that era, which Adorno summed up in a 1936 letter to Walter Benjamin as follows:

[The] proletariat . . . is itself a product of bourgeois society. . . . [T]he actual consciousness of actual workers . . . [has] absolutely no advantage over the bourgeois except . . . interest in the revolution, but otherwise bear[s] all the marks of mutilation of the typical bourgeois character. . . . [W]e maintain our solidarity with the proletariat instead of making of our own necessity a virtue of the proletariat, as we are always tempted to do — the proletariat which itself experiences the same necessity and needs us for knowledge as much as we need the proletariat to make the revolution . . . a true accounting of the relationship of the intellectuals to the working class. [Letter of March 18, 1936, in Adorno, et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1980), 123–125.]

Adorno’s philosophical idea of the “non-identity” of social being and consciousness, of practice and theory, of means and ends, is related to this, what he called the priority or “preponderance” of the “object.”  Society needs to be changed before consciousness.

Adorno’s thought was preceded by Georg Lukács’s treatment of the problem of “reification,” or “reified consciousness.”  Citing Lenin, Lukács wrote, on “The Standpoint of the Proletariat,” the third section of his 1923 essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” that,

Reification is . . . the necessary, immediate reality of every person living in capitalist society. It can be overcome only by constant and constantly renewed efforts to disrupt the reified structure of existence by concretely relating to the concretely manifested contradictions of the total development, by becoming conscious of the immanent meanings of these contradictions for the total development. But it must be emphasised that . . . the structure can be disrupted only if the immanent contradictions of the process are made conscious. Only when the consciousness of the proletariat is able to point out the road along which the dialectics of history is objectively impelled, but which it cannot travel unaided, will the consciousness of the proletariat awaken to a consciousness of the process, and only then will the proletariat become the identical subject-object of history whose praxis will change reality. If the proletariat fails to take this step the contradiction will remain unresolved and will be reproduced by the dialectical mechanics of history at a higher level, in an altered form and with increased intensity. It is in this that the objective necessity of history consists. The deed of the proletariat can never be more than to take the next step in the process. Whether it is “decisive” or “episodic” depends on the concrete circumstances [of this on-going struggle.]  [Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 197–198.]

Lukács thought that,

Lenin’s achievement is that he rediscovered this side of Marxism that points the way to an understanding of its practical core. His constantly reiterated warning to seize the “next link” in the chain with all one’s might, that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment, his dismissal of all utopian demands, i.e. his “relativism” and his “Realpolitik:” all these things are nothing less than the practical realisation of the young Marx’s [1845] Theses on Feuerbach. (Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 221n60)

In his third “Thesis” on Feuerbach, Marx wrote that,

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice. [Robert C, Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd edition (New York: Norton, 1978), 144.]

So, what, for Adorno, counted as “revolutionary practice,” and what is the role of “critical theory,” and, hence, the role of Marxist “intellectuals,” in relation to this?

The politics of critical theory

In his 1936 letter to Benjamin, Adorno pointed out that,

[I]f [one] legitimately interpret[s] technical progress and alienation in a dialectical fashion, without doing the same in equal measure for the world of objectified subjectivity . . . then the political effect of this is to credit the proletariat directly with an achievement which, according to Lenin, it can only accomplish through the theory introduced by intellectuals as dialectical subjects. . . . “Les extrèmes me touchent [“The extremes touch me” (André Gide)] . . . but only if the dialectic of the lowest has the same value as the dialectic of the highest. . . . Both bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change. . . . Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up. It would be romantic to sacrifice one to the other . . . [as] with that romantic anarchism which places blind trust in the spontaneous powers of the proletariat within the historical process — a proletariat which is itself a product of bourgeois society. [Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence 1928–40, ed. Henri Lonitz, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 129–130.]

This conception of the dialectic of the “extremes” was developed by Adorno in two writings of the 1940s, “Reflections on Class Theory,” and “Imaginative Excesses.”  In these writings, Adorno drew upon not only Marx and the best in the history of Marxist politics, but also the critical-theoretical digestion of this politics by Lukács.

In his 1920 essay on “Class Consciousness,” Lukács wrote that,

Only the consciousness of the proletariat can point to the way that leads out of the impasse of capitalism. As long as this consciousness is lacking, the crisis remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. But the proletariat is not given any choice. As Marx says, it must become a class not only “as against capital” but also “for itself;” that is to say, the class struggle must be raised from the level of economic necessity to the level of conscious aim and effective class consciousness. The pacifists and humanitarians of the class struggle whose efforts tend whether they will or no to retard this lengthy, painful and crisis-ridden process would be horrified if they could but see what sufferings they inflict on the proletariat by extending this course of education. But the proletariat cannot abdicate its mission. The only question at issue is how much it has to suffer before it achieves ideological maturity, before it acquires a true understanding of its class situation and a true class consciousness.

Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society. As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. This mode of existence is inhumanity and reification. No doubt the very existence of the proletariat implies criticism and the negation of this form of life. But until the objective crisis of capitalism has matured and until the proletariat has achieved true class consciousness, and the ability to understand the crisis fully, it cannot go beyond the criticism of reification and so it is only negatively superior to its antagonist. . . . Indeed, if it can do no more than negate some aspects of capitalism, if it cannot at least aspire to a critique of the whole, then it will not even achieve a negative superiority. . . .

The reified consciousness must also remain hopelessly trapped in the two extremes of crude empiricism and abstract utopianism. In the one case, consciousness becomes either a completely passive observer moving in obedience to laws which it can never control. In the other it regards itself as a power which is able of its own — subjective — volition to master the essentially meaningless motion of objects. (Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 76–77)

In “The Standpoint of the Proletariat,” Lukács elaborated further that,

[T]here arises what at first sight seems to be the paradoxical situation that this projected, mythological world [of capital] seems closer to consciousness than does the immediate reality. But the paradox dissolves as soon as we remind ourselves that we must abandon the standpoint of immediacy and solve the problem if immediate reality is to be mastered in truth. Whereas[,] mythology is simply the reproduction in imagination of the problem in its insolubility. Thus immediacy is merely reinstated on a higher level. . . .

Of course, [the alternative of] “indeterminism” does not lead to a way out of the difficulty for the individual. . . . [It is] nothing but the acquisition of that margin of “freedom” that the conflicting claims and irrationality of the reified laws can offer the individual in capitalist society. It ultimately turns into a mystique of intuition which leaves the fatalism of the external reified world even more intact than before[,] [despite having] rebelled in the name of “humanism” against the tyranny of the “law.” . . .

Even worse, having failed to perceive that man in his negative immediacy was a moment in a dialectical process, such a philosophy, when consciously directed toward the restructuring of society, is forced to distort the social reality in order to discover the positive side, man as he exists, in one of its manifestations. . . . In support of this we may cite as a typical illustration the well-known passage [from Marx’s great adversary, the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle]: “There is no social way that leads out of this social situation. The vain efforts of things to behave like human beings can be seen in the English [labor] strikes whose melancholy outcome is familiar enough. The only way out for the workers is to be found in that sphere within which they can still be human beings . . . .”

[I]t is important to establish that the abstract and absolute separation[,] . . . the rigid division between man as thing, on the one hand, and man as man, on the other, is not without consequences. . . . [T]his means that every path leading to a change in this reality is systematically blocked.

This disintegration of a dialectical, practical unity into an inorganic aggregate of the empirical and the utopian, a clinging to the “facts” (in their untranscended immediacy) and a faith in illusions[,] as alien to the past as to the present[,] is characteristic. . . .

The danger to which the proletariat has been exposed since its appearance on the historical stage was that it might remain imprisoned in its immediacy together with the bourgeoisie. (Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 194–196)

In “Reflections on Class Theory,” Adorno provided a striking re-interpretation of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto as a theory of emancipation from history:

According to [Marxian] theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the [historical] emergence of the proletariat. . . . By extending the concept of class to prehistory, theory denounces not just the bourgeois . . . [but] turns against prehistory itself. . . . By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, [the critique of] political economy became the critique of history as a whole. . . . All history is the history of class struggles because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory. . . . This means, however, that the dehumanization is also its opposite. . . . Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power. [Theodor W. Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory” (1942), in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 93–110.]

Adorno elaborated this further in the aphorism “Imaginative Excesses,” which was orphaned from the published version of Adorno’s book Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1944–47). Adorno wrote that,

Those schooled in dialectical theory are reluctant to indulge in positive images of the proper society, of its members, even of those who would accomplish it. . . . The leap into the future, clean over the conditions of the present, lands in the past. In other words: ends and means cannot be formulated in isolation from each other. Dialectics will have no truck with the maxim that the former justify the latter, no matter how close it seems to come to the doctrine of the ruse of reason or, for that matter, the subordination of individual spontaneity to party discipline. The belief that the blind play of means could be summarily displaced by the sovereignty of rational ends was bourgeois utopianism. It is the antithesis of means and ends itself that should be criticized. Both are reified in bourgeois thinking. . . . [Their] petrified antithesis holds good for the world that produced it, but not for the effort to change it. Solidarity can call on us to subordinate not only individual interests but even our better insight. . . . Hence the precariousness of any statement about those on whom the transformation depends. . . . The dissident wholly governed by the end is today in any case so thoroughly despised by friend and foe as an “idealist” and daydreamer. . . . Certainly, however, no more faith can be placed in those equated with the means; the subjectless beings whom historical wrong has robbed of the strength to right it, adapted to technology and unemployment, conforming and squalid, hard to distinguish from the wind-jackets of fascism: their actual state disclaims the idea that puts its trust in them. Both types are theatre masks of class society projected on to the night-sky of the future . . . on one hand the abstract rigorist, helplessly striving to realize chimeras, and on the other the subhuman creature who as dishonour’s progeny shall never be allowed to avert it.

What the rescuers would be like cannot be prophesied without obscuring their image with falsehood. . . . What can be perceived, however, is what they will not be like: neither personalities nor bundles of reflexes, but least of all a synthesis of the two, hardboiled realists with a sense of higher things. When the constitution of human beings has grown adapted to social antagonisms heightened to the extreme, the humane constitution sufficient to hold antagonism in check will be mediated by the extremes, not an average mingling of the two. The bearers of technical progress, now still mechanized mechanics, will, in evolving their special abilities, reach the point already indicated by technology where specialization grows superfluous. Once their consciousness has been converted into pure means without any qualification, it may cease to be a means and breach, with its attachment to particular objects, the last heteronomous barrier; its last entrapment in the existing state, the last fetishism of the status quo, including that of its own self, which is dissolved in its radical implementation as an instrument. Drawing breath at last, it may grow aware of the incongruence between its rational development and the irrationality of its ends, and act accordingly.

At the same time, however, the producers are more than ever thrown back on theory, to which the idea of a just condition evolves in their own medium, self-consistent thought, by virtue of insistent self-criticism. The class division of society is also maintained by those who oppose class society: following the schematic division of physical and mental labour, they split themselves up into workers and intellectuals. This division cripples the practice which is called for. It cannot be arbitrarily set aside. But while those professionally concerned with things of the mind are themselves turned more and more into technicians, the growing opacity of capitalist mass society makes an association between intellectuals who still are such, with workers who still know themselves to be such, more timely than thirty years ago [at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution]. . . . Today, when the concept of the proletariat, unshaken in its economic essence, is so occluded by technology that in the greatest industrial country [the United States of America] there can be no question of proletarian class-consciousness, the role of intellectuals would no longer be to alert the torpid to their most obvious interests, but to strip the veil from the eyes of the wise-guys, the illusion that capitalism, which makes them its temporary beneficiaries, is based on anything other than their exploitation and oppression. The deluded workers are directly dependent on those who can still just see and tell of their delusion. Their hatred of intellectuals has changed accordingly. It has aligned itself to the prevailing commonsense views. The masses no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals. Only if the extremes come together will humanity survive. [Theodor W. Adorno, “Messages in a Bottle,” New Left Review I/200 (July–August 1993), 12–14.]

The problem of means and ends

A principal trope Stalinophobic Cold War liberalism in the 20th century was the idea that Bolshevism thought that the “ends justify the means,” in some Machiavellian manner, that Leninists were willing to do anything to achieve socialism. This made a mockery not only of the realties of socialist politics up to that time, but also of the self-conscious relation within Marxism itself between theory and practice, what came to be known as “alienation.”  Instead, Marxism became an example for the liberal caveat, supposedly according to Kant, that something “may be true in theory but not in practice.”  Marxist politics had historically succumbed to the theory-practice problem, but that does not mean that Marxists had been unaware of this problem, nor that Marxist theory had not developed a self-understanding of what it means to inhabit and work through this problem.

As Adorno put it 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. [Adorno, Negative Dialectics (1966), trans. E. B. Ashton (Continuum: New York, 1983), 143–144.]

What this meant for Adorno is that past emancipatory politics could not be superseded or rendered irrelevant the degree to which they remained unfulfilled. A task could be forgotten but it would continue to task the present. This means an inevitable return to it. The most broad-gauged question raised by this approach is the degree to which we may still live under capital in the way Marx understood it. If Marx’s work is still able to provoke critical recognition of our present realities, then we are tasked to grasp the ways it continues to do so. This is not merely a matter of theoretical “analysis,” however, but also raises issues of practical politics. This means inquiring into the ways Marx understood the relation of theory and practice, most especially his own. Adorno thought that this was not a matter of simply emulating Marx’s political practice or theoretical perspectives, but rather trying to grasp the relation of theory and practice under changed conditions.

This articulated non-identity, antagonism and even contradiction of theory and practice, observable in the history of Marxism most of all, was not taken to be defeating for Adorno, but was in fact precisely where Marxism pointed acutely to the problem of freedom in capital, and how it might be possible to transform and transcend it. Adorno put it this way, in a late, posthumously published essay from 1969, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” inspired by his conflicts with both student activists and his old friend and colleague Herbert Marcuse, who he thought had regressed to a Romantic rejection of capital:

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. [Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (1969), in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 266.]

As Adorno put it in a [May 5, 1969] letter to Marcuse,

[T]here are moments in which theory is pushed on further by practice. But such a situation neither exists objectively today, nor does the barren and brutal practicism that confronts us here have the slightest thing to do with theory anyhow. [Adorno and Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” trans. Esther Leslie, New Left Review I/233, Jan.–Feb. 1999, 127.]

In his final published essay, “Resignation” (1969), which became a kind of testament, Adorno pointed out that,

Even political undertakings can sink into pseudo-activities, into theater. It is no coincidence that the ideals of immediate action, even the propaganda of the [deed], have been resurrected after the willing integration of formerly progressive organizations that now in all countries of the earth are developing the characteristic traits of what they once opposed. Yet this does not invalidate the [Marxist] critique of anarchism. Its return is that of a ghost. The impatience with [Marxian] theory that manifests itself with its return does not advance thought beyond itself. By forgetting thought, the impatience falls back below it. [Adorno, “Resignation,” (1969), in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 292.]

This is almost a direct paraphrase of Lenin, who wrote in his 1920 pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder that,

[D]riven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism . . . anarchism is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another — all this is common knowledge. . . .

Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other. [Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology (New York: Norton, 1975), 559–560.]

Adorno paralleled Lenin’s discussion of the “phantasms” of non-Marxian socialism, and defense of a Marxist approach, stating that, “Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant the pseudo-reality within which actionism moves.”  Immediately prior to Adorno’s comment on anarchism, he discussed the antinomy of spontaneity and organization, as follows,

Pseudo-activity is generally the attempt to rescue enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thoroughly mediated and rigidified society. Such attempts are rationalized by saying that the small change is one step in the long path toward the transformation of the whole. The disastrous model of pseudo-activity is the “do-it-yourself.” . . . The do-it-yourself approach in politics is not completely of the same caliber [as the quasi-rational purpose of inspiring in the unfree individuals, paralyzed in their spontaneity, the assurance that everything depends on them]. The society that impenetrably confronts people is nonetheless these very people. The trust in the limited action of small groups recalls the spontaneity that withers beneath the encrusted totality and without which this totality cannot become something different. The administered world has the tendency to strangle all spontaneity, or at least to channel it into pseudo-activities. At least this does not function as smoothly as the agents of the administered world would hope. However, spontaneity should not be absolutized, just as little as it should be split off from the objective situation or idolized the way the administered world itself is. (Adorno, “Resignation,” Critical Models, 291–292)

Adorno’s poignant defense of Marxism was expressed most pithily in the final lines with which his “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” concludes, that,

Marx by no means surrendered himself to praxis. 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 it being criticized. . . . This admixture of delusion, however, warns of the excesses in which it incessantly grows. (Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” Critical Models, 278)

Marxism is both true and untrue; the question is how one recognizes its truth and untruth, and the necessity — the inevitability — of its being both.

Adorno acknowledged his indebtedness to the best of historical Marxism when he wrote that,

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. [Adorno, “Sexual Taboos and the Law Today” (1963), in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 71.]

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