Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today

Chris Cutrone

First presented at Ramón Miranda Beltrán’s art exhibit Chicago is my kind of town, Julius Caesar Gallery, Chicago, November 4, 2012. [PDF]

FOR MARXISTS, the division of modern socioeconomic classes is not the cause of the problem of capitalism but rather its effect.

Modern classes are different from ancient separations between castes, such as between the clergy or priestly caste, and the noble aristocracy or warrior caste, and the vast majority of people, “commoners,” or those who were ignorant of divinity and without honor, who, for most of history, were peasants living through subsistence agriculture, a mute background of the pageantry of the ancient world.

Modern, “bourgeois” society, or the society of the modern city, is the product of the revolt of the Third Estate, or commoners, who had no property other than that of their labor: “self-made” men. During the French Revolution, the Third Estate separated itself from the other Estates of the clergy and aristocracy, and declared itself the National Assembly, with the famous Tennis Court Oath. This fulfilled the call of the Abbé Sieyès, who had declared in his revolutionary pamphlet What is the Third Estate?, that while under the ancien régime the Third Estate had been “nothing,” now it would be “everything.”

As the 20th century Marxist Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno put it, “society is a concept of the Third Estate.” What he meant by this was that unlike the previous, ancient civilization in which people were divinely ordered in a Great Chain of Being, the Third Estate put forward the idea that people would relate to one another. They would do so on the basis of their “work,” or their activity in society, which would find purchase not in a strict hierarchy of traditional values, but rather through a “free market” of goods. People would be free to find their own values in society.

Modern society is thus the society of the Third Estate, after the overthrow of the traditional authority of the Church and the feudal aristocrats. Modern, bourgeois society is based on the values of the Third Estate, which center on the values of work. The highest values of modern society are not religion or the honor of a warrior code, but rather material productivity and efficiency, being a “productive member of society.” From this perspective, the perspective of modern bourgeois society, all of history appears to be the history of different, progressively developing “modes of production,” of which capitalism is the latest and highest. The past becomes a time of people toiling in ignorance and superstition, held back by conservative customs and arrogant elites from realizing their potential productivity and ingenuity. The paradigmatic image of this state of affairs is Galileo being forced to recant his scientific insight under threat by the Church.

With the successful revolt of the Third Estate it appeared that humanity attained its “natural” condition of Enlightenment, in relation both to the natural world and in humans’ relations with each other. Seemingly unlimited possibilities opened up, and the Dark Ages were finally brought to an end.

With the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th to early 19th centuries, however, a new “contradiction” developed in bourgeois society, that of the value of capital versus the value of the wages of labor. With this contradiction came a new social and political conflict, the “class struggle” of the workers for the value of their wages against the capitalists’ imperative to preserve and expand the value of capital. This came to a certain head in the 1840s, known at the time as the “hungry ’40s,” the first world-wide economic crisis after the Industrial Revolution, which seemed to go beyond a mere adjustment of the market, but pointed to new and deeper problems.

This new conflict between the workers and capitalists that raged in the mid-19th century was expressed in the desire for “socialism,” or of society becoming true to itself, and the value of the contributions of all society’s members being recognized and their being allowed to participate fully in the development and political direction of humanity. This was expressed in the Revolutions of 1848, the “Spring of the Nations” in Europe that resulted from the crisis of the 1840s, which called for the “social republic” or “social democracy,” that is, democracy adequate to the needs of society as a whole.

For the socialists of the time, the crisis of the 1840s and revolutions of 1848 demonstrated the need and possibility for getting beyond capitalism.

In late 1847, two young bohemian intellectuals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, were commissioned by the Communist League to write a manifesto ahead of the potential revolutions that appeared on the horizon. Issued mere days ahead of the revolutions of 1848, the Communist Manifesto was a survey of the contradictory and paradoxical situation of modern society, its simultaneous radical possibilities and self-destructive tendencies in capitalism.

For Marx and Engels, as good followers of Hegel’s dialectic of history, the phenomenon of contradiction was the appearance of the possibility and necessity for change.

Marx and Engels could be confident of the apparent, manifest crisis of modern society and the need for radical change emerging in their time. They were not the originators of socialism or communism but rather tried to sum up the historical experience of the struggle for socialism in their time. They did not seek to tell the workers their interest in overcoming capitalism, but rather tried to help clarify the workers’ own consciousness of their historical situation, the crisis of bourgeois society in capital.

What Marx and Engels recognized that perhaps distinguished them from other socialists, however, was the utterly unique character of the modern, post-Industrial Revolution working class. What made the modern working class, or “industrial proletariat” different was its subjection to mass unemployment. Marx and Engels understood this unemployment to be not a temporary, contingent phenomenon due to market fluctuations or technical innovations putting people out of work, but rather a permanent feature of modern society after the Industrial Revolution, in which preserving the value of capital was in conflict with the value of workers’ wages. Unlike Adam Smith in the pre-industrial era, who observed that higher wages and lower profits increased productivity in society as a whole, after the Industrial Revolution, increased productivity was not due to workers’ greater efficiency but rather that of machines. This meant, as the director of the Marxist Frankfurt Institute for Social Research Max Horkheimer put it, that “machines made not work but the workers superfluous.”

On a global scale, greater productivity increased not employment and wealth but rather unemployment and impoverishment, as capitalism destroyed traditional ways of life (for instance of the peasants) but failed to be able to provide meaningful productive employment and thus participation in society for all, as originally envisioned in the revolt of the Third Estate and promised in the bourgeois revolution against the hierarchy of the ancien régime. The promise of the modern city is mocked by the mushrooming of slum cities around the world. The old world has been destroyed but the new one is hardly better. The promise of freedom is cruelly exploited, but its hope dashed.

Marxists were the first, and have remained the most consistent in recognizing the nature and character of this contradiction of modern society.

The difference between Marx’s time and ours is not in the essential problem of society, its self-contradictory form of value between wages and capital, but rather in the social and political conflicts, which no longer take the form primarily, as in Marx’s time, of the “class struggle” between workers and capitalists. “Class” has become a passive, objective category, rather than an active, subjective one, as it had been in Marx’s day and in the time of historical Marxism. What Marxists once meant by “class consciousness” is no more.

This lends a certain melancholy to the experience of “class” today. Privilege and disadvantage alike seem arbitrary and accidental, not an expression of the supposed worth of people’s roles in society but only of their luck, good or bad fortune. It becomes impossible to derive a politics from class position, and so other politics take its place. Conflicts of culture, ethnicity and religion replace the struggle over capitalism. Impoverished workers attack not orders whose privileges are dubious in the extreme, but rather each other in communal hatred. Consciousness of common class situation seems completely obscured and erased.

Not as Marx foresaw, workers with nothing to lose but their chains, but the unemployed masses wield their chains as weapons against each other. Meanwhile, in the background, underlying and overarching everything, capitalism continues. But it is no longer recognized. This is not surprising, however, since proper recognition of the problem could only come from practically engaging it as such. The issue is why it seems so undesirable to do so, today. Why have people stopped struggling for socialism?

We hear that we are in the midst of a deepening economic and social crisis, the greatest since the Great Depression of the early 20th century. But we do not see a political crisis of the same order of magnitude. It is not, as in the 1930s, when communism and fascism challenged capitalism from the Left and the Right, forcing massive social reform and political change.

This is because the idea of socialism — the idea of society being true to itself — has been disenchanted. With it has gone the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists that sought to realize the promise of freedom in modern society. It has been replaced with competing notions of social justice that borrow from ancient values. But since the sources of such ancient values, for instance religions, are in conflict, this struggle for justice points not to the transformation of society as a whole, but rather its devolution into competing values of different “cultures.” Today in the U.S., it seems to matter more whether one lives in a “red or blue state,” or what one’s “race, gender, and sexuality” are, than if one is a worker or a capitalist — whatever that might mean. Cultural affinities seem to matter more than socioeconomic interests, as the latter burn. People cling to their chains, as the only things that they know. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 51 (November 2012). Re-published by Heathwood Institute, and Philosophers for Change.

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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Global rut

RT show CrossTalk hosted by Peter Lavelle on “Global rut:” “The IMF has released a report that predicts the hoped-for global economic growth is again endangered. Why is this happening? Why has the Great Recession come back so early? Did it ever end? Has austerity made things worse? And is there a way to avoid the ‘fiscal cliff’ issue in Washington? CrossTalking with Seijiro Takeshita (Mizuho International, London), Martin Hennecke (Tyche Group, Hong Kong) and Chris Cutrone (School of the Art Institute of Chicago).” The impasse of policy, stimulus vs. austerity, and the question of different models for capitalism and the need for socialism.

On Horkheimer and Adorno’s Marxism in 1956

Marxism became a “message in a bottle” — can we yet receive it?

Response to Todd Cronan’s review of Towards a New Manifesto

Chris Cutrone

The first version of the following essay is available here. Posted on Facebook August 11, 2012.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1956 conversation took place in the aftermath of the Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin. This event signaled a possible political opening, not in the Soviet Union so much as for the international Left. Horkheimer and Adorno recognized the potential of the Communist Parties in France and Italy, paralleling Marcuse’s estimation in his 1947 “33 Theses”:

The development [of history since Marx] has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties of today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. . . . The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory within the communist parties and working for the praxis appropriate to it. The task seems impossible today. But perhaps the relative independence from Soviet dictates, which this task demands, is present as a possibility in Western Europe’s . . . communist parties.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation in Towards a New Manifesto was part of a greater crisis of Communism (uprising in Hungary, emergence of the post-colonial Non-Aligned Movement, split between the USSR and Communist China) that gave rise to the New Left. Verso’s title was not misleading: this was the time of the founding of New Left Review, to which C. Wright Mills wrote his famous “Letter to the New Left” (1960), calling for greater attention to the role of intellectuals in social-political transformation.

As Adorno put the matter, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin.” Horkheimer responded laconically, “Who would not subscribe to that?” (103). It is necessary to understand what such statements took for granted.

The emphasis on Marxism as an account of “exploitation,” rather than of social-historical domination, is mistaken. Marx called “capital” the domination of society by an alienated historical dynamic of value-production (M–C–M' [Money–Commodity–Money]). At stake here is the proletarianization of bourgeois society after the Industrial Revolution, or, as Lukács put it in History and Class Consciousness (1923), how the fate of the workers becomes that of society as a whole. This went back to Marx and Engels in the 1840s: Engels had written a precursor to the Communist Manifesto, a “Credo” (1847), in which he pointed out that the proletariat, the working class after the Industrial Revolution, was unlike any other exploited group in history, in both its social being and consciousness. The danger was that the working class would mistake their post-Industrial Revolution condition for that of pre-industrial bourgeois society, with its ethos of work. As the Abbé Sieyès had put it, in his 1789 revolutionary pamphlet What is the Third Estate?, while the Church’s First Estate with its property of communion with Divinity “prays,” and the aristocratic Second Estate with its property of honor in noble chivalry “fights,” the commoner Third Estate “works,” with no property other than that of labor. Bourgeois society was the result of the revolt of the Third Estate. But the separate classes of increasing numbers of workers and ever fewer capitalists were the products of the division of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution, over the value of the property of labor, between wages and capital. This was, according to Marx, the “crisis” of bourgeois society in capital, recurrent since the 1840s.

At issue is the “bourgeois ideology” of the “fetish character of the commodity,” or, how the working class misrecognized the reasons for its condition, blaming this on exploitation by the capitalists rather than the historical undermining of the social value of labor. As Marx explained in Capital (1867), the workers exchanged, not the products of their work as with the labor of artisans, but rather their time, the accumulated value of which is capital, the means of production that was the private property of the capitalists. But for Marx the capitalists were the “character-masks of capital,” agents of the greater social imperative to produce and accumulate value, where the source of that value in the exchange of labor-time was being undermined and destroyed. As Horkheimer stated it in “The Authoritarian State” (1940), the Industrial Revolution made “not work but the workers superfluous.” The question was, how had history changed since the earlier moment of bourgeois society (Adam Smith’s time of “manufacture”) with respect to labor and value?

Adorno’s affirmation of Lenin on subjectivity was driven by his account of the deepening problems of capitalism in the 20th century, in which the historical development of the workers’ movement was bound up. Adorno did not think that the workers were no longer exploited. See Adorno’s 1942 essay “Reflections on Class Theory” and his 1968 speech “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” which he published in the U.S. under the title “Is Marx Obsolete?” In “Reflections on Class Theory,” Adorno pointed out that Marx and Engels’s assertion that the entire history of civilization was one of “class struggles” was actually a critique of history as a whole; that the dialectic of history in capital was one of unfreedom; and that only the complete dehumanization of labor was potentially its opposite, the liberation from work. “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” pointed out that the workers were not paid a share of the economic value of their labor, which Marx had recognized in post-Industrial Revolution capitalism was infinitesimal, but rather their wages were a cut of the profits of capital, granted to them for political reasons, to prevent revolution. The ramifications of this process were those addressed by the split in the socialist workers’ movement — in Marxism itself — that Lenin represented.

The crisis of Marxism was grasped by the Frankfurt School in its formative moment of the 1920s. In “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom” (in Dämmerung, 1926–31) Horkheimer explained how the “present lack of freedom does not apply equally to all. An element of freedom exists when the product is consonant with the interest of the producer. All those who work, and even those who don’t, have a share in the creation of contemporary reality.” This followed Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which prominently quoted Marx and Engels from The Holy Family (1845):

The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.

And the necessary corrective was not the feeling of this oppression, but the theoretical and practical consciousness of the historical potential for the transformation of “bourgeois social relations,” at a global scale: “Workers of the world, unite!” This could only take place through the growth and greater accumulated historical self-awareness of the workers’ movement for socialism. But the growth of the workers’ movement had resulted in the crisis of socialism, its division into revolutionary Communism and reformist Social Democracy in WWI and the revolutions that followed (in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy). Reformist Social Democracy had succumbed to the “reification” of bourgeois ideology in seeking to preserve the workers’ interests, and had become the counterrevolutionary bulwark of continued capitalism in the post-WWI world. There was a civil war in Marxism. The question was the revolutionary necessity and possibility of Communism that Lenin expressed in the October 1917 Revolution that was meant to be the beginning of global revolution. Similarly, for the Frankfurt School, the Stalinism that developed in the wake of failed world revolution, was, contrary to Lenin, the reification of “Marxism” itself, now become barbarized bourgeois ideology, the affirmation of work, rather than its dialectical Aufhebung (negation and transcendence through fulfillment and completion).

To put it in Lenin’s terms, from What is to be Done? (1902), there are two “dialectically” interrelated — potentially contradictory — levels of consciousness, the workers’ “trade union” consciousness, which remains within the horizon of capitalism, and their “class consciousness,” which reveals the world-historical potential beyond capitalism. The latter, the “Hegelian” critical self-recognition of the workers’ class struggle, was the substance of Marxism: the critique of communism as the “real movement of history.” As Marx put it in his celebrated 1843 letter to Ruge, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction . . . infected by its opposite, private property.” And, in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx stated unequivocally that,

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, 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.

For Marx, communism demanded an “immanent critique” according to its “dialectical” contradictions, heightened to adequate historical self-awareness.

The issue is the potential abolition of wage-labor by the wage-laborers, the overcoming of the social principle of work by the workers. Marx’s “Hegelian” question was, how had history made this possible, in theory and practice?

While Horkheimer and Adorno’s historical moment was not the same as Marx’s or Lenin’s, this does not mean that they abandoned Marxism, but rather that Marxism, in its degeneration, had abandoned them. The experience of Communism in the 1930s was the purge of intellectuals. So the question was the potential continued critical role of theory: how to follow Lenin? In “Imaginative Excesses” (orphaned from Minima Moralia 1944–47 — the same time as the writing of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment), Adorno argued that the workers “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.”

Adorno and Horkheimer are thus potentially helpful for recovering the true spirit of Marxism. Their work expresses what has become obscure or esoteric about Marxism. This invites a blaming of their work as culpable, instead of recognizing the unfolding of history they described that had made Marxism potentially irrelevant, a “message in a bottle” they hoped could still yet be received. It is unfortunate if their conversation isn’t. | §

Originally published at nonsite.org [PDF] September 17, 2012.

On Horkheimer and Adorno’s Marxism in 1956 (first version)

Marxism became a “message in a bottle” — can we yet receive it?

Response to Todd Cronan’s review of Towards a New Manifesto

Chris Cutrone

Adorno and Horkheimer’s conversation in 1956 and its potential relevance today were written about recently by Micha Brumlik in the German daily taz (see “Adorno, Lenin und das Schnabeltier,” July 3, 2012, available online at <http://taz.de/Kolumne-Gott-und-die-Welt/!96574/>). An occasion for Brumlik’s article was the meeting of a study circle in Hamburg on the question of Adorno’s relation to Lenin. Was this “absurd?” Brumlik thought not.

Brumlik asked: Are Adorno’s writings consistent and coherent? (Or, is Adorno’s stated affinity for Lenin, for example, as incidental and inessential as Brumlik considers Adorno’s condemnation of jazz?) Does Frankfurt School Critical Theory offer a meaningful political perspective? Can “going back” to Marxism be a way of moving forward? Can a last exponent of the old such as Adorno be a precursor for the new? While Brumlik remained skeptical, equivocal and even ironical in his approach to Adorno, especially regarding Adorno’s “Leninism,” still, he recognized the issue well enough.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1956 conversation took place in the aftermath of the Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin and how this signaled a possible political opening, not so much in the Soviet Union but for the international Left. Horkheimer and Adorno noted the potential in particular of the Communist Parties in France and Italy, paralleling Marcuse’s estimation in his 1947 “33 Theses” (translated by Horkheimer scholar John Abromeit and published in Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, ed. Douglas Kellner, vol. 1: Technology, War, Fascism [Routledge, 1998], 215–227), which concluded that,

The development [of history since Marx’s time] has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties of today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. . . . The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory within the communist parties and working for the praxis appropriate to it. The task seems impossible today. But perhaps the relative independence from Soviet dictates, which this task demands, is present as a possibility in Western Europe’s . . . communist parties.

In this sense, Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation was part of the moment that gave rise to the subsequent New Left in the 1960s. Their 1956 conversation did not demonstrate their abandonment but rather their — especially Adorno’s — continued adherence to Marxism. Otherwise, why would the occasion for their conversation in 1956 have been, as it was, the prospect of re-writing Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto for the 20th century? Verso’s title is not misleading. Their conversation took place in the same historical circumstances as those of the founding of, for example, New Left Review.

As Adorno put it in his conversation with Horkheimer, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin.” Horkheimer responded laconically, “Who would not subscribe to that?” (103). It is necessary to understand what such statements took for granted.

I have made my argument regarding Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation at a forum of the Platypus Affiliated Society last year, on a panel with Andrew Feenberg, Richard Westerman and Nicholas Brown on “The politics of Critical Theory” (available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2011/07/09/the-politics-of-critical-theory/#cutrone>). The obscurity of Adorno’s avowed “Leninism” points not to problems of Adorno’s thought, but rather to how Marxism became esoteric — obscured by history. The question is the potential basis in Frankfurt School Critical Theory for the recovery of Marxism. But then it is necessary to recognize the actual stakes of their politics.

The emphasis on Marxism as an account of “exploitation,” rather than of social-historical domination — the domination of society by an alienated historical dynamic (see Moishe Postone’s interpretation of Marx in Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 2003) — is mistaken. Marxists of the early–mid 20th century such as those of the Frankfurt School had a term for such a misapprehension: “vulgar Marxism.”

Such misunderstanding distorts not only the basis for judging Horkheimer and Adorno’s concerns in 1956, but also those of Marx and of subsequent Marxists such as Lenin. The issue is the proletarianization of bourgeois society after the Industrial Revolution, or, as Lukács put it in History and Class Consciousness (1923), how the fate of the workers becomes that of society as a whole. Lukács took this perspective not only from Marx but also from Lenin — as did Adorno and Horkheimer and their colleagues such as Marcuse as well. Lukács’s term for “vulgar Marxism” was the “reification” of “immediacy.” The answer for this was in recognizing the effect of “historical mediation.” The workers’ movement for socialism emerging in the 19th century itself required critical recognition of its actual historical stakes. This was Marx and Marxism’s point of departure.

At issue is the “fetish character of the commodity,” or, how the workers misrecognized the reasons for their condition, blaming it on their exploitation by the capitalists rather than the historical undermining of the social value of labor. For Marx the capitalists were the mere “character-masks of capital,” agents of the greater social imperative to produce value, where the source of that value in the exchange of labor was being undermined and destroyed. As Horkheimer stated it pithily, in his 1940 essay (written in honor of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”), “The Authoritarian State,” the Industrial Revolution made “not work but the workers superfluous,” impacting their social and political consciousness. How had history changed, with respect to labor and value?

Adorno’s dispute of Marx and his praising of Lenin on subjectivity need to be understood, not as some perverse Leninist anti-Marx-ism, but rather as a recognition of the deepening of the problem of capitalism in the 20th century. Adorno did not think that the workers were no longer exploited. See Adorno’s 1942 essay “Reflections on Class Theory” (also written in honor of Benjamin), and his 1968 speech “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” which he published in the U.S. under the title “Is Marx Obsolete?” — to which his answer was “no.” The issue of capitalism does not stop at the exploitation of the workers. This is what makes Marxist approaches potentially relevant, even today.

As Horkheimer phrased this, in his aphorism “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom” from Dämmerung, popularizing themes from Lukács, “Of course the present lack of freedom does not apply equally to all. An element of freedom exists when the product is consonant with the interest of the producer. All those who work, and even those who don’t, have a share in the creation of contemporary reality.” As Lukács quoted Marx and Engels from The Holy Family (1845),

The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.

But the feeling of oppression is not the antidote to such universal “self-alienation.” Rather, what was necessary was the theoretical and practical consciousness of the historical potential for the transformation of “bourgeois social relations,” at a global scale: “Workers of the world, unite!”

To put it in Lenin’s “orthodox Marxist” terms, from What is to be Done? (1902), there are two “dialectically” interrelated — potentially contradictory — levels of consciousness, the workers’ “trade union” consciousness, which remains within the horizon of capitalism, and their “class consciousness,” which reveals the world-historical potential beyond capitalism. The latter, the critical self-recognition of the workers’ class struggle, was the substance of Marxism: the critique of communism as the “real movement of history.” As Marx put it in his celebrated 1843 letter to Ruge, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction . . . infected by its opposite, private property.” And, in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx stated unequivocally that,

Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, 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.

Rather, as Marx and Engels put it in their 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, the actual goal was a society “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” How had history made this possible?

To put it in Hegelian terms, for Marx and subsequent Marxists “class consciousness” is the historical self-consciousness and recognition of the “actuality” or historical potential and possibility of the workers’ “class struggle” against the capitalists, and how this points beyond capitalism, but is otherwise part of the dynamic of capitalism, perpetuating it. Capital’s alienated and destructive historical dynamic is reproduced by the social activity of the exchange of labor as a commodity, the form of solidarity in bourgeois society, which, after the Industrial Revolution, undermines itself in self-contradiction. The issue is the potential abolition of wage-labor by the wage-laborers, the overcoming of the social principle of work by the workers. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it in their 1956 conversation, work became an “ideology,” but one which, ensnared in “antinomy,” needed to be worked through “dialectically.”

This was the self-understanding common to Marx and Lenin, as well as to Horkheimer and Adorno. While Horkheimer and Adorno’s historical moment was not the same as Marx’s or Lenin’s, this does not mean that they abandoned Marxism, but rather that Marxism, in its degeneration, had abandoned them, precisely at the level of political consciousness: the “ontologization” of labor that Stalinized “Marxism” had in common with Heidegger and fascism more generally: “Arbeit macht frei.” See Adorno’s aphorism “Imaginative Excesses,” orphaned from Minima Moralia, written 1944–47 — the same time as the writing of Dialectic of Enlightenment — where Adorno argued that the workers “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.”

This bears on how it is possible to read Adorno and Horkheimer — and Marx and Lenin — today, regarding the potential continued relevance of Marxism. But Marxism would have needed to be made relevant again, for otherwise it was not so: what Marcuse had called the need for a “praxis appropriate to it.” Hence, the need Horkheimer and Adorno felt for a “new manifesto:” Marxism didn’t exist ready-made.

Adorno and Horkheimer are thus potentially helpful for recovering the true spirit of Marxism. Their work expresses what has become obscure or esoteric about Marxism. This invites a blaming of their work as culpable, instead of recognizing the unfolding of history they described that had made Marxism potentially irrelevant, a “message in a bottle” they hoped could still yet be received. It is unfortunate if their conversation isn’t. | §

Adorno, Lenin und das Schnabeltier

VOM LETZTEN VERTRETER DES ALTEN ALS WEGBEREITER DES NEUEN UND EINEM BEHARRLICHEN IRRLÄUFER DER KULTURELLEN EVOLUTION

Derzeit gibt es eine Reihe von Ansätzen, die Tradition der Kritischen Theorie wieder politisch aufzunehmen. Über den „Negativen Nachmittag“ und andere Versuche.

Gott und die Welt

Kolumne von Micha Brumlik

(Originally published in taz.die tageszeitung [PDF], July 3, 2012.)

Nur zu gut nachvollziehbar ist es, dass Menschen in Zeiten unüberschaubarer, einander überlagernder und durchdringender sozialer, politischer und ökonomischer Krisen eine Orientierung im Denken, einen archimedischen Punkt suchen, von dem aus das Geschehen verständlich und sogar veränderbar wird.

In einer Tradition des 19. Jahrhunderts hat man sich daran gewöhnt, derartige Denkanstrengungen als „radikal“ zu bezeichnen, weil sie das Ganze eben von der einen, der einzigen Wurzel erfassen wollen.
Anzeige

Bisweilen verbirgt sich freilich hinter dem Wunsch, „radikal“ zu denken, schlicht die Sehnsucht nach einer unbedingten, vorbehaltlosen, am besten völlig negierenden Haltung dem Ganzen gegenüber. Davon zeugt etwa das „Unsichtbare Komitee“ mit seinem kulturreaktionären Ekel vor der Massengesellschaft und dem revoluzzernden Schwadronieren vom „Kommenden Aufstand“.

Wunsch, radikal zu denken

Schwerer zu beurteilen sind neuere Versuche, die Tradition der Kritischen Theorie politisch aufzunehmen. So bietet etwa die Hamburger Studienbibliothek im Rahmen eines „Negativen Nachmittags“ ein Programm an, innerhalb dessen Adornos Verhältnis zu Lenin erörtert werden soll. Wem dies absurd erscheint, der muss zur Kenntnis nehmen, dass sich Adorno gelegentlich positiv zu Lenin geäußert hat.

In einem Brief an Horkheimer aus dem März 1936 etwa moniert er an Erich Fromm, dass es sich dieser mit dem Begriff der „Autorität“ zu leicht mache: mit einem Begriff „ohne den ja schließlich weder Lenins Avantgarde noch die Diktatur“ zu denken sei. Mehr noch: In aphoristischen Notizen aus dem Februar 1935 meint Adorno, dass man – anstatt Arbeiter der Verteilung von Flugzetteln zu opfern – „lieber Lenins Verhalten zu Kerenskis Revolution studieren“ möge: „seine Fähigkeit“, so Adorno zustimmend, „den gesellschaftlichen Hebelpunkt zu entdecken und zu nutzen: mit minimaler Kraft die unermessliche Last des Staates zu heben“.

Nachsicht angebracht?

Ein Fall für Nachsicht? Adorno war damals, 1935, zweiunddreißig Jahre alt, besuchte Eltern und Tante in Frankfurt, um dann im Schwarzwald Urlaub zu machen. Ein Aufsatz zum Jazz aus dem Jahr 1933, in dem vom musikalischen Einfluss der „Negerrasse“ die Rede war, ging einer 1934 in der Zeitschrift Die Musik veröffentlichen Rezension vorher, in der Adorno eine Vertonung von Gedichten des Reichsjugendführers von Schirach lobte, die – in seinen Worten – dem von Joseph Goebbels proklamierten „romantischen Realismus“ entspreche.

Was all das über den systematischen Gehalt seines Werks sagt? Nichts! Ebenso wenig wie die mit gutem Grund nicht publizierten Bemerkungen zu Lenin. Er habe derlei auch noch in den 1950er Jahren zu Horkheimer geäußert? Gut möglich, indes: Da sich Adorno in den 1960er Jahren lobhudelnd über Theodor Heuss ausgelassen hat, wird man auch dem kein allzu großes Gewicht zumessen können.

Aber wie dem auch sei, Anregenderes kommt aus den USA. Auf der Homepage von Chris Cutrone, einem in Chicago wirkenden Philosophen Jahrgang 1970, steht fett gedruckt und unübersehbar „The Last Marxist“ und darunter – wie das Amen in der Kirche – etwas kleiner: „Chris Cutrone is the last marxist!“ Wer meint, es hier mit unheilbarem Größenwahn zu tun zu haben, wird schnell eines Besseren belehrt: Cutrone, Gründer und Spiritus Rector einer sich weltweit organisierenden posttrotzkistischen, neoneomarxistischen Gruppe, bemüht ein heilsgeschichtliches Motiv.

Geht es ihm doch darum, sich – wie Johannes der Täufer, der sich als Vorläufer des Messias verstand – als letzter Vertreter des Alten und somit Wegbereiter des Neuen zu präsentieren: als letzter Marxist, der den Übergang ins gelobte Land eines von den Gebrechen der Vergangenheit geheilten „Marxianismus“ anführt.

Cutrone ist geistiger Mentor der weltweit agierenden Gruppe „Schnabeltier“, auf Englisch „Platypus“, die 2006 gegründet wurde und in ihrem „statement of purpose“ erklärt: „We agree with the young Marx in ’the ruthless criticism of everything existing‘ […]. Our present does not deserve affirmation or even respect, for we recognize it only for what came to be when the left was destroyed and liquidated itself.“

„Platypus“ halten übrigens eine genauestens austarierte Leseliste von Marx über Lukács bis zu Trotzki vor, die curricular – die Textstücke sollen systematisch aufeinander aufbauen – organisiert sind.

Aber was hat all das mit jenem eigentümlichen, so gar nicht in die Evolution passenden, eierlegenden Säugetier zu tun? Nun, Friedrich Engels sah so ein Tier im Londoner Zoo und kam zu dem Schluss, dass die Vernunft der Natur allen Darwin’schen Glaubenssätzen zum Trotz keineswegs mit den jeweiligen, historisch verfestigten Standards menschlicher Vernunft übereinstimmen muss. Kritische Theorie als beharrlicher, gleichwohl hoffnungsvoller Irrläufer der kulturellen Evolution? | §

Micha Brumlik ist Professor für Erziehungswissenschaft in Frankfurt am Main, Publizist und Autor der taz.

The relevance of Lenin today

Chris Cutrone

If the Bolshevik Revolution is — as some people have called it — the most significant political event of the 20th century, then Lenin must for good or ill be considered the century’s most significant political leader. Not only in the scholarly circles of the former Soviet Union, but even among many non-Communist scholars, he has been regarded as both the greatest revolutionary leader and revolutionary statesman in history, as well as the greatest revolutionary thinker since Marx.
Encyclopedia Britannica

2011 — year of revolution?1

Time magazine nominated “the protester,” from the Arab Spring to the #Occupy movement, as “Person of the Year” for 2011.2 In addressing the culture of the #Occupy movement, Time listed some key books to be read, in a sidebar article, “How to stock a protest library.”3 Included were A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci, Multitude by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Žižek.

Cover of Time magazine vol. 175 no. 28 (December 26, 2011 – January 2, 2012), design by Shepard Fairey

Time’s lead article by Kurt Andersen compared the Arab Spring and #Occupy movement to the beginnings of the Great French Revolution in 1789, invoking the poem “The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement” by William Wordsworth. Under the title “The Beginning of History,” Andersen wrote that,

Aftermaths are never as splendid as uprisings. Solidarity has a short half-life. Democracy is messy and hard, and votes may not go your way. Freedom doesn’t appear all at once…. No one knows how the revolutions will play out: A bumpy road to stable democracy, as in America two centuries ago? Radicals’ taking over, as in France just after the bliss and very heaven? Or quick counterrevolution, as in France 60 years later [in 1848]? (75)

The imagination of revolution in 2011 was, it appears, 1789 without consequences: According to Wordsworth, it was “bliss… in that dawn to be alive” and “to be young was very heaven.” In this respect, there was an attempt to exorcise the memory of revolution in the 20th century — specifically, the haunting memory of Lenin.

1789 and 1917

There were once two revolutions considered definitive of the modern period, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Why did Diego Rivera paint Lenin in his mural “Man at the Crossroads” (1933) in Rockefeller Center, as depicted in the film Cradle Will Rock (1999), about the Popular Front against War and Fascism of the 1930s? “Why not Thomas Jefferson?,” asked John Cusack, playing Nelson Rockefeller, ingenuously. “Ridiculous!,” Ruben Blades, playing Rivera, responded with defiance, “Lenin stays!” [video clip]

Detail of Diego Rivera, “Man at the Crossroads” (1933), mural at Rockefeller Center, New York City, photographed by Lucienne Bloch before it was destroyed on Nelson Rockefeller’s orders in 1934.

Still, Jefferson, in his letter of January 3, 1793 to U.S. Ambassador to France William Short, wrote,

The tone of your letters had for some time given me pain, on account of the extreme warmth with which they censured the proceedings of the Jacobins of France…. In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands, the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.4

The image of 18th century Jacobins and 20th century Bolsheviks haunts any revolutionary politics, up to today. Lenin characterized himself as a “revolutionary social democrat,” a “Jacobin who wholly identifies himself with the organization of the proletariat… conscious of its class interests.”5 What did it mean to identify as a “Jacobin” in Lenin’s turn-of-the-20th century socialist workers’ movement? Was it to be merely the most intransigent, ruthless revolutionary, for whom “the ends justify the means,” like Robespierre?

But the question of “Jacobinism” in subsequent history, after the 18th century, involves the transformation of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century. To stand in the tradition of Jacobinism in the 19th century meant, for Lenin, to identify with the workers’ movement for socialism. Furthermore, for Lenin, it meant to be a Marxist.

1848?

There is another date besides 1789 and 1917 that needs to be considered: 1848. This was the time of the “Spring of the Nations” in Europe. But these revolutions failed. This was the moment of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, published in anticipation of the revolution, just days before its outbreak. So, the question is not so much, How was Lenin a “Jacobin”?, but, rather, How was Lenin a “Marxist”? This is because 1848, the defining moment of Marxism, tends to drop out of the historical imagination of revolution today,6 whereas for Marxism in Lenin’s time 1848 was the lodestar.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her speech to the founding congress of the German Communist Party (Spartacus League), “On the Spartacus programme” (1918), offered a remarkable argument about the complex, recursive historical dialectic of progression and regression issuing from 1848. Here, Luxemburg stated that,

Great historical movements have been the determining causes of today’s deliberations. The time has arrived when the entire socialist programme of the proletariat has to be established upon a new foundation. We are faced with a position similar to that which was faced by Marx and Engels when they wrote the Communist Manifesto seventy years ago…. With a few trifling variations, [the formulations of the Manifesto]… are the tasks that confront us today. It is by such measures that we shall have to realize socialism. Between the day when the above programme [of the Manifesto] was formulated, and the present hour, there have intervened seventy years of capitalist development, and the historical evolutionary process has brought us back to the standpoint [of Marx and Engels in the Manifesto]…. The further evolution of capital has… resulted in this, that… it is our immediate objective to fulfill what Marx and Engels thought they would have to fulfill in the year 1848. But between that point of development, that beginning in the year 1848, and our own views and our immediate task, there lies the whole evolution, not only of capitalism, but in addition that of the socialist labor movement.7

This is because, as Luxemburg had put it in her 1900 pamphlet Reform or Revolution, the original contradiction of capital, the chaos of production versus its progressive socialization, had become compounded by a new “contradiction,” the growth in organization and consciousness of the workers’ movement itself, which in Luxemburg’s view did not ameliorate but exacerbated the social and political crisis and need for revolution in capital.

By contrast, however, see Luxemburg’s former mentor Karl Kautsky’s criticism of Lenin and Luxemburg, for their predilection for what Kautsky called “primitive Marxism.” Kautsky wrote that, “All theoreticians of communism delight in drawing on primitive Marxism, on the early works, which Marx and Engels wrote before they turned thirty, up until the revolution of 1848 and its aftermath of 1849 and 1850.”8

Marxism and “Leninism”

In 2011, it seems, Time magazine, among others, could only regard revolution in terms of 1789. This is quite unlike the period of most of the 20th century prior to 1989 — the centenary of the French Revolution also marked the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union — in which 1789 could be recalled only in terms of 1917. A historical link was drawn between Bolshevism and the Jacobins. In the collapse of 20th century Communism, not only the demon of 1917 but also 1789 seemed exorcized.

Did 1917 and 1789 share only disappointing results, the terror and totalitarianism, and an ultimately conservative, oppressive outcome, in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Empire and Stalin’s Soviet Union? 1917 seems to have complicated and deepened the problems of 1789, underscoring Hegel’s caveats about the terror of revolution. It would appear that Napoleon stands in the same relation to Robespierre as Stalin stands to Lenin. But the problems of 1917 need to be further specified, by reference to 1848 and, hence, to Marxism, as a post-1848 historical phenomenon.9 The question concerning Lenin is the question of Marxism.10

This is because there would be no discussing Marxism today without the role of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. The relevance of Marxism is inevitably tied to Lenin. Marxism continues to be relevant either because of or despite Lenin.11 But what is the significance of Lenin as a historical figure from the point of view of Marxism?

For Marx, history presented new tasks in 1848, different from those confronting earlier forms of revolutionary politics, such as Jacobinism. Marx thus distinguished “the revolution of the 19th century” from that of the 18th.12 But where the 18th century seemed to have succeeded, the 19th century appeared to have failed: history repeated itself, according to Marx, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”13 Trying to escape this debacle, Marxism expressed and sought to specify the tasks of revolution in the 19th century. The question of Lenin’s relevance is how well (or poorly) Lenin, as a 20th century revolutionary, expressed the tasks inherited from 19th century Marxism. How was Lenin, as a Marxist, adequately (or inadequately) conscious of the tasks of history?

The recent (December 2011) passing of Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) provides an occasion for considering the fate of Marxism in the late 20th century.14 Hitchens’s formative experience as a Marxist was in a tendency of Trotskyism, the International Socialists, who, in the 1960s and early 1970s period of the New Left, characterized themselves, as Hitchens once put it, as “Luxemburgist.” This was intended to contrast with “Leninism,” which had been, during the Cold War, at least associated, if not simply equated, with Stalinism. The New Left, as anti-Stalinist, in large measure considered itself to be either anti-Leninist, or, more generously, post-Leninist, going beyond Lenin. The New Left sought to leave Lenin behind — at least at first. Within a few short years of the crisis of 1968, however, the International Socialists, along with many others on the Left, embraced “Leninism.”15 What did this mean?

The New Left and the 20th century

Prior to the crisis of the New Left in 1968, “Leninism” meant something very specific. Leninism was “anti-imperialist,” and hence anti-colonialist, or, even, supportive of Third World nationalism, in its outlook for revolutionary politics. The relevance of Leninism, especially for the metropolitan countries — as opposed to the peripheral, post-colonial regions of the world — seemed severely limited, at best.

In the mid-20th century, it appeared that Marxism was only relevant as “Leninism,” a revolutionary ideology of the “underdeveloped” world. In this respect, the metropolitan New Left of the core capitalist countries considered itself to be not merely post-Leninist but post-Marxist — or, more accurately, post-Marxist because it was post-Leninist.

After the crisis of 1968, however, the New Left transitioned from being largely anti-Leninist to becoming “Leninist.” This was when the significance of Maoism, through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, transformed from seeming to be relevant only to peasant guerilla-based revolutionism and “new democracy” in the post-colonial periphery, to becoming a modern form of Marxism with potential radical purchase in the core capitalist countries. The turn from the 1960s to the 1970s involved a neo-Marxism and neo-Leninism. The ostensibly Marxist organizations that exist today are mostly characterized by their formation and development during this renaissance of “Leninism” in the 1970s. Even the anti-Leninists of the period bear the marks of this phenomenon, for instance, anarchism.

The New Left leading up to 1968 was an important moment of not merely confrontation but also cross-fertilization between anarchism and Marxism. This was the content of supposed “post-Marxism”: see, for example, the ex-Marxist, anarchist Murray Bookchin, who protested against the potential return of Leninism in his famous 1969 pamphlet, Listen, Marxist! In this, there was recalled an earlier moment of anarchist and Marxist rapprochement — in the Russian Revolution, beginning as early as 1905, but developing more deeply in 1917 and the founding of the Communist International in its wake. There were splits and regroupments in this period not only among Social Democrats and Communists but also among Marxists and anarchists. It also meant the new adherence to Marxism by many who, prior to World War I and the Russian Revolution, considered themselves “post-Marxist,” such as Georg Lukács.

The reconsideration of and return to “Marxism/Leninism” in the latter phase of the New Left in the 1970s, circa and after the crisis of 1968, thus recapitulated an earlier moment of reconfiguration of the Left. The newfound “Leninism” meant the New Left “getting serious” about politics. The figure of Lenin is thus involved in not only the division between “reformist” Social Democrats and “revolutionary” Communists in the crisis of World War I and the Russian and other revolutions (such as in Germany, Hungary, and Italy) that followed, or the division between liberalism and socialism in the mid-20th century context of the Cold War, but also between anarchists and Marxists, both in the era of the Russian Revolution and, later, in the New Left. It is in this sense that Lenin is a world-historical figure in the history of the Left.16 “Leninism” meant a turn to “revolutionary” politics and the contest for power — or so, at least, it seemed.

But did Lenin and “Leninism” represent a progressive development for Marxism, either in 1917 or after 1968? For anarchists, social democrats and liberals, the answer is “No.” For them, Lenin represented a degeneration of Marxism into Jacobinism, terror, and totalitarian dictatorship, or, short of that, into an authoritarian political impulse, a lowering of horizons — Napoleon, after all, was a Jacobin! If anything, Lenin revealed the truth of Marxism as, at least potentially, an authoritarian and totalitarian ideology, as the anarchists and others had warned already in the 19th century.

For avowed “Leninists,” however, the answer to the question of Lenin as progress is “Yes”: Lenin went beyond Marx. Either in terms of anti-imperialist and/or anti-colonialist politics of the Left, or simply by virtue of successfully implementing Marxism as revolutionary politics “in practice,” Lenin is regarded as having successfully brought Marxism into the 20th century.

But perhaps what ought to be considered is what Lenin himself thought of his contribution, in terms of either the progression or regression of Marxism, and how to understand this in light of the prior history leading into the 20th century.

Lenin as a Marxist

Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet, The State and Revolution, did not aspire to originality, but was, rather, an attempted synthesis of Engels and Marx’s various writings that they themselves never made: specifically, of the Communist Manifesto, The Civil War in France (on the Paris Commune), and Critique of the Gotha Programme. Moreover, Lenin was writing against subsequent Marxists’ treatments of the issue of the state, especially Kautsky’s. Why did Lenin take the time during the crisis, not only of the collapse of the Tsarist Russian Empire but of the First World War, to write on this topic? The fact of the Russian Revolution is not the only explanation. World War I was a far more dramatic crisis than the Revolutions of 1848 had been, and a far greater crisis than the Franco-Prussian War that had ushered in the Paris Commune. Socialism clearly seemed more necessary in Lenin’s time. But was it more possible? Prior to World War I, Kautsky would have regarded socialism as more possible, but after World War I, Kautsky regarded it as less so, and with less necessity of priority. Rather, “democracy” seemed to Kautsky more necessary than, and a precondition for the possibility of socialism.

For Lenin, the crisis of bourgeois society had matured. It had grown, but had it advanced? For Lenin, the preconditions of socialism had also been eroded and not merely further developed since Marx’s time. Indeed Kautsky, Lenin’s great Marxist adversary in 1917, regarded WWI as a setback and not as an opportunity to struggle for socialism. Lenin’s opponents considered him fanatical. The attempt to turn the World War into a civil war — socialist revolution — seemed dogmatic zealotry. For Kautsky, Lenin’s revolutionism seemed part of the barbarism of the War rather than an answer to it.

Marx made a wry remark, in his writing on the Paris Commune, that the only possibility of preserving the gains of bourgeois society was through the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx savaged the liberal politician who put down the Commune, Adolphe Thiers. However, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx regarded his followers as having regressed behind and fallen below the threshold of the bourgeois liberals of the time. Marx castigated his ostensible followers for being less “practically internationalist” than the cosmopolitan, free-trade liberals were, and for being more positive about the state than the liberals.

Lenin marshaled Marx’s rancor, bringing it home in the present, against Kautsky. World War I may have made socialism apparently less possible, but it also made it more necessary. This is the dialectical conception of “socialism or barbarism” that Lenin shared with Rosa Luxemburg, and what made them common opponents of Kautsky. Luxemburg and Lenin regarded themselves as “orthodox,” faithful to the revolutionary spirit of Marx and Engels, whereas Kautsky was a traitor — “renegade.” Kautsky opposed democracy to socialism but betrayed them both.

The relevance of Lenin today: political and social revolution

All of this seems very far removed from the concerns of the present. Today, we struggle not with the problem of achieving socialism, but rather have returned to the apparently more basic issue of democracy. This is seen in recent events, from the financial crisis to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy, to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little. The need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself. Political revolution seems necessary — again.

Lenin was a figure of the struggle for socialism — a man of a very different era.17 But his self-conception as a “Jacobin” raises the issue of regarding Lenin as a radical democrat.18 Lenin’s identification for this was “revolutionary social democrat” — someone who would uphold the need for revolution to achieve democracy with adequate social content. In this respect, what Lenin aspired to might remain our goal as well. The question that remains for us is the relation between democracy and capitalism. Capitalism is a source of severe discontents — an undoubted problem of our world — but seems intractable. It is no longer the case, as it was in the Cold War period, that capitalism is accepted as a necessary evil, to preserve the autonomy of civil society against the potentially “totalitarian” state. Rather, in our time, we accept capitalism in the much more degraded sense of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous expression, “There is no alternative!” But the recent crisis of neoliberalism means that even this ideology, predominant for a generation, has seemingly worn thin. Social revolution seems necessary — again.

But there is an unmistakable shying away from such tasks on the Left today. Political party, never mind revolution, seems undesirable in the present. For political parties are defined by their ability and willingness to take power.19 Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness. Indeed, forming a political party aiming at radical democracy, let alone socialism — a “Jacobin” party — would itself be a revolutionary act. Perhaps this is precisely the reason why it is avoided. The image of Lenin haunting us reminds that we could do otherwise.

It is Lenin who offers the memory, however distant, of the relation between political and social revolution, the relation between the need for democracy — the “rule of the people” — and the task of socialism. This is the reason that Lenin is either forgotten entirely — in an unconscious psychological blind-spot20 — or is ritualistically invoked only to be demonized. Nevertheless, the questions raised by Lenin remain.

The irrelevance of Lenin is his relevance. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 48 (July–August 2012). Re-published in Weekly Worker 922 (July 12, 2012) [PDF], Philosophers for Change, and The North Star.


  1. On December 17, 2011, I gave a presentation on “The relevance of Lenin today” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, broadcasting it live on the Internet. This essay is an abbreviated, edited and somewhat further elaborated version, especially in light of subsequent events. Video and audio recordings of my original presentation can be found online at <http://chriscutrone.platypus1917.org/?p=1507>. []
  2. Kurt Andersen, “The Protester,” Time vol. 175 no. 28 (December 26, 2011 – January 2, 2012), available online at <http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102132,00.html>. []
  3. Time vol. 175 no. 28 print edition p. 74. []
  4. Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence and other writings (Verso Revolutions Series), ed. Michael Hardt (London: Verso, 2007), 46–47. Also available online at <http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/592/>. []
  5. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904). Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1904/onestep/q.htm>. []
  6. See my “Egypt, or history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848,” Platypus Review 33 (March 2011), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2011/03/01/egypt-or-history%E2%80%99s-invidious-comparisons-1979-1789-and-1848/>; and “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’,” Platypus Review 29 (November 2010), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/>. []
  7. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/30.htm>. []
  8. This is in Kautsky’s critique of Karl Korsch’s rumination on Luxemburg and Lenin in “Marxism and philosophy” (1923), “A destroyer of vulgar-Marxism” (1924), trans. Ben Lewis, Platypus Review 43 (February 2012), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2012/01/30/destroyer-of-vulgar-marxism/>. []
  9. See my “1873–1973: The century of Marxism: The death of Marxism and the emergence of neo-liberalism and neo-anarchism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>. []
  10. See Tamas Krausz, “Lenin’s legacy today,” Platypus Review 39 (September 2011), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2011/08/31/lenin%E2%80%99s-legacy-today/>. []
  11. See my “Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 36 (June 2011), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2011/06/01/lenin%E2%80%99s-liberalism/>; and “Lenin’s politics: A rejoinder to David Adam on Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 40 (October 2011), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2011/09/25/lenins-politics/>. []
  12. See Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/>. []
  13. Ibid. []
  14. See Spencer Leonard, “Going it alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left,” Platypus Review 11 (March 2009), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2009/03/15/going-it-alone-christopher-hitchens-and-the-death-of-the-left/>. []
  15. See Tony Cliff, Lenin (4 vols., 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979; vols. 1–2 available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/index.htm>); however, see also the critique of Cliff by the Spartacist League, Lenin and the Vanguard Party (1978), available online at <http://www.bolshevik.org/Pamphlets/LeninVanguard/LVP%200.htm>. []
  16. See my “The decline of the Left in the 20th century: Toward a theory of historical regression: 1917,” Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/>. []
  17. See my “1873–1973: The century of Marxism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>. []
  18. See Ben Lewis and Tom Riley, “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/lenin-and-the-marxist-left-after-occupy/>. []
  19. See J.P. Nettl, “The German Social Democratic Party 1890–1914 as a political model,” Past & Present 30 (April 1965), 65–95. []
  20. But Lenin is more than the symptom that, for instance, Slavoj Žižek takes him to be. See “The Occupy movement, a renascent Left, and Marxism today,” Platypus Review 42 (December 2011–January 2012), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2011/12/01/occupy-movement-interview-with-slavoj-zizek/>. []

1873–1973: The century of Marxism

The death of Marxism and the emergence of neo-liberalism and neo-anarchism

Chris Cutrone

At the 2012 Platypus Affiliated Society’s (PAS) annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago March 30–April 1, Chris Cutrone, President of the PAS, delivered the following presentation, which has been edited for clarity. A full audio recording is available online at <http://archive.org/details/2012PresidentsReport>.

 

IN THE TRADITION we established just two years ago, there is a Platypus President’s report, speaking to the historical moment. At our convention last year, I presented on the “anti-fa” vs. “anti-imp” Left, as a division in the history of the Left that bears upon the present.1 In the year prior to that, in my first report, I presented on the 1970s as a decade in the history of the Left that continues to inform the present, but in ways that are usually not acknowledged.

This year, I am presenting on “1873 to 1973: The century of Marxism.” The reason that I, in consultation with my comrades and colleagues, chose this topic, is to attempt to grasp the crisis of 2007–08 as closing the period of neoliberalism that began with the crisis of 1973. One thing to consider, therefore, is the parallel but also lack or disparity between the period from 1873 to, say, 1912 vs. the period from 1973 to today. I think this bears upon how we might consider our present historical moment. So the provocative formulation I have is to call the period from 1873 to 1973 the “century of Marxism,” locating Marxism itself historically in this period.

Historical periodization

I will begin with some historical dates, the birth and death years of various figures in the history of Marxism that are of prime importance for Platypus. The “century of Marxism” is, principally, after Marx’s time, and ends, roughly, around the time of Adorno’s death.

1818–1883      Karl Marx

1820–1895      Friedrich Engels

1870–1924      Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

1871–1919      Rosa Luxemburg

1879–1940      Leon Trotsky

1885–1971      Georg Lukács

1889–1914      Second International

1892–1940      Walter Benjamin

1895–1973      Max Horkheimer

1903–1969      Theodor W. Adorno

If, according to Jim Creegan, in his article on #Occupy, “Hot autumn in New York,”2 the events of 2011 were similar to but different in certain key respects from those of 1968 and 1999, this is due to 1968, as a crisis year of the New Left, and 1999, the year of the Battle of Seattle, taking place during periods of economic boom, whereas 2011 took place during the economic crisis that began in 2007–08. However, in terms of similarities and differences, what this comparison neglects is the crisis of 1973, the crisis of Keynesianism and Fordism that occurred in the aftermath of the New Left explosion of 1968. One can say, perhaps, that 1968 took place during an economic boom, but the 1970s phase of the New Left took place during a period of economic crisis, after 1973. Why Creegan, among others, may choose to forget this is that it raises the question of Marxism in the 1970s, the last time that there was a potential renascence of the Left during an economic crisis on the order of magnitude we’re facing today. The 1970s were a period whose failure conditions any attempts at Marxism in the present.

The last apparent renascence of Marxism, in the 1970s “Marxist-Leninist” turn of the New Left, may indeed be considered, rather, Marxism’s long-delayed death. In other words, Marxism didn’t come back to life in the ’70s so much as it finally died then. This is quite different from considering the collapse of the Soviet Bloc beginning in 1989 to be the crisis and death of Marxism. For it was in the 1970s that the crisis of Keynesian Fordism led to the neoliberal era, symbolized by the election of Thatcher and Reagan by the end of the decade. Neoliberalism has this crucial history in the 1970s, two decades before the 1990s, despite the preponderant consciousness today of later anti-globalization protests.

If the recent crisis is to be considered a crisis of neoliberalism, then it recalls the birth of the neoliberal era in the failure of the New Left, specifically the failure of New Left Marxism in the 1970s. The Marxist-Leninist turn of the New Left is coincidental historically with neoliberalism, so neoliberalism can be considered a historical phenomenon of the failure of the New Left. It was this failure that led to “postmodernist” anti-Marxism, specifically the death of the Left in its “post-political” phase of the 1980s–90s that we describe in Platypus’s official Statement of Purpose.

The century of Marxism: 19th and 20th centuries

The question before us, then, is the century of Marxism, considered as the emergence, crisis, death, and memory of Marxism. That question can be historically periodized as 1873–1973.

Marx’s thought predates this period, and is properly considered a phenomenon circa and in the aftermath of the Revolutions of 1848.3 If Marx’s own thought was born in the crisis of the 1840s (the “hungry ’40s”), then Marx-ism (as distinct from Marx’s own thought and practice), as a form of politics sui generis, a Marxist politics per se, dates from the collapse of the First International (International Workingmen’s Association) and the formation of the German Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SPD) in the 1870s. As such, Marxism is contemporaneous with the first Great Depression that began with the crisis of 1873. Marxism, as a form of politics distinct from other forms of socialism, dates from this period. Prior to this, there was no question of “Marxism” but, rather, Marx and Engels and their close colleagues participated in the broader socialist movement.

1873 is commonly regarded as the end of the mid-19th century “liberal” era (which saw a certain heyday in the 1860s, also when Leftist politics emerged from post-1848 reaction). In Marxist historiography, the period after 1873 dates the emergence of the “monopoly” era of capitalism, the era of modern “imperialism.” By contrast, the 1860s is the decade, for instance, marked by the U.S. Civil War, which conditioned the formation of the First International.4 However, that period ended by the 1870s.

Significantly, 1873 was a blow to, and not a boon for, the First International. If we take the First International as paradigmatic of 19th century socialism, the crisis of 1873 did not boost 19th century socialism as much as it was coincidental historically with the crisis of 19th century socialism, namely, the collapse of the First International. The 1870s signaled a shift. This shift, towards what became “Marxism,” therefore, was bound up with other changes.5 These changes can be summed up in the historical shift from the liberal era to the state-centric era of capitalism.

“State capitalism” and Marxism

“State capitalism” is a tricky category, with a variety of different meanings. For instance, Friedrich Pollock, a member of the Frankfurt School, wrote an influential essay on “state capitalism,” published in the early 1940s, which referred to changes in the inter-war years of the early 20th century. But, in another sense, “state capitalism” can be dated in two very different ways: from 1873 or 1914, either Bismarck or WWI. The fact that state capitalism can be characterized as having such very different start dates is significant: it places, specifically, the period between these two dates under certain questions. This period, 1873–1914, is coterminous with another historiographic period, the time between the Franco-Prussian War and WWI (in France, this is the period of the Third Republic, after the collapse of the Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire and the suppression of the Paris Commune), which developed towards a certain flowering of global capitalism in the Belle Époque. This is also the period of Marxism. Thus, it is significant that Marxism, in its “classical” era, can be considered a phenomenon of the turn to state capitalism. Marxists of this period called this era “imperialism,” or the “highest stage of capitalism,” the eve of socialist revolution. In other words, the period of the emergence of Marxism as a politics sui generis was also understood by Marxists of the time as sharing the historical moment of capitalism’s highest possible stage. “State capitalism,” in this view, was not the overcoming but rather the exacerbation of the contradictions of capitalism. Marxism was thus bound up with heightening contradiction.

The late-19th to early-20th century period of “imperialism” resulted in the First World War, which was, of course, the crisis of Marxism: the collapse of the Second International. The question is how Marxism was bound up with the imperialist phase of capitalism, and how the crisis of Marxism in WWI was connected to the other results of this period of history. In other words, how did the crisis of Marxism itself share in the historical moment of the emergence and crisis of state capitalism, understood by Marxists at the time as “imperialism”?

For the Marxists of this time, WWI was the crisis of capitalism in its period of “revolution,” which was signaled, in an inaugural sense, by the Russian Revolution of 1905. Marxists such as Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky regarded this period as one confronted by the choice of “socialism or barbarism,” or, more specifically, the “civil war” of the workers against the capitalists or a “world war” between imperialist states. This was the prognosis.

The 20th century (1): The death of Marxism

Both predictions, of civil war and world war, in fact, came spectacularly true. Up to that time, Marxists understood this as either one alternative or the other. As it turned out, it was both. There was a world war and a civil war in 1914–19, in which the Second International collapsed and Marxism was divided. Marxism was divided specifically on the questions of both the imperialist world war and the class-struggle civil war that followed. So the crisis of Marxism was not only over the world war but was also over the civil war.

Marxism, specifically as a form of politics sui generis (distinguished from the greater 19th century history of socialism, from the Utopians to Proudhon, Blanqui, Lassalle, Bakunin, et al.) that had developed in the preceding period, from 1875–1914, did not survive its crisis in WWI and the revolutions that followed. Rather, Marxism died then.

The failure of Marxism can be seen most clearly in the birth of a new right-wing form of politics, fascism, in this period, issuing directly out of the crisis of Marxism in WWI (see, for instance, Benito Mussolini, who before the war was a leading member of the Marxist Left of the Italian Socialist Party). Fascism, 20th century social-democratic reformism, 20th century forms of nationalism (i.e., “anti-colonialism”), and Stalinism were the predominant (but not exclusive) results of the failed crisis of Marxism 1914–19.

So, how are we to regard the history of Marxism post-1919? Precisely as its post-history, its memory.

The 20th century (2): The memory of Marxism

The memory of Marxism was carried, for the purposes of our project in Platypus, principally by two figures: Trotsky and Adorno. Trotsky, as the major surviving figure of Second International radicalism (Luxemburg died in 1919, and Lenin in 1924); and Adorno, as the “Critical Theorist” who tried to sustain the insights of Lukács and Korsch in the aftermath of 1917–19 (also through the attempt to sustain Benjamin’s work, which was itself inspired by Lukács and Korsch’s work of the early 1920s). Trotsky and Adorno represented the disintegration of theory and practice that had characterized the crisis and failure of Marxism as a relation of theory and practice, as a form of thinking and political action sui generis, as it had developed up to 1914. In other words, Marxism developed from the 1870s, it ran into a crisis by 1914, and then it became divided in its theory and practice, especially around the revolutions of 1917–19. These two figures, Trotsky and Adorno, exemplify the effects of this history. But what they actually exemplify, to be more precise, is not the separation of theory (Adorno) from practice (Trotsky), but, rather, both Adorno and Trotsky are symptoms of the disintegration of Marxism as a relation of theory and practice that developed in the preceding period. The theory and practice problem exists on both sides of Trotskyism and the Frankfurt School.

The memory of Marxism haunted the 20th century, especially regarding the grotesque farce of Marxism in Stalinism. If there was a tragedy of Marxism in 1914–19, then this was followed by the farce of Stalinism. Both Trotsky and Adorno exemplify the possibilities for anti-Stalinist Marxism.

What died in the 1970s (let alone in 1989!) was not Marxism but rather the memory of Marxism, which had been only tenuously sustained. Between 1919 and 1973, we had the memory of Marxism, which faded out: this memory did not really survive Adorno’s death. This is not to say that Adorno was the personal embodiment of the memory of the Marxism, but that it didn’t really survive the time of Adorno’s death. The reason that the passing of the memory of Marxism might date, coincidentally, with the death of Adorno (who was more a thinker and not a very overtly political actor), is that “Trotskyism” as a form of Marxist politics did not really survive Trotsky’s death in 1940.

What is of interest, then, is how the last great renaissance of interest in Marxism, in the 1970s, actually marked the “death” of its effective memory. The apparent recovery of Marxism in the ’70s was actually the effective obscuring of its memory.

What we have been living through more recently, say, since the 2000s, is the exhaustion and falling away of the means for obscuring the memory of Marxism that emerged and developed in the 1970s–80s–90s, which were a process of forgetting Marxism. The 1990s were an especially interesting period in this history, as there were already some intimations of the exhaustion of the postmodernism of the previous 1970s–80s. In this sense, 1989 can be considered a certain end to the “long 1960s” that had extended into the ’70s and ’80s (or, ’89 can be considered as an “inverted ’68”).

The period from 1914 to 1973 (or, perhaps, 1989) was the essential, “short” 20th century.6

Platypus: Marxism in the 21st century?

Now, what does this say about Platypus in this regard? There are two different generations of Platypus, broadly speaking: the generation of the 1990s and that of the 2000s. These two generations express (the tensions within) the possible recovery of the memory of Marxism against its passing means of effacement. Thus, two different founding moments of Platypus’s own historical consciousness—1999, Seattle, and 2007, the exhaustion of the anti-war movement—are interrelated and interact specifically as different modulations of the exhaustion of processes for obscuring the memory of Marxism. Platypus, therefore, has two histories: a pre-history, 1999–2007; and an actual history, 2007–11/12.

If we compare our historical period with one a hundred years ago, the specificity of our project can be thrown into stark relief.

Whereas Marxism up to 1914 responded to and participated in the culmination of the imperialist phase of post-1873 capitalism, Platypus circa 2012 faces the very different challenges of the crisis of the neoliberal phase of post-1973 capitalism. In other words, our project in Platypus is a product of the end of the post-1973 neoliberal era. In this respect, the era of Marxism 1873–1914 could not contrast more starkly with our time, 1968/73–2011. Where one, 1873–1914, was a mounting crisis and a deeply ambivalent process of historical progression and regression, the other, our period, is one of spiraling decomposition.

This is how Platypus must relate to the history of Marxism: through the profound contrasts of post-1873 vs. post-1973 history.

Unprecedented historical moment

The reason that our project in Platypus is unprecedented is precisely because our historical moment is unprecedented: without the post-1848 and post-1873 projects of Marxism, and without the memory of Marxism 1914/19–73. Our period is a “post-Marxist” time in a totally unparalleled way. We are entering into a time not only very much unlike post-1873 or post-1914, but also significantly unlike the decades post-1973 (1970s–80s) and post-1989 (1990s–2000s).

This is why our project is so specifically one of the 21st century, of its first, and, now, its second decade. We need to attend closely to the various ways in which our project is so conditioned. The specificity of our time is our task.

Reference to the history of Marxism, as the ghost that might still haunt us, helps specify the peculiarities of our time, in which a fundamental transformation of Marxism is necessary for it to continue at all—for Marxism to be reborn, or, more precisely, to be reincarnated, in the traditional sense of spirit forgetting its past life. Such forgetting today, however, is a pathological repression. We must make Marxism remembered, if however, and necessarily, obscurely.

Unredeemable legacy of the 20th century

The 20th century, the period of the emergence, crisis, death, and memory of Marxism, cannot really be redeemed. In other words, the language of redemption you find in the Second International, with figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, or even with figures such as Benjamin or Adorno (who followed Luxemburg), their notion of redemption doesn’t apply for us in the 21st century. The reason that the 20th century cannot be redeemed is that, unlike the 19th century, we can say that the 20th century was one of unnecessary suffering. This is because the failure of Marxism was unnecessary—which is why it cannot be properly forgotten.

Rather, all of (prior) human history is now filtered through the 20th century—not through capital (as in the 19th century, for Marx), but rather through the failure of Marxism. The postmodernist attempt to overturn “grand narratives” of history was first and foremost the attempt to overcome Marxism as the grandest of all narratives of history. But postmodernism was not successful in this.

Whereas, for Marx, capital was the crossroads of human history as it had culminated in the 19th century, the 20th century was characterized by the crossroads of Marxism. This affects what came after. All ideology today is anti-Marxism, thus always returning to the question of Marxism. This is why Platypus is not about Marxism as an answer to the crisis of history, but rather as a question. That means that Platypus as a project is peculiar and unlike any other Marxist project historically, and the reason that we are unlike any other Marxist project today is that we emerged when we did. Our historical moment is unlike any other period. We cannot pose Marxism as an answer but only as a question.

Now, our claim is not that Marxism is a question, but is, rather, the more emphatic one, that Marxism is the question.

Because of the nature of the last year, 2011–12, this narrative requires a postscript, on anarchism.

Neo-anarchism and neo-liberalism

I just narrated 1873–1973 with respect to Marxism. Now, I’d like to narrate 1873–1973 in terms of anarchism.

Post-1873, anarchism was a waning ideology in the wilderness, excluded from the Second International, and thus cast into the shadows.

Post-1973, by contrast, it has become impossible to avoid anarchism. There is a way in which everything has become a kind of anarchism. Everything becomes filtered through an ethos of anarchism. Such (pseudo-)”anarchism” is more ideologically prevalent today than ever before.

It is significant that anarchism was excluded from the Second International. For the Second International, it didn’t seem that this was to any political detriment.

Starting in 1905, however, with the Russian Revolution, there began to be a changed relationship between anarchism and Marxism. After the 1870s, Marxism felt entirely justified in regarding anarchism as an antiquated and obsolete ideology. After 1905, however, this is no longer really the case. There are splits in both Marxism and anarchism that point to a changed relationship between Marxism and anarchism. Starting with 1905, anarchists become Marxists and, also, Marxists become (somehow) more anarchist. For instance, it was important for Rosa Luxemburg to argue, with respect to her pamphlet on 1905, The Mass Strike, the Trade Unions and the Political Party (1906), that she was not offering an anarchist argument or apologia for anarchism.

And, later, again, with the Russian Revolution in 1917, significantly, anarchists became Marxists.

From 1920/24–73, however, dissident Marxism becomes (“neo”-)anarchism, as seen in “council-communism,” Korsch’s later (post-1924) trajectory, figures such as Castoriadis, Murray Bookchin, the Situationist International, etc.

In 1969, Adorno wrote, in his last essay, “Resignation,” that “the return of anarchism is that of a ghost,” that (historical) Marxism’s critique of anarchism remained valid (see there Adorno’s paraphrasing of Lenin’s 1920 pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder).

Marxism’s failure to transcend anarchism post-1919 means that the recrudescence of anarchism becomes an important symptom of the failure of Marxism. But this return of anarchism is not true but rather “pseudo.”

More broadly speaking, socialism’s failure to transcend liberalism in the 20th century means that liberalism becomes an important symptom of the failure of socialism, i.e., neo-liberalism. There are thus significant parallels between neo-liberalism and what we might call neo-anarchism after the failure of Marxism in the world revolution 1917–19.

Why characterize (pseudo-“)anarchism(“) as “dishonest liberalism,” or, as “hysterical” liberalism?7 What might we mean by that? This is because anarchism is the only serious non-Marxian approach to socialism—other versions of socialism, for instance 20th century Social Democracy, are more clearly apparently relapses into (decadent, “ideological” forms of) liberalism. (Hence, Luxemburg’s characterization, in Reform or Revolution?, 1900/08, of Eduard Bernstein’s “reformism” as “liberalism.”)

The failure of Marxist socialism thus has two essential results: neo-anarchism and neo-liberalism. They are distinguished not in principle, as their proponents might imagine, but only on a spectrum of opportunism. Hence, the indicative, symptomatic ideology of “libertarian socialism” in our post-1973 era. Libertarianism is merely an ideologically cruder version of anarchism, or, (neo- or pseudo-)anarchism post-1973 is merely an ideologically overwrought libertarianism. Anarchists are libertarians who take themselves too seriously; and libertarians are anarchists who are content to remain muddled in their thinking.

Following the Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky (and Luxemburg), Stalinism, as a form of “state socialism” is not to be defined properly as “authoritarian” but rather as opportunist. It was not simply a “wrong way,” but an opportunistic adaptation to defeat (or failure), what Trotsky called the “great organizer of defeat.” Hence, neo-anarchism is to be defined as dishonest opportunism, or as “(reactionary-)utopian ideology.”

The primary character of such ideology is the obscuring of history—the effacing of post-1848 political authoritarianism (“Bonapartism”) as a historical symptom that cannot be avoided but must be worked through. Anarchism is indicted by its anti-Marxism. This is what it means to say that (neo-)anarchism lacks historical consciousness or theory, replacing this with anthropology or psychology.

Q&A

In speaking about the “unnecessary suffering” of the 20th century, what did you mean?

It is significant that it is only in the late 19th century that one finds, for instance, a genocidal policy towards indigenous peoples (e.g., Native Americans). But, also, there is a new kind of racism, whether Dreyfus Affair anti-Semitism, or the new post-(collapse of) Reconstruction anti-black racism in the U.S. These came to characterize the 20th century. I would assert that such pathologies were not historically necessary but avoidable.

 

What about Bonapartism, as a post-1848 vs. post-1873 phenomenon?

This is related to the difference between Marx and Marxism, which is potentially obscure. Is there a difference in Bonapartism post-1848 and post-1873? Perhaps. This is the importance of “state capitalism.” What is the difference between the 1848 Revolutions and the (1870–71) Paris Commune? What is the difference between the First and Second Internationals? Marx and Engels did not seek to make “Marxism,” whatever that would be, hegemonic in the First International. But it seems to become necessarily hegemonic in the Second International. This expresses a historical shift.

 

I have two questions about the historical periodization: perhaps two blind spots. What about the period between the death of Trotsky in 1940 and the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s? This would appear to be an important bridge period. Also, aren’t you collapsing the post-1973 and post-1989 periods? What about the 1980s, before the collapse of Stalinism, but after the efflorescence of the 1970s? One sees this, for example, in the degeneration of the Spartacist League, among other Marxist organizations, after the 1970s.

The 1980s were importantly characterized by the disintegration of the Left into academicism and activism. Hence, there were two phases of what I’m calling the obscuring of the memory of Marxism, in which this occurred differently: the 1970s and the 1980s.

In terms of the mid-20th century period, one could say this was the heyday of Stalinism, as well as of ersatz or quasi-Stalinism, that is, Third World nationalism and Maoism, Castroism/Guevarism, etc. The Cold War films of the period showed the “blob” of the “Red Menace” growing. But this was not, I would contend, the growth of Marxism.

The memory of Marxism was sustained by the farce of Marxism in Stalinism.

 

But wasn’t Adorno’s own work a response to this mid-20th century moment?

I would say that neither the Frankfurt School nor Trotskyism experienced any real development in the mid-20th century, after 1940. At best, they held their ground. At worst, they retreated.

 

What about the 1860s? What about Bonapartism as an epochal development? What about Marx’s own growth and maturity as a political thinker? In 1873, from my understanding of European history, the kind of state interventionism one sees then is a political choice, not (merely) an economic one. When was the crisis of Marxism? How does this relate to the crisis of neoliberalism in the present? Why do you place such emphasis on Trotsky and Trotskyism? I know you were once around the Spartacist League. But wasn’t Trotskyism a farce as much as Stalinism? Didn’t Trotsky underestimate the profound, paralyzing influence of Stalinism? Wasn’t Stalinism a profounder problem than Trotsky thought? Isn’t there a problem with the “red thread” argument, linking Marx, through Lenin, Trotsky, etc.?

I must say that I don’t think Trotsky’s Fourth International project was particularly viable. But I also don’t think the Third, Communist International project was viable. Now, of course, Lenin and Trotsky had to hope against hope with the Third International.

But this is not to fault Trotsky (or Lenin!). When Trotsky was launching the Fourth International—people had spoken of the October Revolution as one characterized by “youth;” the soldiers were teenagers—there was still a living memory of the Revolution in the 1930s. Those who were once 20 were then 40, and thus still capable of making revolution. There is also the problem of what I would call Trotsky’s self-vulgarization, his propaganda orientation. Moreover, there was a problem in Trotsky trying to split the Third International, and basing his politics on the early Third International. But we must bear in mind that after 1933 Trotsky also oriented towards the remnants of Second International Social Democracy (as expressed in the so-called “French turn”), and refused to characterize Stalinism as somehow more Left than Social Democracy. I think that Trotsky’s “crisis of leadership” estimation of political possibilities meant something more supple than what his followers offered later. I think he recognized the profundity of the problem and its historical roots.

Let me be clear: The failure of Marxism was profound. Hence, there is no Marxism to return to. There is no answer, only a question. The question is the failure of Marxism.

The reason I am putting such emphasis on post-1873 history is to raise the issue of Marxism per se. Not the question of the workers’ movement or of socialism, but of Marxism. This is not posed later, in 1938 (the founding of the Fourth International) or 1933 (the failure of Third International to stop Nazism), or 1923 (the definitive end of the post-WWI revolutionary wave) or 1919 (the crushing of the German Revolution) or 1917 (the October Revolution as revolutionary split in Marxism) or 1914 (the collapse of the Second International in WWI). The question of Marxism is posed already at the outset in the 1870s. Why was the SPD necessary? Why does the SPD take the form it does? Why did Marxists join a Lassallean party?

So, there is the issue of the SPD, founded in 1875, being what Moishe Postone, for one, has called a “Lassallean party with Marxist verbiage.” Wasn’t it always a Lassallean party with “Marxist” window-dressing? My question is, is there such a thing as a “Marxist party?” Or, is there, rather, a socialist party with Marxists participating in it? Marxism was the “historical consciousness” of the socialist workers’ movement. There’s a famous photograph of Rosa Luxemburg, flanked on stage by portraits of Lassalle and Marx. Now, what did that mean? Certainly, Luxemburg was aware of Marx’s critique of and political opposition to Lassalle. So, what did it mean for an avowed “Marxist” such as Luxemburg to participate in a socialist workers’ movement and political party with a strong tradition of Lassalleanism?

But the history of Marxism was always characterized by the critique of socialism, starting with Marx in the 1840s, but carried forward, for instance, in Lenin’s critique of Narodnism, “Legal Marxism,” and “Economism.” Or, more generally, in the Marxist critique of anarchism, whether of Proudhon or Bakunin, et al. There is also the “Revisionist Dispute” within Marxism itself in the 1890s. What would it mean, then, to speak of Marxism as a form of politics per se?

Just as Marxism as a philosophy or theory is peculiar, as a political practice it is also quite peculiar. If, for Marxists, the socialist workers’ movement always shades off into liberalism and anarchism, is always overlaid with anarchist and liberal ideology, then Marxism is always in a constant struggle against these. But this is not a struggle merely of opposition but of critical recognition.

About the “maturity” of Marxism, there is a question. I don’t think of the “mature Marx” as the writer of Capital, but also and perhaps more importantly as a political figure. In the critique of Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) by Kautsky that we published,8 Kautsky accuses Korsch, along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks (including Trotsky), for being enamored of “primitive Marxism,” i.e., that of Marx and Engels in the 1840s, and ignoring subsequent development.9 Both Korsch and Kautsky have some points to score in that debate. What’s the difference, for example, between Marx in the Manifesto and in the “Programme of the Parti Ouvrier” (1880)?10 These differences are potentially vital. But can they be considered simply as development?

There is, for instance, the issue that Marx himself was accused (in the 1860s) of being right-wing or opportunistic, in his endorsement of unions and workers’ consumer cooperatives, etc. Lukács is good at pointing this out (in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness, 1923), that is, the symptomatic character of Lassalle’s criticism of Marx for supposedly being “economistic” and neglecting politics. But Lassalle criticized the “economic” struggles of the workers more generally, going so far as to call this the mere struggle of economic “objects” as objects (of capitalism). But Lukács’s point was that Marx recognized a dialectic of economics and politics, or, of the workers as both “objects” and “subjects” of capitalism. Marx didn’t take unions or cooperatives as good in themselves, but rather as historical (and symptomatic) forms that the workers’ movement was taking, to be pushed through. They are the forms through which the possibility for socialism can be grasped. They can’t be accepted in their own terms, but they’re also not to be criticized, let alone rejected as such.

That’s why I emphasize this period of the collapse of the First International and the birth of the SPD in the 1870s, to bring out the issue of Marxism as such.

 

What about the crisis of liberalism? When does the crisis of liberalism become the necessity for Marxism? When was this shift?

For Marx, certainly liberalism was “dead” as an emancipatory politics already in 1848. It was liberals, after all, who put down the workers in June 1848. Liberalism dies several deaths. The death of liberalism in 1848 is different from that in the 1870s (for example, with the failure of Reconstruction in the U.S.).

This raises the question of historical “progress.” The necessity for socialism grows between 1848 and 1873. Engels, for example, in his 1895 Introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France,11 discusses the still not exhausted potential for capitalist development after 1848. But this wasn’t for Engels merely “economic” but political. Capitalism continues to grow, economically, in a sense. The question was whether such growth was a political advance. The evidence of “progress,” for Engels, was the growth of the socialist workers’ movement. What Marx and Engels had “underestimated” was the potential for capitalism to contribute to the growth of the workers’ movement for socialism. But that is precisely what we have not seen since 1973! Perhaps not since 1919.

 

What about Marx’s (infamous) Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), about “productive forces” and “relations of production?” To call the 20th century one huge ball of unnecessary suffering seems to belie Marx’s sense of contradiction. This is part of the continuing strange character of “what it means to live.” Chris, I’ve heard you address, for instance, financial techniques as forces of production, still contributing to the development of social possibilities. The 20th century as unnecessary suffering fails to get at that aspect of history. Capitalism hasn’t shut down yet. On the other hand, Marx and Engels, in the Manifesto, project the rest of the 19th century as unnecessary. So, the 20th century could be seen still as necessary, while the 19th century could also be seen as unnecessary.

The reason I put it this way, highly tendentiously, is to focus the question of Marxism. In other words, will Marxism play a role in emancipation? If it does, then the 20th century was unnecessary. If it does not, then perhaps the 20th century was necessary, in getting beyond, and transcending, Marxism. If the history of actual Marxism as politics plays no role, then the New Left was right, revolution in 1917 had been premature. If this history still has a role to play, however, then perhaps 1917 was not so premature, and what came later was not so necessary.

We must ask, in what ways might the history of Marxism play a role? As practical politics? As theory? How? As a relation of theory and practice, as Adorno puts it in “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (1969)? In what way was and is Marxism necessary?

Why should a project such as ours, beginning in the 21st century, be “Marxist?” Why shouldn’t we be “post-Marxist?” Why can’t we say, simply, that the history of Marxism has some contributions to make, but look at all these other things, anarchism, etc.?

 

How is it that Stalinism, Maoism, etc., weren’t Marxism? Is it because they abandoned an emancipatory vision? Is it because they became one-sided in their opposition to capitalism, and denied its contributing to emancipatory possibilities? So that, today, it doesn’t seem that capitalism holds such possibilities. What would it take to make that possibility active again? It would seem that the only way to do that would be to work through the history of the 20th century.

I’m not exactly saying that (about Stalinism and Maoism, etc.). To get back to the issue of Trotskyism, yes, Trotskyism was farcical in a sense. It was not the Marxism practiced by Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky himself in an earlier period. It was not the relation between theory and practice that Marxism once was. This is what makes the history of Trotskyism, including Trotsky’s own in the 1920s and ’30s, farcical, in a sense.

Why isn’t Trotsky a tragic figure, why is he farcical? Well, because the real tragic figures of Marxism, to my mind, are Lenin and Luxemburg. Lenin, to me, was a tragic figure. Also, Marx and Engels themselves. Marxism was the tragedy.

 

The ambiguity of the 20th century raises the issue of ideology. Could Marxism again become a guiding ideology?

There is the difference of the dialectic of history, as expressed by Marxism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the exhaustion of history in our present period. That’s what Fukuyama meant by the “end of history.” While untrue in a certain sense, it is symptomatically expressive in another sense.

What is the possibility of the recovery of the memory of Marxism? I think that the casualty of the death of Marxism was the workers’ movement itself, despite the 1930s, let alone the ’60s and ’70s. The “class struggle,” as previously found in history, ended. Not labor militancy, but class struggle. The failure of Marxism is the failure of the socialist workers’ movement. Stalinism was not only the farce of Marxism but also of the socialist workers’ movement. This is related to social democracy and even fascism. When Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom (1944), said that the roots of fascism are to be found in pre-WWI social democracy, even a benign case like Austrian Social Democracy, he had a point. Horrific if true, still, there is the problem of the plausibility of Hayek’s account, which was influential. Hayek, after all, is a key progenitor of neo-liberalism, that is, 20th century liberalism.

The 20th century was the rehash of 19th century ideology. There’s nothing new. Hayek, for instance, doesn’t come up with anything new, but rather goes back to liberalism, to ideology before socialism. The recrudescence of old ideologies is indicative. The 19th century, by contrast, was very new at the level of ideology.

 

What about fascism? What about fundamentalism? Aren’t they new in the 20th century?

Well, fundamentalism might be new, but I am emphasizing the Left. Fundamentalism is obviously conservative, and reaches back well before the 19th century. Fascism has roots in the 19th century, specifically in history after the 1870s. But, on the Left, liberalism and anarchism, as forms of anti-Marxism, still claim to be emancipatory, not conservative ideologies. They, like Marxism, originate in the 19th century. They are still with us today. The question is whether and how Marxism still is. | §

Transcribed with the assistance of Nikolas Lelle

Originally published in The Platypus Review 47 (June 2012).


  1. See Chris Cutrone, “The ‘anti-fascist’ vs. ‘anti-imperialist’ Left: Some genealogies and prospects,” available online at <http://chriscutrone.platypus1917.org/?p=1203>. []
  2. Jim Creegan, “Hot Autumn in New York,” in Weekly Worker 886 (October 20, 2011), available online at <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004580>. []
  3. See Cutrone, “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’,” in Platypus Review 29 (November 2010), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/>. []
  4. See Karl Korsch, “The Marxism of the First International” (1924), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1924/first-international.htm>. []
  5. See Cutrone, “Lenin’s liberalism,” in Platypus Review 36 (June 2011), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2011/06/01/lenin’s-liberalism/>. See also Cutrone, “1917,” in Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/>. []
  6. Cf., Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991 (New York: Vintage, 1994). []
  7. See “The Occupy Movement, a Renascent Left, and Marxism Today: An interview with Slavoj Žižek,” in Platypus Review 42 (December 2011–January 2012), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2011/12/01/occupy-movement-interview-with-slavoj-zizek/>. []
  8. See Karl Kautsky, “A Destroyer of Vulgar-Marxism,” in Platypus Review 43 (February 2012), available online at <http://platypus1917.org/2012/01/30/destroyer-of-vulgar-marxism/>. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Jules Guesde and Karl Marx, “The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier,” available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm>. []
  11. See Friedrich Engels, “Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850” (1895), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1895/03/06.htm>. []