Internationalism fails

Chris Cutrone

The “anti-imperialist Left” considers itself opposed to all U.S. government action as “imperialist” on principle. But, as Trotsky wrote to his followers in 1938, “Learn to think!” while one may oppose the government politically, to oppose the government putting out a fire, especially when there is no alternative agency for doing so, is nonsense. But the “Left” today is not the inheritor of Trotsky, but rather of what he pitilessly assailed, the policy of the Stalinist “Popular Front Against War and Fascism” of the 1930s, for which the shibboleth was, “Which side are you on?”

The idea is that the defeat of imperialist policy creates possibility for an alternative, and therefore one must always be against imperialism to be on the side of an alternative to it. Historically, Marxists have understood such a strategy in terms of either “revolutionary defeatism” or “revolutionary defensism.” Simply put, the defeat of an imperialist power is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative to the government of the imperialist country; whereas the defense of a country against imperialist attack is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative in the subaltern country. Importantly, these are not pacifist positions against war, but rather political military strategies in time of war, moreover with the aim of revolution.

Historically, there are two examples of success of these strategies of revolutionary defeatism and revolutionary defensism: the role of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution is regarded as a success of revolutionary defeatism, in which the defeat of the Tsarist Russian Empire undermined the government and gave rise to political and social revolution; and Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Revolution, in which the defense of China against Japanese imperialist attack undermined the nationalist Kuomintang and allowed for Communist-led revolution. The point of revolutionary defensism was to be better defenders of the country than the nationalists could be, in that the nationalists, in upholding the nation-state as such, must necessarily compromise with global capitalism—“imperialism”—in ways the Communists, as anti-capitalist, would not. This did not mean to be better nationalists than the nationalists. Socialism, let alone Marxism, was not meant to be a political ideology of “national liberation,” but rather of global political and social transformation, which was meant to better—and indeed truly, because more fundamentally able to—meet the needs of liberation from national oppression under capitalism.

Today, such specificities and true horizons of politics of social emancipation are lost in the “anti-imperialism” of the pseudo-“Left.” Today’s “Left” has more in common with the Indian National Army (INA), which sought help from the Japanese against the British during WWII. But this was not the Communist but rather the fascist version of “anti-imperialism.” It should not be the Left’s. (Indeed, Hitler hosted INA leader Subhas Chandra Bose in Berlin as a fellow “anti-imperialist.”) As the Burmese nationalist Aung San, father of democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi, put it, “The British sucked our blood, but the Japanese ground our bones.”1 Mao and his Chinese Communist Party celebrated their WWII allies U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The German and Japanese national-fascist oppositions to the U.K. and U.S.-led global capitalist “imperialist” order were no good. Neither are today’s oppositions.

Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose meets Adolf Hitler in 1942.

The question today is whether supposed “revolutionary” defeatism in the U.S. and “revolutionary” defensism in the targets of its military interventions, for example, will actually lead to socialist revolution or any kind of beneficial outcome in either the U.S. or those countries it attacks.

The Left must ask: What might be the actual political effects of a defeat for the U.S.?

It is a mistake perpetuated by the 1960s-era New Left, with its experience of the Vietnam anti-war movement, that somehow imperialist counterinsurgency must necessarily fail. Indeed, historically, counterinsurgencies have been far more successful than unsuccessful. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was quelled; so were the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions of 1850–64 and 1899–1901. The Boers were subdued in 1880–81 and 1899–1902. The U.K. maintained control of Iraq in the 1930s-40s; they waged a successful counter-insurgency against Communists in Malaysia after WWII. The U.S. was successful in rolling back peasant jacquerie in South Korea in 1950–53. The Greek Civil War 1946–49 resulted in defeat for the Communist insurgents.

The headline on page 1 of The Straits Times newspaper of 1 May 1952 stating: "NOW IT'S $250,000 FOR PUBLIC ENEMY No. 1—if brought in alive." The person referred to (and pictured) was Chin Peng, a long-time leader of the Malayan Communist Party who led a guerrilla insurgency during the Malayan Emergency and afterwards.

Furthermore, the question of political-military strategy regarding “imperialism” is not exhausted or even well informed by ostensible Left-Right distinctions. The U.S. supported the Maoist Communists in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, both in and out of power; the U.S. opposed the regime installed by Vietnamese Communist intervention in Cambodia in 1979 by supporting the Khmer Rouge—well after the revelation of the “killing fields”—just as they opposed the USSR-supported regime in Afghanistan with the Mujahideen Islamists. Maoists supported both out of “anti-imperialism,” which found the People’s Republic of China on the same side as the U.S. against “Soviet imperialism” (also in various wars in Africa). Most of the “Left” supported Solidarity in Poland as well. In these instances “anti-imperialism” worked: “Soviet imperialism” was defeated, and there was a “revolution” in the USSR and its Eastern European “sphere of influence.”

Should we expect something similar today regarding the U.S.-led world order? Will defeat for the U.S. in one of its military campaigns result in its collapse? Hardly.

For it would appear that the only instances in which “anti-imperialism” has ever been successful—including in the Russian and Chinese Revolutions—were when there was military support from a more powerful imperialist power: Germany against Russia in WWI; and the U.S. against Japan in WWII.

The mistake of “anti-imperialism” today is in its naturalization of all national states as existing political actors and as domains of potential political action. We are today well past the political compromises of Stalin’s strategy of “socialism in one country.”

However, the deeper history of Marxism, before Stalinism, may yet be instructive in certain ways. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacus League in WWI Germany was “revolutionary defeatist” regarding the German war policy. They did not regard the greater imperialist powers of the time and their alliance, the U.K., the U.S., France and Russia, as the greater enemies of potential progressive-emancipatory political and social change, but rather “the main enemy is at home” meant the German government. This did not mean that they “sided” with the other imperialist powers, as their political opponents—and ultimate executioners—on the German Right insisted. Neither did Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks side with Germany as the Russian nationalists and their Entente international allies averred. The Provisional Government, overthrown by the Bolshevik-led soviets, fled in a U.K. diplomatic car, but that didn’t change the fact that for Lenin and Trotsky the Russian nationalists were the “main enemy.” Luxemburg feared the political consequences of Lenin and Trotsky’s potential “embrace” of German imperialism in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk—what caused the Bolsheviks’ Russian “socialist” opponents to unleash a terrorist campaign against them, bombing Bolshevik Party headquarters and attempting to assassinate Lenin and the German ambassador—but Luxemburg nonetheless endorsed the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and their soviet government and joined the Third International they led.

The “Left” today is hardly up for the challenge posed by such political necessities, let alone the task of social revolution. “Anti-imperialism” today is not revolutionary but rather counter-revolutionary in that it is a species of the most powerful actually constituted counterrevolutionary political force, nationalism.

“Internationalism” is no longer what it was for Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Internationals, but is rather inter-nationalism, that is, conjunctural alliances between nationalisms, and not revolutionary anti-nationalism as it was historically for socialism and Marxism.

Defeatism and defensism today have no progressive-emancipatory political and social content either, for they are not “revolutionary” in any sense beyond, perhaps, the conventional and superficial one of “regime change.” Today’s “Left” agrees with the imperialists in their horizon of politics: the existing international system of national states. The “Left” today may be divided among and within the nation-states, between those who “side with” this or that government policy, but they are all on the same side of accommodating global capitalism—imperialism.

There is no real anti-imperialism, but only various forms of compromise with imperialism, which is regarded pejoratively to denounce merely this or that governmental policy, but is accepted at a deeper level as an unshakeable reality. However, historical Marxists once knew that it will not be possible to move beyond it on this basis.2 | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 60 (October 2013).


  1. Quoted in Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Defeat into Victory, Cassell & Co, 2nd edition, 1956. []
  2. See the Platypus Affiliated Society public fora on: “Imperialism: What is it, and why should we be against it?,” in January 2007, an edited transcript of which was published in Platypus Review 25 (July 2010), available online at: <http://platypus1917.org/2010/07/09/imperialism-what-is-it-why-should-we-be-against-it/>; and “What is imperialism? (What now?),” in April 2013, in Platypus Review 59 (September 2013), available online at: <http://platypus1917.org/2013/09/01/what-is-imperialism-what-now/>. []

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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Rousseau, Kant and Hegel

Revolution without Marx? Rousseau and his followers for the Left

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit S. Singh at the Left Forum 2013, Pace University, New York, June 9, 2013. Complete video and audio recordings of the panel discussion are available at: http://media.platypus1917.org/revolution-without-marx-rousseau-and-his-followers-for-the-left/

Introduction

Bourgeois society came into full recognition with Rousseau, who in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and On the Social Contract, opened its radical critique. Hegel wrote: “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau.” Marx quoted Rousseau favorably that “Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature… to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.” Rousseau posed the question of society, which Adorno wrote is a “concept of the Third Estate.” Marx recognized the crisis of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution and workers’ call for socialism. But proletarian socialism is no longer the rising force it was in Marx’s time. So what remains of thinking the unrealized radicalism of bourgeois society without Marx? Kant stated that if the potential of bourgeois society was not fully achieved as the “mid-point” of freedom then Rousseau may have been right to prefer savagery against civilization’s “glittering misery.” Nietzsche warned that we might continue to be “living at the expense of the future:” “Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely.” How have thinkers of the revolutionary epoch after Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Benjamin Constant, and Nietzsche himself, contributed to the possibility of emancipation in a world after Marxism?

Marx and Rousseau

Marx’s favorite quotation of Rousseau, from On the Social Contract, goes as follows:

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

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

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

What did Marx mean by “social powers” as opposed to the “political power” from which it has been “separated?” A key passage from Marx’s Grundrisse articulates well the new modern concept of freedom found in Rousseau:

[T]he ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious, or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production. In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers etc., of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature — those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature”? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which make the totality of this evolution — i.e., the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick — an end in itself? What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? In bourgeois political economy — and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds — this complete elaboration of what lies within man, appears as the total alienation, and the destruction of all fixed, one-sided purposes as the sacrifice of the end in itself to a wholly external compulsion. Hence in one way the childlike world of the ancients appears to be superior; and this is so, insofar as we seek for closed shape, form and established limitation. The ancients provide a narrow satisfaction, whereas the modern world leaves us unsatisfied, or, where it appears to be satisfied, with itself, is vulgar and mean.

As the intellectual historian and critic of Michel Foucault’s historicism, James Miller, put it in introduction to Rousseau,

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

Another contemporary intellectual historian, Louis Menand, writing in introduction to the republication of Edmund Wilson’s history of socialism To the Finland Station, described this new way of thinking in Marx and Engels as follows:

In premodern societies, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life: people do things in their generation so that the same things will continue to be done in the next generation. Meaning is immanent in all the ordinary customs and practices of existence, since these are inherited from the past, and are therefore worth reproducing. The idea is to make the world go not forward, only around. In modern societies, the ends of life are not given at the beginning of life; they are thought to be created or discovered. The reproduction of the customs and practices of the group is no longer the chief purpose of existence; the idea is not to repeat, but to change, to move the world forward. Meaning is no longer immanent in the practices of ordinary life, since those practices are understood by everyone to be contingent and time-bound. This is why death, in modern societies, is the great taboo, an absurdity, the worst thing one can imagine. For at the close of life people cannot look back and know that they have accomplished the task set for them at birth. This knowledge always lies up ahead, somewhere over history’s horizon. Modern societies don’t know what will count as valuable in the conduct of life in the long run, because they have no way of knowing what conduct the long run will find itself in a position to respect. The only certain knowledge death comes with is the knowledge that the values of one’s own time, the values one has tried to live by, are expunge-able. . . . Marxism gave a meaning to modernity. It said that, wittingly or not, the individual performs a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a trajectory, and that modernity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. Historical change is not arbitrary. It is generated by class conflict; it is faithful to an inner logic; it points toward an end, which is the establishment of the classless society. Marxism was founded on an appeal for social justice, but there were many forms that such an appeal might have taken. Its deeper attraction was the discovery of meaning, a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself. When [Edmund] Wilson explained, in his introduction to the 1972 edition of To the Finland Station, that his book had been written under the assumption that “an important step in progress has been made, that a fundamental ‘breakthrough’ had occurred,” this is the faith he was referring to. . . . Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment.

Peter Preuss, writing in introduction to Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, pointed out that,

Man, unlike animal, is self-conscious. He is aware that he is alive and that he must die. And because he is self-conscious he is not only aware of living, but of living well or badly. Life is not wholly something that happens to man; it is also something he engages in according to values he follows. Human existence is a task. . . . The 19th century had discovered history and all subsequent inquiry and education bore the stamp of this discovery. This was not simply the discovery of a set of facts about the past but the discovery of the historicity of man: man, unlike animal, is a historical being. Man is not wholly the product of an alien act, either natural or divine, but in part produces his own being. The task of existing is a task precisely because it is not a case of acting according to a permanent nature or essence but rather of producing that nature within the limitations of a situation. History is the record of this self-production; it is the activity of a historical being recovering the past into the present which anticipates the future.

Lifting the task of human freedom in modern society out of its current historical obscurity today is difficult precisely because we have reverted to regarding ourselves as products of an “alien act,” and so proceed according to a model of “social justice” owing to the Ancients’ “closed . . . form and established limitation” that loses Marxism’s specific consciousness of society in history. But such consciousness of history was not at all original to Marxism but rather had roots in the antecedent development of the self-conscious thought of emergent bourgeois society in the 18th century, beginning with Rousseau and elaborated by his followers Kant and Hegel. The radicalism of bourgeois thought conscious of itself was an essential assumption of Marxism, which sought to carry forward the historical project of freedom.

If, as Menand put it, Marx and Engels were “philosophes of a Second Enlightenment” in the 19th century, then what of the 18th century Enlightenment of which Rousseau was perhaps the most notorious philosophe? What remains of this 18th century legacy for the struggle to emancipate society today?

Rousseau in the 18th century

The Classicism of the 18th century Enlightenment had its distinctive melancholy, already, reaching back in historical fragments, broken remnants of Ancient forms, for inspiration to the modern task of freedom. Rilke, at the turn of the 20th century, expressed this wistful sense of modern freedom in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo:”

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

The scholar of German Idealist philosophy, Robert Pippin, wrote that, after Kant’s critical turn,

some new way of conceiving of philosophy adequate to the realization of the radically historical nature of the human condition was now necessary[.] . . . The problem of understanding properly (especially critically) conceptual, artistic, and social change was henceforth at the forefront[.]

This new conception was found in Rousseau. Rousseau wrote that while animals were machines wound up for functioning in a specific natural environment, humans could regard and reflect upon their own machinery and thus change it. This was Rousseau’s radical notion of “perfectibility” which was not in pursuit of an ideal of perfection but rather open-ended in infinite adaptability. Unlike animal species, humans could adapt themselves to live in any environment and thus transform “outer nature” to suit them, thus transforming as well their own “inner nature,” giving rise to ever-new possibilities. This was the new conception of freedom, not freedom to be according to a fixed natural or Divine form, but rather freedom to transform and realize new potential possibilities, to become new and different, other than what we were before.

Rousseau and Kant

Rousseau understood the most radical possibilities of freedom-in-transformation to take place in society, the site of new and “alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.” Rousseau described this as the sacrifice of “natural liberty” for “moral freedom,” the freedom to act in unnatural ways. For Rousseau, such freedom was radically ambivalent: it could be for good or for ill. However, the problem of society in which humanity had fallen could only be “solved” socially, not individually. This is why Rousseau was liable to be read later antinomically, as either anarchist or authoritarian: Rousseau gave expression to the radical ambiguity of freedom as it was revealed in modern society, the crossroads of civilization that bourgeois society represented. As Kant put it, in his “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View” written in 1784, the same year as his famous essay answering the question, “What is Enlightenment?,”

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

Rousseau was profoundly inspirational for Kant with respect to the fundamental “philosophical” issue of the relation of theory and practice. Specifically, Rousseau originated the modern dialectic of theory and practice, what Rousseau called their “reflective” and Kant called their “speculative” relation. In Kant’s First Critique, the Critique of Pure Reason, and his summary of his argument there and reply to critics of it, the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Kant articulated the “conditions of possibility” for concepts or categories of understanding as being those of practice.

What this meant in Kant was that, while “things-in-themselves” were inaccessible to us, things do become objects of our theoretical understanding, by virtue of being objects of our practical engagement: Objects were “concrete” in the sense of being concretions of the various practical and thus conceptual relations we have with them. Furthermore, as Hegel put it, in the Science of Logic, objects were not “identical” with themselves — there was a non-identity of an object and its own concept — because they were subject to transformed, that is, changed, practices. So, objects were not approximations of always inaccurate theoretical models of conceptual understanding, but our concepts change as a function of changes in practice that were nonetheless informed by theoretical concepts. Concepts were “inductive” rather than “deductive” because they were not abstractions from empirical observation as generalizations from experience, but rather objects were “concretions of abstractions” in the sense of being determined in a web of practical relations. Rationalist metaphysics had a real basis in issues of practice. Furthermore, such practical relations were social in nature, as well as subject to historical change, change which is brought about subjectively by agents of practice who transform themselves in the process of transforming objects. What objects are for subjects changes as a function of changing practical relations.

In his essay “What is Enlightenment?,” Kant had articulated a distinction between “public” and “private” reason in order to demonstrate that, enmeshed in the web of practical relations in society, we are condemned to exercise merely “private reason” in pursuit of our self-interest as individual “cogs in the machine” of society. It was only in the exercise of “public reason” that we were potentially free of such self-interest determined by our positions in society, to exercise reason as “anyone” — as any rational subject or any political citizen — from a position transcendent of such compromised interested practice. For Kant, such exercise of “public reason” expressed, however indirectly, the possibility of changes in social practice: the way things “ought” to be as opposed to how they “are” at present.

Hegel and the philosophy of history

Hegel built upon Kant and Rousseau in his pursuit of the “philosophy of history” of accounting for such change in freedom, or “reason in history.” The issue of Hegelianism is a notoriously but ultimately needlessly difficult one: how to include the “subjective factor in history.” Hegel’s sense of the actuality of the rational in the real turns on the relation of essence and appearance, or, with what necessity things appear as they do. What is essential is what is practical, and what is practical is subjective as well as objective. In this view, theoretical reflection on the subjective dimension of experience must use metaphysical categories that are not merely handy but actually constitutive of social practices in which one is a subject.

Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, had raised a hypothetical “state of nature” in order to throw his contemporary society into critical relief. In so doing, Rousseau sought to bring society closer to a “state of nature.” Liberal, bourgeois society was a model and an aspiration for Rousseau. For Rousseau, it was human “nature” to be free. Humans achieved a higher “civil liberty” of “moral freedom” in society than they could enjoy as animals, with mere “physical” freedom in nature. Indeed, as animals, humans are not free, but rather slaves to their natural needs and instincts. Only in society could freedom be achieved, and humans free themselves from their natural, animal condition. When Rousseau was writing, in the mid-18th century, the promise of freedom in bourgeois society was still on the horizon. Bourgeois society aspired to proximity to the “state of nature” in the sense of bringing humanity, both individually and collectively, closer to its potential, to better realize its freedom.

For Rousseau, in his reflections On the Social Contract, society exhibited a “general will,” not reducible to its individual members: more than the sum of its parts. Not Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” but rather a “second nature,” a rebirth of potential, both collectively and individually. Human nature found the realization of its freedom in society, but humans were free to develop and transform themselves, for good or for ill. For Rousseau and the 18th century revolutionaries he inspired, to bring society closer to the “state of nature,” then, was to allow humanity’s potential to be better realized. But, first, society had to be clear about its aims, in practice as well as in theory. Rousseau was the first to articulate this new, modern task of social freedom.

The question Rousseau poses, then, is the speculative or dialectical relation of theory and practice, today. How might we raise the originally Rousseauian question of critical-theoretical reflection on our practices, from within the conditions of “second nature” that express our condition of freedom — including our self-imposed conditions of unfreedom? That is the issue of “public reason” today, as much as it was in Rousseau’s time.

As Hegel put it, in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History,

When we look at this drama of human passions, and observe the consequences of their violence and of the unreason that is linked not only to them but also (and especially) to good intentions and rightful aims; when we see arising from them all the evil, the wickedness, the decline of the most flourishing nations mankind has produced, we can only be filled with grief for all that has come to nothing. And since this decline and fall is not merely the work of nature but of the will of men, we might well end with moral outrage over such a drama, and with a revolt of our good spirit (if there is a spirit of goodness in us). Without rhetorical exaggeration, we could paint the most fearful picture of the misfortunes suffered by the noblest of nations and states as well as by private virtues — and with that picture we could arouse feelings of the deepest and most helpless sadness, not to be outweighed by any consoling outcome. We can strengthen ourselves against this, or escape it, only by thinking that, well, so it was at one time; it is fate; there is nothing to be done about it now. And finally — in order to cast off the tediousness that this reflection of sadness could produce in us and to return to involvement in our own life, to the present of our own aims and interests — we return to the selfishness of standing on a quiet shore where we can be secure in enjoying the distant sight of confusion and wreckage. . . . But as we contemplate history as this slaughter-bench, upon which the happiness of nations, the wisdom of states, and the virtues of individuals were sacrificed, the question necessarily comes to mind: What was the ultimate goal for which these monstrous sacrifices were made? . . . World history is the progress in the consciousness of freedom — a progress that we must come to know in its necessity. . . . [T]he Orientals knew only that one person is free; the Greeks and Romans that some are free; while we [moderns] know that all humans are implicitly free, qua human. . . . The final goal of the world, we said, is Spirit’s consciousness of its freedom, and hence also the actualization of that very freedom. . . . It is this final goal — freedom — toward which all the world’s history has been working. It is this goal to which all the sacrifices have been brought upon the broad altar of the earth in the long flow of time.

Hopefully, still. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 61 (November 2013).

Platypus “position” on “imperialism”

Chris Cutrone

Submitted as a letter to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) Weekly Worker on May 21, 2013, and published there in slightly edited form on May 30, 2013.

We in Platypus have been called out for taking an alleged at least tacit “pro-imperialist” political position. The CPGB’s Mike Macnair and others have characterized our expressed opinion, that we “did not support” the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and Libya), as implying that we also “did not oppose” them. This is untrue.

The Spartacists, for example, take the position of “no political support” for Right-wing military forces against the U.S. and its allies. But what they really wanted in Iraq was not the military and political victory of the insurgency against the occupation, but rather a meteorite to hit the Green Zone. But this was not a political position. For what the Spartacists among others wanted was a military defeat for the U.S. government et al. without this being a concomitant political victory for the Iraqi Right — former Baathists and Sunni and Shia Islamists. Let’s not mince words: such forces are the Right, at least as much as the U.S. government and its allies are. It is not the case that somehow the action of Baathists and Sunni and Shia Islamists increased democratic possibilities in Iraq against the U.S. government and allied occupation.

The actual Iraqi Left — the Iraqi Communist Party and Worker-communist Party of Iraq — chose politically not to mount its own let alone join in the existing military forces occasionally opposing the U.S. government and allied occupation, but rather to oppose the latter as well as the former in other ways, through working class organizing and strike action, to some limited success, for instance in preventing the privatization of the Iraqi oil industry. The international Left largely scorned them, in favor of a fantastical imagined “anti-imperialist” insurgency, which was not that but rather an ethno-religious sectarian-communal civil war among forces targeting each other far more than they targeted the U.S. government and its allies, jockeying for a position within the occupation and its political settlement, not against it.

The question is one’s attitude towards the state. One can oppose the police politically without thinking that withdrawing them from poor neighborhoods immediately is a good idea. Should street gangs take over in their place? And the gang example is quite instructive, since they fight against each other more than they do against the state, with which they strike a modus vivendi. One might imagine that police withdrawal and gang takeover opens possibilities for working class democratic action, but it doesn’t, since the very gangs that the police once fought against, however weakly, would simply be enlisted by the police once the working class took any action that the greater ruling class needed to oppose. This is because the gangs are part of the capitalist system. Indeed, they are a constant resource for the state and for the capitalist class, not an opposition — let alone a democratic one — to it. This is seen simply in how the capitalist ruling class recruits its members from among literal gangsters, historically and up to the present. “Gangs” are merely less politically successful capitalists. This is why, for instance, the capitalist state constantly seeks to characterize labor unions as “gangsters,” as labor “racketeers” — which indeed they do degenerate into, with more or less respectability as junior capitalists, without the struggle for socialism.

The same is true regarding supposed “anti-imperialist” politics. In Iraq, the former Baathists, and Sunni and Shia traditionalists and Islamists may have opposed the U.S. government and its allies on occasion and over specific issues, but they were not in any way anti-imperialist. They were at best petit-bourgeois democrats, at worst sectarian communalists and (at least quasi-)fascists. They could and indeed have in fact provided local political leadership and power-structures that serve global capitalism and oppose the interests of workers both locally and internationally. Just because they and the U.S. government and its allies might oppose each other occasionally does not mean that they express fundamentally different social forces. They are all pro-capitalist, and all anti-democratic.

Moreover, the phenomenon of geographical regions relatively lacking in the stable rule of bourgeois law-and-order is not only not particularly good for the workers and other democratic interests locally, but also not elsewhere, since it contributes to the potential political degradation everywhere, for instance by justifying greater police repression elsewhere to contain the zones of disorder. Those who think that local disorder is good are giving in to at best nationalist politics (whether or not dressed up as ideologically different from this, for instance in religious garb), not promoting the global liberation of the working class or the increased democratic self-determination of society.

So the question is not whether Platypus opposed U.S. et al. imperialism, but rather why we thought that the Left suffered from a glaring lack of adequate perspectives on how to actually politically oppose imperialist aggression. Platypus was founded in response to the failure of the anti-war movement, and we were motivated to host the conversation on the potential political reasons for this. This was slandered by the existing, failing Left as somehow opposing the anti-war movement, where what we opposed was its fatal misleadership. And we wanted to open the broadest possible discussion of the problem of such misleadership. It is not an accident that we hosted our first public forum as a conversation between various different anti-imperialist perspectives. Only a deliberate distortion of the facts can characterize our project otherwise.

We in Platypus opposed the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and more recently in Libya. We only questioned how they could be opposed that would not further degrade the workers and other democratic interests politically. We felt that the anti-war movement’s misleadership opened it to criticisms by liberals and social democrats who indeed supported the war that the anti-war movement couldn’t adequately answer let alone win over. And it is indeed the task of a true Left to win over or at least neutralize such ostensibly democratic politics — not to provide “Leftist” rationalizations for some temporary and opportunistic oppositions that might occasionally come from the hard-bitten Right of nationalists or worse. It is not for the Left to make common cause with the Right against the Center, for the Right is even more consistently pro-imperialist — pro-capitalist — than the liberals and social democrats are.

That’s the truth the current (mis)leading “Left” can’t face, and so they attack Platypus instead for pointing this out. We say, “The Left is dead!” because it’s become a protest-demonstration organizing gang for time-servers in a membership-dues racket. Of course they object to the unmasking of their ideological adaptation to and political complicity, however minor, with the capitalist status quo. We say, “Long live the Left!” because it is long since past time to stop regarding the capitalist system’s disreputable elements as some emancipatory force, substituting this for what does not yet but needs to exist politically.

— Chris Cutrone, Platypus Affiliated Society
 


“I’ve got the poison — I’ve got the remedy!”

The mass psychology of capitalist democracy

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Isaac Balbus and Marilyn Nissim-Sabat at the conference Which Way Forward for Psychoanalysis?, held at the University of Chicago, May 18, 2013. The panel description is as follows: The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described all history as a “gruesome dominion of nonsense and accident,” and regarded political democracy as only “the nonsense of the ‘greatest number.’” Perhaps he was right. Yet, throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Leftists had assumed that democracy made radical social transformation a near inevitability. The great majority, they thought, would surely pursue their own interest in social emancipation if allowed political participation in society. As the 20th century unfolded and this did not take place, there arose a psychoanalytic tradition that attempted to grapple with this failure. Wilhelm Reich, an exemplar of this tradition, wrote in 1933: “At the bottom of the failure to achieve a genuine social revolution lies the failure of the masses of the people: They reproduce the ideology and forms of life of political reaction in their own structures and thereby in every new generation.” While much has changed in the intervening 80 years, certain fundamentals remain the same: the people rule, but the politics of democracy evidence forms of mass irrationality, not the desire for emancipation. Can psychoanalysis, in the best tradition of the political Freudians, help us to better understand and potentially move beyond this situation? In the 20th century, Leftists around the world attempted to bring about socialism, but failed. Revolutionary movements betrayed their own goals, and those who seemed to have the most to gain from the success of revolutionary politics sided with reaction. Marxist parties created police states, and workers followed the leadership of racist demagogues. The right to participate in elections was secured, but today socialism seems less possible than ever. The intention of this panel is to explore why the political enfranchisement of the working class has not led to socialism, and whether the insights of psychoanalysis are relevant to answering this question. (A full audio recording can be found at: https://archive.org/details/CutroneMasspsychologycapitalistdemocracy051813.)

Opening remarks

The Frankfurt School in the 1920s-30s incorporated the categories of Freudian psychoanalysis as descriptive of the mediation of the contradiction of the commodity form in individual consciousness. This critical appropriation of psychoanalytic categories was in response to the collapse of preceding forms of political mediation in which the contradictions of capitalism manifested, for instance between socialism and liberalism.

Freudian categories were not meant to supplement let alone replace Marxian critical-theoretical categories for the Frankfurt School, but rather psychoanalytic approaches to psychology were themselves regarded as symptoms of social-historical development — and crisis. In other words, the question was why had not Marx, Hegel or Kant, among others, developed a theory of unconscious mental processes, prior to Freud? And why had Freud’s theory of the unconscious emerged when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th century. (The closest to a registration of the psychological unconscious was by William James, also in the late 19th century, roughly contemporaneously with but in ignorance of Freud. — One must place to one side the earlier Romantic conception by Schelling, which had a different concern, not psychological but rather philosophical and moreover theological.) Furthermore, why had Freudian psychoanalysis achieved widespread currency and plausibility when it did, in the early-mid 20th century? And, what changes had occurred in the meaning and purchase of Freudian psychoanalysis, especially with respect to the so-called “neo-Freudian revisionism” after Freud, but also regarding Freud’s later, “metapsychological” speculations?

What such concerns raised by the Frankfurt School — what Marcuse called the “obsolescence of the Freudian concept of man” — was the transformation of society that took place in the late 19th and early-mid 20th century, and how this related to the failure of Marxism, politically — the failure of the revolution 1917-19. This was the lodestar for the Frankfurt School’s perspective on history, the key period 1848-1917, through which they considered the problems of modern society. This is found especially in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which was focused on the mid-19th century moment, circa 1848, as anticipating the 20th century. It was as part of this project that Benjamin wrote his famous “Theses on the philosophy of history,” actually titled “On the concept of history,” the aphorisms which were to serve as prolegomena to the Arcades Project as a whole. It was there that Benjamin engaged Freudian psychoanalytic categories most extensively, building upon and deepening his investigation into the melancholy of modernity that he had previously charted in his work on Proust and Kafka.

As a symptom of what Freud called a “narcissistic disorder” — that is, an inability and problematic form of self-love — melancholia challenged Freud’s clinical concept of the ego: Freud thought that melancholia was perhaps beyond psychoanalytic therapy’s effectiveness. This was because for Freud the therapeutic process of transference was short-circuited by the patient’s identification that was problematically projective and prevented the relation to another — the therapist — as an other. The other was both too closely and too distantly related; the difference was too great and too little.

Such projective identification was found by Benjamin in Baudelaire’s work, about which Benjamin wrote that, “Here it is the commodity itself that speaks.” This has been mistakenly read as meaning merely that Baudelaire was granting subjectivity to commodities as articles of consumption, whereas for Benjamin the critical point was rather that the speaker was a commodity. As Adorno put it in a letter to Benjamin about his work on Baudelaire, “The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness.” That is, for Adorno, the commodity form of subjectivity is the very source of consciousness — of self-consciousness in the Hegelian sense. Benjamin wrote that the commodity is the most empathic thing imaginable, in that it only realizes its being-in-itself through being-for-another, however ambivalently. Adorno wrote to Benjamin that this is a function of both “desire and fear.”

Such ambivalence was fundamental to Freud’s conception of the primordial origins of the psyche: the primary narcissism’s originary wounding encounter with parental authority, with the first other, the mother. It is the introduction of the third figure of the father that for Freud allows for others to be others, in an essential triad that interrupts the original dyad of mother-and-child. The further relation with which the child must reckon, between the mother and father, or of the other with another, was key for Freud to the development of a balanced sense of self that transcended the reversible and ambivalent projective identification with the primary care giver in infancy. Overcoming the threat to the relation to the mother that the father represents in the Oedipus complex also overcomes the narcissistic identification that threatens to obliterate the nascent sense of self in the infantile merging with the other. Until the introduction of this essential third, the danger is the radical ambivalence regarding difference, which is perceived as a deadly threat: the fear of as well as the desire to obliterate the psyche represented by the mother as object of both love and hate.

For Freud such primordial originary narcissism subsists in later psychical development: it is enlisted and transformed in the process of being transcended. However, there is occasion for regressing to this primary narcissistic state: there are traumas that overwhelm the fragile development of the ego, beyond its original — and originally problematic — narcissism, returning it to that condition. It was not coincidental that Freud turned his attention to the question of melancholia and narcissism in the context of WWI and the traumas experienced there, in which Freud found a model for penetrating the developmental sources for narcissistic disorders such as melancholia.

The Marxist appropriation of Freud’s clinical theory of primary narcissism by Benjamin and Adorno was in the social context of the contradictions of capitalism that overwhelmed the sense of self in the ego. The Freudian therapeutic question of “Why did I do that?” was overwhelmed in the contradictory social dynamics of capitalism, in which the responsible individual was both demanded and rendered intolerable. WWI only expressed in drastic form the fundamental character of the situation of the human being in modern capitalism. For the Frankfurt School, modern society already by the mid-19th century was contradictory respecting individual human beings, and this found expression and registration in the very phenomenon of “psychology” itself — the self-contradictory character of the logic of the psyche. Freud’s apprehension of the contradiction between consciousness and “unconscious mental processes” expressed this in acute form, and was itself regarded by Benjamin and Adorno as a phenomenon of society. But Freud’s desirable intention to strengthen the resources for the individual psyche was rendered utopian — impossible — in modern society. As Freud himself observed in one of his earliest published reflections on analytic therapy, however, this was society’s problem — therapy may produce individuals with demands that society cannot meet. But these demands were socially legitimate even if they remained denied. A contradiction of capitalism was found in the contradiction between the individual and society in a very precise sense.

Now, what were the political ramifications and implications of this? The Frankfurt School Critical Theorists were keen to recognize those political forms that appealed to the abdication of the responsibility of the individual through problematic narcissistic identification, short-circuiting the ego, and seemingly justifying the condition of paranoid ambivalence — both desire and fear for objects of simultaneous hate and love — what Anna Freud termed “identification with the aggressor” in society. This was a dynamic that the Frankfurt School thinkers found as well in “revolutionary politics” — perhaps especially so, in that fascism offered a form of social revolution in mobilizing the masses for political action, however reactionary.

But the problem ran deeper than the dramatic outward expression of fascism. As Wilhelm Reich pointed out, the “fear of freedom” was characteristic of the “average unpolitical person,” who was nonetheless “authoritarian” in psychical comportment. So, what was necessary, then, was recognizing the unconscious authoritarianism of the individual’s condition in modern society.

For Adorno, this was to be found in the form of identification not only with overt fascist demagogy but also with what his friend and mentor Siegfried Kracauer called the “inconspicuous surface-level expressions” of everyday social life and its mass-cultural forms, what Adorno called the psychical “pattern” that was found in exaggerated, acute form in fascist “propaganda,” but was not qualitatively or essentially different from commercial advertising. Adorno found a constitutive ambivalence there, in which the subject found pleasure in the conformist “going along” with the lie while still recognizing it as false: the psychical satisfaction in the “will to believe” in what one knew to be false.

Adorno characterized this as simultaneously looking up and down at the object of authority, placing oneself above and below it. The pleasure of the audience for fascist propaganda was in the combined admiration and contempt for the demagogue, who was not only exalted but also degraded in the viewer’s estimation. When confronted by his friend Karl Jaspers about the Nazi mistreatment of his Jewish wife, Heidegger replied that Hitler had “such wonderful hands.” In this the demagogical “leader” was an object of projective identification for the subject: the subject rehearsed his own overestimation of himself and self-derogation, not merely in sharing the mentality of the propaganda, as both idealized and unworthy, but in recognizing one’s own contemptible character in granting the demagogy a hearing, let alone authority. The pleasure in fascist buffoonery is precisely in its ridiculousness that is nonetheless performed in earnest — with deadly seriousness. This was the authentically democratic basis for fascism — in the psychology of the masses, who, acting precisely as a “mass,” abdicated their actual democratic responsibility for political authority.

As Tocqueville put it, in a democracy the people gets the government it deserves. This was rendered paradoxical in modern capitalism, in that the public disavows responsibility for the leaders that it nonetheless elects, in this way reinforcing the authoritarianism one would otherwise deplore: it is what one really wants in the abdication for responsibility that renders one actually contemptible. One’s desire is unworthy. The authoritarian ritual is the rehearsal of this political abdication, what Reich called the “fear of freedom.” In the Frankfurt School’s time, the masses failed to make the revolution, which meant that they deserved the fascist reaction, but felt that they could both blame and punish the revolutionaries for the reaction that followed as well as disclaim responsibility for fascism, feeling “misled” by it. But the point is that they misled themselves, precisely through indulging the paranoiac mentality of fascism in which the narcissistic ego could lose itself, a bitter but nonetheless comforting pleasure of regressing through the dissolution of individual identity in the fascist mass. As Benjamin pointed out, fascism gave the masses an opportunity to “express themselves,” but only by abdicating themselves. This is true not only of fascism, but is endemic in modern politics.

An example from U.S. politics will suffice to demonstrate how this works today, despite the absence of revolutionary political crisis. When the President gives his State of the Union address to Congress and the wider public, he is flanked behind by his Vice President as leader of the Senate and by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Moreover, the Justices of the Supreme Court as well as the members of Congress are present, with certain hand-picked representatives of the public also in the audience.

In each case, the television viewers have audience members in attendance as proxy observers, whose reactions serve as cues. This goes to the most absurd ritual practiced at these events, the applause that punctuates the President’s speech. It is entirely predictable which “side of the aisle” — which representatives of the two parties, Republicans and Democrats — will applaud or give a standing ovation to particular statements in the speech. The rehearsed, mechanical quality of such audience responses demonstrate the political contentlessness of the President’s speech: the reactions are not to the President’s policies but rather to his power; one waits for what the President will say in suspense, but there will be no surprise, or, if something startling is said then this will be in expectation of a stumble rather than a prerogative. There is an embarrassed awkwardness attending such occasions of public power. For it is not the President’s power that is being rehearsed so much as his powerlessness — at least in any substantial matter of change. One expects and responds only to the performance, not the policy. Did the President give a good speech? What were the benchmarks of the speech’s success? Not the President as policy-maker but as speech-giver. The humiliating performance of the President provides for the public’s abasement of the political power to which they are nonetheless subject. Indeed, whenever unexpected Presidential action is taken, it is almost always unpopular and regarded as a misstep: one thinks of the Iraq invasion and the TARP economic bailout and stimulus measures. The President is radically divided between person and role: the role is granted unrealistic authority; the person debased.

The rating on performance expresses and reinforces the conservatism of such phenomena. One witnesses the drama more or less indulgently towards all the participants; one indulges oneself in the rehearsal, but with a combination of radically opposed values: enthrallment and circumspect distance. One knows that it is merely a performance, but a performance that is granted a spurious substance, like a sports game, with all the passions of fandom. One watches not only the President and his audience, but also oneself, ambivalently. The enigma of power remains intact, its authority unpenetrated. The effects of policy and hence the consequential character of politics remain unclear, and this suits the viewers perfectly well, as it provides solace for their abdication of responsibility. Everyone does what is expected, but no one takes action. The people get the government that they not only actually but importantly feel themselves to deserve, one which simultaneously flatters and humiliates them, and in ways that allow them to hide and lose themselves in the process, disappearing into an anonymous public, which also preserves themselves, narcissistically — allows them to be “subjects” without risking themselves, either psychologically or politically.

In a classic moment for the concerns of Freudian psychoanalysis, the social subject and hence society remains opaque to itself: the therapeutic question, “Why did I do that?” is occluded by the unasked question of politics, “What have we done?” | §

A “rational kernel” of racism?

A reply to disingenuous “critics”

Chris Cutrone

 

 
I must speak to my alleged “rational kernel of racism” comment, which has been deliberately distorted in its meaning. I did not mean that somehow it is reasonable or otherwise acceptable to be racist.

By this statement I was applying Marx’s comment about the “rational kernel” of the Hegelian dialectic, which aimed to take it seriously and demystify it, not debunk or dismiss it. The same is true in addressing racism as ideology — as the “necessary form of appearance” of social reality. I was trying to address the issue of supposed “racism” in terms of the Marxist tradition of “ideology-critique,” or the immanently dialectical critique of ideological forms of appearance, or, explained more plainly, the critique from within of ideologies according to their own self-contradictions, in the interest of seeking how they might be changed.

In this, I follow Wilhelm Reich, who wrote in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/46) that Marxists had failed to recognize the “progressive character of fascism” — by which he meant of course not that fascism was itself progressive (Reich was a Communist), but that fascism was a new ideology that met a new historical situation more successfully than Marxism did, and that Marxists were wrong to dismiss fascism as irrational, by which they tried to alibi their own failure to do better politically. The point was why did members of the working class, to whatever degree, support an ideology that was against their interests? Reich thought that Marxists needed to be more like Marx in his critique of ideology.

So, what I meant by the “rational kernel of racism” was the need to address why otherwise rational people would have racist ideologies. It won’t do, I think, to try to dismiss racism as irrational. Rather, the question is, why are people racist? What social realities do racist ideologies express? What social needs are expressed, in however distorted form, by racist ideologies? For it is not a matter that those with racist attitudes have them in their own self-interest. Quite the contrary, it is against their better interests.

In other words, I think that racist ideologies need to be addressed not as straightforward expressions of interests, which concedes too much to the realities of competition of some workers against others, but rather as phenomena of self-contradiction, of living in a self-contradictory society, “capitalism,” which is something real that needs to be changed, not merely ethically deplored, and moreover changed from within: as Lenin put it, capitalism needs to be overcome “on the basis of capitalism itself;” as Marx thought, according to capitalism’s internal contradictions. Racist ideologies need to be regarded as part of this.

However, it must be admitted that nowadays racist ideologies are not nearly as centrally important a part of the social reality of capitalism as they once were. Racism is no longer considered anywhere near as reasonable as it once was. And this is a good thing — though it does present challenges to the “Left’s” own ideologies about the nature and character of social reality. Culturalism is not the same as racism, and what is often called “racism” today is actually culturalism, not biologically based: such cultural chauvinism would also be subject to a Marxist ideology-critique as a phenomenon of capitalism.

Beyond that, there is the issue of the actual politics of “anti-racism,” which my old mentor Adolph Reed has helpfully pointed out leads nowhere today, and so recommends junking present strategies of “anti-racist politics,” in favor of struggling against the concrete social and political disadvantages people face. There’s no point to a “politics” that tries to change people’s attitudes, where the real issue is material circumstances. But it does suit the “Left” today very well, in its own subcultural lifestyle consumerist taste community and paranoid authoritarian moral hectoring to focus on racist attitudes, as a substitute for real politics. | §

Published as part of a letter to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) Weekly Worker, June 6, 2013.

The legacy of the 1980s Left

2013 annual Platypus President’s report

Chris Cutrone

At the 2013 Platypus Affiliated Society’s (PAS) annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago April 5–7, Chris Cutrone, President of the PAS, delivered the following presentation, which has been edited for clarity. A full video recording is available online at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeNM87ztYlg>.

The 1980s were the time in which the New Left hunkered down for a “march through the institutions” after the failure of the countercultural revolution of 1968 and the economic crisis of the 1970s to transform society in emancipatory directions. These institutions included both academic higher education and the labor movement (as well as other civil-society “non-governmental organizations”): in some cases, it also meant joining the mainstream political parties, attempting to “transform them from within.”

What this meant was a disintegration of the “Left” into: 1.) “activism,” attempting to be the most militant participants in and thus leadership or at least “Left pole of attraction” in various social and political movements; and 2.) “academicism,” attempting to reproduce and perpetuate the radicalization of students through posing and participating in higher education as a permanent counter-culture. The former as well as the latter, however, meant the institutionalization of the “Left,” but not as a form of political organization so much as a permanently organized anti-politics, an institutionalization of the liquidation of politics that had already taken place prior to the 1960s: what C. Wright Mills, among others, had decried in the “death of ideology.” Adorno warned of “brutal practicism” and the “instrumentalization of theory,” what he considered the long playing out of the aftermath of the 1930s-40s, in similar terms to Mills’s.

After the 1980s, this has become wholly naturalized, almost entirely invisible to later generations. Indeed, it is only visible, as it had been already to Mills and Adorno in the 1950s-60s, by contrasting the present with history: where Mills no less than Adorno clearly discerned the missing element in terms of Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg, our present further distance means that we cannot clearly discern this phenomenon as even a liberal like Mills and not only Marxists such as Adorno could. This says something of the liquidation of liberalism, too, and not merely Marxism, in the history leading to our time.

So, the liberal vocations of both civic activism and education, both non-state phenomena of the bourgeois public sphere, stand in serious doubt: the “neo-liberal era” has been decidedly illiberal and not merely anti-Marxist in precisely these domains. University education evinces this especially. What Clement Greenberg had warned already in the 1930s about “Alexandrianism” has been underway for some considerable time. (In recent discussion on our members’ list, Spencer has pointed out the collapse of university education already visible in Hegel’s time, and certainly for Marx.) The medieval institution with its guild structure cannot revert unscathed after bourgeois emancipation, but must be less than it was before: the postmodernist wish for perpetual medievalism, that “we were never modern,” is a vain one: any Left must face the barbarism of our time. The 1980s has contributed to the blindness to this, naturalizing barbarism, in ways that that must be overcome. But first they must be recognized.

What was clear already to Adorno in the 1940s as the “racketeering” of the labor movement can be said of all vestigial civil society institutions. What shocked and outraged the 1960s generation about the collusion of civil society in the politics of the state (during the Cold War) is now a matter of course. A curious reversal has thus taken place: whereas once the demand, from the 1960s through the ’80s, was to assert the independence of, e.g., institutions of higher education from the state (or labor unions from war policy), now it appears that activists attempt to influence state policies through contesting civil society. One sees this in the current BDS campaign against Israel, for instance, which is a direct descendant of 1980s activism such as anti-apartheid solidarity campaigns. This is rather hopeless. For what was once regarded as an unfortunate compromise owing to prevailing Right-wing conditions and was hence considered temporary has now become the only imagination of possible politics, permanently conceived. “Academic Leftism” has rendered not only the academic supposedly “Left” but has made the “Left” academic, in both senses of the term. Ideology is entirely superfluous, and so what Mills warned about the “end of ideology” being the end of politics has only come true in ways he scarcely imagined. The New Left didn’t reverse this trend, as Mills had hoped, but institutionalized it.

The labor movement itself has long been condemned to acting merely in its own self-interest, as a form of social corporatism: its almost entirely defensive struggles in the last four decades have contributed to this.

So, what happened in the 1980s that led to the present impasse?

Not only did 1968 not bring revolution but brought Nixon instead, so did the 1970s not bring about the deepening radicalization of society owing to the crisis of both the counterculture and the economy, but rather Reagan and Thatcher. Elsewhere, where it appeared to issue into an institutionalization of the “Left,” it actually brought about a more obscure hence pernicious Right-wing development: for instance, Mitterand’s Socialist Party in France, in which many New Leftists joined up. In the U.S., many former New Leftists joined up with the Democratic Party, also seeking ostensibly to transform it from within. They did, but as a function of neoliberalism, not the “resistance” to it they imagined, but rather through “multiculturalism” etc., updating the longstanding ethnic political machine racket of the Democrats.

The 2nd Cold War of the 1980s was experienced by the 1960s generation as a return of McCarthyism. But this alibied their own adaptation to prevailing society, their own Right-wing tendencies. Already, by 1979, the post-’60s “Left” had adapted to the Right in significant and today well entrenched ways. Support for the Islamic Revolution in Iran as well as opposition to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, as causes célèbres of the time, was accompanied by less stark representations of the politically Right-wing tendencies, such as the support for African nationalism in the anti-apartheid struggle, today cruelly exposed for what it always was, not only with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe but in South Africa itself, and indeed in the Central American solidarity movement facilitated by enthusiasm for “Liberation Theology.”

Those coming of age according to the “Left” in the 1980s faced an academic as well as political culture well defined by 2 figures that had started out as contrasting each other in the late 1960s-early ’70s: Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. The 1980s reconciled them, not in terms of their own thought but rather in their reception: an etiolated (sub-)”anarchism,” as well as a taste for abject suffering, united them.

But in academic and bohemian intellectual culture, it goes far beyond these venerable standard bearers: indeed, it only gets worse, with Giorgio Agamben’s “homo sacer” and the collapse of Althusserian “materialism” into Badiou’s “anarchic equality” neo-Scholastic ontology and a second wind for Deleuze’s “Spinozism,” etc.

What would have been ruled as far afoul of Marxism in any form previously, by the 1980s had become incorporated into ostensible “Marxism” itself, both for activists as well as academics.

This was not merely a matter of intellectual currents, but of practical politics as well. The model for activism in the 1980s derived from the 1960s, and involved both neglecting and naturalizing developments of the 1970s. Two different phases of reaction and retreat contributed to this: 1.) the failure of 1968, signaled by the election of Nixon; and 2.) the Reagan/Thatcher reaction and reinvigorated, 2nd Cold War at the end of the 1970s (which had already begun under Carter). But the lessons learned were biased in favor of a positive evaluation of the 1960s. Where the 1970s failed, the 1960s seemed to have succeeded: a nostalgia for youth and selective amnesia about failed attempts of young adulthood played a role in this. What appeared to have succeeded were the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement.

This apparent success however buried the crises of both. The turn to “Leninism” in the 1970s was abandoned by most participants of the “Left” in embarrassment, leaving only the hard-core to carry on the standard: cranks. By 1980, the “Left” was utterly decimated in terms of numbers: not one in ten culled, but perhaps at most one in ten left standing from the radicalization of the 1960s-70s.

Those who remained on the “Left” in the 1980s remained the only custodians of the preceding history, and they all abused their role, abdicating their responsibility to history. Recognition of failure was repressed.

Both the academicized and die-hard activist “Leftists” thus became responsible for the miseducation of those who followed. Whatever didn’t fit their pat and pseudo-triumphalist account, that the “struggle continues,” a stalwart trope of Stalinism descended from the 1930s, was left to utter neglect and oblivion.

Though both Frankfurt School Critical Theory and Trotskyism, as disintegrated remnants of prior Marxism, experienced something of a renaissance in the 1970s, by the 1980s they were abandoned as dynamic phenomena and became merely museum-pieces of the history of the Left and of Marxism. It is significant that Moishe Postone and Adolph Reed, both influenced deeply by the Frankfurt School, have no greater pejorative for the dead “Left” than “Trotskyism.” What they mean by this are the cranky sectarians who await the unwary activists. But the attempt to preserve Marxism intellectually, even by the most theoretically and politically principled of academic “Leftists,” has clearly failed: Postone and Reed have no student successors, and have not really tried to have any, since the 1980s. Only Platypus can claim their pedagogy, and must alter it significantly to give it any potential purchase in the present.

The 1980s generation, in its selective canonization and amnesia of problems of the 1960s New Left, will be the actual gravediggers of the Left and Marxism and its history that the New Left had only wished to be.

That is, if Platypus doesn’t prevent it! | §

Adorno’s Marxism

University of Chicago PhD dissertation

Chris Cutrone

Adorno’s Marxism was successfully defended on November 12, 2012 and officially submitted on March 4, 2013. Chris Cutrone graduated from the University of Chicago, receiving the PhD in the Committee on the History of Culture, on March 22, 2013.

Theodor W. Adorno’s writings comprise an attempted recovery of Marx for a dialectic of 20th century social and cultural forms. Through immanent critique of modern aesthetic, philosophical, political and psychological forms of social subjectivity and its antinomies, contradictions and discontents, including those of ostensible Marxism, the thought figures of Adorno’s essays are modeled after and attempt to elaborate Marx’s self-reflexive critique of the subjectivity of the commodity form. Adorno’s critical theory considers modern aesthetic form as social form. Following Marx, Adorno’s critique of modern social forms is concerned with their potential for emancipation as well as domination: the term “culture industry,” for instance, is meant to grasp comprehensively the context for the critical social object and form of aesthetic subjectivity in common for practices of both “hermetic” art and “popular” culture, and is meant to characterize the condition and possibility for critical subjectivity itself, including Adorno’s own. In Adorno’s essays, objects of cultural criticism become “prismatic,” illuminating the formation of subjectivity and providing moments for critical reflection and recognition. However, Adorno’s works faced and sought to provoke recognition of the possibility and reality of social regression as well as regression in thinking. Coming after the collapse of 2nd International Social Democracy in 1914 and the failure of world revolution 1917-19, and inspired by Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch’s thought from this period, Adorno developed a critique of 20th Century society that sustained awareness of the problematic of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky’s Marxism. The coincidence of the later reception of Adorno’s works with the emergence of social discontents, oppositions and transformations of the 1960s New Left and its aftermath, however, obscured Adorno’s thought during two decades of “postmodernism,” whose exhaustion opens possibilities for reconstruction of and development upon the coherence of Adorno’s dialectic, as expression of the extended tasks and project of Marxism bequeathed by history to the present. [PDF March 2013]

CPGB contra Lukács

Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee)
contra Georg Lukács

James Turley, Chris Cutrone, Lawrence Parker

Originally published in Weekly Worker January 24 – March 14, 2013. [PDF]

articles:

James Turley, “The antinomies of Georg Lukács” 1/24/13

Chris Cutrone, “Regression” 1/31/13

James Turley, “Dummy” 2/21/13

Chris Cutrone, “Nota bene” 2/28/13

James Turley, “Bacon” 3/7/13

Lawrence Parker, “Lukács reloaded” 3/7/13

Chris Cutrone, “Unreloaded” 3/14/13

Sexual freedom and the history of the Left (audio recording)

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the University of Chicago Sex Week, February 14, 2013.

The political and cultural Left, which stand for increasing the scope of freedom, have shifted positions historically on issues of sexuality. For instance, where once the Left challenged marriage and family norms in society, there has been a turn to advocating participation in predominant institutions, for instance gay marriage: there has been some conflict in LGBTQ circles over the politics of gay marriage, whether it should be advocated in certain ways or at all by the Left. What do such controversies tell us about the politics of sexual freedom and the history of the Left, moving forward? How are issues of sexual freedom related to issues in the greater society and not of concern merely to sexual minorities and subcultures? Is there simply a narrative of historical progress, as expressed for example in President’s Obama’s recent Second Inaugural Address? Or might we look forward to renewed political disputes around issues of sexual freedom? What can history teach us about this?

10 years after the Iraq War

The inevitability of failure — and of success

Chris Cutrone

LEADING PUBLIC MEMBER of the Socialist Workers Party of the United Kingdom, Richard Seymour, who made a name for himself with the book The Liberal Defense of Murder (2008), polemicizing against campaigns of “humanitarian” military intervention such as the Iraq War, recently released his book on the late Christopher Hitchens, Unhitched, demonstrating that Hitchens remains an enduring and indeed indispensable phenomenon in the present system of thinking on the “Left.”

Hitchens became a flashpoint in his support for the U.S. and allied invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why was Hitchens’s position so significant? After all, arguably many millions of people around the world supported the war and its aims. Hitchens, of course, was a former member of the “Marxist Left,” and even continued to avow his adherence to this, accusing the “Left” rather of deserting him, at least as much as it could be claimed that he had deserted it. Not many accepted Hitchens’s position. It’s unclear that Hitchens fully accepted it himself.

So, Hitchens was and continues to be denounced as a “renegade.” But a renegade from what? The “Left,” which is supposed to express potential and possibility.

As a politics, the Left, like any other, must express the “art of the possible.” The exercise of the faculty of political judgment has been sorely tested in recent decades, and not only on the ostensible “Left.” It is an endemic problem. Such judgment over the course of events, and what if any actions are to be taken therein, must risk the gamble of engaging reality with the aim of changing it. In so doing, accommodation to reality or of changing it only in worse ways, inadvertently reinforcing current trends, may defeat any attempted political action and threaten its goals. The degree to which anyone can claim to be a political actor at all, one must argue for action that does not simply sanctify existing tendencies, but can actually claim responsibility for its effects. Politics cannot succeed dishonestly. At least not for the Left.

To give political cover for what’s going to happen anyway is mere opportunism, the worst sin in politics. For this renders politics, that is, deliberate action attempting to take responsibility for the course of events, superfluous. It degrades agency, and evades rather than actually taking responsibility. Politics properly aims to be more than merely the mask or the performative rehearsal of the status quo. Politics aims at agency, and agency of change. Maintenance of the status quo doesn’t require politics, but only reproductive technique. At issue in politics is the direction of change: What ought to happen that isn’t already happening? How do we rally people for such a cause? What is to be done? And where do we want such action to take us? There is always much to dispute in this. Contention is the essence of politics. The only question is, what can be possibly and desirably contested?

In the case of the Iraq War, there were many avowed goals on the part of the U.S. and its allies. But perhaps the most compelling ideological aim was the “democratization” of Iraq (beyond the merely technocratic aim of removing “weapons of mass destruction” from Iraq, legalistically enforcing a prior United Nations mandate), freeing it from Baathist tyranny. This was the aim of the neo-conservatives, for example. And this aim was attacked by many, including traditional conservatives such as reelected President Obama’s current nominee for U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. A conservative Republican, Hagel earned the ire of many in his party for his dissent from the Iraq War, based on his opposition to the military adventurism motivated by the neo-conservative ideologues. In this sense, Hagel’s opposition to the neo-cons was from the Right, that is, conservative with respect to action: better to not do something than to do something wrong(ly).

But the opposition to the war from the avowed “Left” was supposed to be different from this: neither merely technical (as in favoring economic sanctions over military action) nor conservative.

Hitchens debated Tariq Ali on the Iraq War, and they argued over the relation between their shared opposition to the Vietnam War, previously, and their disagreement over the Iraq War, now.

One memorable exchange went as follows:

[Hitchens:] I think that the United States and coalition forces are not militarily defeatable in Iraq. . . . I think it’s important to know first what can’t happen. . . . Unless the United States chooses to be defeated in Iraq, it cannot be. Therefore, the insurgency, so-called, will be defeated. And all logical and moral conclusions you want to draw from that, should be drawn.

[Ali:] Well, I think Christopher is right on this, that militarily, it is virtually impossible to defeat the United States. After all, they were not defeated militarily in Vietnam, either. . . . The question is this: The United States army cannot be defeated militarily; they’re incredibly powerful, but can the Iraqi people be defeated? Can Iraq be anything else but a lame colony, a mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo under foreign occupation? . . . And so one has to move to a situation of U.S. withdrawal, and the emergence of an elected Iraqi government, which will determine its own future, including control of its own oil. There’s no other way out.

http://www.democracynow.org/2004/10/12/tariq_ali_v_christopher_hitchens_a

What is remarkable about this exchange is how both Ali and Hitchens appear to have been correct in their estimations, however drawing opposite political conclusions. The U.S. was not defeated militarily by the insurgency; and there has been the emergence of an elected Iraqi government exercising independent sovereignty. And, as a result of both these eventualities, as the only possible outcome, the U.S. and allies have militarily withdrawn from Iraq.

While Hitchens may have been wrong with respect to the success of the military invasion and occupation, Ali was also quite wrong that the result of the war would be to render Iraq a “mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo under foreign occupation.” Also, what Ali described as the only “way out” was achieved not by military resistance to the U.S. and allied occupation but rather its forcible subdual.

At the same time, what Hitchens warned about the “theocracy” threatened in Iraq, while perhaps not quite as virulent as Hitchens may have feared, has indeed triumphed, and precisely as a result of the occupation.

This renders the Iraq War a curious non-event. All that happened was great bloodshed, and at enormous financial and other social costs. The only question remaining, then, is: Was it necessary? Was it worth it? Was the war avoidable? Was the atrocity avertable?

What has the history of the Iraq War shown to be possible and desirable, moving forward? No one wants a repeat of what happened. Does that mean that the war was a mistake? What was the alternative?

The unspoken point of Ali in his debate with Hitchens was that not only, as Hitchens put it, was the U.S. and allied military defeat not possible but “all logical and moral conclusions” must be drawn from that, but that what the U.S. and allies (at least the neo-cons) aimed to do, democratize and otherwise liberate Iraq, was also impossible, and that “all logical and moral conclusions” must be drawn from that, too.

The “democracy” aimed at by the neo-cons and others in invading and occupying Iraq was only ever going to be a neoliberal farce: only the neoliberal version of “democracy.” If the U.S. and allies aimed at democratizing Iraq, this raised the question of the agency for doing so: How democratic, really, were the U.S. and its allies, as political agents, themselves? How democratic was the war? How democratic could it be, anyway? And: Could the ends of democracy be achieved by non-democratic means?

War in the modern era is only ever regrettable necessity. But it is also opportunity. Not only Hitchens sought to make it so, and perhaps none did so with less venality. Did the Bush administration seek to make use of Hitchens or did Hitchens try to make use of the Bush administration? There is a certain tragedy in that, however masked by Hitchens’s false bravado, easily rendered pathetic.

So that leaves the war itself. Was it inevitable? The sanctions regime, including “no-fly” zones over vast regions of northern and southern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime faced opposition among the Kurds and Shia, respectively, had come into crisis. Neither Saudi Arabia, nor Iran, or Turkey would have accepted a return to a pre-sanctions status quo. Neither would have Kurdish and Shia opposition groups. At the very least, a civil war in Iraq was inevitable. Indeed, it was already ongoing. Of course such an ethnicized and culturalized civil war would have (for it already did) involve mass conflict, displacements and killings. Some advocated the war (Kurdish opposition groups); others took advantage of it (Shia opposition groups). Yet others resisted it (former Baathists and Sunni leaders) or at least tried to alter the course of its effects to their advantage. This was all more or less opportunism, however, not policy.

False necessities abounded, and were deployed opportunistically by both sides, such that further, growing threats could supposedly only be averted by military means: that it was preferable, for example, to face U.S. and allied military attack than to open Iraq to transparent arms inspections by the U.N., or that the political power of Baathist tyranny could be broken with desirable outcome only by military intervention. The two essential actors in the war were the Iraqi and U.S. regimes. And their conflicting politics were masked by crisis. (Internationally, the sanctions regime, the embargo that allowed only “oil for food,” was unraveling, whereas domestically, the Baathist regime was more tenuous, subsisting on an ever narrower basis.)

Not so Ali and Hitchens, neither of whom were in politically responsible positions or otherwise faced exigencies of necessity, but both of whom could only comment from the sidelines. They both advocated freedom for Iraq, but had radically different visions, not only of how to achieve this, but what it meant.

Hitchens’s pro-U.S. and allies position and Ali’s “anti-imperialism” both contained a kernel of truth: Hitchens that the Iraqi “resistance”/insurgency against occupation could only further the bloodshed and not advance the sovereignty of the Iraqi people and Ali that the invasion and occupation could only make things worse, undermining the very goals Hitchens and the neo-cons avowed, the liberation of Iraq.

Iraq is arguably more “democratic” and more politically dynamic today, involving more people and more diversely, as a result of the ouster of Saddam, than had been possible under the latter’s Baathism. But this has had nothing to do with genuine self-determination for the people of Iraq: no democracy. Nor has the debacle of the U.S. and allied military effort (the farce of a neoliberal, privatized/”outsourced” military policy) yielded a salutary political effect for people outside Iraq. The anti-war movement was as spectacular a failure as the war itself—and as spectacular a success. All around, common sense prevails. The political controversy died a quiet death, settled apolitically. Of the war, what opportunity could be made, was made. And we are all in great measure curiously in the same place as before. — All, that is, but the dead, who are not in a different place, but simply ended.

In certain respects, the Iraq War has not ended—will never end.

Victory is no victory; triumph is no triumph. Rather, misery prevails.

Failure has become success, and success has become failure. Ideologues were replaced by technocrats and technocrats by ideologues. Baathist state torture poses in retrospect as the only alternative to communitarian violence and civil war; and communitarianism as the only alternative to state repression. Obama was the only alternative to Bush; but only after Bush’s Presidency ended, guaranteeing Obama’s victory as the only “change” that could be “believed in.” “Sensible” political opposition to what the Obama campaign called “tactical success within strategic failure” triumphed; but still without undoing either the failure or the success of the war. McCain lost because no one wanted to face the war any longer. The only clear victims are the dead—and not all of them, for some must be counted among the war’s “victors,” having fallen willingly in pursuit and at least to some achievement of their goals. They, and politics.

And the victors? They have buried themselves in lies and crimes of opportunity.

The costs remain, but any sort of balance sheet is lacking. All political gain must deny itself, shamefaced. A solemn if not entirely satisfied silence rules that is no less opportune than the opportunism of the war itself.

Both sides—that is, both George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al., and former Baathists, as well as both pro- and anti-war politicians and commentators such as Ali and Hitchens—can continue to claim to having been in the right: to have wanted the right things and pursued them in the only ways possible. And both remain wrong.

The only question is, where has this left us, now? | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 53 (February 2013). Re-published in The North Star.