Critical authoritarianism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #91 | November 2016

Immanent critique

Whenever approaching any phenomenon, Adorno’s procedure is one of immanent dialectical critique. The phenomenon is treated as not accidental or arbitrary but as a necessary form of appearance that points beyond itself, indicating conditions of possibility for change. It is a phenomenon of the necessity for change. The conditions of possibility for change indicated by the phenomenon in question are explored immanently, from within. The possibility for change is indicated by a phenomenon’s self-contradictions, which unfold from within itself, from its own movement, and develop from within its historical moment.

Everything is taken not merely as it “is,” as it happens to exist, but rather as it “ought” to be, as it could and should be, yielding as-yet unrealized potentials and possibilities. So it is with “authoritarianism,” in Adorno’s view. For Adorno, the key is how psychological authoritarianism is self-contradictory and points beyond itself. Adorno is interested in the “actuality” of authoritarianism: as Wilhelm Reich put it, the “progressive character of fascism;”[1] as Walter Benjamin put it, the “positive concept of barbarism.”[2]

This demands a critical approach rather than a merely descriptive or analytically positive or affirmative approach. For something can be affirmed either in its justification and legitimation or in its denunciation. In either case, the phenomenon is left as it is; whereas, for Adorno, as a Marxist, “the point is to change it.”[3]

So, what possibilities for change are indicated by authoritarianism, and how are such possibilities pointed to by the categories of Freudian psychoanalysis? For Adorno, it is unfortunate that social contradiction has passed from ideology and politics in society to individual psychology (indeed, this expresses a political failure), but there it is.[4] The “F-scale” is misleading, as Adorno notes, in that it might—despite its being posed as a “scale” —be mistaken for a matter of difference in kind rather than degree. Meaning that, for Adorno, everyone is more or less susceptible to fascism—everyone is more or less authoritarian.

The competing aspects of the individual psyche between liberal individuality and authoritarian tendencies is itself the self-contradiction of authoritarianism Adorno sought to explore. In capitalism, liberalism is the flip-side of the same coin as fascism. Individualism and collectivism are an antinomy that express capitalist contradiction. For individualism violates true individuality and collectivism violates the true potential of the social collectivity. Individuality and collectivity remain unfulfilled desiderata, the aspirations and goals of bourgeois society, its emancipatory promise. For Adorno (as for Marx), both are travestied in capitalism—mere “shams.”

Donald Trump rally, Pensacola, Florida, Jan 15 2016.

Donald Trump rally, Pensacola, Florida, January 15, 2016.

Authoritarianism is an expression of that travesty of society. Fascism is the sham collectivity in which the sham individuality hides itself; just as liberalism is the sham individuality that conceals the collective condition of society. That collective condition is not a state of being but the task of the need for socialism beyond capitalism. Fascism as well as liberalism expresses that unfulfilled need and tasking demand for socialism in capitalism.

So what would it mean to critique authoritarianism in an immanently dialectical manner? What is the critical value of authoritarianism, in Adorno’s view? How can the potential possibility pointing beyond capitalism be expressed by authoritarianism and revealed rather than concealed by individual psychology? How is society critically revealed in authoritarianism, pointing to socialism?

Psychology

In “Sociology and psychology”[5] Adorno diagnoses the division of psychology from sociology as itself a symptom of contradiction in society—of the actual separation and contradiction of the individual and the collective in capitalism.

In The Authoritarian Personality,[6] Adorno et al. wrote that the fascist personality was characterized by identification with technology, the love for instruments as “equipment.” Here, Adorno found the emancipatory potential beyond capitalism precisely in such identification and imitation: it becomes a matter of the form of individuation. In “Imaginative excesses,” orphaned from Minima Moralia,[7] Adorno wrote that,

[N]o… faith can be placed in those equated with the means; the subjectless beings whom historical wrong has robbed of the strength to right it, adapted to technology and unemployment, conforming and squalid, hard to distinguish from the wind-jackets of fascism the subhuman creature who as dishonour’s progeny shall never be allowed to avert it.

The bearers of technical progress, now still mechanized mechanics, will, in evolving their special abilities, reach the point already indicated by technology where specialization grows superfluous. Once their consciousness has been converted into pure means without any qualification, it may cease to be a means and breach, with its attachment to particular objects, the last heteronomous barrier; its last entrapment in the existing state, the last fetishism of the status quo, including that of its own self, which is dissolved in its radical implementation as an instrument. Drawing breath at last, it may grow aware of the incongruence between its rational development and the irrationality of its ends, and act accordingly.

In “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” Adorno seeks to redeem authoritarianism in his conclusion when he offers that, “Even discipline can take over the expression of free solidarity if freedom becomes its content.” He goes on that, “As little as [authoritarianism] is a symptom of progress in consciousness of freedom, it could suddenly turn around if [individual psychology], in unity with the society, should ever leave the road of the always-identical”[8] — that is, in going beyond capitalism. Here, critical authoritarianism is met by a critical individualism in which “collective powers are liquidating an individuality past saving, but against them only individuals are capable of consciously representing the aims of collectivity.”[9] What are the aims of the collectivity expressed by the identification with technology? What Adorno following Benjamin called “mimesis”[10] Freud analyzed psychologically as “identification.” Adorno wrote that “the pressure to be permitted to obey… is today more general than ever.” But what Marx called the “industrial forces of production” are constrained and distorted by the “bourgeois social relations of production” in capitalism. There is a homologous contradiction within the individual personality.

In “Reflections on Class Theory”, Adorno wrote that,

Dehumanization is no external power, no propaganda, however conceived, no exclusion from culture. It is precisely the intrinsic reality of the oppressed in the system, who used formerly to stand out because of their wretchedness, whereas today their wretchedness lies in the fact that they can never escape. That they suspect that the truth is propaganda, while swallowing the propaganda culture that is fetishized and distorted into the madness of an unending reflection of themselves.

This means, however, that the dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified human beings reification finds its outer limits. They catch up with the technical forces of production in which the relations of production lie hidden: in this way these relations lose the shock of their alien nature because the alienation is so complete. But they may soon also lose their power. Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable to wresting them from the dominant power.[11]

Society

Karl Marx regarded the “necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat” as a phenomenon of “Bonapartism” — the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte as a result of the failure of the Revolution of 1848 in France. This was Marx’s difference from the anarchists: the recognition of the necessity of the state in capitalism.[12] Hence one should regard Marx on the dictatorship of the proletariat as a “critical Bonapartist.”[13] Bonapartism expressed an objective societal need rather than a subjective attitude. Bonapartist response to the objective social crisis and contradiction of capitalism pointed beyond itself and so required a dialectical critique, which Marx thought the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon failed to provide by treating Bonapartism as objectively determined, apologizing for it, as did the sentimental socialist Victor Hugo who treated Bonapartism as a monstrous historical accident like a “bolt from the blue.”[14] Fatalism and contingency were two sides of the same contradiction that obscured a necessity that could be addressed properly only in a dialectical way. These are the terms in which Adorno addressed “authoritarianism.”

Adorno’s “critical authoritarianism” addresses what the “immanent dialectical critique” of authoritarianism would mean, both in terms of Freudian psychoanalytic categories of description, and in terms of (absent) politics for socialism. Adorno’s Dream Notes records a dream of his participating in a gang-rape, as a primal scene of fascism.[15] The “delightful young mulatto . . . the kind of woman one sees in Harlem” who catches his eye admonishes him that “This is the style of the Institute.” The homosexuality and sado-masochism of authoritarianism in pre-Oedipal psychology; the desire as well as fear to “liquidate the ego” in ambivalence about individuality; critical (as opposed to methodological or affirmative) individualism; the desire and fear of collectivity in authoritarian collectivism; projection, identification and counter-identification providing for social cohesion as well as for separation and atomization —these are the themes of Adorno’s critical approach to psychology in late capitalism.

A similar thought was articulated contemporaneously by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, which characterizes negrophobic racism as “repressed homosexuality” and a “narcissistic disorder.” Fanon describes the Freudian approach to rape fantasies as a masochistic fear and desire that is an internalized projection of parental authority, a self-sadism. One fears what one wishes to happen; a wish is a way of mastering a fear by internalizing it; a fear is a way of repressing a wish. The reason rape is so traumatic is that it activates and violates such infantile experiences. There is the experience of parental seduction harking back to the anal phase of libido development, when the child experiences itself as unable to control its excretion, which is experienced as disturbingly involuntary, a blow to narcissism in the difficulty of toilet training, seeking to please the parents’ expectations. The parents’ cleaning of the infant is pleasurably stimulating, and the child internalizes the parent’s simultaneous desire and disgust, attraction and repulsion, which becomes the complex of feelings, the combination of shame and guilt with pleasure, that the child takes in its own bodily functions. Humiliation at loss of self-control is a formative experience of transforming narcissism into identification. The infant’s desire for the parents is an identification with the feared power.[16] The parents embody the ego-ideal of self-control. This is channeled later through gendered object-libido in the Oedipus complex as genital pleasure, but retains the sado-masochistic qualities of the anal phase, which precedes gender identification and so exhibits more basic, homosexual (ungendered) qualities that prevents the recognition of difference and individuality. In a narcissistic—authoritarian—society everyone becomes trapped in a static and self-reinforcing identity, where the need was actually to allow the opening to non-identity of freedom: the freedom to “overcome oneself” allowed by the healthy ego.

Opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2008.

“The madness of an unending reflection of themselves.” Opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, 2008.

Fanon sought to provide an account of how “racial narcissism”—the failure of the individual ego—could yet point beyond itself, specifically in its treacherously dyadic character of Self and Other, to the need that was blocked: “the world of the You.”[17]

Adorno brings into his discussion of The Authoritarian Personality a key background writing for Fanon’s BSWM, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, which assumes, as Adorno does, contemporary anti-Semitism as a norm and not an aberration. He states simply that what needs to be explained is why anyone is “not anti-Semitic.” But this pointed not to a problem of psychology but of society. As Adorno commended Sartre’s treatment of anti-Semitism:

We distinguish between anti-semitism as an objective social phenomenon, and the anti-semite as a peculiar type of individuality similar to Sartre’s exposé which, for good reasons, is called “Portrait of the Antisemite” rather than “Psychology of Anti-semitism”. This kind of personality is accessible to psychological analysis…. It would be quite impossible to reduce the objective phenomenon of present-day anti-semitism with its age-old background and all social and economic implications, to the mentality of those who, to speak with Sartre, have to make their decision in regard to this issue. Today, each and every man is faced with a tremendous bulk of objectively existing prejudices, discriminations and articulate anti-semitic attitudes. The accumulated power of this objective complex is so great and apparently so far beyond individual powers of resistance that one might indeed ask, why are people not antisemitic, [sic] instead of asking why certain kinds of people are anti-semitic. Thus, it would be naive to base a prognosis of anti-semitism, this truly “social” disease, on the diagnosis of the individual patients.

This means that the self-contradiction expressed by (non-)racism is one of society as well: the racist society points beyond itself objectively as well as subjectively, socially as well as individually. Racism as a problem contains the key to its own solution.[18] Anti-Semitic demagogues identified with Jews when imitating their stereotypical mannerisms;[19] white racists of the Jim Crow era performed minstrel shows in black-face. As Fanon put it, “Long ago the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence;” “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”[20] Racism will end when black people become white. Or, as Adorno put it in “Reflections on Class Theory,” “Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable to wresting them from the dominant power.” Racism’s abolition will be its Aufhebung: it will be its Selbstaufhebung, its self-completion as well as its self-negation. So will be the overcoming of authoritarianism in capitalism more generally.

The infamous “F-scale” of The Authoritarian Personality is a scale, which means that authoritarianism or predisposition to fascism is not a difference in kind but of degree: Everyone is more or less authoritarian. The most authoritarian thing would be to deny—to fail to recognize—one’s own authoritarianism.| §


Notes

[1] “[T]he mass basis of fascism, the rebelling lower middle classes, contained not only reactionary but also powerful progressive social forces. This contradiction was overlooked [by contemporary Marxists]” in Wilhelm Reich, “Ideology as Material Power” in The Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933/46], trans. Vincent Carfagno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 3–4.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty” [1933], Selected Writings vol. 2 1927 –34, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap, Harvard, 1996), 732.

[3] Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” [1845], available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/>.

[4] See Max Horkheimer, “On the Sociology of Class Relations” [1943] and my discussion of it, “Without a Socialist Party, there is no Class Struggle, only Rackets,” Nonsite.org (January 11, 2016), available on-line at: <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/max-horkheimer-and-the-sociology-of-class-relations>. In “The Authoritarian State” [1940/42], Horkheimer wrote that,

Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable. (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gephardt [New York: Continuum, 1985], 95–117.)

[5] “Sociology and Psychology” [1955], originally written by Adorno for a festschrift celebrating Max Horkheimer’s sixtieth birthday, The piece was published in English translation in two parts in the New Left Review, vol. 46, Nov-Dec 1967, 63-80 and vol. 47, Jan-Feb 1968, 79-97.

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950).

[7] Adorno, “Imaginative Excesses” an unpublished piece intended for Minima Moralia,[1944–47] published as section X of “Messages in a Bottle,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, New Left Review, vol. 200, July-August 1993, 12–14.

[8] Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” [1938], Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 314.

[9] Ibid., 315.

[10] See Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Selected Writings vol. 2 1927–34, Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 19989). 720–722: “The child plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher, but a windmill and a train” (720).

[11] Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory”, in Can One Live After Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Others (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 93-110.

[12] See Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852] Ch. VII, where he finds that political atomization leads inexorably to the authoritarian state in Bonapartism:

Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection . . . and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them . . . and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The[ir] political influence . . . therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself. (Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch07.htm>.)

Marx’s discussion of the French peasants of the mid-19th century also applied to what he called the “lumpenproletariat” as a constituent of Bonapartism, and so would apply to the working class in capitalism today without a political party organized for the struggle to achieve socialism. The “sack of potatoes” or of “homologous magnitudes” is what Adorno, among others, characterized as the “masses” in the 20th century. (For instance, Benjamin wrote in the Epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [1936] that fascism gave the masses the opportunity to express themselves while depriving them their right to change society.)

Adorno paraphrases Marx here when he writes that,

The masses are incessantly molded from above, they must be mulded, if they are to be kept at bay. The overwhelming machinery of propaganda and cultural industry evidences the necessity of this apparatus for the perpetuation of a set-up the potentialities of which have outgrown the status quo. Since this potential is also the potential of effective resistance against the fascist trend, it is imperative to study the mentality of those who are at the receiver’s end of today’s social dynamics. We must study them not only because they reflect these dynamics, but above all because they are the latter’s intrinsic anti-thesis.

The manifestation — and potential resolution — of this contradiction of the masses in capitalism that otherwise resulted in Bonapartism was through the politics of socialism: Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” was to be achieved by the mass-political socialist party. Marx broke with the anarchists over the latter’s refusal to take “political action” and to thus consign the working class to merely “social action.” i.e. to avoid the necessary struggle for state power.

[13] See my “Proletarian dictatorship and state capitalism,” Weekly Worker 1064 (June 25, 2015), available on-line at: <http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1064/proletarian-dictatorship-and-state-capitalism/>.

[14] Marx, Preface to the 1869 edition of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/preface.htm>.

[15] Adorno, “New York, 8 February 1941” in Dream Notes (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007), 5-6.

[16] See Anna Freud, “Identification with the Aggressor,” Ch. IX, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence [1936].

[17] Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, [1952], trans., Charles Lam Markmann, (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 181.

[18] This is because, according to Adorno, “Those who are incapable of believing their own cause… must constantly prove to themselves the truth of their gospel through the reality and irreversibility of their deeds.” Violent action takes the place of thought and self-reflection; but this suggests the converse, that critical thinking could prevent such disastrous action. See Adorno, “Education after Auschwitz” [1966], in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. and ed. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 191–204.

[19] See Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” [1951], in The Culture Industry (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 132–157.

[20] Fanon, Black Skin, 178.

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. ( . . . )

Articles by month

Article dates

July 2017
S M T W T F S
« Jun    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  

Rosa Luxemburg and the party

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #86 | May 2016

IN ONE OF HER EARLIEST INTERVENTIONS in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), participating in the notorious theoretical “Revisionist Dispute,” in which Eduard Bernstein infamously stated that “the movement is everything, the goal nothing,” the 27 year-old Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919) clearly enunciated her Marxism: “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle.”1

Critique of socialism

What did it mean to say that socialist politics was necessary to have “class struggle” at all? This goes to the heart of Luxemburg’s own Marxism, and to her most enduring contribution to its history: her Marxist approach to the political party for socialism—a dialectical understanding of class and party, in which Marxism itself was grasped in a critical-dialectical way. When Luxemburg accused Bernstein of being “undialectical,” this is what she meant: That the working class’s struggle for socialism was itself self-contradictory and its political party was the means through which this contradiction was expressed. There was a dialectic of means and ends, or of “movement” and “goal,” in which the dialectic of theory and practice took part: Marxism demanded its own critique. Luxemburg took the controversy of the Revisionist Dispute as an occasion for this critique.

In this, Luxemburg followed the young Karl Marx’s (1818–83) own formative dialectical critiques of socialism when he was in his 20s, from the September 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge calling for the “ruthless critique of everything existing,” to the critique of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), as well as in The German Ideology and its famous Theses on Feuerbach (1845). Marx had written of the socialist movement that:

The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles . . .

[W]e must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves. Thus, communism, in particular, is a dogmatic abstraction; in which connection, however, I am not thinking of some imaginary and possible communism, but actually existing communism as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This communism is itself only a special expression of the humanistic principle, an expression which is still infected by its antithesis—the private system. Hence the abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical, and it is not accidental but inevitable that communism has seen other socialist doctrines—such as those of Fourier, Proudhon, etc.—arising to confront it because it is itself only a special, one-sided realisation of the socialist principle . . .

Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. . . . We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for . . .

The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.

Such formulations recurred in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach a couple of years later:

But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice.

For Marx, this meant that socialism was the expression of the contradiction of capitalism and as such was itself bound up in that contradiction. A proper dialectical relation of socialism with capitalism required a recognition of the dialectic within socialism itself. Marx followed Hegel in regarding contradiction as manifestation of the need for change. The “proletariat”—the working class after the Industrial Revolution—contradicted bourgeois society, not from outside but from within. As such, the contradiction of capitalism centered on the proletariat itself. This is because for Marx “capitalism” is nothing in itself, but only the crisis of bourgeois society in industrial production and hence its only meaning is the expression of the need for socialism. The very existence of the proletariat—a working class expropriated from its bourgeois property-rights in labor as a commodity—demanded socialism.

Rosa Luxemburg addresses a Stuttgart crowd in 1907. Here she is flanked by portraits of Karl Marx (right) and Ferdinand Lassalle (left), the founders of the German Socialist movement.

Rosa Luxemburg addresses a Stuttgart crowd in 1907. Here she is flanked by portraits of Karl Marx (right) and Ferdinand Lassalle (left), the founders of the German Socialist movement.

Lassallean party

But had the social-democratic workers’ party been from its outset a force for counterrevolution—for preserving capitalism—rather than for revolutionary transformation and the achievement of socialism? Its roots in Ferdinand Lassalle’s formulation of its purpose as the “permanent political campaign of the working class” evinced a potential contradiction between its Lassalleanism and Marxism. Marxists had not invented the social-democratic workers’ party, but rather joined it as an emergent phenomenon of the late 19th century. The social-democratic workers’ party in Germany, what became the SPD, had, through its fusion of 1875 at Gotha, attained Marxist or “revolutionary” leadership. But this had elicited Marx’s famous Critique of the Gotha Programme, to which Marx’s own followers, Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, could only shrug their shoulders at the difficulty of pleasing the “old men in London” (that is, Marx and Engels). The development of the SPD towards its conscious direction beyond mere Lassalleanism was more clearly enunciated in the SPD’s Erfurt Programme of 1891. Nonetheless the ghost of Lassalle seemed to haunt subsequent developments and was still present, according to Engels’s critique of it, in the “Marxist” Erfurt Programme itself. (Indeed, one of Rosa Luxemburg’s earliest achievements in her participation in the life of the SPD was to unearth and discover the significance of Engels’s critique of Bebel, Kautsky, and Bernstein’s Erfurt Programme.)

Luxemburg, in her critique of the SPD through regarding the party as a manifestation of contradiction, followed Marx and Engels, whose recognition was the means to advance it beyond itself. Lassalle had made the mistake of opposing the political against and derogating the economic action of the workers, rejecting labor unions, which he called merely the “vain efforts of things to behave like human beings.”2 Lassalle thus ontologized the political struggle. For Lassalle, the workers taking political power would be tantamount to the achievement of socialism; whereas for Marx this would be merely a transitional revolutionary “dictatorship of the proletariat” that would lead to socialism. Engels called it the transition from the “governing of men” to the “administration of things”—an eminently dialectical formulation, since humans are both subjects and objects of society.

Lassalle’s political ontology of socialism was complementary to the one-sided “vulgar Marxist” misapprehensions of the Revisionists who prioritized and indeed ontologized the economic over the political, reducing the social to the economic, and relating the social to the political “mechanically” and “undialectically”—neglecting the contradiction between them in an “economic determinism” that subordinated politics. Where Lassalle subordinated economics to politics in a “state socialism,” Marx regarded this rather as a state capitalism. Indeed, despite or rather due to this antinomy, the Lassalleans and the economistic reformists actually converged in their political perspectives—giving rise later to 20th century welfare-state capitalism through the governance of social-democratic parties.

Rather than taking one side over the other, Luxemburg, as a Marxist, approached this problem as a real contradiction: an antinomy and dialectic of capitalism itself that manifested in the workers’ own discontents and struggles within it, both economically and politically. For instance, Luxemburg followed Marx in recognizing that the Lassallean goal of the workers achieving a “free state” in political revolution was a self-contradiction: An unfree society gave rise to an unfree state; and it was society that needed to be emancipated from capitalism. But this was a contradiction that could be posed only by the workers’ revolutionary political action and seizing of state power—if only to “wither” it away in the transformation of society beyond capitalism. In this way the Lassallean party was not a mistake but rather a necessary stage manifesting in the history of the workers’ movement. So it needed to be properly recognized—“dialectically”—in order to avoid its one-sided pitfalls in the opposition of Revisionist, reformist economic evolutionism versus the Lassallean political revolutionism. Kautsky followed Marx in a critical endorsement of Lassalleanism in regarding the dictatorship of the proletariat as the seizing of state power by the workers’ party for socialism. Hence, Luxemburg expressed her sincere “gratitude” that the Revisionists had occasioned this critical self-recognition, by posing the question and problem of “movement” and “goal.”

Antinomy of reformism

Luxemburg made her great entrance onto the political stage of her time with the pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution? (1900). In it, Luxemburg laid out how the original contradiction of capitalism, between its chaotic social relations and its socialization of production had been further developed, exacerbated, and deepened by the development of a new contradiction, namely the growth of the workers’ movement in political organization and consciousness: Its movement for socialism was a self-contradictory expression of the contradiction of capitalism. This contrasted with Bernstein’s view that the growth and development of the workers’ movement was the overcoming of the contradiction of capitalism and the gradual “evolution” of socialism. For Bernstein, the movement for socialism was the achievement of socialism, whereas the goal of socialism was a dispensable figment, a useful enabling fiction.

For Luxemburg, however, the contradiction of the industrial forces of production against their bourgeois social relations in capitalism was recapitulated in the contradiction between the means and ends of the workers’ movement for socialism. Socialism was not built up within capitalism; but only the contradiction of capital deepened through workers’ struggle against exploitation. How so? Their demand for a share of the value of production was a bourgeois demand: the demand for the value of their labor as a commodity. However, what was achieved by increases in wages, recognition of collective bargaining rights, legal protections of workers in capitalist labor contracts and the acceptance of responsibility of the state for the conditions of labor, including the acceptance of the right to political association and democratic political participation in the state, was not the overcoming of the problem of capital—that is, the overcoming of the great divergence and social contradiction between the value of capital and wages in industrial production—but rather its exacerbation and deepening through its broadening onto society as a whole. What the workers received in reforms of capitalism was not the value of their labor-power as a commodity, which was relatively minimized by developments of industrial technique, but rather a cut of the profits of capital, whether directly through collective bargaining with the employers or indirectly through state distribution of social welfare benefits from the tax on capital. What Bernstein described optimistically as the socialization of production through such reforms was actually, according to Luxemburg, the “socialization” of the crisis of capitalist production.

The workers’ party for socialism, through its growth and development on a mass scale, thus increasingly took political responsibility for capitalism. Hence, a new contradiction developed that was focused on the party itself. Was its purpose to manage capitalism, or rather, as Luxemburg put it in her 1898 Stuttgart speech, to “play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company”? Luxemburg posed the political task of the socialist party in Reform or Revolution? succinctly: “It is an illusion, then, to think that the proletariat can create economic power within capitalist society. It can only create political power and then transform [aufheben] capitalist property.” The proletarian socialist party was the means for creating that political power. This differed from the development of bourgeois social relations in feudalism that led to revolution:

What does it mean that the earlier classes, particularly the third estate, conquered economic power before political power? Nothing more than the historical fact that all previous class struggles must be derived from the economic fact that the rising class has at the same time created a new form of property upon which it will base its class domination.

However, according to Luxemburg, “The assertion that the proletariat, in contrast to all previous class struggles, pursues its battles, not in order to establish class domination, but to abolish all class domination is not a mere phrase.” This is because the proletariat does not develop a new form of “property” within capitalism, but rather struggles economically, socially and politically, on the basis of “bourgeois property”—on the basis of the bourgeois social relations of labor, or of labor as a commodity. What the working class’s struggle within capitalism achieves is consciousness of the need to overcome labor as a commodity, or, to transform capital from bourgeois property into social property that is no longer mediated by the exchange of labor. This is what it meant for Marx that the proletariat struggles not to “realize” but to abolish itself, or, how the proletariat goes from being a class “in itself” to becoming a class “for itself” (The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847) in its struggle for socialism.

For Luxemburg, the achievement of reforms within capitalism accomplish nothing but the greater practical and theoretical realization, or “consciousness,” of the need to abolish labor as a commodity, since the latter has been outstripped by industrial production. The further economic, social, and political reforms only dramatically increase this disparity and contradiction between the economic value of labor as a commodity and the social value of capital that must be appropriated by society as a whole.

In other words, the workers’ movement for socialism and its institution as a political party is necessary to make the otherwise chaotic, unconscious, “objective” phenomenon of the economic contradiction and crisis of wage-labor and capital into a conscious, “subjective” phenomenon of politics. As Luxemburg wrote later, in The Crisis of German Social Democracy (AKA the “Junius Pamphlet,” 1915):

Socialism is the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind. For this reason, Friedrich Engels designated the final victory of the socialist proletariat a leap of humanity from the animal world into the realm of freedom. This ‘leap’ is also an iron law of history bound to the thousands of seeds of a prior torment-filled and all-too-slow development. But this can never be realized until the development of complex material conditions strikes the incendiary spark of conscious will in the great masses. The victory of socialism will not descend from heaven. It can only be won by a long chain of violent tests of strength between the old and the new powers. The international proletariat under the leadership of the Social Democrats will thereby learn to try to take its history into its own hands; instead of remaining a will-less football, it will take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history.

Why “violent tests of strength”? Was this mere “revolutionary” passion, as Bernstein averred? No: As Marx had observed in Das Kapital, in the struggle over the “working day,” or over the social and legal conventions for the condition of labor-time, workers and capitalists confronted each other, both with “bourgeois right” on their side. But, “Where right meets right, force will decide.” Such contests of force did not decide the issue of right in capitalism, but only channeled it in a political direction. Both capital and wage-labor retained their social rights, but the political arena in which their claims were decided shifted from civil society to the state, posing a crisis—the need for “revolution.”

1848: state and revolution

For Luxemburg, the modern state was itself merely the “product of the last revolution,” namely the political institutionalization of the condition of class struggle up to that point. The “last revolution” was that of 1848, in which the “social question” was posed as a crisis of the democratic republic. As such, the state remained both the subject and the object of revolutionary politics. Marx had conflicted with the anarchists in the First International over the issue of the need for “political” as well as “social action” in the working class’s struggle for socialism. The Revisionists such as Bernstein had, to Luxemburg’s mind, reverted to the pre-Marxian socialism of anarchism in abandoning the struggle for political power in favor of merely social action. In this, Luxemburg characterized Bernstein as having regressed (like the anarchists) to mere “liberalism.” What Bernstein like the anarchists denied was what Marx had discovered in the experience of the revolutions of 1848, namely, the necessity of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and hence the necessary political separation of the workers’ “social democracy” from the mere “democracy” of the bourgeois revolution, including the necessary separation from the “petit bourgeois democrats” who earned Marx’s most scathing scorn.

While liberals denied the need for such “social democracy” and found political democracy to be sufficient, anarchists separated the social from the political, treating the latter as a fetishized realm of collusion in the bourgeois state and hence capitalism. Anarchists from the first, Proudhon, had avoided the issue of political revolution and the need to take state power; whereas Marxists had recognized that the crisis of capitalism inevitably resulted in political crisis and struggle over the state: If the working class failed to do so, others would step in their place. For Marx, the need for workers’ political revolution to achieve socialism was expressed by the phenomenon of Louis Bonaparte’s election in 1848 and coup d’état in 1851, which expressed the inability of the “bourgeoisie to rule” any longer through civil society, while the proletariat was as yet politically undeveloped and thus “not ready to rule” the state. But for Marx the necessity of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was that the “workers must rule” politically in order to overcome capitalism economically and socially.

Marx characterized Louis Bonaparte’s politics as both “petit bourgeois” and “lumpenproletarian,” finding support among the broad masses of capitalism’s discontented. But according to Marx their discontents could only reproduce capitalism since they could only at best join the working class or remain dependent on the realization of the value of its labor as a commodity. Hence, there was no possible withdrawal from the crisis of bourgeois politics and the democratic state, as by libertarians and anarchists, but the need to develop political power to overcome capitalism. For the capitalist wage-labor system with its far-reaching effects throughout society to be abolished required the political action of the wage laborers. That the “workers must rule” meant that they needed to provide political leadership to the exploited and oppressed masses. If the organized working class did not, others would provide that leadership, as Bonaparte had done in 1848 and 1851. The means for this was the political party for socialism. As Luxemburg put it in her 1898 Stuttgart speech:

[B]y final goal we must not mean . . . this or that image of the future state, but the prerequisite for any future society, namely the conquest of political power. This conception of our task is closely related to our conception of capitalist society; it is the solid ground which underlies our view that capitalist society is caught in insoluble contradictions which will ultimately necessitate an explosion, a collapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company.

The socialist political party was for Luxemburg the means for this necessary achievement of political power. But the party was not itself the solution, but rather the necessary manifestation and concretization of the problem of political power in capitalism and indeed the problem of “society” itself.

1905: party and class

Luxemburg took the occasion of the 1905 Revolution in Russia to critique the relation of labor unions and the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in her pamphlet on The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906). This was a continuation of Luxemburg’s criticism of the reformist Revisionist view of the relation of the economic and political struggles of the working class for socialism, which had found its strongest support among the labor union leadership. In bringing to bear the Russian experience in Germany, Luxemburg reversed the usual assumed hierarchy of German experience over Russian “backwardness.” She also reversed the developmental order of economic and political struggles, the mistaken assumption that the economic must precede the political. The “mass” or political strike had been associated with social- and political-historical primitiveness, with pre-industrial struggles and pre-Marxian socialism, specifically anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism (especially in the Latin countries), which had prioritized economic and social action over political action. Luxemburg sought to grasp the changed historical significance of the political strike; that it had become, rather, a symptom of advanced, industrial capitalism. In the 1905 Russian Revolution, the workers had taken political action before economic action, and the labor unions had originated out of that political action, rather than the reverse.

The western Russian Empire was rapidly industrialized and showed great social unrest in the 1890s–1900s. It exhibited the most up-to-date techniques and organization in industrial production: The newest and largest factories in the world at this time were located in Russia. Luxemburg was active in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in the Russian part of Poland, through her own organization, the Social-Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). The 1905 Russian Revolution was precipitated by a political and not “economic” crisis: the shaking of the Tsarist state in its losing war with Japan 1904–05. This was not merely a liberal-democratic discontent with the arbitrary rule of the Russian absolutism. For Luxemburg, the Russo-Japanese War was a symptom of capitalism, and so was the resulting crisis of Tsarism in Russia triggered by this war. The political strike was, as she put it, a revolt of “bourgeois Russia,” that is, of the modern industrial capitalists and workers, against Tsarism. What had started out in the united action of the capitalists and workers striking economically against the Tsarist state for liberal-democratic political reasons, unfolded into a class struggle by the workers against the capitalists. This was due to the necessity of reorganizing social provisions during the strike, in which mass-action strike committees took over the functions of the usual operations of capitalism and indeed of the Tsarist state itself. This had necessitated the formation of workers’ own collective-action organizations. Luxemburg showed how the economic organization of the workers had developed out of the political action against Tsarism, and that the basis of this was in the necessities of advanced industrial production. In this way, the workers’ actions had developed, beyond the liberal-democratic or “bourgeois” discontents and demands, into the tasks of “proletarian socialism.” Political necessity had led to economic necessity (rather than the reverse, economic necessity leading to political necessity).

For Luxemburg, this meant that the usual assumption in Germany that the political party, the SPD, was “based” on the labor unions, was a profound mistake. The economic and social-cooperative actions of the unions were “based,” for Luxemburg, on the political task of socialism and its political party. This meant prioritizing the political action of the socialist party as the real basis or substance of the economic and other social action of the working class. It was the political goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat through socialist revolution that gave actual substance to the workers’ economic struggles, which were, for Luxemburg, merely the necessary preparatory “school of revolution.”

Luxemburg wrote her pamphlet while summering at a retreat with Lenin and other Bolsheviks in Finland. It was informed by her daily conversations with Lenin over many weeks. Lenin had previously written, in What is to be Done? (1902) (a pamphlet commissioned and agreed-upon by the Marxist faction of the RSDLP as a whole, those who later divided into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), that economism and workerism in Russia had found support in Bernsteinian Revisionism in the SPD and the greater Second International, trying to subordinate the political struggle to economic struggle and thus to separate them. In so doing, they like the Revisionists had identified capitalist development with socialism rather than properly recognizing them as in growing contradiction. Lenin had, like Luxemburg, regarded such workerism and economism as “reformist” in the sense of separating the workers’ struggles for reform from the goal of socialism that needed to inform such struggles. Luxemburg as well as Lenin called this “liquidationism,” or the dissolving of the goal into the movement, liquidating the need for the political party for socialism. In What is to be Done? Lenin had argued for the formation of a political party for the workers’ struggle for socialism in Russia. He took as polemical opponents those who, like the Revisionists in Germany, had deprioritized the necessity of the political party, thus deprioritizing the politics of the struggle for socialism, limiting it to economic action.3 The political party had thus redeemed itself in the 1905 Revolution in Russia, showing its necessary role for the workers’ political, social, and economic action, confirming Lenin and Luxemburg’s prior arguments against economism.

Luxemburg regarded the lessons of the 1905 Revolution in Russia to be a challenge to and hence a “crisis”—a potential critical turning point—of the SPD in Germany. Continuing her prosecution of the Revisionist Dispute, Luxemburg argued for the concrete necessity of the political leadership of the party over the unions that had been demonstrated by the 1905 Revolution in Russia. By contrast, the tension and indeed contradiction between the goal of socialism and the preservation of the institutions of the workers’ movement—specifically of the labor unions’ self-interest—which might be threatened by the conservative reaction of the state against the political action of the socialist party, showed a conflict between movement and goal. The Revisionists thought that a mass political strike would merely provoke the Right into a coup d’état.

Demand for redemption

Walter Benjamin, in his draft theses “On the Concept of History” (AKA “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), cited Luxemburg in particular when describing history itself as the “demand for redemption.” Not only did Luxemburg raise this demand with her famous invocation of Marx and Engels on the crossroads in capitalism of “socialism or barbarism,” but as a historical figure she herself calls out for such redemption.

The conflict in and about the party on which Luxemburg had focused was horribly revealed later by the outbreak of war in 1914, when a terrible choice seemed posed, between the political necessity to overthrow the Kaiserreich state to prevent or stop the war, and the need to preserve the workers’ economic and social organizations in the unions and the party. The war had been the Kaiserreich’s preemptive coup d’état against the SPD. The party capitulated to this in that it facilitated and justified the unions’ assertion of their self-preservation at the cost of cooperation with the state’s war. This self-preservation—what Luxemburg excoriated as trying to “hide like a rabbit under a bush” temporarily during the war—may have been justified if these same organizations had served later to facilitate the political struggle for socialism after the Prussian Empire had been shaken by its loss in the war. But the SPD’s constraining of the workers’ struggles to preserve the state, limiting the German Revolution 1918–19 to a “democratic” one against the threat of “Bolshevism,” meant the party’s suppression of its own membership. Past developments had prepared this. The Revisionists’ prioritization of the movement and its organizations over the goal of socialism had been confirmed for what Luxemburg and Lenin had always warned against: the adaptation and liquidation of the working class’s struggles into, not a potential springboard for socialism, but rather a bulwark of capitalism; the transformation of the party from a revolutionary into a counterrevolutionary force. As Luxemburg had so eloquently put it in WWI, the SPD had become a “stinking corpse”—something which had through the stench of decomposition revealed itself to have been dead for a long time already—dead for the purposes of socialism. The party had killed itself through the Devil’s bargain of sacrificing its true political purpose for mere self-preservation.

In so doing, supposedly acting in the interests of the workers, the workers’ true interests—in socialism—were betrayed. As Luxemburg put it in the Junius Pamphlet, the failure of the SPD at the critical moment of 1914 had placed the entire history of the preceding “40 years” of the struggles by the workers—since the founding of the SPD in 1875—“in doubt.” Would this history be liquidated without redemption? This underscored Luxemburg’s warning, decades earlier, against dissolving the goal into the movement that would betray not only the goal but the movement itself. Reformist revisionism devoured itself. The only point of the party was its goal of revolution; without it, it was “nothing”—indeed worse than nothing: It became a festering obstacle. The party was for Luxemburg not only or primarily the “subject” but was also and especially the object of revolutionary struggle by the working class to achieve socialism. This is why the revolution that the party had facilitated was for Luxemburg merely the beginning and not the end of the struggle to achieve socialism. The political problem of capitalism was manifest in how the party pointed beyond itself in the revolution. But without the party, that problem could never even manifest let alone point beyond itself.

During the German Revolution—provoked by the collapse of the Kaiserreich at the end of WWI—Luxemburg split and founded the new Communist Party of Germany (KPD), joining Lenin in forming the “Third” or Communist International, in 1919: to make clear the political tasks that had been manifested and advanced but ultimately abdicated and failed by the social-democratic parties of the Second International in war and revolution. Just as Luxemburg and Lenin had always maintained that the political party for socialism was necessary to advance the contradiction and crisis of capitalism as it had developed from Marx’s time to their own, so it became necessary in crisis to split that party and found a new one. Turning the international war of capitalism into a socialist revolution meant manifesting a civil war within the workers’ movement and indeed within Marxism itself. Whereas her former comrades in the SPD recoiled from her apparent revolutionary fanaticism, and “saved” themselves and their party by betraying its goal (but ultimately faded from historical significance), Luxemburg, as a loyal party-member, sacrificed herself for the goal of socialism, redeeming her Marxism and making it profoundly necessary, thus tasking our remembrance and recovery of it today. | §

Re-published in Weekly Worker 1115 (July 14, 2016). [PDF]


Notes

  1. Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 38–39; also available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/10/04.htm>. []
  2. Quoted in Georg Lukács,“The Standpoint of the Proletariat,” Part III of “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1923), trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 195. Available online at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_5.htm>. []
  3. See also my essay ‘Lenin’s Liberalism’, Platypus Review 36 (June 2011). Available online at: <http://platypus1917.org/2011/06/01/lenins-liberalism/>. []

Horkheimer in 1943 on party and class

Without a socialist party, there is no class struggle, only rackets

Chris Cutrone

Contribution to a symposium with Todd Cronan, James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann published at nonsite.org.


Audio recording


Horkheimer’s remarkable essay “On the sociology of class relations” (1943)1 is continuous with Adorno’s contemporaneous “Reflections on class theory” (1942) as well as his own “The authoritarian state” (1940/42), which similarly mark the transformation of Marx and Engels’s famous injunction in the Communist Manifesto that “history is the history of class struggles.” All of these writings were inspired by Walter Benjamin’s “On the concept of history” (AKA “Theses on the philosophy of history,” 1940), which registered history’s fundamental crisis. Instead, for Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s, history has become the history of “rackets.”2 As Horkheimer concludes his draft, parenthetically citing Marx on Hegelian methodology, “the anatomy of man is key to that of the ape:” the past is explicable from the present, in the form of clique power-politics. But this change is for Horkheimer a devolution — regression. It stemmed from the failure of proletarian socialist revolutionary politics after 1917-19. Without Marxism, there was no class struggle.3

The significance of this change is the relation of the individual to the collective in capitalism. This affects the character of consciousness, and thus the role of theory: the critical theory of the capitalist totality — Marxism — is fundamentally altered. Specifically, the role of working-class political parties in developing this consciousness is evacuated. At stake is what Horkheimer later (in his 1956 conversation with Adorno translated as Towards a New Manifesto [2011]) called, simply, the “memory of socialism.” It disappears. This was Horkheimer’s primary concern, why he points out that the socialist party was not focused on fighting against exploitation, and was indeed indifferent to it. This is because exploitation does not distinguish capitalism from other epochs of history; only the potential possibility for socialism does. That is why, without socialist politics, the pre-capitalist past reasserts itself, in the form of rackets.

At the conclusion of “The authoritarian state,” Horkheimer wrote that, “with the return to the old free enterprise system, the entire horror would start again from the beginning under new management.” Regarding the specific topic stated in the title of this essay in particular, we should note Horkheimer’s unequivocal observation in “The authoritarian state” that,

“Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable.”4

If there was a “sociology of class relations” to be had, then it would be, as usual for the Frankfurt School, a “negative” and not positive phenomenon. The issue was how to grasp the significance of the original proletarian socialist revolutionary “will toward freedom” degenerating into a matter of mere “sociology” at all. We need to pay attention to the problem indicated by the “On . . .” in the title of Horkheimer’s essay. “Class” in Marx’s sense was not amenable to sociology; but “rackets” are. Sociology is about groups; but the proletariat for Marx was not a sociological group but rather a negative condition of society. The proletariat in capitalism was for Marx a negative phenomenon indicating the need for socialism. The political task of meeting that necessity was what Marx called “proletarian socialism.”

Horkheimer was in keeping with Marx on this score. As the former SYRIZA Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis pointed out in a recent (October 23, 2015) interview, Marx was not concerned with “equality” or “justice,” but “liberty” — freedom.5 Moreover, as Varoufakis correctly observes, for Marx, capitalism is a condition of unfreedom for the capitalists and not only for the workers.6

As Marx wrote, at least as early as The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the capitalist class is constituted as such, as a class, only in response to the demands of the workers. It treats the demands of the workers as impossible under capitalism, as a more or less criminal violation of society. It is only in meeting the political challenge of a unified capitalist class that the working class constitutes itself as a class “in itself,” not only subjectively but also objectively. For Marx, the historical turning point in this development was Chartism in England, which inaugurates the “class struggle” of the working class per se.

Only in fulfilling the task of proletarian socialism, transcending not only the workers’ (competing, racket) economic interests in capitalism but also democracy in bourgeois society, that is, coming up against the limits of liberalism, does the proletariat become a class “for itself” — on the way to “abolishing itself” in overcoming the negative condition of society in capitalism: its politics is not about one group replacing another. But Chartism in the U.K., like the revolutions of 1848-49 on the Continent, failed. For Marx, this is the need for “revolution in permanence” (1850) indicated by the failure of the democratic revolution and of the “social republic” in 1848. This is why Adorno (1966) characterized the critical concept of “society” itself, negatively, as originating “around 1848.” The Chartists’ last act was to translate Marx and Engels’s Manifesto.7

So what, for Marx, was missing in 1848? This is key to what is missing for Horkheimer a hundred years later: an adequate political party for proletarian socialism; the means for making capitalism a political issue.

The role of the political party, specifically as non-identical with the workers’ consciousness, both individually and collectively, was to actually preserve the individuality of the workers — as well as of intellectuals! — that is otherwise liquidated in the corporate collectives of capitalist firms, labor unions and nation-states. These rackets have replaced the world party of proletarian socialist revolution, which was itself a dialectical expression of the totality of market relations and of the otherwise chaotic disorder of the concrete conditions of the workers. For Horkheimer, workers related to the political party individually, and only as such constituted themselves as part of a class — in revolutionary political struggle to overcome capitalism through socialism. It was not that Lenin’s party caused the liquidation of the individual, but the later travesty of “Leninism” in Stalinism was the effect of a broader and deeper socially regressive history of capitalism — what Marx called “Bonapartism” in the 19th century — that the 20th century authoritarian state and its concomitant “sociological” problem of political “atomization” expressed.

Liquidating the political party paves the way for conformism: individuality in society instead becomes individualism, whether of persons or corporate bodies. As Margaret Thatcher succinctly put it, “There is no such thing as society.” Not only as wish but in fact. By contrast, the party was the negative political discipline adequate to the societal crisis of liberal capitalism in self-contradiction. But for Horkheimer, now, instead positivity rules, in a direct authoritarian manner that capitalism eludes. Avoidance of the party means avoiding capitalism — which suits the power of the rackets as such.

The problem of society’s domination by anonymous social forces was revealed by the struggle against exploitation, which demonstrated the limits of the power of the capitalists and hence the problem of and need to transform “society” as such. The “social question” dawned in the political crisis of 1848: the limits of the democratic republic. This becomes replaced by overt power relations that are mystified, by appearing to know no limits. For Horkheimer, following Lenin8, the party’s struggle for socialism picked up where the struggle against exploitation reached its limits; without the party there is no struggle for socialism: no pointing beyond but only accommodating capitalism as nature — or at least as a condition seemingly permanent to society.

This is why Horkheimer likens the ideology of organized “racket” capitalism in the 20th century to traditional civilization, by contrast with the liberal capitalism of the 19th century mediated by markets. Indeed, the problem with the rackets is that they falsify precisely the universalism of ideology, which in liberalism could be turned into a negative critique, an index of falsity. Universality is no longer claimed, so the universal condition of domination by capital is rendered occult and illegible. As Adorno put it, “The whole is the false.” Only by confronting the negative totality of capitalism politically was class struggle possible. The power-struggles of rackets do not point beyond themselves. There is no history. | §


Notes

  1. Unpublished manuscript, available on-line at: <http://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/horkheimer/content/pageview/6591478> []
  2. Horkheimer specified the concept of “rackets” in “On the sociology of class relations” as follows:
    “The concept of the racket referring to the big and to the small units struggling for as great a share as possible of the surplus value designates all such groups from the highest capitalistic bodies down to the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of the law among the most miserable strata of the population. It has arisen as a theoretical concept when, by the increasing absoluteness of the profit system the disproportion between the functions of the ruling class in production and the advantages which they draw from it became even more manifest than at the time of . . . [Marx’s] Capital.” []
  3. A half-century earlier, Rosa Luxemburg had expressed this succinctly in her October 3, 1898 speech to the Stuttgart Congress of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), that, “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle:”
    “Think about it: what really constitutes the socialist character of our whole movement? The really practical struggle falls into three categories: the trade-union struggle, the struggle for social reforms, and the struggle to democratize the capitalist state. Are these three forms of our struggle really socialism? Not at all. Take the trade-union movement first! Look at England: not only is it not socialist there, but it is in some respects an obstacle to socialism. Social reform is also emphasized by Academic Socialists, National Socialists, and similar types. And democratization is specifically bourgeois. The bourgeoisie had already inscribed democracy on its banner before we did. . . .
    “Then what is it in our day-to-day struggles that makes us a socialist party? It can only be the relation between these three practical struggles and our final goals. It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle. And by final goal we must not mean, as [Wolfgang] Heine has said, this or that image of the future state, but the prerequisite for any future society, namely the conquest of political power. . . . This conception of our task is closely related to our conception of capitalist society; it is the solid ground which underlies our view that capitalist society is caught in insoluble contradictions which will ultimately necessitate an explosion, a collapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company.” (Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971], 38–39; also available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/10/04.htm>.) []
  4. Max Horkheimer, “The authoritarian state,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1985), 117. []
  5. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X034u2pls3M> []
  6. See also Horkheimer’s “The little man and the philosophy of freedom,” in Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52. There, Horkheimer wrote that,
    “[A]lthough [the capitalists] did not themselves create the world, one cannot but suspect that they would have made it exactly as it is. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible . . . [n]ot only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.”
    Horkheimer paraphrased Marx and Engels’s The Holy Family (1845), where they wrote that,
    “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.” (Quoted in Georg Lukács, “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” part III “The standpoint of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1971], 149. Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm>.) []
  7. See David Black, “The elusive threads of historical progress: The early Chartists and the young Marx and Engels,” in Platypus Review 42 (December 2011 – January 2012), available on-line at: <http://platypus1917.org/2011/12/01/elusive-threads-of-historical-progress/>. []
  8. See Lenin’s What is to be Done? (1902), where Lenin distinguished “socialist” from “trade union consciousness:” “We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.” (Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm>.)
    Furthermore, in a January 20, 1943 letter debating Henryk Grossmann on Marxist dialectics, Horkheimer wrote that,
    “It is no coincidence that [Lenin] the materialist thinker who took these questions [in Hegel] more seriously than anyone else placed all those footnotes next to the [Science of] Logic rather than next to the Philosophy of History. It was he who wanted to make the study of Hegel’s Logic obligatory and who, even if it lacked the finesse of the specialist, sought out the consequences of Positivism, in its Machian form, with the most determined single-mindedness [in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908]. It was still in this Lenin sense that Lukács was attacked for his inclination to apply the dialectic not to the whole of reality but confine it to the subjective side of things.” (Trans. Frederik van Gelder at: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_mh_grossmann_letter.html>. Original letter in German: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_MH_Grossmann_letter_DEU.pdf>.) []

Proletarian dictatorship and state capitalism

The meaning of political party for the Left

Chris Cutrone

Originally published in Weekly Worker 1064 (June 25, 2015). [PDF]

Tamás Krausz’s recent book Reconstructing Lenin (2015) notes the foundational opposition by Lenin to ‘petty bourgeois democracy’ – Lenin’s hostility towards the Mensheviks was in their opportunistic adaptation to petty bourgeois democracy, their liquidation of Marxism.

The real objects of Lenin’s political opposition in proletarian socialism were the Narodniks and their descendants, the Socialist Revolutionaries, who were the majority of socialists in Russia in 1917. The SRs included many avowed ‘Marxists’ and indeed supported the ‘vanguard’ role of the working class in democratic revolution. The split among the SRs over World War I is what made the October revolution in 1917 possible – the alliance of the Bolsheviks with the Left SRs.

Conversely, the collapse of that alliance in 1918, due to the Bolsheviks’ policy of pursuing a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk, led to the Russian civil war. The SRs, calling for a “third Russian revolution”, remained the most determined enemies of the Bolsheviks, all the way up through the Kronstadt mutiny of 1921, calling for “soviets without political parties”: ie, without the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks considered them ‘petty bourgeois democrats’ and thus ‘counterrevolutionaries’. As Engels had already foretold, opposition to proletarian socialism was posed as ‘pure democracy’. It was ‘democracy’ versus the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Hal Draper’s four-volume Marx’s theory of revolution (1977-90) similarly finds Marx’s essential lesson of 1848 in the need to oppose proletarian socialism to petty bourgeois democracy. In the democratic revolution “in permanence” the proletariat was to lead the petty bourgeoisie.

What has happened since Marx and Lenin’s time, however, has been the opposite: the liquidation of proletarian socialism in petty bourgeois democracy, and the workers’ acceptance of the political lead of the latter – what Trotsky in the 1930s called the “crisis of revolutionary leadership”, the result of the self-liquidation of Marxism by Stalinism in the popular front. Today, the left is characterised by the utter absence of proletarian socialism and the complete domination of politics by what Marxism termed petty bourgeois democracy.

This did not, however, prevent Marx – and Lenin, following him – from endorsing the ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’, which remained necessary not only in apparently holdover feudal-aristocratic states, such as Germany in 1848 or Russia in 1905 and 1917, but also in the US Civil War of 1861-65 and the Paris Commune of 1871. This is because capitalism in the 19th century was a crisis undermining the bourgeois revolution begun in the 16th-17th centuries (in the Dutch Revolt and English Civil War).

The question is, what is the relation between the task of the still ongoing bourgeois democratic revolution, the contradiction of capital and the struggle for socialism? How has Marxism regarded the problem of ‘political action’ in modern society?

Programme

Mike Macnair’s four-part series on the “maximum programme” of communism – ‘Thinking the alternative’ Weekly Worker April 9, 16 and 30 and May 14 2015 – argues for the need “to proletarianise the whole of global society”. Macnair means this more in the political than economic sense. So what is the proletariat as a political phenomenon, according to Marxism? Georg Lukács, following Marx, however, would have regarded the goal of the complete ‘proletarianisation of society’ precisely as the ‘reification’ of labour: ie, a one-sided opposition and hypostatisation that Macnair articulates as the proletariat’s “denial of property claims” of any kind. But this leaves aside precisely the issue of ‘capital’ in Marx’s sense: the self-contradictory social relation of the workers collectively to the means of production, which for Marxism is not reducible to the individual capitalists’ property.

‘Capital’, in Marx’s sense, and the petty proprietorship of shopkeepers, for example, let alone the personal skills of workers (either ‘manual’ or ‘intellectual’), are very different phenomena. Macnair addresses this issue in the final, fourth part of his series, ‘Socialism will not require industrialisation’ (Weekly Worker May 14 2015), which clarifies matters as regards his view of wage-labour, but not with respect to capital specifically as the self-contradiction of wage-labour in society. Moreover, there is the issue of how capital has indeed already ‘proletarianised the whole of global society’, not only economically, but also politically. This cuts to the heart of what Marx termed ‘Bonapartism’.

Macnair’s “maximum programme”, if even realisable at all, would only reproduce capitalism in Marx’s sense. Whereas, for Marx, the proletariat would begin to abolish itself – ie, abolish the social principle of labour – immediately upon the workers taking political power in their struggle for socialism. If not, then petty bourgeois democracy will lead the lumpenproletariat against the workers in Bonapartist politics, typically through nationalism – a pattern seen unrelentingly from 1848, all the way through the 20th century, up to the present. It has taken the various forms of fascism, populism, ethno-cultural (including religious) communalism (eg, fundamentalism), and Stalinist ‘communism’ itself. How have the workers fared in this? They have been progressively politically pulverised and liquidated, up to today.

Marxism’s political allegiance to the working class was strategic, not principled. What Marxism expressed was the socialist intelligentsia’s recognition of the ‘necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ as a means to achieve socialism, not as an abstract utopia, but rather, as Lenin put it, “on the basis of capitalism itself”, and thus the necessary “next stage” of history.

This is because capitalism produces not only proletarianised workers, but also their opposite: a reserve army of lumpenised unemployed to be used against them – not merely economically, but also politically – as fodder for petty bourgeois demagogy and objects of capitalist technocratic manipulation, but also as enraged masses of capitalism’s discontented. If the working class in revolution would open its ranks to all and thus abolish the lumpenproletariat as well as the petty bourgeoisie through universalising labour, then this would be a civil war measure under socialist leadership, to immediately attack and dismantle the valorisation process of capital, as well as to mobilise the masses against competing petty bourgeois democratic leadership: it will not be as a new, ostensibly emancipatory principle of society. It would be rather what Lukács dialectically considered the “completion of reification” that would also lead potentially to its “negation”. It would be to raise to the level of conscious politics what has already happened in the domination of society by capital – its ‘proletarianisation’ – not to ideologically mystify it, as Macnair does in subsuming it under the democratic revolution, regarded as ‘bourgeois’ or otherwise.

But this can only ever happen at a global and not local scale, for it must involve a predominant part of the world working class asserting practical governing authority to be effective. This would be what Marxism once called the “proletarian socialist revolution”. But it would also be, according to Marx and Lenin, the potential completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution, going beyond it. This ambivalent – ‘dialectical’ – conception of the proletarian socialist revolution as the last phase of the bourgeois democratic revolution that points beyond it has bedevilled ‘Marxists’ from the beginning, however much Marx was clear about it. Lenin’s and Trotsky’s practical political success in October 1917 was in pursuing the necessity Marx had recognised. However, consciousness of that original Marxist intention has been lost.

Democracy

This must be ideologically plausible as ‘socialism’, not only to the workers, but to the others they must lead politically in this struggle. That means that socialism must be as compelling ideologically as the working class is politically organised for the dictatorship of the proletariat – what Marx called “winning the battle of democracy”. Note well that this was for Marx the battle of democracy, which he took to be already established, and not the battle ‘for’ democracy as some yet unattained ideal. For Marx democracy was constitutive of the modern state in bourgeois society and capitalism: hence his statement that the “secret of every constitution is democracy” – a notion Marx had in common with bourgeois revolutionary thought going back to Machiavelli, but especially with respect to Locke and Rousseau. ‘Socialism’, as the phenomenon of a new need in capitalism, must win the battle of the democratic revolution. The political party for socialism would be the means by which this would take place.

The issue is whether we are closer to or rather further away from the prospect of socialism today, by contrast with a hundred years ago. If socialism seems more remote, then how do we account for this, if – as Macnair, for instance, asserts – we have already achieved socially what Marx demanded in the Critique of the Gotha programme? The return to predominance of what Marx considered Bonapartism through petty bourgeois democracy after the liquidation of proletarian socialism in the early 20th century would seem to raise questions about the ‘progress’ of capitalism and of the very social conditions for politics. Have they advanced? It could be equally plausible that conditions have regressed, not only politically, but socially, objectively as well as subjectively, and that there has been a greater divergence of their interrelation by comparison to past historical moments, especially the revolutionary crisis of 1914-19.

The question, then, would be if the necessity of Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has been overcome or rather deepened. Redefining the dictatorship of the proletariat, as Macnair, along with many others, has tried to do, will not suffice to address adequately the issues raised by consideration of historical Marxism, specifically how Marxists once regarded the workers’ movement for socialism itself, as well as capitalism, as self-contradictory. And, most pointedly, how Marxism considered capitalism and socialism to be ‘dialectically’ intertwined, inextricably – how they are really two sides of the same historical phenomenon – rather than seeing them as standing in undialectical antithesis.

The task posed by capitalism has been for proletarian socialism to lead petty bourgeois democracy, not adapt to it. The classic question of politics raised by Lenin – ‘Who-whom?’ (that is, who is the subject and who is the object of political action) – remains: the history of the past century demonstrates that, where ostensible Marxists leading proletarian socialist parties have tried to use the petty bourgeois democrats, really the latter have used – and then ruthlessly disposed of – them.

So let us return to Marx’s formulation of the problem and retrace its history – for instance, through the example of the revolutionary history of the US.

Dictatorship

In a letter of March 5 1852, Marx wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer that his only original contribution had been recognising the necessity of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Bourgeois thought, Marx wrote, had already recognised the existence and the struggle of classes: indeed, the existence and struggle of classes – the struggle of the workers against the capitalists – had been recognised by bourgeois thought in terms of liberalism. Recognition of the class struggle was an achievement of liberal thought and politics. Marx thought that socialists had fallen below the threshold of liberalism in avoiding both the necessity of the separation of classes in capitalism and the necessity of the class struggle resulting from that division of society. Socialists blamed the capitalists rather than recognising that they were not the cause, but the effect, of the self-contradiction of society in capitalism.1 So Marx went beyond both contemporary liberal and socialist thought in his recognition of the historical necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat revealed by capitalism.

Marx wrote this letter in the wake of the coup d’état by Louis Bonaparte and his establishment of the Second Empire. It was the culmination of Marx’s writings on the 1848 revolution and its aftermath. Weydemeyer was Marx’s editor and publisher for his book on The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

Later, in his writings on the Paris Commune in The civil war in France, Marx summarised the history of Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire in terms of its being the dialectical inverse of the Commune, and wrote that the Commune demonstrated the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in action. How so?

Marx’s perspective on post-1848 Bonapartism was a dialectical conception with respect to the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat that Bonapartism expressed. This was why it was so important for Marx to characterise Louis Bonaparte’s success as both ‘petty bourgeois’ and ‘lumpenproletarian’, as a phenomenon of the reconstitution of capitalism after its crisis of the 1840s. Bonaparte’s success was actually the failure of politics; and politics for Marx was a matter of the necessity of the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists. Bonapartism was for Marx a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ – not in the sense of the rule of the capitalists, but rather in terms of the political necessity of the state continuing to organise capitalism on a bourgeois basis and the imperative for doing so after the capitalists had lost the ability to lead through civil society. After all, as Marx put it in The 18th Brumaire, in Bonaparte’s coup, “bourgeois fanatics for order [were] shot down on their balconies in the name of … order”. It was a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ in the sense that it did for them what they could not.

The crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism ran deep. Marx wrote:

Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatised as ‘socialism’ (18th Brumaire).

It was in this sense that the Bonapartist police state emerging from this crisis was a travesty of bourgeois society: why Louis Bonaparte was for Marx a “farcical” figure, as opposed to his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte’s “tragedy” in the course of the Great Revolution. Where Napoleon tried to uphold such bourgeois values, however dictatorially, Louis Bonaparte and others who took their cue from him after 1848 abjured them all. 1848 was a parody of the bourgeois revolution and indeed undid it. The “tragedy” of 1848 was not of bourgeois society, but of proletarian socialism: Marx described the perplexity of contemporaries, such as Victor Hugo, who considered Bonapartism a monstrous historical accident and, by contrast, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who apologised for it as some expression of historical necessity, even going so far as to flirt with Louis Bonaparte as a potential champion of the working class against the capitalists – a dynamic repeated by Ferdinand Lassalle in Germany with respect to Bismarck, earning Marx’s excoriation. Marx offered a dialectical conception of Bonapartism.

State capitalism

Frankfurt Institute for Social Research director Max Horkheimer’s essay on ‘The authoritarian state’ was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’, which were his draft aphorisms in historiographic introduction to the unwritten Arcades project, concerned with how the history of the 19th century prefigured the 20th: specifically, how the aftermath of 1848 was repeating itself in the 1920s-30s, the aftermath of failed revolution from 1917-19; how 20th century fascism was a repeat and continuation of 19th century Bonapartism. So was Stalinism.

Horkheimer wrote that the authoritarian state could not be disowned by the workers’ movement or indeed separated from the democratic revolution more broadly. It could not be dissociated from Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, but could only be understood properly dialectically with respect to it. The authoritarian state was descended from the deep history of the bourgeois revolution, but realised only after 1848: only in the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, which made the history of the bourgeois revolution appear in retrospect rather as the history of the authoritarian state. What had happened in the meantime?

In the 20th century, the problem of the Bonapartist or authoritarian state needed to be addressed with further specificity regarding the phenomenon of ‘state capitalism’. What Marx recognised in the ‘necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ was the same as that of state capitalism in Bonapartism. Hence, the history of Marxism after Marx is inseparable from the history of state capitalism, in which the issue of the dictatorship of the proletariat was inextricably bound up. Marx’s legacy to subsequent Marxism in his critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) was largely ignored.

The question is how the Lassallean Social Democratic Workers’ Party that Marx’s followers joined in Bismarckian Germany was a state capitalist party, and whether and how Marx’s followers recognised that problem: would the workers’ party for socialism lead, despite Marxist leadership, to state capitalism rather than to socialism? Was the political party for socialism just a form of Bonapartism?

This is the problem that has beset the left ever since the crisis of proletarian socialism over a hundred years ago, in World War I and its aftermath. Indeed, Marxism has seemed to be haunted by this historical verdict against it, as state capitalism, and so disqualified forever as a politics for emancipation.

Marxism fell apart into mutual recriminations regarding its historical failure. Anarchists and council communists blamed ‘Leninism’; and ‘Leninists’ returned the favour, blaming lack of adequate political organisation and leadership for the grief of all spontaneous risings. Meanwhile, liberals and social democrats quietly accepted state capitalism as a fact, an unfortunate and regrettable necessity, to be dispensed with whenever possible. But all these responses were in fact forms of political irresponsibility, because they were all avoidance of a critical fact. Marx’s prognosis of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ still provoked pangs of conscience and troubling thoughts. What had Marx meant by it?

We should be clear: state capitalism in the underdeveloped world was always a peripheral phenomenon; state capitalism in the core, developed, capitalist countries posed the contradiction of capitalism more acutely, and in a politically sharpened manner. What was the political purpose of state capitalism in post-proletarian society? Rather than in ‘backward’ Russia or China and other countries undergoing a process of industrialising-proletarianising. Socialism was not meant to be a modernising capitalisation project. And yet this is what it has been. How did socialism point beyond capitalism?

Neoliberalism

Organised capitalism relying on the state is a fact. The only question is the politics of it. Lenin, for one, was critically aware of state capitalism, even if he can be accused of having allegedly contributed to it. The question is not whether and how state capitalism contradicts socialism, but how to grasp that contradiction dialectically. A Marxist approach would try to grasp state capitalism, as its Bonapartist state, as a form of suspended revolution; indeed, as a form of suspended ‘class struggle’. The struggle for socialism – or its absence – affects the character of capitalism. Certainly, it affects the politics of it.

A note on neoliberalism. As with anything, the ‘neo’ is crucially important. It is not the liberalism of the 18th or even the 19th century. It is a form of state capitalism, not an alternative to it. Only, it is a form of politically irresponsible state capitalism. That is why it recalls the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the era of ‘imperialism’, of the imperial – Bonapartist – state. However, at that time, there was a growing and developing proletarian movement for socialism, or ‘revolutionary social democracy’, led by Marxists, in nearly all the major capitalist countries. Or so, at least, it seemed.

Historically, Marxism was bound up with the history of state capitalism, specifically as a phenomenon of politics after the crisis of 1873. For this reason, the history of capitalism is impacted by the absence of Marxism 100 years later, today, after the crisis of 1973.2 After 1873, in the era of the second industrial revolution, there was what Marxists once called the ‘monopoly capitalism’ of global cartels and financialisation, organized by a world system of states, which Marxists regarded as the ‘highest (possible) stage of capitalism’. It was understood as necessarily bringing forth the workers’ movement for socialism, which seemed borne out in practice: the history from the 1870s to the first decades of the 20th century demonstrated a growth of proletarian socialism alongside growing state capitalism.

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out – against social democratic reformists, who affirmed this workers’ movement as already in the process of achieving socialism within capitalism – that “the proletariat … can only create political power and then transform [aufheben] capitalist property”. That Aufhebung – the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – would be the beginning, not the “end”, of the emancipatory transformation of society. As Michael Harrington noted, drawing upon Luxemburg and Marx, “political power is the unique essence of the socialist transformation”.3 It is this political power that the ‘left’ has avoided since the 1960s.

History

In the US, the liberal democratic ideal of Jeffersonian democracy, the idyll of the American Revolution, was shattered by the crack of the slave whip – and by the blast of the rifle shot to stop it. Jefferson had tried to call for abolition of slavery in his 1776 Declaration of Independence, accusing British policy of encouraging slavery in the colonies, but the Continental Congress deleted the passage. Jefferson fought against slavery his entire political life. Towards the end of that life, in a letter of August 7 1825, Jefferson wrote to the abolitionist, women’s rights activist and utopian socialist, Frances Wright, supporting her founding the Nashoba Commune in Tennessee for the emancipation of slaves through labour:

I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, not even in the great one which is the subject of your letter [the abolition of slavery], and which has been thro’ life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practicable within the limits of time allotted to me; and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation. and I am cheered when I see that on which it is devolved, taking it up with so much good will, and such mind engaged in its encouragement. The abolition of the evil is not impossible: it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object. That which you propose is well worthy of trial. It has succeeded with certain portions of our white brethren, under the care of a [Christian communist George] Rapp and an [utopian socialist Robert] Owen; and why may it not succeed with the man of colour?4

Jefferson’s election to president in 1800, through which he established the political supremacy of his new Democratic-Republican Party, was called a ‘revolution’, and indeed it was. Jefferson defeated the previously dominant federalists. What we now call the Democratic Party, beginning under Andrew Jackson, was a split and something quite different from Jefferson. The Republican Party, whose first elected president in 1860 was Abraham Lincoln, was a revolutionary party, and in fact sought to continue the betrayed revolution of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. The Republicans came out of the destruction of the Whig party, which produced a revolutionary political crisis leading to the Civil War. They were the party of the last great political revolution in American politics, the Civil War and Reconstruction under Ulysses S (‘Unconditional Surrender’) Grant that followed. Its failure demonstrated, as the revolutions of 1848 had done in Europe, the limits of political and social revolution in capitalism: it showed the need for socialism.5

The last major crisis of US politics was in the 1960s ‘New Left’ challenge to the ruling Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition that had been the political response to the 1930s great depression.6 In the 1930s Franklin D Roosevelt had disciplined the capitalists in order to save capitalism, subordinating the working class to his efforts. He thus remade the Democratic Party. Trotsky, for one, considered FDR New Dealism, along with fascism and Stalinism, despite great differences, a form of “Bonapartism”.7 The crisis of the 1960s was essentially the crisis of the Democratic Party, challenged by both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. The Republicans, first led by Richard Nixon in 1968 then by Ronald Reagan in 1980, were the beneficiaries of that crisis. Both the 1930s and 1960s-70s, however, fell below the standard of Radical Republicanism in the 1860s-70s, which was the most democratic period in US history. It is something less than ironic that the Democrats, considered the ‘left’ of the American political party system, have been the most acutely counterrevolutionary of Bonapartist parties. This despite Democratic Party presidential candidate John F Kennedy’s declaration on October 12 1960 that the strife of the 20th century – expressed by the cold war struggles of communism and decolonisation – was an extension of the American Revolution to which the US needed to remain true.8

The history of the state in the modern era is inextricable from the politics of revolution.9 The crisis of the state is always a crisis of political parties; crises of political parties are always crises of the state. The crisis of the state and its politics is a phenomenon of the crisis of capitalism.

The question of left and right is a matter of the degree of facilitation in addressing practically and with consciousness the problem of capitalism, and the problem of capitalism is inextricable from the state.

Regression

Politics today tends to be reduced to issues of policy, of what to do, neglecting the question of who is to do it. But this is depoliticising. Politics is properly about the matter of mobilising and organising people to take action: their very empowerment is at least as important as what they do with it. Marxism never identified itself directly with either the working class or its political action, including workers’ revolution and any potential revolutionary state issuing from this.10 But Marxism advocated the political power of the working class, recognising why the workers must rule society in its crisis of capitalism. Marxism assumed the upward movement of this trend from the 1860s into the early 20th century. But, in the absence of this, other forces take its place, with more or less disastrous results. After 1919 matters have substantially regressed.

Marxism recognised the non-identity of socialism and the working class. ‘Revolutionary social democracy’ of the late 19th century, in its original formulation by Bebel and Kautsky, followed by Lenin and Luxemburg, was the union of the socialist ideological movement of the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia with the workers in their class struggle against the capitalists.11 For Marxism ‘politics’ is the class struggle. For Marx, the capitalists are only constituted as a class through opposing the working class’s struggle for socialism (see Marx’s 1847 The poverty of philosophy). Otherwise, as Horkheimer recognised, there is no capitalist class as such, but competing rackets. Adam Smith, for instance, had recognised the need for the workers to collectively organise in pursuit of their interests; Smith favoured high wages and low profits to make capitalism work. Marx’s critique of political economy was in recognition of the limits of bourgeois political economy, including and especially that of the working class itself. Marx was no advocate of proletarian political economy, but its critic.

The antagonism of workers against the capitalists is not itself the contradiction of capital. However, it expresses it.12 The goal of socialism is the abolition of political economy, not in terms of the overthrowing of the capitalists by the workers, but the overcoming of and going beyond the principle of labour as value that capital makes possible.13 The question is how the potential for socialism can transcend the politics of capitalism – can emerge out from the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists – that otherwise reconstitutes it.

Rejecting

A political party is necessary to preserve the horizon of proletarian socialism in capitalism over time. Otherwise, the workers will have only consciousness of their interests that reproduces capitalism, however self-contradictorily. A political party is necessary for class struggle to take place at all. According to Marx, the democratic republic is the condition under which the class struggle in capitalism will be fought out to completion; and the only possibility for the democratic republic in capitalism is the dictatorship of the proletariat, or a revolutionary workers’ state.

Such a revolutionary politics would be concerned not with the whether, but only the how, of socialism. It will be marked by great social strife and political struggle, with competing socialist parties. Its purpose will be to make manifestly political the civil war of capitalism that occurs nonetheless anyway. We are very far from such a politics today.

The notion of politics apart from the state, and of politics apart from parties is a bourgeois fantasy – precisely a bourgeois fantasy of liberal democracy that capitalism has thrown into crisis and rendered obsolete and so impossible. Capitalism presents a new political necessity, as Marx and his best followers once recognised. Anarchism is truly ‘liberalism in hysterics’ in denying the necessity of politics, in denying the need for political party. Neo-anarchism today is the natural corollary to neoliberalism.

In the absence of a true left, politics and the state – capitalism – will be led by others. In the absence of meeting the political necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat, we will have more or less, hard or soft, and more or less irresponsible capitalist state dictatorship. We will have political irresponsibility.

To abandon the task of political party is to abandon the state, and to abandon the state is to abandon the revolution. It is to abandon the political necessity of socialism, whose task capitalism presents. It is to abandon politics altogether, and leave the field to pseudo-politics, to political irresponsibility. The ‘left’ has done this for more than a generation, at least since the 1960s. What would it mean to do otherwise? | §


Notes

  1. See my ‘Class-consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today’ Platypus Review No51, November 2012.
  2. See my ‘1873-1973, the century of Marxism: the death of Marxism and the emergence of neoliberalism and neo-anarchism’ Platypus Review No47, June 2012.
  3. ‘Marxism and democracy’ Praxis International 1:1, April 1981.
  4. http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/default.xqy?keys=FOEA-chron-1820-1825-08-07-3.
  5. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address declared the goal of the Union in the US Civil War to be a “new birth of freedom”. But its declaration that it was fought so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth” expressed the sobering consciousness that, by contrast with the European states after the failures of the revolutions of 1848, the US was the last remaining major democratic-republican state in the world.
  6. See my ‘When was the crisis of capitalism? Moishe Postone and the legacy of the 1960s New Left’ Platypus Review No70, October 2014.
  7. See The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International aka Transitional programme for socialist revolution (1938).
  8. Kennedy was speaking at the Hotel Theresa in New York: “I am delighted to come and visit. Behind the fact of Castro coming to this hotel, Khrushchev coming to Castro, there is another great traveller in the world, and that is the travel of a world revolution, a world in turmoil. I am delighted to come to Harlem and I think the whole world should come here and the whole world should recognise that we all live right next to each other, whether here in Harlem or on the other side of the globe. We should be glad they came to the United States. We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.” Fuller excerpts from Kennedy’s speech can be found at www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25785.
  9. See ‘Revolutionary politics and thought’ Platypus Review No69, September 2014.
  10. See L Trotsky, ‘Stalinism and Bolshevism’ (1937).
  11. See VI Lenin What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement (1902), and One step forward, two steps back: the crisis in our party (1904), where, respectively, Lenin argues for the non-identity of socialist and trade union consciousness, and defines revolutionary social democracy as Jacobinism tied to the workers’ movement.
  12. See my ‘Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital’ Weekly Worker October 16 2014; and my follow-up letters in debate with Macnair (November 20 2014, January 8, January 22 and April 16 2015).
  13. See my ‘Why still read Lukács? The place of ‘philosophical’ questions in Marxism’ Platypus Review No63, February 2014; abridged in Weekly Worker January 23 2014.

What is political party for Marxism?

Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital

On Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy (London: November Publications, 2008)

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 71 | November 2014

Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy is a wide-ranging, comprehensive and very thorough treatment of the problem of revolutionary politics and the struggle for socialism. His focus is the question of political party and it is perhaps the most substantial attempt recently to address this problem.

Macnair’s initial motivation was engagement with the debates in and around the French Fourth International Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire prior to its forming the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste electoral party in 2009. The other major context for the discussion was the Iraq anti-war movement and the U.K. Respect electoral party, which was formed around this in 2004, with the Socialist Workers Party driving the process. This raised issues not only of political party, democracy and the state, but also united fronts among socially and politically heterogeneous groups and the issue of imperialism. One key contribution by Macnair to the latter discussion is to raise and call attention to the difference between Bukharin’s and Lenin’s writings on imperialism, in which the former attributed the failure of (metropolitan) workers’ organization around imperialism to a specifically political compromise with the (national) state, whereas Lenin had, in his famous 1916 pamphlet, characterized this in terms of compromised “economic” interest. So with imperialism the question is the political party and the state.

Macnair observes that there are at least two principal phases of the party question: from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; and beginning in the middle of the 19th century. He relates these phases to the development of the problem of the state. He offers that constitutional government involves the development of the “party state” and that revolutionary politics takes its leave of such a “party state” (which includes multiple parties all supporting the constitutional regime). Furthermore, Macnair locates this problem properly as one of the nation-state within the greater economic and political system of capitalism. By conflating the issue of government with “rule of law,” however, Macnair mistakes the contradiction of the modern state and its politics in capitalism.

Elsewhere, Macnair has criticized sectarian “Marxism” for “theoretical overkill” in a “philosophy trap.” But he might thus mistake effect for cause: “philosophical” questions might be the expression of a trap in which one is nonetheless caught; and Marxist “theory” might go beyond today’s practical political concerns. Philosophy may not be the trap in which we are caught but rather an expression of our attempts—merely—to think our way out of it. The mismatch of Marxism today at the level of “theoretical” or “philosophical” issues might point to a historical disparity or inadequacy: we may have fallen below past thresholds and horizons of Marxism. The issue of political party may be one that we would need to re-attain rather than immediately confront in the present. Hence, “strategy” in terms of Marxism may not be the political issue now that it once was. This means that where past Marxists might appear to be in error it may actually be our fault, or, a fault in the present situation. How can the history of Marxism help us address this?

New politics

The key to this issue can be found in Macnair’s own distinction of the new phenomenon of party politics in the late 19th century, after the revolutions of 1848 and in the era of what Marx called “Bonapartism,” the pattern set by Louis Bonaparte, who became Napoleon III in the French Second Empire, with its emulation by Bismarck in the Prussian Empire, as well as Disraeli’s Tories in the U.K., among other examples. While Macnair finds some precedent for this in the 18th century U.K. and its political crises as well as in the course of the Great French Revolution 1789-1815 especially regarding Napoleon Bonaparte, the difference of the late 19th century party-politics from prior historical precedence is important to specify. For Macnair it is the world system of capitalism and its undermining of democracy.

It is important to recall Marx’s formulation, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that (neo-)Bonapartism was the historical condition in which the bourgeoisie could “no longer” and the proletariat “not yet” rule politically the modern society of capitalism. Bonapartism was the symptom of this crisis of capitalism and hence of the need for socialism revealed by the unprecedented failure of revolution in 1848—by contrast with 1830 as well as 1789 and 1776 and the Dutch Revolt and English Civil War of the 17th century. The bourgeoisie’s “ruling” character was not a legal-constitutional system of government descended from the 17th century political and social revolutions in Holland and England so much as it was a form of civil society, a revolutionary system of bourgeois social relations that was supposed to subordinate the state. What requires explanation is the 19th century slipping of the state from adequate social control, and its “rising above” the contending political groups and social classes, as a power in itself. Even if Bonapartism in Marx’s late 19th century sense was the expression of a potential inherent in the forms of bourgeois politics emerging much earlier, there is still the question of why it was not realized so until after 1848. There is also the matter of why Marx characterized Louis Napoleon as a “lesser” and “farcical” phenomenon of post-1848 history by contrast with Napoleon Bonaparte’s “tragedy” in the Great Revolution. It was not the mere fact of repetition, but why and how history “repeated itself,” and repeated with a difference.

This was according to Marx the essential condition for politics after 1848, the condition for political parties in capitalism. That condition was not only or primarily a matter of politics due to constitutional legal forms of bourgeois property and its social relations, but rather was for Marx the expression of the crisis of those forms as a function of the Industrial Revolution. There was for Marx an important contradiction between the democratic revolution and the proletarianization of society in capitalism.

Macnair addresses this by specifying the “proletariat” as all those in society “dependent on the total wage fund”—as opposed to those (presumably) dependent upon “capital.” This is clearly not a matter of economics, because distinguishing between those depending on wages as opposed to capital is a political matter of differentiation: all the intermediate strata depending on both the wage fund and capital would need to be compelled to take sides in any political dispute between the prerogatives of wages versus capital. Macnair addresses this through the struggle for democracy. But this does not pursue the contradiction far enough. For the wage fund according to Marx is a form of capital: it is “variable” as opposed to “constant capital.” So the proletarianization of society according to Marx is not addressed adequately as a matter of the condition of labor, but rather the social dependence on and domination by capital. And capital for Marx is not synonymous with the private property in the means of production belonging to the capitalists, but rather the relation of wages, or the resources for the reproduction of labor-power (including the “means of consumption”), to society as a whole. This is what makes it a political matter—a matter of politics in society—rather than merely the struggle of one group against another.

Macnair characterizes the theory of Marxism specifically as one that recognizes the necessity of those dependent upon the wage fund per se to overcome capitalism; he characterizes the struggle for this as the struggle for democracy, with the adequate horizon of this as “communism” at a global scale, as opposed to “socialism” which may be confined to the internal politics of individual nation-states. Macnair points out that the working class is necessarily in the “vanguard” of such struggle for adequate social democratization insofar as it comes up against the condition of capitalism negatively, as a problem to be overcome. The working class is thus defined “negatively” with respect to the social conditions to be overcome rather than “positively” according to its activity, its concrete labor in society. The goal is to change the conditions for political participation as well as economic activity in society.

Class and history

Conventionally, Marxists have distinguished among political parties on their “class basis,” regarding various parties as “representing” different class groups: “bourgeois,” “petit bourgeois” and “proletarian.” This is complicated by classic characterizations such as that by Lenin of the U.K. Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party.” Furthermore, there has been the bedeviling question of what is included in the “petite bourgeoisie.” But Marxists (such as Lenin) did not define politics “sociologically” but rather historically: as representing not the interests of members of various groups but rather different “ideological” horizons of politics and for the transformation of society. So, for instance, what made the Socialist Revolutionaries in the Russian Revolution of 1917 “represent” the peasants was not so much their positions on agrarian matters as the “petit bourgeois” horizon of politics they shared with the peasants as petty proprietors. SRs were not necessarily themselves petty proprietors—they were like Lenin “petit bourgeois intellectuals” —but rather had in common with the peasants a form of discontent with capitalism, but one “ideologically” hemmed in by what Marxism regarded a limited horizon.

In Marx’s (in)famous phrase from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the peasants as a group, as a “petit bourgeois” “sack of potatoes” of smallholders, could not “represent themselves” but must rather “be represented”—as they were, according to Marx, by Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire’s succeeding the counterrevolutionary Party of Order in 1848. Marx called attention to the issue of how representation functioned in the politics of capitalism. Likewise, “bourgeois” parties were not so much pro-capitalist as much as they sought to manage the problems of capitalism from a certain historical perspective: that of “capital.” This was the horizon of their politics; whereas “petit bourgeois” parties were concerned with the perspective of smaller property holdings; and “workers parties” that of wage-labor. To be a “bourgeois workers’ party” such as Labour in the U.K. meant to represent the horizon of wage-labor in terms compatible with (especially but not exclusively U.K. “national”) capital. This was the character of ideology and political action—“consciousness”—which was not reducible to, let alone determined by, economic interest of a particular concrete social group.

So, various political parties as well as different political forms represented different historical horizons for discontents within capitalism. For Marxists, only “proletarian socialist” politics could represent adequately the problem—the crisis and contradiction—of capitalism. Others ideologically obscured it. A “bourgeois workers’ party” would be a phenomenon of “Bonapartism” insofar as “nature abhors a vacuum” and it filled the space evacuated by the failure of bourgeois politics while also falling short of the true historical horizon of the political tasks of proletarian socialism. It was a phenomenon of the contradiction of capitalism in a particular way—as were all political parties from a Marxist perspective.

There are great merits and significant clarity to Macnair’s approach to the problem of politics in capitalism and what it would require to transcend this.

The issue, though, is his taking as a norm the parliamentary system of government in the European mode and thus neglecting the U.S. constitutional system. For at issue is the potential disparity and antagonism between legislative and executive authority, or between the law and its enforcement. The American system of “checks and balances” was meant to uphold liberal democracy and prevent the tyranny of either the executive or the legislative (or the judicial) aspects of government. There is an important domain of political struggle already, between executive and legislative authority, and this would affect any struggle to transform politics. The question is the source of this antagonism. It is not merely formal. If the “separation of powers” in the U.S. Constitutional system has served undemocratic ends, it is not essentially because it was intended to do so. The problem of adequate and proper democratic authority in society is not reducible to the issue of purported “mob rule.” Any form of government could be perverted to serve capitalism. So the issue is indeed one of politics as such, the social content of or what informs any form of political authority.

“Party of the new type”?

Macnair notes potential deficits and inadequacies in the Third Communist International’s endorsement of “soviet” or “workers’ council” government, with its attempt to overcome the difference between legislative and executive authority, which seems to reproduce the problem Macnair finds in parliamentary government. For him, executive authority eludes responsibility in the same way that capitalist private property eludes the law constitutionally. This is the source of Macnair’s conflation of liberalism and Bonapartism, as if the problem of capitalism merely played out in terms of liberalism rather than contradicting it. Liberal democracy should not be conceived as the constitutional limit on democracy demanded by capitalist private property. The “democratic republic” Macnair calls for by contrast should not be conceived as the opposite of liberal democracy. For capitalism does not only contradict the democratic republic but also liberal democracy, leading to Bonapartism, or, illiberal democracy.

Dick Howard, in The Specter of Democracy has usefully investigated Marx’s original formulations on the problem of politics and capitalism, tracing these back to the origins of modern democracy in the American and French Revolutions of the 18th century, specifying the problem in common between (American) “republican democracy” and (French) “democratic republicanism.” Howard finds in both antinomical forms of modern democracy the danger of “anti-politics,” or of society eluding adequate political expression and direction, to which either democratic authority or liberalism can lead. Howard looks to Marx as a specifically political thinker on this problem to suggest the direction that struggle against it must take. Socialism for Marx in Howard’s view would fulfill the potential that has been otherwise limited by both republican democracy and democratic republicanism—or by both liberalism and socialism.

Macnair equates communism with democratic republicanism and thus treats it as a goal to be achieved and a norm to be realized. Moreover, he thinks that this goal can only be achieved by the practice of democratic republicanism in the present: the political party for communism must exemplify democratic republicanism in practice, as an alternative to the politics of the “party-state” in capitalism.

Marx, by contrast, addressed communism as merely the “next step” and a “one-sided negation” of capitalism rather than as the end goal of emancipation: it is not the opposite of capitalism in the sense of an undialectical antithesis but rather an expression of it. Indeed, for Marx, communism would be the completion and fulfillment of capitalism, and not in terms of one or some aspects over others but rather in and through its central self-contradiction, which is political as well as economic, or, “political-economic.”

What this requires is recognizing the non-identity of various aspects of capitalism as bound up in and part and parcel of the process of capitalism’s potential transformation into communism. For example, the non-identity of law (as legislated), its (judicial) interpretation, and (executive) enforcement, or, the non-identity of civil society and the state, as expressed by the specific phenomenon of modern political parties. States are compulsory; political parties are voluntary, civil society formations. And governments are not identical with legislatures. Politics as conditioned by capitalism could provide the means but cannot already embody the ends of transforming capitalism through communism. If communism is to be pursued, as Macnair argues, by the means of democratic republicanism, then we must recognize what has become of the democratic revolution in capitalism. It has not been merely corrupted and degraded but rather rendered self-contradictory, which is a different matter. The concrete manifestations of democracy in capitalism are not only opportunist compromises but also struggles to assert politics.

Symptomatic socialism

The history of the movement for socialism or communism generally and of Marxism in particular demonstrates the problem of capitalism through symptomatic phenomena of attempts to overcome it. This is not a history of trials and errors but rather of discontents and exemplary forms of politics, borne of the crisis of capitalism as it has been experienced through various phases, none of which have been superseded entirely.

Lenin and Trotsky were careful to avoid, as Trotsky put it, in The Lesson of October (1924), the “fetishizing” of the soviet or workers’ council form of politics and (revolutionary) government. Rather, Marxists addressed this as an emergent phenomenon of a specific phase of history, one which they sought to advance through the proletarian socialist revolution. But, according to Lenin, in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, the soviet form did not mean that preceding historical forms of politics, for instance parliaments and trade unions, had been superseded in terms of being left behind. Indeed, it was precisely the failure of the world proletarian socialist—communist—revolution of 1917-19 that necessitated a “retreat” and reconsideration of perspectives and political prognoses. Certain forms and arenas of political struggle had come and gone. But, according to Lenin and Trotsky, the political party for communism remained indispensable. What did they mean by this?

Lenin and Trotsky meant something other than what Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer J.P. Nettl called the “inheritor party” or “state within the state” exemplified by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as the flagship party of the Second International. The social-democratic party was not intended by Luxemburg, Lenin or Trotsky to be the democratic republican alternative to capitalism. They did not aim to replace one constitutional party-state with another. Or at least they did not intend so beyond the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which was meant to rapidly transition out of capitalism to socialism. Beyond that, a qualitative development was envisioned, beyond “bourgeois right” and its forms of social relations—and of politics. “Communism” remained the essential horizon of potential transformation.

One key distinction that Macnair elides in his account is the development of bourgeois social relations within pre-bourgeois civilization that will not be replicated by the struggle for socialism: socialism does not develop within capitalism so much as the proletariat represents the potential negation of bourgeois social relations that has developed within capitalism. The proletariat is a phenomenon of crisis in the existing society, not the exemplar of the new society. Socialism is not meant to be a proletarian society but rather its overcoming. Capitalism is already a proletarianized society. Hence, Bonapartism as the manifestation of the need for the proletariat to rule politically that has been abandoned by the bourgeoisie. Bonapartism is not a form of politics but rather an indication of the failure of politics. Marxism investigates that failure and its historical significance. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be the “highest” and most acute form of Bonapartism, but one that intends to immediately begin to overcome itself, or “wither away.”

The proletariat aims to abolish itself as a class not simply by abolishing the capitalist class as its complementary opposite expression of the self-contradiction and crisis of capitalism. This is why Marx recognized the persistence of “bourgeois right” in any “dictatorship of the proletariat” and down into the transition to socialism in its “first stage.” Bourgeois right would overcome itself through its crisis and self-contradiction, which the dictatorship of the proletariat would “advance” and not immediately transcend. The dictatorship of the proletariat or “(social-)democratic republic” would be the form in which the struggle to overcome capitalism would first be able to take place politically.

Macnair confuses the proletariat’s struggle for self-abolition in socialism with the bourgeois—that is, modern urban plebeian—struggle for the democratic republic. He ignores the self-contradiction of this struggle in capitalism: that capitalism has reproduced itself in and through crisis, and indeed through revolution, through a process of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter) in which the bourgeois revolution has re-posed itself, but resulting in the re-proletarianization of society, the reconstitution of wage labor under changed concrete conditions. This has taken place not only or perhaps even primarily through economic or political-economic crises and struggles, but through specifically political crises and struggles, through the recurrence of the democratic revolution. The proletariat cannot either make society in the image of itself or abolish itself immediately. It can only seek to lead the democratic revolution—hopefully—beyond itself.

Liberalism and socialism

The problem with liberal democracy is that it proceeds as if the democratic revolution has been achieved already, and ignores that capitalism has undermined it. Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor—but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits—in crisis.

The crisis of capitalism means that the forms of bourgeois politics are differentiated: they express the crisis and disintegration of bourgeois social relations. They also manifest the accumulation of past attempts at mediating bourgeois social relations in and through the crisis of capitalism. This is why the formal problems of politics will not go away, even if they are transformed. The issue is one of recognizing this historical accumulation of political problems in capitalism, and of grasping adequately how these forms are symptomatic of the development—or lack thereof—of the politics of the struggle for socialism in and through these forms. For example, Occupy, which took place after the writing of Macnair’s book, clearly is not an advance in politically effective form. But it is symptomatic of our present historical moment, and so must be grappled with as such. It must be grasped as an endemic phenomenon, a “necessary form of appearance” of the problem of capitalism in the present, and not treated merely as an accidental and hence avoidable error.

Macnair’s preferred target of critical investigation is the “mass strike” and related “workers’ council” or “soviet” form. But this did not exist in isolation: its limits were not its own but rather also an expression of the limits of labor unions and parliamentary government as well as of political parties in the early 20th century. For Macnair the early Third or Communist International become a blind alley, proven by its failure. But its problems cannot be thus settled and resolved so summarily or as easily as that.

If Occupy has failed it has done so without manifesting the political problem of capitalism as acutely as the soviet or workers’ council form of revolutionary politics did circa 1917, precisely because Occupy did not manifest, as the soviets did, a crisis of parliamentary democracy, labor union organization and political party formation, as the workers’ council form did in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918-19 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1919 as well as the crisis in Italy beginning in 1919, and elsewhere in that historical moment and subsequently (e.g., in the British General Strike of 1926 and the Chinese Revolution of 1927). Indeed, Occupy might be regarded as an attempt to avoid certain problems, through what post-New Leftists such as Alain Badiou have affirmed as “politics at a distance from the state,” that nonetheless imposed themselves, and with a vengeance—see Egypt as the highest expression of the “Arab Spring.” Occupy evinced a mixture of liberal and anarchist discontents—a mixture of labor union and “direct democracy” popular-assembly politics. The problem of 20th century Third (and Fourth) International politics, regarding contemporaneous and inherited forms of the mass strike (and its councils), labor unions and political parties, expressed the interrelated problems accumulated from different prior historical moments of the preceding 19th century (in 1830, 1848, and 1871, etc.), all of which needed to be worked through and within, together, along with the fundamental bourgeois political form of (the struggle for) the democratic republic—which Kant among others (liberals) already recognized in the 18th century as an issue of a necessary “world state” (or at least a world “system of states”)—not achievable within national confines.

Redeeming history

Political forms are sustained practices; they are embodied history. Because none of the forms emerging in the capitalist era—since the early to mid-19th century—has existed without the others, they must all be considered together, as mediating (the crisis of) capitalism at various levels, rather than in opposition to one another. Furthermore, these forms do not merely instantiate the bourgeois society that must be overcome—in a reified view—but rather mediate its crisis in capitalism, and inevitably so.

History cannot be regarded as a catalogue of errors to be avoided, but must be regarded, however critically, as a resource informing the present, whether or not adequately consciously. If past historical problems repeat themselves, they do not do so literally but with a difference. The question is the significance of that difference. It cannot be regarded as itself progressive. Indeed the difference often expresses the degradation of a problem. One cannot avoid either the repetition or the difference in capitalist history. An adequate “proletarian socialist” party would immediately push beyond prior historical limits. That is how it could both manifest and advance the contradiction in capitalism.

History, according to Adorno (following Benjamin), is the “demand for redemption.” This is because history is not an accumulation of facts but rather a form of past action continuing in the present. Historical action was transformative and is again to be transformed in the present: we transform past action through continuing to act on it in the present. No past action continues untransformed. The question is the (re-)direction and continuing transformation of that action. Thinking is a way, too, of transforming past action.

Political party is not a dead form, but rather lives in ways dependent at least in part on how we think of it. The need for political party for the Left today is a demand to redeem past action in the present. We can do so more or less well, and not only as a function of quantity but also of quality. Can we receive the task of past politics revealed by Marxism as it is ramified down to the present? Can the Left sustain its action in time; can it be a form of politics?

Marxism never offered a wholly new or distinct form of political action, but only sought to affect—consciously—forms of politics already underway. Examples of this include: Chartism; labor unions (whether according to trade or industry); Lassalle’s political party of the “permanent campaign of the working class;” the Paris Commune; the “mass” or “general strike;” and “workers’ councils.” But not only these: also, the parliament or congress, as well as the sovereign executive with prerogative. These are all descended to us as forms not merely of political action and political struggle over that action, but also and especially of revolution, revolutionary change in society in the modern, bourgeois epoch.

One thing is certain regarding the history of the 19th and 20th centuries as legacy, now in the 21st century: since the politics of the state has not gone away, neither has the question of political party. We must accept forms of revolutionary politics as they have come down to us historically. But that does not mean inheriting the forms of state and party as given but rather transforming them—in revolution. Capitalism is a social crisis that calls forth political action. The only questions are how and why—with what consciousness and with what goal?

If social and political crisis—revolution—has up to now given us only more capitalism, then we need to accept that—and think of how communism could be the result of revolutionary politics in capitalism. Again, as Marx and the best Marxism once did: we need to accept the task of redeeming history.

The difference Macnair observes, between the political party formations of the early original bourgeois era of the 17th and 18th centuries and in the crisis of capitalism manifesting circa 1848 (including prior Chartism in Britain), is key to the fundamental political question of Marxism as well as of proletarian socialism more broadly (for instance in anarcho-syndicalism)—as symptoms of history. There is not a static problem but rather a dynamic of the historical process that is moreover regressive in its repetition in difference. Marxism once sought to be conscious of the difference, and so should we. | §

Postscript on party politics

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 – January 2015

Originally published in abridged form as a letter in Weekly Worker 1035 (November 20, 2014).

The Frankfurt School of the 1930s recognized that the two historic constituencies of revolutionary politics, the masses and the party, had failed: the masses had led to fascism; and the party had led to Stalinism.

Trotsky had remarked, in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), on the “interference of the masses in historical events:” “Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists.”

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business — kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

But, as Lenin had written in What is to be Done? (1902), this was not a spontaneous development but rather such apparent “spontaneity” could be explained by the prior history of the workers’ movement for socialism. The Russian Revolution had broken out on International Women’s Day, a working class holiday invented by Marxists in the socialist parties of the Second International.

Trotsky wrote, in “Stalinism and Bolshevism” (1937), that Bolshevism was “only a political tendency closely fused with the working class but not identical with it” and had “never identified itself with either the October Revolution or the Soviet state that issued from it.”

Bolshevism considered itself as one of the factors of history, its “Conscious” factor — a very important but not decisive one. We never sinned on historical subjectivism. We saw the decisive factor — on the existing basis of productive forces — in the class struggle, not only on a national scale but on an international scale.

So, what was political party for Marxists such as Trotsky, Lenin and Luxemburg? It was one part of a differentiated whole of society and its political struggles, a political form that allowed for conscious participation in all the variety of arenas for politics that had developed in capitalism: parliaments, labor unions, mass strikes and their councils, and popular assemblies including workers’ councils for revolutionary governance. However, as a political form — as Andrew Feenberg has pointed out, in The Philosophy of Praxis (2014), about Lukács’s account of the articulation of theory and practice in Bolshevism in History and Class Consciousness and related writings — the party was not only or even especially a subject, but also, and perhaps most importantly, an object of political action. It fell to Trotsky, in the aftermath of the failure of Bolshevism, to attempt to sustain this Marxist concept of political form, against Stalinism’s liquidation of politics in the USSR and in the international Communist movement.

In this, Trotsky followed Lenin and Luxemburg as well as Marx and Engels. Trotsky followed Marx in regarding both Stalinism and fascism — as well as FDR New Deal-ism — as forms of the Bonapartist state. The death of the Left as a political force is signaled by its shying away from and anathematizing the political party for social transformation — revolution — not only in anarchism and “Left communist” notions of politics without parties, but most of all in the long and pervasive, if largely unrecognized, Stalinist inheritance that justifies the party only by identifying it with the people, which puts an end to politics, including political consciousness. What Dick Howard, following Marx, warns of the “anti-political” crisis of politics in capitalism expressed by Bonapartism, is this unmediated identification of politics with society, whether through the subordination of society or the liquidation of the party in the state, all in the name of quieting the inherent instability of politics, which society in its crisis of capitalism cannot afford.

For, as Marx recognized in the aftermath of failed revolution in 1848, Bonapartism was not only undemocratic liberalism, unbridled capitalism without political accountability to society, but was also the state run amok, dominating society, and with a great deal of popular support — for instance by what Marx called the “lumpenproletariat,” an example of the reduction of society to a politically undifferentiated mass, the very opposite of what Marx considered the necessary “class consciousness” of the proletariat. This is why Trotsky rightly regarded Stalinism as the “antithesis” of Bolshevism.

Stalinism’s suppression of politics in the Marxist sense was not only undemocratic but also popular, both in the USSR and internationally. It was borne of the same social and thus political crisis in capitalism. Stalinism was not the cause but was an effect of the failure of politics in capitalism. We still need to try to overcome this problem of capitalism by constituting it through the inherently dangerous game of party politics. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 71 and 72 (November and December 2014 – January 2015).


Bibliography: (PR=Platypus Review; WW=Weekly Worker)

Cutrone, Chris. “Capital in history” PR 7 (October 2008) http://platypus1917.org/2008/10/01/capital-in-history-the-need-for-a-marxian-philosophy-of-history-of-the-left/.

Cutrone, Chris “1917” PR 17 (November 2009) http://platypus1917.org/2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/.

Cutrone, Chris. “The Marxist hypothesis” PR 29 (November 2010) http://platypus1917.org/2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Egypt, or, history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848” PR 33 (March 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/03/01/egypt-or-historys-invidious-comparisons-1979-1789-and-1848/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s liberalism” PR 36 (June 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/06/01/lenins-liberalism/.

Cutrone, Chris. “The philosophy of history” WW 869 (June 9, 2011) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/869/the-philosophy-of-history/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Defending Marxist Hegelianism” WW 878 (August 10, 2011) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/878/defending-marxist-hegelianism-against-a-marxist-cr/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s politics” PR 40 (October 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/09/25/lenins-politics/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Whither Marxism?” PR 41 (November 2011) http://platypus1917.org/2011/11/01/whither-marxism/.

Cutrone, Chris. “1873-1973: The century of Marxism” PR 47 (June 2012) http://platypus1917.org/2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/.

Cutrone, Chris. “The relevance of Lenin today” WW 922 (July 12, 2012) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/922/the-relevance-of-lenin-today/; and PR 48 (July-August 2012) http://platypus1917.org/2012/07/01/the-relevance-of-lenin-today/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today” PR 51 (November 2012) http://platypus1917.org/2012/11/01/class-consciousness-from-a-marxist-perspective-today/.

Cutrone, Chris. “Why still read Lukács?” WW 994 (January 23, 2014) http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/994/debate-why-still-read-lukacs/; unabridged version in PR 63 (February 2014) http://platypus1917.org/2014/02/01/why-still-read-lukacs-the-place-of-philosophical-questions-in-marxism/.

Cutrone et al. “Revolutionary politics and thought” PR 69 (September 2014) http://platypus1917.org/2014/09/05/revolutionary-politics-thought-2/.

Adorno, Theodor. “Reflections on class theory” [1942], in Can One Live after Auschwitz?: A philosophical reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Palo Alto, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2003).

Howard, Dick. The Specter of Democracy, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Nettl, J.P. “The German Social Democratic Party 1890-1914 as a Political Model,” Past and Present 30 (April 1965), 65-95.

Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital

What is meant by a ‘democratic republic’? Chris Cutrone critiques Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy

Originally published in Weekly Worker 1030 (October 16, 2014). [PDF]

Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy (London 2008) is a wide-ranging, comprehensive and very thorough treatment of the problem of revolutionary politics and the struggle for socialism. His focus is the question of political party and it is perhaps the most substantial attempt recently to address this problem.Macnair’s initial motivation was engagement with the debates in and around the French Fourth International Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire prior to its forming the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste electoral party in 2009. The other major context for the discussion was the Iraq anti-war movement and UK Respect electoral party, which was formed around this in 2004, with the Socialist Workers Party driving the process. This raised issues not only of political party, democracy and the state, but also united fronts among socially and politically heterogeneous groups and the issue of imperialism.

One key contribution by Macnair to the latter discussion is to raise and call attention to the difference between Bukharin’s and Lenin’s writings on imperialism, in which the former attributed the failure of (metropolitan) workers’ organisation around imperialism to a specifically political compromise with the (national) state, whereas Lenin had, in his famous 1916 pamphlet, characterised this in terms of compromised “economic” interest. So with imperialism the question is the political party and the state.

Macnair observes that there are at least two principal phases of the party question: from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; and beginning in the middle of the 19th century. He relates these phases to the development of the problem of the state. He offers that constitutional government involves the development of the “party state” and that revolutionary politics takes its leave of such a “party state” (which includes multiple parties all supporting the constitutional regime). Furthermore, Macnair locates this problem properly as one of the nation-state within the greater economic and political system of capitalism. By conflating the issue of government with “rule of law”, however, Macnair mistakes the contradiction of the modern state and its politics in capitalism.

Elsewhere, Macnair has criticised sectarian Marxism for “theoretical overkill” in a “philosophy trap”.1 But he might thus mistake effect for cause: ‘philosophical’ questions might be the expression of a trap in which one is nonetheless caught; and Marxist ‘theory’ might go beyond today’s practical political concerns. Philosophy may not be the trap in which we are caught, but rather an expression of our attempts – merely – to think our way out of it. The mismatch of Marxism today at the level of ‘theoretical’ or ‘philosophical’ issues might point to a historical disparity or inadequacy: we may have fallen below past thresholds and horizons of Marxism. The issue of political party may be one that we would need to re-attain rather than immediately confront in the present. Hence, ‘strategy’ in terms of Marxism may not be the political issue now that it once was. This means that, where past Marxists might appear to be in error, it may actually be our fault – or a fault in the present situation. How can the history of Marxism help us address this?

New politics

The key to this issue can be found in Macnair’s own distinction of the new phenomenon of party politics in the late 19th century, after the revolutions of 1848 and in the era of what Marx called “Bonapartism” – the pattern set by Louis Bonaparte, who became Napoleon III in the French Second Empire, with its emulation by Bismarck in the Prussian empire, as well as Disraeli’s Tories in the UK, among other examples. While Macnair finds some precedent for this in the 18th century UK and its political crises, as well as in the course of the Great French Revolution 1789-1815, especially regarding Napoleon Bonaparte, the difference of the late 19th century party-politics from prior historical precedence is important to specify. For Macnair it is the world system of capitalism and its undermining of democracy.

It is important to recall Marx’s formulation, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that (neo-)Bonapartism was the historical condition in which the bourgeoisie could “no longer” and the proletariat “not yet” rule politically the modern society of capitalism.2 Bonapartism was the symptom of this crisis of capitalism and hence of the need for socialism revealed by the unprecedented failure of revolution in 1848 – by contrast with 1830, as well as 1789 and 1776, and the Dutch Revolt and English civil war of the 17th century. The bourgeoisie’s ‘ruling’ character was not a legal-constitutional system of government descended from the 17th century political and social revolutions in Holland and England so much as it was a form of civil society: a revolutionary system of bourgeois social relations that was supposed to subordinate the state. What requires explanation is the 19th century slipping of the state from adequate social control, and its ‘rising above’ the contending political groups and social classes, as a power in itself. Even if Bonapartism in Marx’s late 19th century sense was the expression of a potential inherent in the forms of bourgeois politics emerging much earlier, there is still the question of why it was not realised so until after 1848. There is also the matter of why Marx characterised Louis Napoleon as a “lesser” and “farcical” phenomenon of post-1848 history by contrast with Napoleon Bonaparte’s “tragedy” in the Great Revolution.3 It was not the mere fact of repetition, but why and how history “repeated itself” – and repeated with a difference.

This was, according to Marx, the essential condition for politics after 1848 – the condition for political parties in capitalism. That condition was not only or primarily a matter of politics due to constitutional legal forms of bourgeois property and its social relations, but rather was for Marx the expression of the crisis of those forms as a function of the industrial revolution. There was for Marx an important contradiction between the democratic revolution and the proletarianisation of society in capitalism.

Macnair addresses this by specifying the ‘proletariat’ as all those in society “dependent on the total wage fund” – as opposed to those (presumably) dependent upon ‘capital’. This is clearly not a matter of economics, because distinguishing between those depending on wages as opposed to capital is a political matter of differentiation: all the intermediate strata depending on both the wage fund and capital would need to be compelled to take sides in any political dispute between the prerogatives of wages versus capital. Macnair addresses this through the struggle for democracy. But this does not pursue the contradiction far enough. For the wage fund, according to Marx, is a form of capital: it is ‘variable’ as opposed to ‘constant capital’. So the proletarianisation of society, according to Marx, is not addressed adequately as a matter of the condition of labour, but rather the social dependence on and domination by capital. And capital for Marx is not synonymous with the private property in the means of production belonging to the capitalists, but rather the relation of wages, or the resources for the reproduction of labour-power (including the ‘means of consumption’), to society as a whole. This is what makes it a political matter – a matter of politics in society – rather than merely the struggle of one group against another.

Macnair characterises the theory of Marxism specifically as one that recognises the necessity of those dependent upon the wage fund per se to overcome capitalism; he characterises the struggle for this as the struggle for democracy, with the adequate horizon of this as “communism” at a global scale – as opposed to “socialism”, which may be confined to the internal politics of individual nation-states. Macnair points out that the working class is necessarily in the “vanguard” of such struggle for adequate social democratisation, insofar as it comes up against the condition of capitalism negatively, as a problem to be overcome. The working class is thus defined “negatively” with respect to the social conditions to be overcome, rather than “positively” according to its activity, its concrete labour in society. The goal is to change the conditions for political participation, as well as economic activity, in society.

Class and history

Conventionally, Marxists have distinguished among political parties on their ‘class basis’, regarding various parties as ‘representing’ different class groups: ‘bourgeois’, ‘petty bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’. This is complicated by classic characterisations such as that by Lenin of the UK Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party”. Furthermore, there has been the bedevilling question of what is included in the ‘petty bourgeoisie’. But Marxists (such as Lenin) did not define politics ‘sociologically’, but rather historically: as representing not the interests of members of various groups, but rather different ‘ideological’ horizons of politics and for the transformation of society.

So, for instance, what made the Socialist Revolutionaries in the Russian Revolution of 1917 ‘represent’ the peasants was not so much their positions on agrarian matters as the ‘petty bourgeois’ horizon of politics they shared with the peasants as petty proprietors. SRs were not necessarily themselves petty proprietors – they were like Lenin ‘petty bourgeois intellectuals’ – but rather had in common with the peasants a form of discontent with capitalism, but one ‘ideologically’ hemmed in by what Marxism regarded a limited horizon.

In Marx’s (in)famous phrase from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the peasants as a group, as a ‘petty bourgeois’ “sack of potatoes” of smallholders, could not “represent themselves”, but must rather “be represented” – as they were, according to Marx, by Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire’s succeeding the counterrevolutionary Party of Order in 1848.4 Marx called attention to the issue of how representation functioned in the politics of capitalism. Likewise, “bourgeois” parties were not pro-capitalist as much as they sought to manage the problems of capitalism from a certain historical perspective: that of ‘capital’. This was the horizon of their politics; whereas ‘petty bourgeois’ parties were concerned with the perspective of smaller property holdings; and ‘workers’ parties’ that of wage-labour. To be a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, such as Labour in the UK, meant to represent the horizon of wage-labour in terms compatible with (especially, but not exclusively, UK ‘national’) capital. This was the character of ideology and political action – ‘consciousness’ – which was not reducible to, let alone determined by, economic interest of a particular concrete social group.

So various political parties, as well as different political forms, represented different historical horizons for discontents within capitalism. For Marxists, only ‘proletarian socialist’ politics could represent adequately the problem – the crisis and contradiction – of capitalism. Others ideologically obscured it. A ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ would be a phenomenon of ‘Bonapartism’, insofar as ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ and it filled the space evacuated by the failure of bourgeois politics, while also falling short of the true historical horizon of the political tasks of proletarian socialism. It was a phenomenon of the contradiction of capitalism in a particular way – as were all political parties from a Marxist perspective.

There are great merits and significant clarity to Macnair’s approach to the problem of politics in capitalism and what it would require to transcend this. The issue, though, is his taking as a norm the parliamentary system of government in the European mode and thus neglecting the US constitutional system. For at issue is the potential disparity and antagonism between legislative and executive authority, or between the law and its enforcement. The American system of ‘checks and balances’ was meant to uphold liberal democracy and prevent the tyranny of either the executive or the legislature (or the judicial) aspects of government. There is an important domain of political struggle already, between executive and legislative authority, and this would affect any struggle to transform politics. The question is the source of this antagonism. It is not merely formal. If the ‘separation of powers’ in the US constitutional system has served undemocratic ends, it is not essentially because it was intended to do so. The problem of adequate and proper democratic authority in society is not reducible to the issue of purported ‘mob rule’. Any form of government could be perverted to serve capitalism. So the issue is indeed one of politics as such – the social content of or what informs any form of political authority.

‘Party of the new type’?

Macnair notes potential deficits and inadequacies in the Third (Communist) International’s endorsement of ‘soviet’ or ‘workers’ council’ government, with its attempt to overcome the difference between legislative and executive authority, which seems to reproduce the problem Macnair finds in parliamentary government. For him, executive authority eludes responsibility in the same way that capitalist private property eludes the law constitutionally.

This is the source of Macnair’s conflation of liberalism and Bonapartism, as if the problem of capitalism merely played out in terms of liberalism rather than contradicting it. Liberal democracy should not be conceived as the constitutional limit on democracy demanded by capitalist private property. The “democratic republic” Macnair calls for by contrast should not be conceived as the opposite of liberal democracy. For capitalism does not only contradict the democratic republic, but also liberal democracy, leading to Bonapartism, or illiberal democracy.

Dick Howard, in The specter of democracy has usefully investigated Marx’s original formulations on the problem of politics and capitalism, tracing these back to the origins of modern democracy in the American and French Revolutions of the 18th century and specifying the problem in common between (American) “republican democracy” and (French) “democratic republicanism”.5 Howard finds in both antinomical forms of modern democracy the danger of “anti-politics”, or of society eluding adequate political expression and direction, to which either democratic authority or liberalism can lead. Howard looks to Marx as a specifically political thinker on this problem to suggest the direction that struggle against it must take. Socialism for Marx, in Howard’s view, would fulfil the potential that has been otherwise limited by both republican democracy and democratic republicanism – or by both liberalism and socialism.

Macnair equates communism with democratic republicanism and thus treats it as a goal to be achieved and a norm to be realised. Moreover, he thinks that this goal can only be achieved by the practice of democratic republicanism in the present: the political party for communism must exemplify democratic republicanism in practice, as an alternative to the politics of the “party-state” in capitalism.

Marx, by contrast, addressed communism as merely the “next step” and a “one-sided negation” of capitalism rather than as the end goal of emancipation: it is not the opposite of capitalism in the sense of an undialectical antithesis, but rather an expression of it. Indeed, for Marx, communism would be the completion and fulfilment of capitalism, and not in terms of one or some aspects over others, but rather in and through its central self-contradiction, which is political as well as economic, or ‘political-economic’.

What this requires is recognising the non-identity of various aspects of capitalism as bound up in and part and parcel of the process of capitalism’s potential transformation into communism. For example, the non-identity of law (as legislated), its (judicial) interpretation, and (executive) enforcement, or the non-identity of civil society and the state, as expressed by the specific phenomenon of modern political parties. States are compulsory; political parties are voluntary, civil-society formations. And governments are not identical with legislatures. Politics as conditioned by capitalism could provide the means, but cannot already embody the ends, of transforming capitalism through communism. If communism is to be pursued, as Macnair argues, by the means of democratic republicanism, then we must recognise what has become of the democratic revolution in capitalism. It has not been merely corrupted and degraded, but rather rendered self-contradictory, which is a different matter. The concrete manifestations of democracy in capitalism are not only opportunist compromises, but also struggles to assert politics.

Symptomatic socialism

The history of the movement for socialism or communism generally and of Marxism in particular demonstrates the problem of capitalism through symptomatic phenomena of attempts to overcome it. This is not a history of trials and errors, but rather of discontents and exemplary forms of politics, borne of the crisis of capitalism, as it has been experienced through various phases, none of which have been superseded entirely.

Lenin and Trotsky were careful to avoid, as Trotsky put it, in The lesson of October (1924), the “fetishing” of the soviet or workers’ council form of politics and (revolutionary) government. Rather, Marxists addressed this as an emergent phenomenon of a specific phase of history, one which they sought to advance through the proletarian socialist revolution. But, according to Lenin, in ‘Leftwing’ communism: an infantile disorder, the soviet form did not mean that preceding historical forms of politics – for instance, parliaments and trade unions – had been superseded in terms of being left behind. Indeed, it was precisely the failure of the world proletarian socialist – communist – revolution of 1917-19 that necessitated a “retreat” and reconsideration of perspectives and political prognoses. Certain forms and arenas of political struggle had come and gone. But, according to Lenin and Trotsky, the political party for communism remained indispensable. What did they mean by this?

Lenin and Trotsky meant something other than what Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer, JP Nettl, called the “inheritor party” or “state within the state” exemplified by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as the flagship party of the Second International.6 The social democratic party was not intended by Luxemburg, Lenin or Trotsky to be the democratic republican alternative to capitalism. They did not aim to replace one constitutional party-state with another. Or at least they did not intend so beyond the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which was meant to rapidly transition out of capitalism to socialism. Beyond that, a qualitative development was envisioned, beyond ‘bourgeois right’ and its forms of social relations – and of politics. ‘Communism’ remained the essential horizon of potential transformation.

One key distinction that Macnair elides in his account is the development of bourgeois social relations within pre-bourgeois civilisation that will not be replicated by the struggle for socialism: socialism does not develop within capitalism so much as the proletariat represents the potential negation of bourgeois social relations that has developed within capitalism. The proletariat is a phenomenon of crisis in the existing society, not the exemplar of the new society. Socialism is not meant to be a proletarian society, but rather its overcoming. Capitalism is already a proletarianised society. Hence, Bonapartism as the manifestation of the need for the proletariat to rule politically that has been abandoned by the bourgeoisie. Bonapartism is not a form of politics, but rather an indication of the failure of politics. Marxism investigates that failure and its historical significance. The dictatorship of the proletariat will be the ‘highest’ and most acute form of Bonapartism, but one that intends to immediately begin to overcome itself, or ‘wither away’.

The proletariat aims to abolish itself as a class not simply by abolishing the capitalist class as its complementary opposite expression of the self-contradiction and crisis of capitalism. This is why Marx recognised the persistence of ‘bourgeois right’ in any ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and down into the transition to socialism in its ‘first stage’. Bourgeois right would overcome itself through its crisis and self-contradiction, which the dictatorship of the proletariat would ‘advance’ and not immediately transcend. The dictatorship of the proletariat or ‘(social) democratic republic’ would be the form in which the struggle to overcome capitalism would first be able to take place politically.

Macnair confuses the proletariat’s struggle for self-abolition in socialism with the bourgeois – that is, modern urban plebeian – struggle for the democratic republic. He ignores the self-contradiction of this struggle in capitalism: that capitalism has reproduced itself in and through crisis, and indeed through revolution, through a process of “creative destruction” (Schumpeter), in which the bourgeois revolution has re-posed itself, but resulting in the re-proletarianisation of society: the reconstitution of wage labour under changed concrete conditions. This has taken place not only or perhaps even primarily through economic or political-economic crises and struggles, but through specifically political crises and struggles, through the recurrence of the democratic revolution. The proletariat cannot either make society in the image of itself or abolish itself immediately. It can only seek to lead the democratic revolution – hopefully – beyond itself.

Liberalism and socialism

The problem with liberal democracy is that it proceeds as if the democratic revolution has been achieved already, and ignores that capitalism has undermined it. Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations – the relations of the exchange of labour – but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not ‘capitalism’ as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be), but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious, way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognised as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognised properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits – in crisis.

The crisis of capitalism means that the forms of bourgeois politics are differentiated: they express the crisis and disintegration of bourgeois social relations. They also manifest the accumulation of past attempts at mediating bourgeois social relations in and through the crisis of capitalism. This is why the formal problems of politics will not go away, even if they are transformed. The issue is one of recognising this historical accumulation of political problems in capitalism, and of grasping adequately how these forms are symptomatic of the development – or lack thereof – of the politics of the struggle for socialism in and through these forms. For example, Occupy, which took place after the writing of Macnair’s book, clearly is not an advance in politically effective form. But it is symptomatic of our present historical moment, and so must be grappled with as such. It must be grasped as an endemic phenomenon, a ‘necessary form of appearance’ of the problem of capitalism in the present, and not treated merely as an accidental and hence avoidable error.

Macnair’s preferred target of critical investigation is the ‘mass strike’ and related ‘workers’ council’ or ‘soviet’ form. But this did not exist in isolation: its limits were not its own, but rather also an expression of the limits of labour unions and parliamentary government as well as of political parties in the early 20th century. For Macnair the early Third or Communist International becomes a blind alley, proven by its failure. But its problems cannot be thus settled and resolved so summarily or as easily as that.

If Occupy has failed it has done so without manifesting the political problem of capitalism as acutely as the soviet or workers’ council form of revolutionary politics did circa 1917, precisely because Occupy did not manifest, as the soviets did, a crisis of parliamentary democracy, labour union organisation and political party formation, as the workers’ council form did in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the German revolution of 1918-19 and the Hungarian revolution of 1919, as well as the crisis in Italy beginning in 1919, and elsewhere in that historical moment and subsequently (eg, in the British General Strike of 1926 and the Chinese revolution of 1927). Indeed, Occupy might be regarded as an attempt to avoid certain problems, through what post-new leftists such as Alain Badiou have affirmed as “politics at a distance from the state”, that nonetheless imposed themselves, and with a vengeance – see Egypt as the highest expression of the ‘Arab spring’. Occupy evinced a mixture of liberal and anarchist discontents – a mixture of labour union and ‘direct democracy’ popular-assembly politics. The problem of 20th century Third (and Fourth) International politics, regarding contemporaneous and inherited forms of the mass strike (and its councils), labour unions and political parties, expressed the interrelated problems accumulated from different prior historical moments of the preceding 19th century (in 1830, 1848 and 1871, etc), all of which needed to be worked through and within, together, along with the fundamental bourgeois political form of (the struggle for) the democratic republic – which Kant among others (liberals) already recognised in the 18th century as an issue of a necessary ‘world state’ (or at least a world ‘system of states’) – not achievable within national confines.

Redeeming history

Political forms are sustained practices; they are embodied history. Because none of the forms emerging in the capitalist era – since the early to mid-19th century – has existed without the others, they must all be considered together, as mediating (the crisis of) capitalism at various levels, rather than in opposition to one another. Furthermore, these forms do not merely instantiate the bourgeois society that must be overcome – in a reified view – but rather mediate its crisis in capitalism, and inevitably so.

History cannot be regarded as a catalogue of errors to be avoided, but must be regarded, however critically, as a resource informing the present, whether or not adequately consciously. If past historical problems repeat themselves, they do not do so literally but with a difference. The question is the significance of that difference. It cannot be regarded as itself progressive. Indeed the difference often expresses the degradation of a problem. One cannot avoid either the repetition or the difference in capitalist history. An adequate ‘proletarian socialist’ party would immediately push beyond prior historical limits. That is how it could both manifest and advance the contradiction in capitalism.

History, according to Adorno (following Benjamin), is the “demand for redemption”. This is because history is not an accumulation of facts, but rather a form of past action continuing in the present. Historical action was transformative and is again to be transformed in the present: we transform past action through continuing to act on it in the present. No past action continues untransformed. The question is the (re)direction and continuing transformation of that action. Thinking is a way, too, of transforming past action.

Political party is not a dead form, but rather lives in ways dependent at least in part on how we think of it. The need for political party for the left today is a demand to redeem past action in the present. We can do so more or less well, and not only as a function of quantity, but also of quality. Can we receive the task of past politics revealed by Marxism as it is ramified down to the present? Can the left sustain its action in time; can it be a form of politics?

Marxism never offered a wholly new or distinct form of political action, but only sought to affect – consciously – forms of politics already underway. Examples of this include: Chartism; labour unions (whether according to trade or industry); Lassalle’s political party of the ‘permanent campaign of the working class’; the Paris Commune; the ‘mass’ or ‘general strike’; and ‘workers’ councils’. But not only these: also, the parliament or congress, as well as the sovereign executive with prerogative. These are all descended to us as forms not merely of political action and political struggle over that action, but also and especially of revolution, revolutionary change in society in the modern, bourgeois epoch.

One thing is certain regarding the history of the 19th and 20th centuries as legacy, now in the 21st century: since the politics of the state has not gone away, neither has the question of political party. We must accept forms of revolutionary politics as they have come down to us historically. But that does not mean inheriting the forms of state and party as given, but rather transforming them – in revolution. Capitalism is a social crisis that calls forth political action. The only questions are how and why – with what consciousness and with what goal?

If social and political crisis – revolution – has up to now given us only more capitalism, then we need to accept that – and think of how communism could be the result of revolutionary politics in capitalism. Again, as Marx and the best Marxism once did, we need to accept the task of redeeming history.

The difference Macnair observes, between the political party formations of the early original bourgeois era of the 17th and 18th centuries and in the crisis of capitalism manifesting circa 1848 (including prior Chartism in Britain), is key to the fundamental political question of Marxism, as well as of proletarian socialism more broadly (for instance in anarcho-syndicalism) – as symptoms of history. There is not a static problem, but rather a dynamic of the historical process that is moreover regressive in its repetition in difference. Marxism once sought to be conscious of the difference, and so should we. | §

Notes

1. ‘The philosophy trapWeekly Worker November 21 2013.

2. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/18th-Brumaire.pdf.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. D Howard The specter of democracy New York 2002.

6. JP Nettl, ‘The SPD 1890-1914 as political model’, 1965.

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?” | §

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]

Beyond history? Nietzsche, Benjamin and Adorno

Historical specificity, the temporality of capital, and the supra-historical

Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Fabian Arzuaga, Bo-Mi Choi and G. S. Sahota at the Critical Historical Studies conference, Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory (3CT), University of Chicago, December 3, 2011.

History is a way the present relates to itself. History mediates the present, and anticipates the future. The relation of past and present in history is a social relation, a relation of society with itself, as a function of change. The proper object of the present is history: the present is historical; it is constituted by history. The present is history; history is the present. As Hegel put it, the “philosophical” approach to history is concerned with the “eternally present:” what in the past was always present. This is a function of modernity. What is at issue is the form of the present in history, or, the form of history in the present.

Three writings, by Nietzsche, Benjamin and Adorno, respectively, reflect upon the specific form of history in capital, and on the possibility of transcending the historicism that emerged in the 19th century, as it continued to inform the 20th: Nietzsche’s 1873 “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life;” Benjamin’s 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History;” and Adorno’s 1942 “Reflections on Class Theory.” Nietzsche’s essay inspired Benjamin’s; Adorno’s followed directly upon Benjamin’s.

Nietzsche and the genesis of history

Nietzsche’s second “untimely meditation” (or “unfashionable observation”), “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” critiqued what translator and Nietzsche scholar Peter Preuss called the 19th century “discovery” of history. Nietzsche regarded history specifically as a symptomatic expression of the genuine needs of the time. For Nietzsche, the symptom of history is expression of an illness, but Nietzsche’s approach to such illness is as to “pregnancy:” not to be cured in the sense that it is eliminated, but rather undergone successfully to bring forth new life.

19th century historicism was, for Nietzsche, the hallmark of a historically peculiar form of life: modern humanity. Modern humanity is historical in a precise sense: “history” is historical. For Nietzsche, the question is what the symptom of history indicates about the need for humanity to overcome itself in present form. Nietzsche’s expression for this potential self-overcoming of historical humanity is the “supra-historical.” It points beyond history, towards a new form of life that is possible in history.

For Nietzsche, there are three forms of the historical: the “monumental;” the “antiquarian;” and the “critical.” Nietzsche addressed these different phases of the historical as expressing different “uses” or needs for the historical in the “life” of humanity. In each of them the past figures differently. The forms of the historical are distinguished from the greater three categories with which Nietzsche’s essay is concerned: the “unhistorical;” the “historical;” and the “supra-historical.” The latter three categories refer, respectively, to the pre-human, the human, and the supra-human. Humanity becomes itself through history; and it potentially overcomes or transforms itself in transcending itself as historical. As Preuss pointed out, history is the record of the “self-production” of humanity. Therefore, the transformation of humanity, the changes in its self-production, changes history, and changes what the past is for humanity. In this respect, it is possible to address Nietzsche’s essay as indicating the possibility for going beyond the historical, or overcoming the present relation humanity has to itself, in and through history.

Benjamin and Adorno on Nietzsche and Marxism

Benjamin, and Adorno following him, appropriated Nietzsche’s account of history for their Marxist critical theory of the “philosophy of history,” specifying Nietzsche’s symptomology of history as symptomatic of capital. For Benjamin and Adorno, Nietzsche’s account of history was historically specific to its moment of capital, the late 19th century, with further implication for the 20th century.

What would it mean to get “beyond history?” First, it is necessary to identify, as Adorno put it, “what history is:” its possibility and necessity. For Benjamin, history originates in the demand for redemption. Following Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and responding to Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, in “Reflections on Class Theory” Adorno wrote that,

According to [Marxian] theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . . By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole. . . . All history is the history of class struggles because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory. This gives us a pointer as to how we can recognize what history is. From the most recent form of injustice, a steady light reflects back on history as a whole. Only in this way can theory enable us to use the full weight of history to gain an insight into the present without succumbing in resignation to the burden of the past.

This relation of pre-history, history, and a potential post-historical condition was, for Adorno, the relation of the present to the “burden of the past:” can it be redeemed?

Adorno addressed a certain problem in Marxism’s so-called “dialectical” approach to history, in that it tended to be, paradoxically, one-sided:

[Marxism has been praised] on account of its dynamism. . . . Dynamism is merely one side of dialectic: it is the side preferred by the belief in practicality. . . . The other, less popular aspect of dialectic is its static side. . . . The law that, according to the Hegelian dialectic, governs the restlessly destructive unfolding of the ever-new consists in the fact that at every moment the ever-new is also the old lying close at hand. The new does not add itself to the old but is the old in distress.

This was Adorno’s interpretation and attempted further elaboration of Benjamin’s injunction to read history “against the grain” (Thesis VII). But what did Adorno mean by “the new?”

Potential futures are generated out of the relation of past and present, out of the relation of the present to itself through history. The dynamic of history is inherent in the self-contradiction of the present: history is a projection of it. What is the “practicality” of history? The emergence or departure of the new is the self-overcoming of the present, or the self-overcoming of history: its immanent transcendence. Nietzsche’s phrase, “self-overcoming” is, literally, the “Selbstaufhebung:” self-fulfillment and self-negation. The present provides an opportunity for the self-overcoming of history.

The “new is the old in distress” because it is the present in tension with itself: is the present merely the ever-same? The “static side of the dialectic,” in which the “ever-new is the old lying close at hand,” means that, as Benjamin put it, “every second is the strait gate through which the Messiah [redemption] might enter” (Addendum B). The “homogeneous” and “empty” time of the ever-same is also, potentially, the “full” time-of-the-now (Jetztzeit). History is dialectical, but it is a “negative” dialectic of the present: the present, in its potential for self-overcoming, disintegrates as history disintegrates into the mere facticity of the past. Historicism is a symptom of failed self-overcoming. For Benjamin, the task was to “construct” history, rather than to merely “add” the new to the old (Thesis XVII). This is the contrast Adorno found between the new as “the old lying close at hand” and the “restlessly destructive unfolding of the ever-new” that is “always the same thing, namely, prehistory.” The “static side” of the dialectic of history is thus a resource. The question is whether it is a resource for the emergence of the new or the perpetuation of the old: either, or both.

Nietzsche’s “untimeliness”

The discontent of history is the source of Nietzsche’s “untimely thought.” What potential critique of the present does history offer? Nietzsche recognized himself as a product of 19th century historicism. Nietzsche characterized as “antiquarian” the deadly transformation of history into the mere facticity of the past. As a Classical philologist, Nietzsche was well prepared to address the melancholy of modernity expressed in historicism. As Benjamin put it, quoting Flaubert, “Few people can guess how despondent one has to be in order to resuscitate Carthage” (Thesis VII). (The reference to Carthage echoes that with which Nietzsche began his essay, the Ceterum censeo [“I judge otherwise”] of Cato the Elder: “Carthago delenda est [Carthage must be destroyed].” As Nietzsche put it, this was the spirit with which his “consideration of the worth and the worthlessness of history” began.) In response to such threatening acedia, Nietzsche contrasted his “critical” approach to history.

Here it becomes clear how badly man needs, often enough, in addition to the monumental and antiquarian ways of seeing the past, a third kind, the critical: and this again in the service of life as well. He must have the strength, and use it from time to time, to shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live: this he achieves by dragging it to the bar of judgment, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it; every past, however, is worth condemning.

This approach, Nietzsche pointed out, was counter to the historicist passion of his time, the prevalent “consumptive historical fever.” Nevertheless, Nietzsche found his own philological concerns to motivate a certain dissatisfaction with the ethos inherent in “the powerful historical tendency of the times, as it has been, by common knowledge, observed for the past two generations, particularly among the Germans” since the early 19th  century.

I must be allowed to ascribe this much to myself on account of my profession as a classical philologist, for I would not know what sense classical philology would have in our age unless it is to be effective by its inappropriateness for the times, that is, in opposition to the age, thus working on the age, and, we hope, for the benefit of a coming time.

The consummation and self-destruction of 19th century historicism in Nietzsche presented the demand for the “supra-historical,” for getting beyond the historical comportment that had produced Nietzsche, a self-overcoming of history.

Beyond history?

The question of getting beyond history relates to Nietzsche’s characterization of “critical history,” that is, the possibility and necessity of “condemning a past” in creating what he called a “new nature.” This is the need to forget. This is not the forgetting that might be taken to characterize the unhistorical, animal condition (according to Nietzsche, the unhistorical condition is that of the grazing animal, which does not speak because it immediately forgets what it was going to say). “Forgetting,” in Nietzsche’s sense, is an activity in service of life: it can only be considered, not unhistorical, but post- or supra-historical, that is, a form of historical forgetting that overcomes a form of remembering. There is a human need to forget that is not natural but develops: it is a new need.

For Benjamin, the need to “forget” is related to the need to “redeem” history. “Redeemed” history could not only be potentially “cited” in “all its moments,” but also, more importantly, forgotten. The need to remember is matched by the need to forget. So, the question turns on the necessity for remembering that would need to be overcome in order to make forgetting, in a transcendent sense, possible and desirable.

Benjamin’s concept of historical redemption in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” was informed by the correspondence he conducted with Horkheimer on the Arcades Project (for which the “Theses” were drafted as an introduction), specifically concerning redemption. Horkheimer pointed out that any redemption must be qualified: the dead remained dead; their sacrifice could not be redeemed in certain respects. For Benjamin, this affected the quality of history: it became the record of wasted potential, or “barbarism.” This was history’s standing reproach to the present.

If, for Nietzsche, “critical history” means standing in judgment over history, by contrast, for Benjamin, the critical value of history was in its judgment over the present: history was an effect of the present’s judgment of itself. What does the present need to remember; what to forget? What does it need to judge? If Nietzsche called for the historian to be “man enough” to judge the past, for Benjamin, the required “strength” was to receive history’s judgment and not be devastated by it: the memory of “enslaved ancestors” (Thesis XII). For the nature and character of both the ancestry and the enslavement were precisely the matters to be judged, remembered and forgotten. From what are we descended, and from what must we free ourselves? How do we judge this?

Capital as form of history to be redeemed

Adorno identifies “how we can recognize what history is” by the “steady light” reflecting “from the most recent form of injustice.” The theory that is thus enabled, without succumbing to the past, must be able to distinguish the potential for the present to depart from the “ever-same.” For Benjamin, this “Messianic” potential for redemption available in every present moment is the product of two opposed vectors: regression and stasis. The “static side” of the historical dialectic that Adorno identified was, for Benjamin, the potential “exploding” of the “continuum of history” (Thesis XVI), a “standstill” (Thesis XVI), or “activating the emergency brake on the locomotive of history” (Paralipomena Thesis XVIIa). The motivation for this was the “regression of society” (Thesis XI). Otherwise, one might “succumb,” “in resignation to the burden of the past.”

Capital presents an apparently unredeemable history, at least in any traditional (theological) sense of redemption. Benjamin was no melancholic but rather sought to diagnose and potentially overcome the melancholy of modernity. But this could only be achieved immanently, from within modernity’s “dialectic” of history. This dialectic had, for Adorno, two sides: dynamic and static. The dialectic of history in capital is one of constantly generated but wasted new potentials. This is its “injustice,” what gives modernity its peculiar, specific melancholy, affecting its demand for redemption. While all of human history may have been characterized by the Messianic demand for redemption, modern history’s demand for redemption is specific and peculiar. Modern history liquidates all prior history, however rendering it, according to Benjamin, more as “rubble” (Thesis IX) than as resource.

Modern history ruins prior forms of redemption, in favor of what is, for Benjamin, a specious form of remembering: history as the accumulation of mere facts. What would be its “opposite?” The traditional Messianic eschatological “end of time” is matched by the modern “monstrous abbreviation” that summarizes the entire history of humanity (Thesis XVIII) in capital: an appropriation of all of history that threatens to become its barbarization. For Benjamin, this must be countered by a constructed “constellation,” in which the demand for the redemption of history transforms the time of the present into one of potential secular redemption: not the negation of time as in the coming of the Messiah, but the redemption of time, in time (Addendum A). This would amount to the effective transformation of history, a “fulfillment” of the “here-and-now” appearing as a “charged past” that has the ability to “leap into the open sky of history” (Thesis XIV) as opposed to subordination to a “chain of events” (Thesis IX) or “causal nexus” (Addendum A). Neither celestial redemption outside of time nor secular time without redemption, Benjamin’s philosophy of history seeks the relation of modern temporality to the transformed demand for redemption.

The question is how to overcome the ideological abuse of history to which it is subject in modernity. This abuse is due to the form of temporality in capital. For Benjamin, this concerns the “citability” of the moments of the past, which modern society makes possible — and necessary. This is no mere addition to knowledge of the past, a quantitative increase, but rather the fundamental qualitative transformation of what counts as historical knowledge, the self-knowledge of humanity as a function of time. Is the self-production and self-transformation of humanity a function of time? In capital, this is the case, but in a certain sense, producing what Benjamin called a “causal chain” of events “anterior” to the present. However, such spatialization of time, once, historically, did not, and so, potentially, would no longer, pertain in a “supra-historical” condition for humanity, as prognosed by Nietzsche.

The temporality of capital

From the transformation of time in time, it becomes possible to turn the “abbreviation” of time in capital into the potential supersession of the form of change as a function of time. From Nietzsche’s “critical” approach to history, as an active appropriation of the present, Benjamin turned to the reception of history as critical to the present: the present as crisis of history. Where, for Nietzsche, the culmination of history was the crisis of the historical, and the possibility for a supra-historical form of humanity, for Benjamin, the culmination of the peculiar historical comportment of modern humanity is the crisis of history, the crisis of humanity. All of history becomes citable, but as amalgamation. Where, for Nietzsche, a future changed condition “must come” if humanity is to survive, for Benjamin, if history is to be redeemed, humanity must be transformed. (Benjamin: “Humanity is preparing to outlive culture, if need be;” this is Nietzsche’s “strange goal.”)

As Adorno concluded his “Reflections on Class Theory,” “This means, however, that dehumanization is also its opposite. . . . Even if the dynamic at work was always the same, its end today is not the end.” The transformation of humanity envisioned by Benjamin and Adorno, appropriating Nietzsche’s discontent in history, was one that would transcend all historical culture “hitherto.” Benjamin and Adorno matched Nietzsche’s “rumination” with Marx and Engels’s Manifesto. The self-overcoming of the entire history of civilization and of its “process of transmission” (which cannot be avoided but only “reversed,” pointing not to the future but the past) would be “against the grain” of the historical progress that can only be regarded as “regression:” the inversion of the meaning of history; the end of history as the end of pre-history in the present, or, the potential redemption of the history of civilization that capital makes possible of itself.

The dialectic of memory and forgetting involves changes in both the forms of remembering and the process of forgetting. A form of remembrance is a way of forgetting. It serves a certain way of life. To remember is to forget in a certain way; to forget is to overcome a certain need to remember, and to overcome the past in a certain way. If the present is an effect of history, then it is in the way the past causes the present.

Why is the past, in modernity (according to Benjamin, following Nietzsche), “citable” in all of its moments? Because all of history is (potentially) negated by capital — just as it is (potentially) fulfilled by it. The question is the possibility and necessity of the appropriation of all of history in capital. The mode of appropriation of the past in capital, its “process of transmission,” is the society prevailing throughout “all of history:” “barbarism.” This means that all moments of the past potentially become culpable in capital, by becoming the endless resource of the present: history. Capital is the literal “Aufhebung” of history. But can capital become the Selbst-aufhebung of history? Or does modern history exhibit, rather, a dynamic that is alien to all of history, as it was practiced hitherto (prior to the challenge of modernity)? Is capital the potential for redemption in history, or its ultimate denial, its final liquidation? The fundamental ambivalence of history in capital is the key to what it is: an injustice to be made good. This is what capital has promised humanity at the end of history. Can it be fulfilled? Will it?1 | §


Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor W., “Reflections on Class Theory,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 93–110.

Benjamin, Walter, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” trans. Harry Zohn, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968), 255–266; “On the Concept of History,” trans. Dennis Redmond (2005), available on-line at: <http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm>; “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’,” Selected Writings vol. 4 1938–40 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2006), 401–11.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” trans. Ian Johnston (2010), available on-line at: <http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/nietzsche/history.htm>; On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1980).


Note

  1. This link between redemption and forgetting has its utopic as well as dystopic valences. As Kafka wrote in conclusion of his last published story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” (in The Complete Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir [New York: Schocken, 1995], 360–376), in a decidedly non-human, zoomorphic parable:
    “Josephine’s road, however, must go downhill. The time will soon come when her last notes sound and die into silence. She is a small episode in the eternal history of our people, and the people will get over the loss of her. Not that it will be easy for us; how can our gatherings take place in utter silence? Still, were they not silent even when Josephine was present? Was her actual piping notably louder and more alive than the memory of it will be? Was it even in her lifetime more than a simple memory? Was it not rather because Josephine’s singing was already past losing in this way that our people in their wisdom prized it so highly?
    “So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all, while Josephine, redeemed from the earthly sorrows which to her thinking lay in wait for all chosen spirits, will happily lose herself in the numberless throng of the heroes of our people, and soon, since we are no historians, will rise to the heights of redemption and be forgotten like all her brothers.” (376) []

Philosophy of history of the Left and Marxism: “authoritarianism” and “imperialism” — response to Mike Macnair

Chris Cutrone

Mike Macnair’s critique of Platypus in “The study of history and the Left’s decline” (Weekly Worker 868, June 2, 2011) takes issue on the philosophy of history of Marxism. I would like to clarify this, and the senses in which I used the terms “authoritarianism” and “imperialism” in my letters of May 19, 2011 (Weekly Worker 866) and May 26, 2011 (Weekly Worker 867), in response to Macnair’s two articles written after his attendance at the Platypus 2011 convention in Chicago, “No need for party?” (Weekly Worker 865, May 12, 2011), and “Theoretical dead end” (Weekly Worker 866, May 19, 2011).

Historiography of Marxism

First, however, I would like to address the issue of historiography with respect to the SPD in the 2nd International era. Carl E. Schorske (in German Social Democracy 1905–17: The Development of the Great Schism, 1955), and James Joll (in The Second International 1889–1914, 1974) are, among others, important historical sources for my and other Platypus members’ views. But I don’t think that what Macnair calls a “source-critical” approach to history should be attempted with reference to historians’ biographies, which does not clarify but potentially compounds the problem of philosophy of history.

On J.P. Nettl, I would point to his substantial essay on “Ideas, intellectuals, and Structures of Dissent,” collected in Philip Rieff, ed., On Intellectuals: Theoretical Studies, Case Studies (1969). I dispute Macnair’s characterization of Nettl’s concerns. I think Nettl’s biography of Luxemburg was his life-work and not ancillary. As a liberal/non-Marxist, there are perhaps some issues to be taken with Nettl’s work on Luxemburg, but Nettl’s views as a political scientist were drawn from his long and close study of Luxemburg and her relation to Marxism, not applied by Nettl to Luxemburg from elsewhere. For Nettl, the history of Marxism raised questions about the possibilities of politics per se. Hence, the importance of Nettl’s argument.

Thus, Nettl’s article on “The German Social-Democratic Party 1890–1914 as Political Model” (Past and Present 30, April 1965) argued that Luxemburg’s views, as expressed in Reform or Revolution? and The Mass Strike, among other writings, were not actionist but concerned with the transformation of the SPD in which the Marxist Left had a stake. Luxemburg and Lenin were not opposed to the formation of workers’ political parties as necessary instruments of emancipation, but they were aware of the dangers inherent in this, from a Marxist perspective on the historical development of capital, in which such workers’ organizations (including labor unions) were inevitably bound up. In other words, how, e.g., the SPD was a phenomenon of the history of capital, or, more precisely, how the workers’ movement for socialism was part of the historical development of capital, and did not somehow oppose it from outside. In this sense, there was an affinity of Eduard Bernstein’s views on “evolutionary socialism” with Luxemburg’s, but they drew the opposite political conclusions: where Bernstein found the transformation of capital through reforms to be ameliorative, Luxemburg found a deepening crisis. This was Luxemburg’s thesis in Reform or Revolution?, that only reformists separated social reform from political revolution, because Marxism recognized that reforms deepened the crisis of capital and made revolution not less but more necessary.

Benjamin and Adorno

I dispute Macnair’s characterization of Benjamin and Adorno’s philosophy of history as attempting to generate “useful myths.” Rhetorical and literary style aside, Benjamin and especially Adorno were rigorous Marxists and Hegelians who engaged the issues of “historical materialism” as manifested after the failure of Marxism. Benjamin and Adorno were not postmodernists avant la lettre, despite their spurious late pomo popularity. Rather, Benjamin and Adorno, like Lukács and Korsch (from whom they took direct inspiration), followed Luxemburg and Lenin’s judgments about the crisis of Marxism as the crisis of bourgeois society that Marxism itself, as part of the ideology and practical political leadership of the international social-democratic workers’ movement, had brought about.

Benjamin and Adorno challenged the linear-progressive conception of history, recovering from the history of Marxism what might appear to be an obscure point, but one addressed, for example, by Plekhanov as history moving in a “knotted line,” and by Lenin as history moving in “spirals” of repetition and crisis (see Lenin’s 1915 Granat Encyclopedia entry on “Karl Marx”). This Hegelian-Marxist approach to the dialectics of history was digested usefully by Lukács, as a discussion of historical “moment” and “process” in “Tailism and the Dialectic” (Lukács’s unpublished 1925 defense of History and Class Consciousness).

Hegel and Kant

The Hegelian — and Kantian — point is that the relation between theory and practice is not one of empirical deduction from trial and error in which an always imperfect theory is corrected, but “inductive,” in that the concrete “material” object of practice is the concretization of abstractions, and, furthermore, the object of practice is indeed first and foremost the human subject, i.e., the “subject-object” of transformation. The question is the adequacy of the relation of theory and practice. Metaphysical (“theoretical”) categories refer not to a world extrinsic to human subjectivity, but to the world constituted socially in and through such categories, which are always eminently practical as well as theoretical. So, in the most pertinent example, the “commodity form” is, for Marxists, a category of social relations, which gives it an effective social reality, different from physical nature. Macnair seems not to have attended to the Kantian revolution in philosophy from which Hegel, Marx, Lukács, Benjamin and Adorno followed.

How this matters for the philosophy of history is that history is not a compendium of past facts but a social relation of the “present” with itself. The past is not “past” but present, and present “historically.” So, for Benjamin and Adorno (following Lukács and Korsch, who followed Lenin, Luxemburg, and Marx and Engels on this point), the question was how to reckon the history of Marxism and the greater socialist workers’ movement as symptomatic expression of the history of capital, or, how the “proletariat” was and could become the transformed “subject-object of history.” Lukács’s term for the self-alienated character of this “subject-object” condition of the working class in capital was “reification.” “Reification” referred not to the workers’ quotidian consciousness in capitalism, but to the “class consciousness” of the workers, as expressed by Social Democracy (and “Marxism”) at its height. For Lukács and those who followed, “reification” meant Kautsky.

Abuse of theory

Nettl has a great line about how Kautsky attempted “to invest certain observed phenomena with the normative sanction of Marxist theory.” Nettl cited Parvus against Kautsky: “All the guts knocked out of [Marxism]. Out of Marx’s good raw dough Kautsky made Matzes” (82). Kautsky abused theory, making it serve as justification or rationalization — as most “Marxists” do — rather than as a provocation to the self-reflection of consciousness, in the Hegelian sense.

While it may be tempting to oppose such apparent static/immobilized (or “contemplative”) consciousness with action(ism), Lukács knew well that the opposition of static and dynamic was an antinomy of capital itself, that capital moved through a dialectic of the antinomy of the dynamic and the static in history. This is where the recovery of the Hegelian dimension of Marxism was critical: Marxism itself had become “vulgarized” in its self-understanding, and had failed in taking a dialectical approach to itself as a historical phenomenon, as a symptom of the history of capital. Marxism had succumbed to the “bourgeois” (pre-Kantian) view of (linear) progress through trial-and-error, the asymptotic view of knowledge, in which, as Benjamin put it, mordantly citing, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Dietzgen as pathological example of Social Democratic progressivism, “Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter.” History has proved otherwise.

Philosophy of history

Benjamin and Adorno’s challenge to such a “progressive” view of history, which they thought was ideologically blinding, was not irrationalism any more than Hegel was. It does not call for “myth,” but a different philosophy of history than the empiricist-deductive one. Dialectics is not a matter of estimating probability, but grasping inherent possibility in history.

Paul Klee's 1920 painting, "Angelus Novus" ("The New Angel") was not the traditional votive guardian, but, according to Benjamin, looked upon the historical unfolding of humanity with horror at the mounting catastrophe.

As Adorno put it, in his 1942 essay “Reflections on Class Theory,” in response to both Benjamin’s “Theses” and Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, “According to [Marxian] theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . . By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole. . . . All history is the history of class struggles because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory. This gives us a pointer as to how we can recognize what history is. From the most recent form of injustice, a steady light reflects back on history as a whole. Only in this way can theory enable us to use the full weight of history to gain an insight into the present without succumbing in resignation to the burden of the past. [Marxism has been praised] on account of its dynamism. . . . Dynamism is merely one side of dialectic: it is the side preferred by the belief in practicality. . . . The other, less popular aspect of dialectic is its static side. . . . The law that, according to the Hegelian dialectic, governs the restlessly destructive unfolding of the ever-new consists in the fact that at every moment the ever-new is also the old lying close at hand. The new does not add itself to the old but is the old in distress” (Adorno, Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, 2003, 93–95).

Authoritarianism

This brings me around to the issues of “authoritarianism” and “imperialism,” which have different usage for me than the colloquial ones. Adorno co-authored the famous study on The Authoritarian Personality. This followed from the earlier Frankfurt School Studies on Authority and the Family. A commonplace misunderstanding of Frankfurt School Critical Theory is that it attempted to synthesize Marxist and Freudian psychoanalytic approaches, but this view is mistaken. Rather, Freudian psychoanalysis was itself taken by Adorno et al. to be a symptom of the historical development of capital. Freud’s categories were taken to be descriptive, and then resituated, critically, in a Marxian view of historical development of society. In this view, Marx was not ignorant of Freudian insights, but rather it was only as a function of the later social-historical development of capital that human “psychology” appeared as it did to Freud. A contemporary of Benjamin and Adorno, Wilhelm Reich, in his early work on “Ideology as a Material Force” published later in his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism, pointed to how Marxism had failed to apprehend the “progressive” character of fascism; in other words, how fascism had expressed, however pathologically, the social-historical transformation of capital in the early 20th century better than “vulgar,” economic-determinist Marxism had been able to do. Hence, fascism’s ideological and political victory over Marxism. For Reich, (the failure of) Marxism was responsible for fascism. Fascism expressed the workers’ “fear of freedom,” which Marxism, in its false rationalism of “economic interest,” had failed to overcome. Workers had a subjective, “psychological” interest in unfreedom that Marxism needed to address.

What this meant to Benjamin and Adorno, following Lukács’s view on “reification,” was that Marxism had failed to address “authoritarianism” dialectically, as a function of the transformation of capital. In the Marxian view, the workers’ movement for socialism is itself the most important “self-contradictory” and self-alienated phenomenon of the history of capital. This is why Marx began with the critique of socialism, or, why the “critique of political economy” is the critique of the necessary and symptomatic consciousness of the socialist workers’ movement.

Imperialism

What I raised in my letter (published in The Weekly Worker 867, May 26, 2011) concerning the changed “organic composition of capital” is this: that the “mass” proletarianization of the core capitalist countries was the result, as Marx discussed in Capital vol. I on “the working day,” of politically variable social conditions of wage labor that, with increased worker empowerment, cause a shift from variable to constant capital, or, from labor-time intensive sweatshop to automated machine production, requiring ever less labor-input and resulting in ever greater value-crises.

This, in turn, affected the conditions of “colonialism.” Whereas colonies in the classical bourgeois era of the emergence of modern capital were sites of market expansion, in the late era of “imperialism” or “monopoly capital,” colonies become raw material resource-extraction zones feeding metropolitan industry. The humanity of not only those who were thus “colonized” but also of the metropolitan proletariat hence became superfluous, not even a “reserve army of unemployed” but a fascist rabble, subject to more or less desperate authoritarian politics. This was already true of the post-1848 world Marx addressed in Bonapartism (also evinced contemporaneously by Bismarck and Disraeli), but became even more so subsequently. The question is why the workers supported authoritarian politics, and how the workers’ movement for socialism was not free of this effect. (In this sense, Hayek’s critique of socialism in The Road to Serfdom is apposite.)

This is the world in which we continue to live today, but without the proximal history of the late 19th–early 20th century social-democratic workers’ movement and its Marxist political leadership that, in a “dialectical” (self-contradictory) way, participated in the history that brought these conditions into being — producing the need for world revolution that is Marxism’s legacy. | §

Originally published in The Weekly Worker 869 (June 9, 2011) [PDF].