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?


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]


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.| §


[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: <>.

[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,” (January 11, 2016), available on-line at: <>. 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: <>.)

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: <>.

[14] Marx, Preface to the 1869 edition of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], available on-line at: <>.

[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. ( . . . )

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Neoliberalism and Marxism

After the Revolution VII

Chris Cutrone

After the Revolution – Part VII from Rebuild Foundation on Vimeo.

Full video of the interview can be found at:

This TV show After the Revolution is part of the Méthode Room Residency, a project curated by Guillaume Désanges in partnership with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the Institut Français and the Rebuild Foundation.
This Seventh part of the show is composed of:
– Presentation of the exhibition “Georges Bataille, Architecture, Chicago and World Order: an Essay on General Economy”. Part 4/9
– Discussion with Chris Cutrone, aka “The Last Marxist”. The disappearance of entire structures of worker’s organisations, the ideological dialogue between Marxism and Neoliberalism, the fear of political organisation and engaging in debate on the part of leftist intellectuals or the absence of a “plan” as an alternative to the current state of affairs are amongst the numerous topics that are discussed here.

What is political party for the Left?


Presented on a panel with Mike Macnair (Communist Party of Great Britain), Adolph Reed, and Tom Riley (International Bolshevik Tendency) at the seventh annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention April 11, 2015 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Full panel discussion audio recording:

Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat and state capitalism

Chris Cutrone

In a letter of March 5, 1852, Marx wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer that his only original contribution had been recognizing the necessity of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Bourgeois thought, Marx wrote, had already recognized the existence and the struggle of classes: indeed, the existence and struggle of classes — the struggle of the workers against the capitalists — had been recognized 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 the necessity of both 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 recognizing that they were not the cause but the effect of the self-contradiction of society in capitalism. 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 is 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 summarized 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 characterize Louis Bonaparte’s success as both “petit bourgeois” and “lumpen-proletarian,” 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” but not in the sense of the rule of the capitalists, but rather in terms of the political necessity of the state continuing to organize 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 that,

“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, Louis Bonaparte and others who took their cue from him 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 apologized for it as some expression of historical necessity, even going so 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.

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 realized 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 recognized 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 recognized 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 WWI and its aftermath. Indeed, socialism 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 favor, blaming lack of adequate political organization 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 industrializing-proletarianizing? How did socialism point beyond capitalism?

Organized 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 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.

Historical 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, after the crisis of 19-73. After 1873, in the era of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, there was what Marxists once called the “monopoly capitalism” of global cartels and financialization, 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, “[T]he 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” (“Marxism and democracy,” Praxis International 1:1, April 1981). It is this political power that the “Left” has avoided since the 1960s.

In this country (the U.S.), 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’s election in 1800, through which he established the political domination of his Democratic-Republican Party, was called a “revolution,” and indeed it was. It 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. It was the party of the last great political revolution in American politics, the Civil War and the Reconstruction under Ulysses S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant that followed. Its failures 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. The last major crisis of U.S. 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. But both fell below the standard of Radical Republicanism. It is something less than ironic that the Democrats have been the most acutely counterrevolutionary of Bonapartist parties. This despite John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1960 that the strife the 20th century — expressed by the Cold War struggles of Communism and decolonization — was an extension of the American Revolution to which the U.S. needed to remain true.

The history of the state in the modern era is inextricable from the politics of revolution. 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 consciously the problem of capitalism, and the problem of capitalism is inextricable from the state.

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 recognized. — Anarchism is truly “liberalism in hysterics” in denying the necessity of politics, in denying the need for political party.

In the absence of a 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 at all, and leave the field to pseudo-politics, to political irresponsibility. The “Left” has done this for more than a generation. What would it mean to do otherwise? | §

1873–1973: The century of Marxism

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

Chris Cutrone

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


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

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

Historical periodization

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

1818–1883      Karl Marx

1820–1895      Friedrich Engels

1870–1924      Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

1871–1919      Rosa Luxemburg

1879–1940      Leon Trotsky

1885–1971      Georg Lukács

1889–1914      Second International

1892–1940      Walter Benjamin

1895–1973      Max Horkheimer

1903–1969      Theodor W. Adorno

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

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

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

The century of Marxism: 19th and 20th centuries

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

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

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

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

“State capitalism” and Marxism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Platypus: Marxism in the 21st century?

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

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

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

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

Unprecedented historical moment

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

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

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

Unredeemable legacy of the 20th century

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

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

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

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

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

Neo-anarchism and neo-liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Transcribed with the assistance of Nikolas Lelle

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

  1. See Chris Cutrone, “The ‘anti-fascist’ vs. ‘anti-imperialist’ Left: Some genealogies and prospects,” available online at <>. []
  2. Jim Creegan, “Hot Autumn in New York,” in Weekly Worker 886 (October 20, 2011), available online at <>. []
  3. See Cutrone, “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’,” in Platypus Review 29 (November 2010), available online at <>. []
  4. See Karl Korsch, “The Marxism of the First International” (1924), available online at <>. []
  5. See Cutrone, “Lenin’s liberalism,” in Platypus Review 36 (June 2011), available online at <’s-liberalism/>. See also Cutrone, “1917,” in Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available online at <>. []
  6. Cf., Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991 (New York: Vintage, 1994). []
  7. See “The Occupy Movement, a Renascent Left, and Marxism Today: An interview with Slavoj Žižek,” in Platypus Review 42 (December 2011–January 2012), available online at <>. []
  8. See Karl Kautsky, “A Destroyer of Vulgar-Marxism,” in Platypus Review 43 (February 2012), available online at <>. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Jules Guesde and Karl Marx, “The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier,” available online at <>. []
  11. See Friedrich Engels, “Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850” (1895), available online at <>. []

Whither Marxism? Why the occupation movement recalls Seattle 1999

Chris Cutrone

The following was written for distribution as a flyer [PDF] at the occupation protests.

THE PRESENT OCCUPATION movement expresses a return to the Left of the late 1990s, specifically the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.

They both have taken place in the last year of a Democratic U.S. Presidential administration, been spearheaded by anarchism, had discontents with neoliberalism as their motivation, and been supported by the labor movement.

This configuration of politics on the Left is the “leaderless” and “horizontal” movement celebrated by such writers as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth), John Holloway (Change the World without Taking Power), and others.

A dominant theme in the self-understanding of the 1990s-era Left was, as in the current occupation movement, “resistance,” rather than pressing for reforms — let alone revolution.1

From the 1990s to the present

The collapse of Stalinism in 1989 began a period of disorientation and retreat for the avowed “Marxist” Left in the 1990s. This changed in the late 1990s, as disenchantment with Clinton grew.

Something similar has taken place ever since Obama’s election, amid the financial crisis, in 2008. The anti-war movement collapsed with the end of the Bush II administration. There is a lesson to be learned about the treacherous political effect of election cycles.

The bailout of Wall Street at first prompted a Right-wing response, the “Tea Party” movement. But, after some brief rumblings in campus occupations against austerity in 2009, ever since the Republicans captured a Congressional majority in the 2010 midterm elections, there has been a shift towards Left-wing discontents, beginning with the Wisconsin State House occupation.

Looking back, the movement that emerged in the late 1990s (finding an exemplar in Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela2), blossoming in the 1999 Seattle protests, was dealt a sharp blow, right after the Genoa G-8 protests in summer 2001 that sought to build upon Seattle, by the 9/11 attacks.

The standard narrative is that the anti-globalization movement was spiked and diverted by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath — perhaps even intentionally so, as the Left-wing 9/11 “truth” movement (indicatively prominent in the current occupation movement) was paranoid that the U.S. (or Israeli) government, and not al Qaeda, had perpetrated the attacks. Anti-globalization protest became occluded in the “War on Terror” era.

2000s anti-imperialist “Marxism”

The Left that developed in the 2000s was in contrast to the 1990s. The 2000s Left saw the return of the “Marxist” political organizations, pulling the strings of the anti-war coalitions after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, especially in the lead-up to and after the invasion and occupation of Iraq.3

The preceding 1990s Left consciousness expressed by Hardt and Negri et al. was displaced, precisely because the apparent reassertion of traditional great-power “imperialism,” regarding the U.S. neocons as the essential political players in the post-9/11 wars, defied notions of global neoliberal “Empire.”

The anti-war movement of the 2000s meant a more traditional “Left” of political sectarian groups orchestrating a protest movement that had as its target a Republican U.S. administration. This meant that the anti-war movement inevitably became a shill for the Democrats, especially after Bush’s re-election in 2004, as most of the sentiment of “Left” opposition to the wars was taken from the so-called “realist” vs. neocon foreign policy perspectives of many Democrats, European statesmen, and even some Republicans.4


Obama’s election dispelled the Left that yearned for a Democratic administration, revealing the bankruptcy of the “Marxist” Left opposing Bush’s wars.

But the “anti-imperialist” turn in the 2000s had been regrettable from the perspective of the 1990s Left activists who had crystallized their experience in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001, as well as in the burgeoning “World Social Forum” movement.

The younger generation of Leftists who came of age around the anti-war movement was divided between those who received their political education from Marxism vs. anarchism. The young leaders in the new Students for a Democratic Society were, for example, mentored in the Chomskyan and Parecon perspective of Z-magazine writers Michael Albert, et al. The new SDS struggled to be more than an anti-war cause. Anti-Marxism informed the new SDS’s “anti-ideological” bias, whose echoes return today in the occupation movement.5

Certainly the “Marxism” of the anti-war movement’s “anti-imperialism” was deeply problematic, to say the least. The financial collapse and deepening economic crisis after 2008 is better ground for the Left than the U.S. wars of the 2000s had been. The issue of capitalism has re-emerged.

It is only right that such inadequate “Marxism” falters after the 2000s. Today, the “Marxist” ideological Left of sectarian organizations struggles to catch up with the occupation movement and threatens to be sidelined by it — as Marxist groups had been in Seattle in 1999.

It is a measure of the bankruptcy of the “Marxist” Left that organizations could only rejuvenate themselves around the anti-war movement, in terms of “anti-imperialism,” submerging the issue of capitalism. But that moment has passed.


In its place, as in Seattle in 1999, an apparently unlikely alliance of the labor movement with anarchism has characterized the occupation movement. Oppositional discontents, not with neoconservatism and imperialism as in the 2000s, but with neoliberalism and capitalism as in the 1990s, characterize the political imagination of the occupation movement. This is the present opportunity for Left renewal. But it is impaired by prior history.

The issues of how capitalism is characterized and understood take on a new importance and urgency in the present moment. Now, properly understanding capitalism and neoliberalism is essential for any relevance of a Marxist approach.6

The discontents with neoliberalism pose the question of capitalism more deeply and not only more directly than imperialism did. A Marxist approach is more seriously tasked to address the problem of capitalism for our time.

The need for Marxism is a task of Marxism

Anarchism and the labor movement, respectively, will only be able to address the problem of capitalism in certain and narrow terms. Marxist approaches to the labor movement and anarchism are needed.7

The need for Marxism becomes the task of Marxism. Marxism does not presently exist in any way that is relevant to the current crisis and the political discontents erupting in it. Marxism is disarrayed, and rightfully so.

The danger, though considerable, is not merely one of the labor movement and the broader popular milieu of the occupation movement feeding into the Democratic Party effort to re-elect Obama in 2012. Rather, the challenge is deeper, in that what is meant by anti-capitalism, socialism, and hence Marxism might suffer another round of superficial banalization and degradation (“We are the 99%!”) in responses to the present crisis. The Left may suffer a subtle, obscure disintegration under the guise of its apparent renaissance.

Nonetheless, this is an opportunity to press the need for Marxism, to reformulate it in better terms and on a more solid basis than was possible during the anti-war movement of the 2000s.

This is the gauntlet that both anarchism and the labor movement throw down at the feet of Marxism. Can Marxist approaches rise to the challenge?8 | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 41 (November 2011).

  1. See Michael Albert, Cutrone, Stephen Duncombe, and Brian Holmes, “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and ‘Resistance’: The problematic forms of ‘anti-capitalism’ today,” Platypus Review 4 (April 2008). []
  2. See Marco Torres: “The dead Left: Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution,” Platypus Review 25 (July 2010). []
  3. See Kevin Anderson, Cutrone, Nick Kreitman, Danny Postel, and Adam Turl, “Imperialism: What is it, why should we be against it?,” Platypus Review 25 (July 2010). []
  4. See Cutrone, “Iraq and the election: The fog of ‘anti-war’ politics,” Platypus Review 7 (October 2008). []
  5. See Laurie Rojas, “Red-baiting and ideology: The new SDS,” Platypus Review 9 (December 2008). []
  6. See Platypus Historians Group, “Finance capital: Why financial capitalism is no more ‘fictitious’ than any other kind,” Platypus Review 7 (October 2008); and “Friedrich Hayek and the legacy of Milton Friedman: Neoliberalism and the question of freedom (In part, a response to Naomi Klein),” Platypus Review 8 (November 2008). []
  7. See Cutrone, “Against dogmatic abstraction: A critique of Cindy Milstein on anarchism and Marxism,” Platypus Review 25 (July 2010). []
  8. See Cutrone, “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’,” Platypus Review 29 (November 2010). []

The “anti-fascist” vs. “anti-imperialist” Left: some genealogies and prospects

Platypus 2011 President’s report

Chris Cutrone

Presented at the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, May 1, 2011 (audio recording).

The usual ways of categorizing various trends on the “Left” today have become less useful for distinguishing politically and indicating potential future developments. Trends have defied historical or expected trajectories — if these in fact ever applied properly — and so call for a new and different approach to sort out what we’re dealing with today and are likely to encounter going forward.

Other categories of the “Left:” Platypus has been rightly recognized (if only occasionally and intermittently) for traversing if not transcending these categories in the approach of our project:

1.) Socialist vs. liberal: Supposedly rooted in “class perspective,” as in “bourgeois-liberal” and “proletarian-socialist” (but not class character in terms of sociological “position,” but rather in Marx’s sense of the “petit bourgeois” horizon of politics thus aligning intellectuals with the “petite bourgeoisie”). But also perhaps expressing the antinomy of individual vs. collective freedom, certainly in ways we would not resolve as apparently simply as historical “Marxism” has done, for instance characterizing the Right as prioritizing “liberty” while the Left prioritizes social “justice.”

2.) Libertarian vs. authoritarian: The characterization supposed of the anarchist vs. Marxist division. Less about sociological position than political practice and concomitant organizational method: “horizontal” vs. hierarchical; decentralized vs. centralized, etc.

3.) Anti-Stalinist vs. Stalinist: The supposedly “Trotskyist” perspective, and perhaps the most problematic, considering the ISO/U.S. and others (SWP/U.K., et al.). This is not reducible to the libertarian vs. authoritarian division although apparently related to it; at an earlier, relatively less degenerate historical stage of the “Left,” this would have been characterized by internationalist vs. nationalist perspectives.

Because Platypus is in fact concerned with overcoming what are today inaccurate characterizations of the problems facing emancipatory perspectives moving forward, we must externally, publicly problematize but also internally not use unproblematically such categories, which are inherited unthinkingly from the “Left” of prior historical moments.

The set of categories we need to confront, which applies both clearly to the present but also to what might appear to be a rather obscure history, stemming from the earliest manifestation of “Stalinism” in the late 1920s-early ’30s, is that of “anti-fascism” vs. “anti-imperialism.”

We have, in large measure, the history of the German “Left” since the 1960s to thank for these categories, “anti-fa” and “anti-imp,” which however have a much greater international and historical significance than may apparently be the case. Indeed, we need to confront these categories as the true manifestation of the real controversies besetting the “Left” today, and for deep historical reasons.

Of course, for many, the distinction between “fascism” and “imperialism” is without a difference: fascists are imperialist and imperialists are fascistic. But this is only at the most superficial, pejorative meaning of these categories. What they refer to, analytically, and politically, however, are quite different kinds of problems. So, it becomes a matter of how one prioritizes the concerns of one’s politics. Are one’s concerns primarily “anti-imperialist” or “anti-fascist?”

In Tariq Ali’s book Trotsky for Beginners, there is a passage [p. 143] in which the Stalinist characterization of Trotsky as “fascist” is ridiculed by Ali, in light of the need for united anti-fascist political struggle by the Communists and Social-Democrats (and others) against the Nazis in Germany. But Ali’s “Trotskyist” common sense should not be taken at face value. Rather, one needs to understand why the Stalinists — that is, the vast majority of Communists, internationally, at the time — would have found this characterization of Trotsky’s perspective as “fascist” plausible:

We should not assume that Trotsky was right and the Stalinists wrong, however tempting this may be in retrospect. The Stalinists thought that Trotsky’s perspective would have meant strengthening — caving in to — the Social Democrats, who in turn would not scruple to unleash the fascists against the Communists, as indeed happened earlier in 1918-19 in Germany and during the Russian Civil War. Trotsky’s perspective was that the Communists could get the upper hand on the Social Democrats and indeed lead and split them in a united fight against the fascists. Perhaps. But this is precisely what the ISO and others think can happen today with the Islamists against the imperialists, or what “Trotskyists” earlier thought could happen in drawing close to the Stalinists, as the Pabloites (Mandelites) thought. In many respects this is an insoluble problem, and a key reason why tactical or even strategic judgments made by Marxists in earlier eras should not be hypostatized as abstract, timeless principles. Trotsky’s position was the more optimistic and indeed more interesting position in the dispute, but not some unalloyed truth we can reckon today.

The other side of the anti-imperialist/anti-fascist divide also comes from this period of Stalinism in the late 1920s-early ’30s. That is, why did the Communists make common cause at times with the Nazis, for instance in protests against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles? Out of “anti-imperialism,” namely, to have the forces of the Entente occupying Germany (French African troops in the Ruhr valley) removed. The Nazis had their own brand of “anti-imperialism” with which the Communists thought they could make common cause. [Show clip from Kiss of the Spider Woman: ~1:10:10 – 1:13:30.] Now, such “anti-imperialism” should remind us of the ISO with respect to Hezbollah, Hamas, and even al-Qaeda (Tariq Ali, after all, did publish the collected writings of Osama bin-Laden!).

It’s tantalizing for us to sympathize with Trotsky’s position as the path not taken. Even if Trotsky’s approach to fighting fascism had prevailed, it would have presented new problems. The point is that it didn’t, so we can only learn from it so much. We cannot afford to short-circuit the question of political judgment and turn the matter into one of abstract principles, quickly devolving into a moral or ethical stance: “Unite and fight against the Right!”

For who is the Right, essentially? In other words, who was the more dangerous Right? In some respects, this seems rather straightforward, the Nazis were the more dangerous and the Social Democrats the less dangerous Right. But is this really true, in terms of the actual, concretely practical political situation? Certainly the German and Russian counterrevolutionary civil wars, among other examples, demonstrated the vicious character of Social Democracy as a Right-wing force.

Now, we are clearly more sympathetic to the anti-fascist rather than anti-imperialist “Left.” This can be found in our orientations towards the Anti-Deutsch and others as our preferred objects of critique — more interesting, in certain respects, as objects of critical engagement, to be redeemed in some way. But we should not naturalize this but rather recognize how the current situation came about historically. For the worst offenders of the anti-imperialist “Left” today actually have roots in the anti-fascist “Left.” In other words, today’s divisions would not have applied in the past.

The ISO itself began as a more anti-fascist than anti-imperialist “Left” organization, for instance, prioritizing anti-Stalinism over anti-imperialism. This would have been the case until fairly recently, indeed perhaps one could say up to the collapse of Stalinism in 1989. In regarding the anti-fascist Left of Christopher Hitchens, Kanan Makiya, and others, we should recognize that the critique of Baathism in Iraq, for example, as fascist, is not enough to resolve the problem of imperialism in U.S. policy.

Another example is the RCP, which has in certain respects come to prioritize an anti-fascist as opposed to anti-imperialist politics.

But there are serious problems with the anti-fascist as well as the anti-imperialist “Left.” So it is important for us to be aware of this divide so that we can properly discern its — entirely symptomatic — character. We cannot afford to be either anti-fa or anti-imp in prioritizing our approach to the problem of the Left. | §

A critique of Cindy Milstein on anarchism and Marxism

Against dogmatic abstraction

Chris Cutrone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Marx in 1839.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Video documentation of Milstein’s talk at the Left Forum 2010 can be found online at <>.

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

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

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

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

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

7. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Robert C. Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 93. Also available online at <>.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. Marx, letter to Arnold Ruge (September, 1843), in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 12–15. Also available online at <>.

14. Marx, letter to Ruge.

Adorno’s Leninism

Adorno’s political relevance

Chris Cutrone

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics not pre-figurative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lukács thought that,

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

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

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

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

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

The politics of critical theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem of means and ends

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

As Adorno put it in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics,

The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that “world history is the world tribunal.”  What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations. [Adorno, Negative Dialectics (1966), trans. E. B. Ashton (Continuum: New York, 1983), 143–144.]

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

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

If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake — except for the mature Marx. [Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (1969), in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 266.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marx by no means surrendered himself to praxis. Praxis is a source of power for theory but cannot be prescribed by it. It appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what it being criticized. . . . This admixture of delusion, however, warns of the excesses in which it incessantly grows. (Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” Critical Models, 278)

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

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

The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago — and usually better the first time around. [Adorno, “Sexual Taboos and the Law Today” (1963), in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 71.]


Book review: Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy

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

Chris Cutrone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Translated by Redmond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Korsch himself put it, in “Ten Theses on Marxism Today” (1950), translated by Giles-Peter in Telos 26 (Winter 1975–76) and available on-line at:,

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

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

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

Adorno in 1969

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

Chris Cutrone

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

Introduction — précis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The origins of Adorno’s Marxism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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