The Sandernistas: P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party

Chris Cutrone, June 22, 2016

Further amendment to “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s” (Platypus Review 82, December 2015 – January 2016) and “Postscript on the March 15 primaries” (Platypus Review 85, April 2016), after the end of the primary elections.

Trump is no “fascist,” nor even really a “populist,”1 but is precisely what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat — like the socially and economically liberal but blowhard “law-and-order” conservative former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Trump challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar moderate Centrist positions on the U.S. political spectrum, whatever their various differences on policy. Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different in this election season: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Trump has successfully run against and seeks to overthrow the established Republican 1980s-era “Reagan Revolution” coalition of neoliberals, neoconservatives, Strict Construction Constitutionalist conservatives and evangelical Christian fundamentalists — against their (always uneasy) alliance as well as against all of its component parts. Established Republicans recoil at undoing the Reagan Coalition they have mobilized since the 1980s. Marco Rubio as well as Ted Cruz — both of whom were adolescents in the 1980s — denounced Trump not only for his “New York values” but also and indicatively as a “socialist.” Glenn Beck said that Trump meant that the America of “statism” of the Progressives Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had won over the America of “freedom” of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Of course that is ideological and leaves aside the problem of capitalism, which Trump seeks to reform. Sanders could have potentially bested Trump as a candidate for reform, perhaps, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats, whose nostalgia for the New Deal, Great Society and New Left does not provide the necessary resources.

Trump has succeeded precisely where Sanders has failed in marshaling the discontents with neoliberalism and demand for change. Sanders has collapsed into the Democratic Party. To succeed, Sanders would have needed to run against the Democrats the way Trump has run against the Republicans. This would have meant challenging the ruling Democratic neoliberal combination of capitalist austerity with New Left identity politics of “race, gender and sexuality” that is the corporate status quo. The results of Trump’s contesting of Reaganite and Clintonian and Obama-era neoliberalism remain to be seen. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. Trump will win if he mobilizes more of them than Clinton. Clinton is the conservative in this election; Trump is the candidate for change. The Republicans have been in crisis in ways the Democrats are not, and this is the political opportunity expressed by Trump. He is seeking to lead the yahoos to the Center as well as meeting their genuine discontents in neoliberalism. Of course the change Trump represents is insufficient and perhaps unworkable, but it is nonetheless necessary. Things must change; they will change. As Marx said, “All that is solid melts into air.” The future of any potential struggle for socialism in the U.S. will be on a basis among not only those who have voted for Sanders but also those who have and will vote for Trump. | §


Note

  1. See Tad Tietze, “The Trump paradox: A rough guide for the Left,” Left Flank (January 25, 2016). Available on-line at <http://left-flank.org/2016/01/25/the-trump-paradox-a-rough-guide-for-the-left/>. []

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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Back to Herbert Spencer

fuchschristian_marx_spencer_highgate
Marx and Spencer’s facing graves (photograph by Christian Fuchs)

Chris Cutrone argues that the libertarian liberalism of the late 19th century still has relevance today

Originally published in Weekly Worker 1088 (January 7, 2016). [PDF] Also published in The Platypus Review #82 (December 2015 – January 2016). Re-published by Bitácora (Uruguay).


Audio recording


Herbert Spencer’s grave faces Marx’s at Highgate Cemetery in London. At his memorial, Spencer was honoured for his anti-imperialism by Indian national liberation advocate and anti-colonialist Shyamji Krishnavarma, who funded a [lectureship] at Oxford in Spencer’s name.

What would the 19th century liberal, utilitarian and social Darwinist, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was perhaps the most prominent, widely read and popular philosopher in the world during his lifetime – that is, in Marx’s lifetime – have to say to Marxists or more generally to the left, when such liberalism earned not only Marx’s own scorn but also Nietzsche’s criticism? Nietzsche referred to Spencer and his broad appeal as the modern enigma of “the English psychologists.” Nietzsche critiqued what he took to be Spencer’s assumption of a historically linear-evolutionary development and improvement of human morality leading to a 19th century epitome; where Nietzsche found the successive “transvaluations of values” through profound reversals of “self-overcoming” (On the genealogy of morals: a polemic, 1887). Nietzsche regarded modern liberal morality not as a perfection but rather as a challenge and task to achieve an “over-man,” that, failing, threatened to result in a nihilistic dead-end of “the last man” instead. Marx regarded Spencerian liberalism as an example of the decrepitude of bourgeois-revolutionary thought in decadence. Marx’s son-in-law, the French socialist Paul Lafargue, wrote, just after Marx’s death, against Spencer’s “bourgeois pessimism”, to which he offered a Marxist optimism.1 Such Marxism fulfilled Nietzsche’s “pessimism of the strong.” By the late 19th century, Marxists could be confident about transcending bourgeois society. Not so today.

Spencer’s distinction of “militant” vs “industrial” society (The principles of sociology Vol 2, 1879-98) – that is to say, the distinction of traditional civilization vs bourgeois society – is still, unfortunately, quite pertinent today, and illuminates a key current blind-spot on the ostensible ‘left’, especially regarding the phenomenon of war. Spencer followed the earlier classical liberal Benjamin Constant’s observation (‘The liberty of the ancients as compared with that of the moderns’ 1816) that moderns get through commerce what the ancients got through war; and that for moderns war is always regrettable and indeed largely unjustifiably criminal, whereas for ancients war was virtuous – among the very highest virtues. Do we moderns sacrifice ourselves for the preservation and glory of our specific “culture,” as “militants” do, or rather dedicate ourselves to social activity that facilitates universal freedom – a value unknown to the ancients? Does the future belong to the constant warfare of particular cultural differences, or to human society? Marx thought the latter.

The question is whether we think that we will fight or, rather, exchange and produce our way to freedom. Is freedom to be achieved through “militant” or rather “industrial” society? Marx assumed the latter.

When we seek to extol our political leaders today, we do not depict them driving a tank but waking at 5 o’clock and staying up past midnight to do society’s business. We do not speak of their scars earned in combat but their grey hairs accumulated in office. Not enjoying the spoils of war on a dais but getting in their daily morning jog to remain fit for work. We judge them not as cunning warriors but as diligent workers – and responsible negotiators. In our society, it is not the matter of a battle to win but a job to do. Carl Schmitt thought that this has led to our dehumanization. But few would agree.

What would have appeared commonplace to Spencer’s contemporary critics, such as Nietzsche and Marx, must strike us today, rather, as profoundly insightful and indeed critical of our society. This is due to the historical regression of politics and society since Marx’s time, and, moreover, to the liquidation of Marxism. What Marx would have regarded as fatally one-sided and undialectical in Spencer, would today seem adequate to the prevailing condition, in the absence of the Marxist-Hegelian dialectic. The Marxist critique of liberalism has been rendered moot, not in the sense of liberalism’s actual social supersession but by historical regression. Society has fallen below the historical threshold of not only socialism but of classical liberalism – of bourgeois emancipation itself. Not only have we fallen below the criteria of Kant and Hegel that surpassed 18th century empiricism, we have fallen below its 19th century successor, positivism, as well. The question is the status today of liberalism as ideology. It is utopian. As Adorno put it, it is both promise and sham.

Militant and industrial tendencies confront each other today not as different societies, but as opposed aspects of the same society, however contradictorily and antagonistically, in capitalism. Similarly, the phases of “religious,” “metaphysical” and “positive” forms do not succeed one another sequentially in a linear development but rather interact in a dynamic of social history. What Spencer regarded as regressive “metaphysics” remains valid in capitalism, as “ideology” calling for dialectical critique. We cannot now claim to address problems in the clear air of enlightenment.

If Adorno, for instance, critiqued sociological “positivism,” this was not as a romantic anti-positivist such as Max Weber, but rather as a critique of positive sociology as ideology in capitalism. For Adorno, positivism and Heideggerian ontology, as well as Weberian “cultural sociology,” opposed each other in an antinomy of capitalism that would be overcome not in one principle triumphing over another, but rather in the antinomy itself being succeeded dialectically in freedom. Weber denied freedom; whereas Spencer assumed it. Both avoided the specific problem of capitalism. To take a condition of unfreedom for freedom is the most salient phenomenon of ideology. This is what falsified positivism as liberal enlightenment, its false sense of freedom as already achieved that still actually tasked society. Freedom is not to be taken as an achieved state but a goal of struggle.

An emancipated society would be “positivist” – enlightened and liberal – in ways that under capitalism can only be ideologically false and misleading. Positivism should therefore be understood as a desirable goal beyond rather than a possibility under capitalism. The problem with Herbert Spencer is that he took capitalism – grasped partially and inadequately as bourgeois emancipation – to be a condition of freedom that would need yet to be really achieved. If “metaphysics,” contra positivism, remains valid in capitalism, then this is as a condition to be overcome. Capitalist metaphysics is a real symptom of unfreedom. Positivism treats this as merely an issue of mistaken thinking, or to be worked out through “scientific” methodology, whereas it is actually a problem of society requiring political struggle. The antinomy of positivism vs metaphysics is not partisan but social. As Adorno observed, the same individual could and would be scientifically positivist and philosophically ontological-existentialist.

Spencer’s opposition to “socialism” in the 19th century was in its undeniable retrograde illiberal aspect, what Marx called “reactionary socialism.” But Marx offered a perspective on potentially transcending socialism’s one-sidedness in capitalism. Spencer was entirely unaware of this Marxian dialectic. Marx agreed with Spencer on the conservative-reactionary and regressive character of socialism. Marx offered a dialectic of socialism and liberalism presented by their symptomatic and diagnostic antinomy in capitalism that pointed beyond itself. 18th century liberalism’s insufficiency to the 19th century problem of capitalism necessitated socialist opposition; but liberalism still offered a critique of socialism that would need to be fulfilled to be transcended, and not dismissed let alone defeated as such.

Only in overcoming capitalism through socialism could, as Marx put it, humanity face its condition “with sober senses.” This side of emancipation from capital, humanity remains trapped in a “phantasmagoria” of bourgeois social relations become self-contradictory and self-destructive in capital. This phantasmagoria was both collective and individual – socialist and liberal – in character. Spencer naturalized this antinomy. His libertarian anti-statism and its broad, popular political appeal down through the 20th century was the necessary result of the continuation of capitalism and its discontents.

Spencer regarded the problem as a historical holdover of traditional civilization to be left behind rather than as the new condition of bourgeois society in capitalist crisis that Marx recognised needed to be, but could not be, overcome in Spencer’s liberal terms. Marx agreed with Spencer on the goal, but differed, crucially, over the nature of the obstacle and, hence, how to get there from here. Not only Spencer’s later followers (more egregiously than Spencer himself), but Marx’s own, have falsified this task. It has been neglected and abandoned. We cannot assume as Marx did that we are already past Spencer’s classical liberalism, but are driven back to it, ineluctably, whether we realize it or not. Only by returning to the assumptions of classical liberalism can we understand Marx’s critique of it. The glare of Marx’s tomb at Highgate stares down upon a very determinate object. If one disappears, they both do. | §


Note

1. www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1884/06/herbert-spencer.htm

Phantasmagoria

Chris Cutrone

rowlandsonthomas_phantasmagoriasatire1810
(Thomas Rowlandson, political satire with phantasmagoria show [c. 1810])

Letter in Weekly Worker 1075 (September 24, 2015). [PDF] Rex Dunn replied in Weekly Worker 1076 on (October 1, 2015). [PDF]

Rex Dunn (‘No to “Marxist art”,’ September 17) replies to my letter on ‘Marxism and art’ (September 3) to invoke Adorno, but only partially and critically. And undialectically.

I think it is a mistake to try to adjudicate Marxism on the basis of postmodernist categories, such as ‘essentialism’ versus ‘anti-essentialism’ and ‘structuralism’ or ‘post-structuralism’. Marxism is none of these. They are too beholden to the New Left’s concerns, and neglect the older, deeper history. Such antinomies of postmodernism are nonetheless potentially related to what Marx called the “phantasmagoria” of capitalism, in which cause and effect and means and ends become confused and reversed.

As Adorno wrote to Benjamin about capitalism, “The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness … perfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria.”

While this may seem terribly abstract, it does say something about art and capitalism, as well as the struggle for socialism. Socialism is a symptom of capitalism, as is modern art. It is capitalism’s unrealised potential, necessarily distorted as it is constrained. But to regard that potential properly means returning to the bourgeois-emancipatory character of art in the modern world. It will appear ‘inhuman’.

While humans may have always made art, they did not always make art as an ‘end in itself’. Like production for its own sake, art for art’s sake is a bourgeois value, but one perverted by capitalism. Its ideal remains – as Dunn himself acknowledges with his vision of a socialist homo aestheticus.

So this is why it becomes necessary to follow modern art, as Adorno did, in an “immanently dialectical” method of “critique”. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory seems general and unsatisfactory because it remains a meta-theoretical statement that should have been unnecessary from the standpoint of his concrete critical essays on art and literature. Yet it was still necessary for him (to try) to write. Why?

Adorno’s concrete essays have apparently sometimes given the mistaken impression that he was a partisan for some art over others. Dialectical critique was mistaken for polemic. That’s why Adorno also sometimes appears to equivocate: the dialectic is lost.

That is the problem with the apparent oppositions of postmodernism that actually share something in common that is unacknowledged: that the antinomies of society in capitalism point beyond themselves. So does art.

Socialism will not mean returning to pre-bourgeois ‘art’, but fulfilling the freedom of art, announced, but betrayed and mocked, by bourgeois society in capitalism. That will mean going beyond art in capitalism, but in ways neither Aristotle nor Adorno nor Kant nor Hegel nor Marx himself – nor we ourselves – would quite recognise.

Adorno, like Trotsky, whose Literature and Revolution (1924) and other writings on art and culture were profoundly inspirational for him, did not prescribe what a true – free – ‘human culture’ would be, but recognised the need to struggle in, through and beyond capitalism – beyond art – on the basis of capitalism, to make it possible. | §

Marxism and art

Chris Cutrone

Letter in Weekly Worker 1072 (September 3, 2015). [PDF] Rex Dunn responded in Weekly Worker 1074 (September 17, 2015). [PDF]

Marxism cannot definitively judge, let alone prescribe, and also cannot tie down art to its (supposed) context of production. But Marxism can raise consciousness of history and historical potential for social change – in all domains.

Clement Greenberg defined ‘avant-garde’ art as having a “superior consciousness of [the] history [of art]”, where ‘kitsch’ elides that. But the necessity of such consciousness is a symptom of the need to overcome capitalism. We may need avant-garde art now, but its criteria didn’t apply before capitalism and so won’t apply (in the same way) after capitalism.

This is what Howard Phillips shies away from in condemning “transcendence” – even while also writing that good art should “point beyond” its context (‘Dylan and the dead’, August 13). As Adorno wrote, art is the attempt to make something without knowing what it is. In other words, art goes beyond theoretical understanding or analysis through concepts, and so must be experienced aesthetically. That aesthetic experience can either affirm society as it is or point beyond it. Often it does both. Art is dialectical – as anything under capitalism.

Certainly one can essay at what makes art good or bad. But the art itself cannot be reduced to such theoretical essaying. As Walter Benjamin put it, art that doesn’t teach artists teaches no-one.

Specialisation is necessary: critics are not artists; artists are not politicians. There are important interrelations among art, criticism and politics, but they are not the same thing. Marx’s Capital was not a work of economics or even of political economy, but rather a (political) critique of political economy. Such critique pointing beyond existing social conditions, with consciousness of potential historical change (ie, beyond the law of the value of labour) could indeed be attempted in any domain (eg, in the physical sciences), but would remain speculative, provisional and disputable. The dialectic is unfinished.

The question is whether Marxist theoretical critique helps potential possibilities – both within and pointing beyond capitalism – become better realised in practice. That effect will always be indirect or oblique. Critical theory is not prescriptive or programmatic, but it is critical. Good critical theory can have some – however indirect and weak, but still productive – effect on the practices of art: on its production and consumption.

But, above all, we need not Marxist art or theory, but Marxist politics. Without that there is only pseudo-theory (pseudo-critique), pseudo-art (ie, kitsch: art without historical consciousness), and pseudo-politics.

The problem with Stalinism, in art as in all other domains, was not in its authoritarianism, but in its opportunist adaptation to the status quo (which required authoritarian enforcement), at the expense of more radical possibilities for changing society. | §

“Off-piste”

leninskiingzimmerwald

Letter in Weekly Worker 1031 (October 23, 2014).

In writing this letter on Chris Cutrone’s critique of Mike Macnair’s book Revolutionary strategy (‘Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital’, October 16), I am fully aware that: (a) Mike is probably considering a reply himself; (b) comparing a full-length book with a two-page article is potentially inherently unfair to the latter; and (c) that I am perhaps not the best qualified person to enter the debate, having only recently come to a serious engagement with issues of Marxist political strategy. Nevertheless, I thought it might be worth sharing how a comparison of the two has impressionistically struck a ‘general reader’.

Macnair’s approach has the following virtues that appear lacking in Cutrone’s account: (a) it is relatively comprehensible; (b) it appears rooted in a close reading of concrete historical events (aka ‘the materialist conception of history’), whereas Cutrone appears to wander off-piste into free-floating philosophising, bordering on the worst of post-modernism; (c) Macnair offers concrete proposals as to what the Marxist left should be doing in the here and now, whereas Cutrone appears to be promoting a deeply depressing view of the proletariat as still primarily the passive victim of history.

Sean Thurlough
London

Revolutionary politics and thought (forum transcript)

Chris Cutrone, Samir Gandesha, Nikos Malliaris, Dimitrios Roussopoulos, Joseph Schwartz

Platypus Review 69 | September 2014

 

“No coarser insult, no baser defamation, can be thrown against the workers than the remark, ‘Theoretical controversies are for the intellectuals’“
— Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution? (1900)

 

“Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement the only choice is—either bourgeois or socialist ideology… This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology. They take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons and Weitlings; in other words, they take part only when they are able, and to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge.“
— Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done? (1902)

 

“The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice.”
— Adorno, Negative Dialectics (1966)

 

In the 1840s Karl Marx wrote that social revolution would involve “carrying out the thoughts of the past,” in which “humanity begins no new work but consciously completes the old work”. The role of revolutionary thought for Marx, in other words, involved drawing attention to how past revolutionary tasks were failing to be worked through in present political practice; of understanding the reasons why theory and practice had changed and, in turn, how this understanding could be advanced towards the (present) completion of the (old) revolution.

Later, for Lenin and Luxemburg, political disputes in the Second International revolved around the failings of revolutionary practice. Luxemburg and Lenin seemed optimistic about revolutionary thought being carried out by the practices of mass political movements for socialism. They assumed that workers could act as “socialist theoreticians” while participating in revolutionary politics.

In the 1960s, figures like C. Wright Mills retrospectively assessed the emergence of the intelligentsia as “distinct and historically specific,” locating the political role of figures such as Lenin and Luxemburg as a phenomenon of the development of modern society. But Mills was wistful: he recognized that political-intellectual figures like Luxemburg and Lenin were missing in his time. What does the current role of intellectuals say about the historical disappearance of the kind of political possibilities Mills had in mind?

While the separation of revolutionary thinking and politics might seem more distinct in the present, with “theory” being relegated to universities, and “practice” to social movements, it seems increasingly common for academic work motivated from the Left to blur the boundary between theory and social movements. While this state of affairs may seem to approach the sentiment articulated by Luxemburg, that there be nothing separating theoretical issues from the people struggling to overcome their condition, it does so without the emergence of corresponding political practices that would transcend the present. Alternatively, other currents of theory, among both independent intellectuals and organized political tendencies, seem completely severed from everyday social practice and so harmless as subcultural activities. Theory today seems to either assert the primacy of practice, leaving no recourse but to take up practical discontents as inalienable in thinking, or is so entirely cut off from practical concerns that it seems sustainable only in the academy. Revolutionary thinking, no less than revolutionary practice, seems hard to locate in the present.

This discussion will reflect on the relationship between revolutionary politics and thinking in the past and present and ask why has it become increasingly difficult to render political life intellectual and intellectual life political today? Panelists will consider the historical role of revolutionary theory as a moment of revolutionary politics, and the ways in which thinking can be held responsible for politics, and politics held responsible for thinking.

 

On April 5th, 2014, at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Platypus hosted a panel discussion with Chris Cutrone (Platypus), Samir Gandesha (Simon Fraser University), Nikos Malliaris (Lieux Communs), Dimitrios Roussopoulos (Transnational Institute of Social Ecology), and Joseph Schwartz (Temple University). This discussion reflected on the relationship between revolutionary politics and thinking in the past and present, and asked why has it become increasingly difficult to render political life intellectual and intellectual life political today. The event’s description as well as the questions to the panelists can be found here. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.

 

Opening remarks

Nikos Malliaris: In my opinion, the major political issue of our times, that which constitutes at the same time the goal of all emancipatory or revolutionary politics, is the following: How can we exit consumer society? How can we exit this type of society that is based on productivism and technophilia, with cultural liberalism as its official ideology? It is precisely this type of society that forms the culmination of capitalism, and more broadly, of western modernity itself.

I am deliberately using the term “exit,” instead of a more classical term such as “overthrow,” because I believe that this type of understanding and analyzing contemporary social conditions and political priorities determines the way we conceive of revolutionary politics today. Moreover, a radical critique of contemporary society should be at the same time political and cultural, since the problem is not simply socio-economic, but deeply anthropological. In other words, it affects the very way people interiorize and invest in institutions and social representation, the very way contemporary societies are being formed and reproduced. For the first time in the history of emancipatory and revolutionary movements, what we face as a political task is not any more just the overthrowing of an exploitative or oppressive society, but the very reinvention of Society as such, with a capital “S.” We have to deal with something more than the problem of exploitation or oppression: the vaster and deeper problem of social and cultural decadence. Not only natural ecosystems have suffered terrible degradation after 200 years of industrial and technological progress, and economic growth. Both society itself, as a form of meaningful human coexistence, as well as the human being as a creative and imaginative creature, have been degraded at such a scale that the contemporary world seems to be an endless process of dislocation and disintegration on all levels.

People cannot find any meaning other than ferocious consumption, whether of merchandise, services, or experiences. Society seems less and less capable of imposing minor forms of limitations to these excesses of the contemporary individual. Nor can it set any to the frenetic course of technology and economy, both of which have become separated from society, raising their expansion to an end in itself. What we need is an unprecedented social transformation, which will by far exceed the simple redistribution of wealth and its concomitant modification of modes of production. Without a profound transformation of human values, social representations, and collective beliefs, no real progress can be made in the direction of an egalitarian and democratic society. This is the case because the major social evolution of the 20th century, and especially of its postwar period, was the gradual proselytizing and conversion of exploited classes to the consumer ethos. People actively want and cherish consumption, since what they dream of is a selfish improvement of their position in the social hierarchy. Long gone is the glorious epoch of social movements opposed the existing society, fighting for the creation of a more democratic and humane one. The labor movement slowly transformed itself into a big lobby that wanted nothing more than the amelioration of workers material conditions. Radical artistic and intellectual movements degenerated into a playful ornament of consumer society, celebrating the pseudo-liberty of the contemporary individual by elevating cultural relativism and political nihilism to ultimate philosophical principles.

As they intermingle with the mounting ecological crisis, the anthropological consequences of such social and cultural decline call for a total reinterpretation of our collective and individual needs. There can be no serious or coherent anti-capitalist engagement today that does not see itself as part of a far greater opposition, one to what Karl Polanyi called “the Great Transformation.” This is the elevation of the economy to an autonomous sphere that dominates society, imposing its norms and values on every other region and domain of social life. Consumer society is just the degenerate form of this economism and its concomitant technophilia.

As far as Marx’s ideas on the duty of revolutionary theory and politics to consciously complete the old work, I would say things are no longer so simple. In many ways, present day necessities force us to criticize and even reject a great part of what the labor movement, the modernist artistic and cultural avant-garde, and the student movements of the 60’s said and did. And it goes without saying that such a change of anthropological paradigm necessitates a profound unity of theory and praxis, together with our fight against the neoliberal counterattack from the ruling oligarchies, as well as the mounting far-right movements. We have to rethink traditional revolutionary values and ways of thinking, as well as reflect on the form that a democratic and egalitarian society could take in this unprecedented context. As Castoriadis used to say, “Revolutionary politics can only have meaning as a thoughtful doing.”

Political currents such as the French “de-growth” movement offer a vivid example of the difficulties such an enterprise would face. One of the most eminent is the academicization of intellectual life, part of the profound technicalization of social life that characterizes contemporary Western societies. Thinking becomes a separated domain, a realm reserved for a certain category of experts, usually state or corporate nourished, living enclosed behind the gates of their university ghetto. Unfortunately, this eminently oligarchic tendency hasn’t spurred the Left at all. Its Leninist and technophilic heritage gave birth in the 50s to an army of professional would-be prophets, who wanted to teach revolutionary politics without having ever participated in the least political activity. This is a tendency dominant in France, for example. Judging from this point of view, the Althusserian distinction between romantic and scientific parts of Marxism is really useful for us—even if Althusser proposed it in a completely different context, and in a schematic and simplistic manner. As an orthodox Marxist and Stalinist, and also part of the upper and most oligarchic strata of the French academic complex, Althusser wanted to transform Marxism into a rigorous science. He wanted to transform a revolutionary theory that called for the surpassing of itself as pure theory, into a pseudo-science of social evolution. By doing so he only showed how immersed he was in the dominant bourgeois and rationalistic worldview. But what is more important, he showed us that this goes not only for Marx, but also for anarchism. See for example the fondness of Bakunin for August Comte’s positivism.

I believe that we have to openly oppose this stratum of pseudo-revolutionary academics, people like Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, and Edward Said, who are considered as the major thinkers of the Left nowadays. This stratum does nothing more than spread confusionist ideologies and destroy the activity of radical thinking by presenting it as a cascade of incomprehensible and unreadable rhetorical tricks. We have to echo Lyotard and attack the separation of intellectual from manual labor as the very basis of bourgeois and even aristocratic social edifices. Thinking should be reintegrated into social life, as it was in older times. I dare to say that we need something like, as William Morris might say, an artisan or craft ethos, which denies any distinction between intellectual and manual. This would both insinuate the intellectual into the material and the concrete, and raise the manual to a creative and thoughtful activity.

 

Dimitrios Roussopolous: The word “revolution” or “revolutionary” in the context of this conference is problematic for a number of reasons. One is that we do not have the time to really define this word. I would like to put it aside, and substitute the word “radical” instead, as in “radical politics.” The definition of “politics” that I will use is one that suggests that the radical or fundamental transformation of society by a decentralization of political and economic power, and its widest dispersal throughout society. What I will say draws from two theoretical streams. One is the anarchist and libertarian stream that draws on the works and reflections of Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford, Paul Goodman, and Murray Bookchin. The second is the Marxist stream that draws from the works of Henri Lefebvre, Margit Meyer, Peter Marcuse, and David Harvey. This leads me to the core of the radical project in theory and practice, as I understand it. What I believe is seriously missing in the reconstruction of a radical Left is a geopolitical understanding and analysis of what is possible. This means we must examine our world as strategically as possible, and take a number of fundamental facts into serious consideration, and bring it into the center of our reflection.

One of the United Nations agencies is called, as you know, UN-Habitat. UN-Habitat has identified a number of cities as global cities—about 47 of them. These cities are determined as concentrated nodules of corporate capitalism. It is these global cities that the major multinational corporations work out of, make their decisions, and dominate the world economy. To the extent that this is true, we then have to introduce another factor into our analysis. We all know that in 2003, one of the most important historic shifts has taken place with regard to human civilization. For the first time in history, the majority of human beings that inhabit this planet are now living in cities and towns. Grasping this reality has very serious political and social consequences for any radical project, any project that pretends to want to reorganize daily life. And so, unless we take that perspective seriously, and look at what can be done in the face of massive urbanization—which will reach a critical point by 2025—and unless we grasp what that means for the daily life of the people who live in these cities and towns, and unless we have an understanding of what kind of radical politics can arise from this understanding, so that we can shift power in a significant way, I think we are misleading ourselves.

As an intellectual if one never seriously undertakes work on the ground— work in neighborhoods, communities, and cities, with ordinary people, dealing with the politics of everyday life—we will never be able to crystallize a social force that will confront the existing power structure in significant ways. Let me give you just one example: In 1968, in the city that I live in, Montreal, a developer announced that they were going to destroy a six-block area of downtown in order to create the city of the 21st century. The funding for that project came from the Rockefeller Foundation, the pension fund of British postal workers, and a huge international insurance company. We undertook a major struggle that took eleven years for us to win. And we won. We not only saved the neighborhood—which is inhabited by approximately 1,500 working poor and déclassé people—but created the largest non-profit cooperative housing project in North America. Even more significantly, within that six-block area, we abolished private property. I repeat: we abolished private property through a land trust. If you can possibly imagine this, there can be no buying and selling of property in a six-block downtown area of a major city in Canada. This is what I am trying to suggest. By taking into serious consideration a geopolitical perspective, and asking how power can shift at the base of society, we can zero in on strategies that not only affect the daily lives of people, but mobilize them to go even further in their demands for participation in decision-making processes in the urban milieux where power is concentrated.

Try to imagine, therefore, what radical politics spin off from that. Emerging out of this particular people’s victory, and subsequent people’s victories in other parts of the city, we began a process to fundamentally redefine political power in the city of Montreal. We introduced a number of radical political institutions, which involved public consultation, the advocacy of citizen rights, and a new definition of urban citizenship. We have done this in conjunction with allies and contacts in other cities both in Canada and internationally. There is a whole reconfiguration of grassroots politics that is taking place that we have to be aware of. This is what I want to bring to your attention.

 

Samir Gandesha: I’d like to preface my remarks by referring to something that Dimitrios said in a previous panel, which is that we should wipe the slate clean and talk about how to bring about radical, direct democracy. This panel has been framed with signal figures of the revolutionary tradition like Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, and Adorno. But it could benefit from counter-readings of the tradition by Italian autonomist writers like Paolo Virno, Antonio Negri, and Michael Hardt, and also the fragment on the machine in the Grundrisse. They frame the question somewhat differently. I’m not saying I agree with this tradition: It fails quite abjectly in registering the extent to which the Left is in crisis, and therefore it can’t really address the prospects in store for a reversal of this situation. The emphasis on immaterial labor fails curiously to account for what one social critic once called the “falling rate of intelligence,” which seems only to be getting worse. It may seem easy to dismiss, e.g., Hardt & Negri’s ideas as stemming exclusively from the “university ghetto.” But this is difficult to say even for Negri, given his own militant past and the organic relation between the Italian Autonomists and actual workers’ struggles.

In order for this discussion to be meaningful, it must engage with debates taking place today; not just wrestle with the ghosts of 1848, 1917, and 1968—important as those dates, and figures like Lenin, Trotsky, and Adorno may be. One reason for this is that the nature of capitalism has been fundamentally altered by techno-science: both qua productive force, and as the basis for countering labor militancy through forced redundancy, de-skilling, and redoubled forms of surveillance. This has in a contradictory way opened up new avenues for communication and organization, ones Marx was already praising the bourgeoisie for in the Communist Manifesto. His emphasis on communications in particular was really important, and has an actuality that needs to be grasped. We see the extent to which new communications technologies made possible opposition movements like in Iran with the Green Movement in 2009, and the Arab Spring in 2011.

I wish I could agree in a straightforward way that revolutionary theory and practice would primarily be about consciously completing the old work of social emancipation. I take this to be what Marx is suggesting in his letter to Ruge.1 He writes of redeeming a reason that has “always existed, but not always in a rational form,” and that this “reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.” In other words, Marx held that the revolution was to be understood as the completion of the bourgeois project, which had only realized itself in a one-sided political way. The rational form of reason must be defined by its ability to arrest and reverse the chaos of unbridled market forces, which threaten life on this planet as we know it. For Marx, a rational form of reason entailed a de-mystification and de-alienation of social relations, by way of a negation of every instance of immediacy. Quintessentially, this immediacy was that of the commodity form, and bourgeois conceptions of freedom and equality. The two come together at the very end of Chapter 6 of Capital, marking the transition from the moment of exchange of commodities to that of production. What Marx had in mind was an immanent critique of bourgeois social relations. It was through what he called making petrified relations “dance by singing their own tune to them”2 that the promises inherent within capitalism could be realized, i.e., the actual realization of a principle of justice, understood as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”3

But during the crisis of the early decades of the 20th century, the social contradiction between capital and wage labor failed to generate a revolutionary transformation of capitalist societies. The key reason for such a failure, which Lukacs had already recognized in the aftermath of the German and Hungarian revolutions, was the phenomenon of reification. Mystification could not simply be overcome via transformation of the scene of exchange, because the fetishistic logic of capitalism had penetrated deeply into every nook and cranny of life. This especially included philosophical concepts, which lead to seemingly insoluble antinomies and oppositions. When these antinomies were overcome, it was only in thought, and not in practice. According to Lukács, this would only happen in the revolutionary activity of the proletariat, which would finally, in the words of Marx, “make the world philosophical.”iv However, rather than making the real abstraction of the commodity form concrete, through the grasping of itself as the identical subject-object of history, what happened instead one could call a “false” concretion of the abstract logic of capital. The stranger, the other, emphatically not capital, became understood as the alien power dominating the life-worlds of European societies in the midst of an unprecedented economic and social crisis, leading to the radical particularism of fascism. We see the ghosts of fascism currently haunting Europe, particularly in Lukács’ native Hungary in the form of the rabidly anti-semitic Jobbik party.

Adorno implicitly invokes this scenario in the opening sentence of Negative Dialectics, where he says: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”4 Given that its subject and object were already mediated, or related to one another, theoretical reflection—particularly that which sought to locate the limits of theory, what Adorno called “thinking conceptually beyond the concept”—was itself a form of praxis.5 This he made clear in his “Idea of Natural History,” which, in my view, must form at least part of the starting-point for the discussion of the relation of thought and action. It gains renewed importance in light of the ecological crisis, which is not only fast approaching, but already here. Adorno articulated a vision of the relation between nature on the one side, and history on the other, which inverted the typical understanding of the relation between the two terms. Nature at its most natural became historical, while history at its most historical reverted into a kind of “second nature.” Nature, typically understood as the unchanging, became the site of the new. History, supposedly the site of novelty, and epoch-making events like the French Revolution, became the realm of the always-the-same, as capitalism is able to come to grips with its own crisis tendencies. It is possible to see in the idea of natural history a new geological epoch following the Holocene, called the “Anthropocene.” This acknowledges the massive impact of human activity, which already does and continues to have an impact on the earth and its transformations. This transformation of natural ecology is itself premised on a history that has been flattened and reified by capitalist social relations. As has recently been suggested by Frederic Jameson, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world”—that is, the new—“than to imagine the end of capitalism”—that is, the always-the-same.6

How this plays itself out concretely can be understood through the recently released IPCC report. It suggests that the first real manifestation of global climate change will be in the area of water and food security, which will of course hit the poorest nations first. I was talking to Tarek Shalaby about Egypt, where we see tremendous sensitivity by the Egyptian people to the grinding poverty that afflicts their everyday life. Reductions, for example, in bread, oil, and fuel subsidies, played a key role in political mobilization in the run-up to the revolution in 2011. Ongoing desertification of the Nile valley brought about by global climate change will no doubt exacerbate an already precarious situation.

Given the urgency of the IPCC report, we do well to go back to Rosa Luxemburg slogan of “socialism or barbarism.”7 This does not indicate simply a transition to socialism, as the productive forces burst asunder increasingly antiquated production relations. It also contains a critique of historical progress as we see in Benjamin and Adorno, whereby the only progress that is imaginable is a shattering of the very logic of progress. The expanded development of the productive forces eventuates in a self-preservation run wild, a logic that ultimately undermines itself insofar as it fails to secure a key condition of capitalism, the reproduction not just of labor-power, but of sensuous nature itself. It is for this reason that Adorno calls for a ‘second Copernican revolution’, one that leads away from the primacy of the subject qua Kant, Hegel, and also Marx, towards the primacy of the object. Based on such assumptions, I will conclude with the following: Emancipation would entail the freedom not only of the subject, but also of the object. It would reject productivist versions of Marxism, favoring what Adorno calls a “communication” between subject and object, and a condition of peace between the two.

 

Joseph Schwartz: I probably will be a bit more explicitly political and policy-oriented than the previous speakers. One of the weaknesses in a lot of social theory today, particularly in its post-structuralist forms, is that we really don’t think seriously about political economy. We don’t use the analytic and normative tools of social theory to look at the actual dynamics of a society, both its barriers to emancipation and also its possibilities. In that spirit, I would suggest that, in a certain sense, Marxism as a theory has always been in crisis. I take very seriously the implicit ethical import of Marx, in the sense that anyone who is a democrat has to be against exploitation and domination in the workplace, or any intersubjective human relations. We believe there should be democratic control over the social surplus, and the labor process—as Michael Burawoy always says, “who gets what” and “who does what.” The democratic vision is really that there should not be a divide in society between those who define its tasks, and those who carry them out. We do still have a very rigid division of labor in many arenas of social life, between those who set the tasks, and those who are dominated and forced to carry them out.

Marxism is an incredibly seductive social theory because it promises a theory of history, social structure, and agency that culminates in a teleological revolution. The Marxist insight—which I think is partly true, but it has never been fully fulfilled—is that because labor under capitalism is an interdependent social process, but one governed a-socially or hierarchically, democratizing that control over production would be the goal of the proletariat, as it became conscious of itself not only as a class in production (in itself), but as a conscious revolutionary class (for-itself). The only problem is that in its most powerful forms, in the types of bourgeois-democratic capitalist societies that Marx thought would give rise to revolution, to the extent to which the labor movement or the socialist movement had a mass impact up through the 60’s-70’s, it was much more reformist than revolutionary. I think we have to take seriously the arguments made as early as the 1920’s by e.g. Selig Perlman, that in a certain sense, workers have more than their chains to lose, and therefore are often more reformist when engaged in social struggle than revolutionary. Where workers have been more revolutionary is in those countries subjected to imperial domination, and the rapid industrialization of a predominantly peasant society—say, workers in Shanghai in the 1920’s, or workers in Petrograd and Moscow at the turn of the 20th century. However, these lacked the mass industrial base that Marx had said was a prerequisite for the transition to socialism.

One thing we have to deal with is that whatever Lenin or Trotsky said about the revolution, Marxist-Leninist parties have mostly governed as engines of state-led primitive accumulation. If you think this is a joke, I grew up with a mother who still thinks the Soviet Union was a great society until this guy Gorbachöv came along. She would always say that Stalinism was like American slavery: “Where are you going to get a surplus from unless you exploit people? We had to do it.” That’s the traditional defense: read Sartre, or Merleau-Ponty in his earlier formation. The justification for Stalinist rule was that you had to extract surplus from Kulaks, and even from workers, by starving them and working them hard. Otherwise you couldn’t industrialize. The Marxist view is that the proletariat, increasingly interdependent in production, would also become increasingly consciously revolutionary in subjective activity. But the objective and the subjective dynamics of Marxism never fully met.

In a certain sense that’s kind of what Gramsci struggles with; I think Gramsci is the 1,000 lb. gorilla that we aren’t talking about. Not just his concept of consent, or his view that the common sense of working people was not revolutionary, but not totally false. Take a common-sense view like: “If you do better in school, or you work harder on average, your life will be better.” Obviously this profoundly ignores the forms of class and cultural reproduction that go on in education, or in the labor-force. But on the other hand, there is a certain partial degree of truth in it. From a Gramscian analysis, there is even a partial degree of truth, again masking a profound falsehood, in what we have been dealing with. The mass support for neoliberalism has been from the ability to hive off a certain sector (mostly non-unionized) of the white working class, based on some common sense views. First, that taxes are too high. They’re not too high on corporations or the affluent. But because of a flat-rate Social Security tax, the regressive nature of property taxes, and a generally not very progressive tax structure, working-class people do pay too much in taxes.

The right wildly exaggerates the amount of funds that went to means-tested anti-poverty programs. We all know that. Not just white working-class people, but e.g., African-American or Latino families that were above the poverty line, resented the fact that we don’t have universal childcare, and we still don’t have universal healthcare. People below the poverty line got Medicaid. If they got aid to families with dependent children (it is almost impossible to get temporary aid for needy families) it was well below the means of subsistence. The dirty little secret is that people on AFDC always took in other people’s children, worked off the books, etc.. But again, we have to understand that the consciousness of the resentment, the means-tested welfare state, wasn’t totally crazy. We don’t analyze enough the relationship between common sense, and what we would call a more radical or revolutionary, “good” sense. I think there’s a lot of insight we can get from Marx, say about the present crisis, which one of overproduction and overconsumption. It is a crisis of financialization, which is what Marx predicted would occur if the rate of profit fell. But the revolutionary project that comes out of that is problematized in the current period of the weakness of the entire Left. The reason why we get these flash insurgencies in the most squeezed countries—e.g., in parts of Latin America and southern Europe, or in the U.S.—is that there is a tremendous realization that basic human needs aren’t being met, and that people’s lives are being decimated by austerity and neoliberalism. But there is no real faith in an alternative.

What are the governing models of the Marxist, socialist, tradition? On the one hand, there is top-down industrialization in developing countries. On the other hand, there is social democracy, which did not ultimately yield a strong enough, radical enough labor movement. Once profits got squeezed in the early 70’s, they couldn’t face the neoliberal attack on the institutions of labor, democratic forms of state environmental and financial regulations, etc. These attacks were successful, and obviously for politically pragmatic but ultimately disastrous reasons, the leadership of social democracy certainly moved to the right and becomes neoliberalized—including in the Democratic party leadership in America. They claim to understand now that you can’t have restrictions on labor markets as you used to, or on freedom of capital. It’s not clear: We have an alternative—democratic control over social surplus, extensive de-commodification of basic human needs, curtailment of the working life, and some form of a guaranteed income—but we don’t have a party or a vehicle to establish it.

Capitalism is incredibly productive, so why are we working longer, and talking about extending the working life? Today in the United States, 300,000 auto-workers make as many cars as 1.8 million did in 1970. That’s how much productivity has increased with robotization, etc.. Why aren’t we benefitting from that? Why aren’t we working less? This obviously has to do with the fact that capitalists control the accumulation process.

In theorizing reformist practice, if you don’t think its revolutionary enough, I don’t really care. In some ways I have Trotsky’s view, wherever there is fascism, socialists fight for the rights of slaves. I don’t think there is fascism now, and I’m not saying we have slavery, but we have a low wage near enslaved labor. We have student debt-peonage. We have immigrants who do a major amount of care work, and who ought to have immediate citizenship for themselves and their children. We have a public education system that is totally shot through by class and racial inequalities, and is being privatized in the city as we speak. There are plenty of struggles that socialists have to be involved in, because I think we have to be involved in any struggle for the rights of the demos against the rights of the oligarchs.

 

Chris Cutrone: The last 20th century was characterized as one of wars and revolutions. I would like to re-characterize it slightly, to a century of war and revolution, singular. The 20th century was the century of the crisis of capitalism, and that crisis was expressed through war and revolution. Hannah Arendt’s 1962 book On Revolution begins its discussion of politics with an introduction on “War and Revolution,” offering that these were the two paramount political issues of the day, after all ideological justifications handed down from the 19th century, such as nationalism, capitalism and socialism or communism, had faded.

Arendt began her discussion, properly, with Lenin: Lenin, who called for turning the “world war” among national states into a global “civil war” between the workers and the capitalists—it almost happened. Lenin represented to Arendt the opposition of revolution to war. It is said that a Nazi diplomat once quipped that the only beneficiary of WWII would be Trotsky. For most of the 20th century, this is what was assumed, that war was the failure of politics, and that the political failure of the ruling class in war would lead to social revolution. This was once a reasonable assumption that we cannot however share today, for the political issues of the revolution, while not going away, have been driven underground, no longer manifesting as politics. Arendt’s fears have been confirmed: It was her rather hopeful and optimistic prognosis that modern history was the history of revolution, and war merely the revolution’s epiphenomenon. Today that is hard for us to perceive.
Arendt predicted that due to “mutual assured nuclear destruction” in the Cold War, the 20th century would cease to be characterized as a century of war but would remain a century of revolution. But the opposite has taken place after the end of the Cold War. It is not that war has been eclipsed by revolution—as Lenin would have hoped—but rather the opposite, that war has eclipsed revolution. Arendt dismissed De Maistre’s statement that, “Counterrevolution is not the revolution in reverse but the opposite of revolution.” But De Maistre was correct and Arendt mistaken: the 20th century became a century of war not revolution because it was a century of counterrevolution.

To recognize, with von Clausewitz, that “war is politics by other means,” does not mean the reverse, that “politics is war by other means.” In other words, while the early 19th century liberal Benjamin Constant pointed out that moderns achieve by social commerce and peaceful politics what was once achieved by the Ancients through war, this does not mean that politics is reducible to war. If war is politics by other means, then we must add that war is not the best and might indeed be the worst means for achieving political ends. Revolution might be the alternative to war, but that does not mean that war is an acceptable alternative to revolution. It is important as well to note that Arendt recognized that while wars were a timeless, perennial feature of civilization, revolution was quintessentially modern. So, what we might say is that it appears that the 20th century became in retrospect a century of wars rather than revolutions the degree to which revolutionary modernity was rolled back successfully by the counterrevolution.

Arendt discusses “freedom” in an ancient rather than specifically modern sense à la Benjamin Constant, when she points out that for the Ancients wars were fought not for freedom but for gain; and that for moderns revolution is inseparable from freedom: that a particular danger lies in the concept of wars for freedom, precisely because it conflates war and revolution, at the expense of proper political considerations, drowning the separate issues of each in the phenomenon of violence, to which she thought neither revolution nor war could be reduced. However, it would appear that today not only war and revolution are reduced to violence, but also politics and society. Politics seems reduced to “war by other means,” indeed to violence by other means. That politics and social power have been reduced to violence is the surest sign of the “success,” so to speak, of the counterrevolution. This is what it means for the Left to say that, but for the Right, the revolution would be peaceful, without violence—political force is not violence.

Arendt, like von Clausewitz, sought to preserve the political content of war. But Benjamin Constant, like other liberals, considered war to be, not merely the failure of politics, but a crime. Unlike for the Ancients who celebrated war, indeed as among the highest of values, after every modern war people search for who was criminally culpable for the regrettable catastrophe. Carl Schmitt thought that this pointed to the dehumanization inherent in liberalism, its attempt to suppress the war of politics through its criminalization of war, reducing to his mind society to mere “commerce and entertainment.” It should not be for the Left to define politics, like Schmitt, in terms of war. Rather, the issue is the pursuit of freedom without war. If the liberal ideal of bourgeois society as the replacement of war by commerce—by not only peaceful competition but indeed cooperative competition for the benefit of all—has failed, then we must interrogate the nature of that failure and not naturalize it. The liberal ideal may also remain that of socialism.

This raises the issue of war in our particular moment, today, the time of an apparently quickly fading neoconservatism and a continuing if chastened neoliberalism. What are these ideologies with respect to revolution? We might say that there is an antinomy of neoconservatism versus neoliberalism, that neoliberalism prefers to seek to achieve through the market what neoconservatism is content to seek through war, and that this antinomy points to the form of the revolution in our time, that is, capitalism, and its political antinomies. For capitalism is the revolution, however it is also the counterrevolution. Both the neoliberals and neoconservatives seek to further the revolution—capitalism—but do so through what Marxists must consider the counterrevolution.

Modern politics, in this sense, can be considered the war, so to speak, within the revolution: the political counterrevolution within the revolutionizing of society in capitalism, and the yet still ongoing irrepressible revolution of capitalism within the politics of the counterrevolution. Modern politics is concerned with the values of the massive changes occurring within capitalism — the values and direction of the revolution. Once we recognize that modern history does not consist of occasional revolutions but rather of the revolution, one single process and trajectory of revolution, which has been more or less poorly manifested, recognized and fought-out, we can better situate the stakes of politics.

The counterrevolution, as the war within the revolution, is the reaction against the failure of the revolution: the degeneration of the revolution into war expressed through the counterrevolution. So what is the revolution? The modern era is one of revolution, that is, the overthrow of traditional civilization. The past few hundred years have been characterized by the most far-reaching and deepest ever transformation of the world. More has changed and has changed more rapidly than at any other moment of history. The predominant way in which this change has taken place is through avowed bourgeois social relations, which are essentially the relations of the exchange of labor as a commodity, what Adorno called the “law of labor.” This has been recognized clearly by bourgeois protagonists as well as by their adversaries. Both revolutionaries and reactionaries have characterized this process in bourgeois terms, the terms of the modern city.

The American revolutionary Thomas Jefferson offered a clear characterization of the stakes of this revolution of which he was an important advocate and political agent. Jefferson, in his letter of January 3, 1793 to U.S. Ambassador to France William Short about the Jacobins, wrote:

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

In 1793, the Jacobins had restarted the calendar, retrospectively beginning with year one of the Republic in 1792. The French Revolution also introduced the metric system of measurements, which has since become the universal standard. A new epoch was to have dawned. That the revolution has since then come to seem not the overthrow but the rather continuation of traditional civilization is only an effect of the need and failure to advance the revolution.

Politics since then has been concerned with the direction of this revolution. Only very isolated extreme figures and only for relatively brief historical intervals have rejected the politics of the bourgeois revolution. For instance, several years ago, in an open letter to President George W. Bush, President of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote that the project of liberal democratic capitalism had clearly failed and that therefore it was time to return to the values of traditional civilization in religion, to Islam and Christianity, respectively.

Since the 1970s, there have been two extremely active movements more or less proximate to the centers of political power at a global scale that have sought to further the bourgeois revolution. They have not been of the Left. Neoconservatism and neoliberalism have taken up the mantle abandoned by the Left in promoting the revolution of bourgeois society, promising the world freedom. In many ways the neoliberals have done so more radically than the neoconservatives. Still, even the neocons must be reckoned as bourgeois revolutionaries—which their traditionalist paleoconservative rivals, let alone the religious fundamentalists, have clearly recognized. The strange bedfellows of Christian conservatives and neoconservatives have fought the properly political battle of what Lenin called the “who-whom” question: Have the Christians used the neocons, or the neocons used the Christians? I think it is clear that the neocons, though now ideologically discredited on certain policy questions (after the Iraq war in particular), won that battle: they used the Christians to attain political power. But the neoliberals have, despite the recent global economic crisis of the past several years, really triumphed. Neoliberalism is the “new normal” throughout the world; Margaret Thatcher was right, “There is no alternative.” Furthermore, it is under neoliberal leadership that the world is currently being revolutionized. We might say that the neoliberals have fought in the vanguard, and the neoconservatives in the rearguard, of the continuing bourgeois revolution over the course of the past generation, the last 40 years.

Where does this leave the avowed “Left,” today? There has been a great deal of confusion in the past generation in particular, but also more broadly since the early 20th century, about the direction and stakes of the revolution from the point of view of the “Left.” Arendt, for instance, pointed out how it was remarkable that freedom had dropped out of the vocabulary of revolutionaries. What would have been obvious to Marx and Engels, or to Lenin or Trotsky as Marxists, that the struggle for socialism was to further and complete, and ultimately transcend the bourgeois revolution in freedom, has become an obscure issue today.

Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto parsed out the issue of socialism in the 19th century in terms of conservative-reactionary versus progressive-emancipatory varieties, deeming only “proletarian socialism” a reliable agent of overcoming the problem of capitalism in the emancipatory direction of freedom. Other varieties were deemed “petit-bourgeois,” that is, reproductive of the problem of capitalism and obscuring its essential contradictions. The original socialist critique of capitalism was that the capitalists were unreliable revolutionaries, too opportunistically conservative to confidently promote the revolution of which they had been however the beneficiaries historically. Rather, that task of fulfilling the revolution in modern society had fallen to the working class.

In the 20th century, this became muddled, in that “new revolutionary subjects” were sought to promote the revolution after the apparent failure of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries to further the revolutionary advance to socialism. But today these purported new social-revolutionary classes and social groups have also clearly failed. Neither peasants nor anti-colonialists nor oppressed ethno-cultural minorities nor women nor sexual deviants have furthered the advance of socialism. If anything, such politics have only confounded the issue even more. We are left with the problem of the results of incomplete revolution—capitalism—but without any apparent revolutionary subjects to address and overcome this problem. The best on offer seems an indeterminate “democracy,” but that has a storied and problematic history as well, going back to the Jacobins themselves if not earlier. Moreover, since the mid-19th century, the democratic revolution has been an engine for the reproduction of capitalism.

What the revolution has given us since Marx’s time is not socialism but more extensive and deeper capitalism. Moreover, Marx’s recognition of the revolutionary character of capitalism has been lost. The reproduction of capitalism has taken largely conservative-reactionary forms. This is because the issue of capitalism itself has become obscured. This has had a profound effect on politics itself. The ostensible “Left” has allowed itself to become defensive, and to thus imagine that the principal task has been, rather, the “resistance” to capitalism. A one-sided and confused “anti-capitalism” has replaced the struggle for socialism. Worse, the “Left” has internalized not only cynicism about the bourgeois revolution, but even the conservative-reactionary rejection of the revolution itself. Marx has gone from being a revolutionary to becoming a “master of suspicion,” and has been profoundly misread as skeptical or even cynical regarding modern, bourgeois society and its revolutionary potential. The “Left” has thus become a new Right. It has not only compromised itself but actively contributes to the confounding and obscuring of the revolution that still tasks the world.

This means that only opportunists—the Right—have allowed themselves to be politically active, but have been compromised in their activity precisely by such opportunism. Neoliberalism and neoconservativism are clear examples of this, but so is political religious fundamentalism. But before them so was Stalinism. As Trotsky put it, Stalinism was the “great organizer of defeat,” meaning the political “leadership” of the organized accommodation of defeat. As such, Stalinism was also, ideologically, the apologetics for defeat. This was done through calling defeat victory, or, the affirming of the course of the revolution through opportunistic grief. Thus, the 20th century was called “progress” when there was none. No wonder that postmodernism’s opposition to Marxism—really to Stalinism—was first and foremost an opposition to ideas of historical progress and of history—that is, universal history itself.

What characterizes the last two hundred years is the relative lack of consciousness, and unfortunately increasingly so, of the on-going bourgeois revolution. To date, Marxism has offered not merely the best but really the only way out of this deficiency of consciousness. Specifically, Marxism offered the diagnosis of the necessary if symptomatic character of that lack of consciousness. The bourgeois revolution without consciousness is what Marx called “capitalism;” it was the rendering of the revolution “objective”—an object of mere contemplation, an unfolding catastrophe rather than a process of freedom—abdicating the task of consciousness, which alone could offer the possibility of the continuation of the revolution as a matter of freedom.

If we experience the return, the repetition of the bourgeois revolution, then this is as the reproduction of capitalism. But the repetition is an opportunity for advancing the revolution, if however its self-contradiction, the war of the counterrevolution within the failure of the revolution, still dominates us. The task of revolutionary thinking, therefore, would be the recognition of the repetition and of the contradiction.

 

Responses

NM: I don’t think that neoliberals could be viewed as the vanguard of bourgeois revolutions today; I would say that it is the contrary. Neoliberalism is the vanguard of the destruction of the last remnants of bourgeois culture. The bourgeoisie was a class that died some decades ago. I think contemporary oligarchies have little to do with the classical bourgeoisie, as it was only ever interested in seeking profits and exploiting society. The classical bourgeoisie wanted to create a viable form of society. Today, oligarchies want only to loot, as David Harvey said in response to the London suburban riots in 2011. The lower class is following this ideology of the ruling neoliberal oligarchy, which is just slash-and-burn.

DR: My democratic sensibilities will allow me to make one comment, and give my two minutes to the people. I have heard a lot on this panel about thought, but not much about politics. How do we proceed? What is to be done?

SG: I wonder what Chris would make of the celebration of the Communist Manifesto’s 150th anniversary in 1998. You had an almost universal laudation from the Wall Street Journal, to the Economist, to the New York Times. It seems to mean that capitalism has recognized the way in which Marx is really praising the bourgeoisie in that text. He didn’t come to bury the bourgeoisie, but to praise it to high heavens. I’m wondering how that fits in terms of what you’re suggesting. Isn’t that the pre-history of a certain kind of appropriation, not only of the shallow conception of freedom you get in neoliberalism?

JS: To Nikos: Financialization of capitalism may or may not be a new period or form. It is not clear anymore that there is a national bourgeoisie, held responsible to its people, and any notion of a patrician bourgeoisie is certainly out the window. The search for short-term profit certainly is striking. What is to be done? There are limits ecologically, but even in our society there are huge deprivations of material needs that are generating forms of resistance. I don’t think you should come out of here without talking about the insurgency around raising the minimum wage, and immigrant rights. I think the new working class will be immigrant-led. Whatever you say about globalization, a lot of stuff in this country can’t move without workers. Healthcare, construction, restaurants, retail—basically 10% of the country works at Wal-Mart. They’re all going to suffer huge cuts in their living standards. Many of you have connections to the academy. The neoliberalization of the academy is part of the reason for the crisis of intellectuals: Everything is about niche production, adding new lines to your CV, and there’s no solidarity. There’s been an incredible proletarianization of academic labor. A hint at the dominance of neoliberal ideology is that few people know that the real source of the crisis is that per capita funding from the state—per person and per university—is down 40% from the mid-70s. The abandonment by the state of the education of its own citizens is part of the crisis. I’ll conclude by saying that our job should be to render relatively transparent the opaque forms of domination and subordination of capitalist ideology. A lot of my colleagues render the transparent opaque.

CC: About the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto: This is just rank ideology. The 90s were a boom period; what followed was a bust. To get to Nikos’ point of the bourgeoisie destroying bourgeois society, we have to be careful with the categories of “the bourgeoisie” and “the capitalist.” Is this the entrepreneur? The finance rentier class (Lenin’s coupon-clippers from Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism)? My focus is on the politics and political actors—not the ruling class understood as the moneybags, rich people. Take Jeffrey Sachs, a neoliberal bourgeois revolutionary of our time. He was honest enough to realize that his program for revolution didn’t work, and now he is an apostate neoliberal who has taken the other track. He is clear on his political vision, and has changed the means to the end. First, it was “shock therapy” and free-market reforms; now, it is transnational organizations, charity, and reinvestment. I try to keep my remarks constrained to politics, which is why I brought up the neocons and the neoliberals as the political actors of the last generation. The Left has to aspire to outdo these people, to outdo them as revolutionaries. To do this we have to be clear on the revolution, but I think the Left has joined the counterrevolution. Resistance to capitalism is a non-starter, politically—trying to transform capitalism, to get beyond capitalism, that’s something else. But resistance to capitalism? Hopeless.

 

Q&A

I feel that when we reach for catastrophe as an explanation of our current situation, its motivated by a compelling desire to make the mundane profound. The IPCC report apparently tells us that we’re past the turning point. I’m old enough to remember the Club of Rome, which also said we’d passed a turning point, and that by 1970 all human life would be impossible. It’s a common theme of Marxism to say that the rate of profit is past that point at which the only future is barbarism, socialism or barbarism. Well, where’s the barbarism? I see civilization, a forward march in life expectancy, literacy, health. The carrying capacity of the Earth has been increased to six billion over an amazingly short period of time. What a fantastic success! If you wanted to dramatize telling the story of human history, wouldn’t you begin with the remarkable potential of this point of human civilization?

JS: Even if what you say is true, you must admit that there is an ecological crisis, one that will have to be dealt with by a change of social and political power relations. Sea levels are rising: it’s an empirical reality. But I’m enough of a modernist to think that—if we have the right politics and transformations in politics and policy—there are technological solutions to the problems that technology creates. In that sense there’s a dialectic of the Enlightenment that has both positive and negative aspects. Reason can solve the problems that it poses, but it can also create a lot of serious problems.

DR: Human beings are in a constant state of denial, as Freud wrote about at the turn of the 20th century. I don’t think we understand reality better by sounding like a happy journalist on CNN. To make a comparison between the IPCC and the Club of Rome is, quite frankly, specious. Who was the Club of Rome? The IPCC is a conglomerate of almost 3,000 scientists who review scientific evidence, already published and adjudicated. How can we deny that? How can we deny the scientific basis of that analysis? We have to see what the political implications are of that evidence.

SG: It was only around six or seven years ago that the CIA released a report of its projections for deepening climate and civic crises throughout the world, and they were planning accordingly. There is a sense today that crime is on the decline, but there is a militarization of the police. One has to ask why this is. Perhaps this is a kind of preparation for the coming crises—‘barbarism’, in a sense, on the horizon. What this question articulated would be received quite sympathetically by our current government—an absolutely reactionary, authoritarian government that is not doing anything it can to forestall climate change. It is doing everything to deepen and further the coming economic crisis. I find it quite amazing that you suggested what you did.

NM: “Barbarism” should not always be imagined as a pile of corpses, or stuff like that. I will refer to Oswald Spengler, who described the barbarism to come as more and more inhuman situations within a highly civilized environment. This describes very accurately what’s going on today.

CC: I agree with the formulation Nikos just provided, of increasingly inhuman situations being produced within a nonetheless civilized society. But I would turn the question of barbarism to that of political responsibility: In other words, the decline of political responsibility could be an index of increasing barbarism. What we are talking about with revolutionary thought and politics is the ability to take responsibility for the massive changes the world is undergoing, and will continue to undergo. I take the question’s point not to be denial of a problem, but rather confidence in the potential ability to address that problem. I would like to echo Joseph’s point that reason is the solution to its own problems, and that technology can solve the problems created by technology. This comes with the proviso that technology is a human doing, but in alienated form. It is thus about what we are doing: whether we can take responsibility for it, and what form that might take.

NM: Technology is not at all instrumental or natural—it is materialized ideology. One of the most important dimensions of a social transformation would be the transformation of technology. But technology is not neutral; it is an expression of the dominant worldview of that society. Every form of society has its own technical system, and so if we critique capitalism, we must critique its technical system as well. Take Taylorism, for example. Lenin wanted to use Taylorism for the cause of socialism. But Taylorism is an inherently oppressive and alienating system, which springs from capitalist ideology. I can’t imagine a socialist society with Taylorist forms of working.

We shouldn’t indulge in catastrophism or crisis-mongering. Catastrophism is not lucidly reflecting on what is going to come; it always believes that there is no solution, and no possible exit. The greatest catastrophists were always those who took techno-science to be omnipotent. That’s why Heidegger, for example, when he demonized technology, counterpoised to it Gelassenheit—serenity. But when people indulge in catastrophic thinking, I think this is valid because it at least expresses a kind of vigilance. Techno-optimism expresses a lack of responsibility towards what’s going on in society.

DR: I consider myself a public intellectual, but also an activist. Though I forecast a dark future in actuality, it doesn’t hold me back for a second in doing what I have to do, want to do, and enjoy doing, as a political activist. I want to share with you a historical experience. In the 1950’s, the two superpowers, the USSR and the US, were testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. The effects of that pollution of the environment are well-known. There was a great deal of panic at the time about what this was headed towards—namely, WWIII. A massive movement arose in response to this, the nuclear disarmament movement, which was unprecedented in terms of its size and organization. Now we didn’t get nuclear disarmament, but what we did get was the nuclear test ban treaty. So, as a result of that mass movement clouded by fear, we brought us back from the precipice. That may or may not happen with the ecological crisis.

SG: I certainly don’t think I’m advocating catastrophism. I think it is necessary to think through possible alternative understandings of both reason and freedom, in such a way as to address what Horkheimer and Adorno called the Dialectic of Enlightenment which was envisioned in terms of a mindfulness of nature. Capitalism has a decreasing capacity to reproduce the natural conditions that would enable its continuation. I don’t think that’s terribly controversial. My conclusion would be that only the hand that wields the sword can heal the wound. A dialectical conception of reason is absolutely vital. Then we could recognize that technology is not some mystical thing, but is a form of reason. In order for a critique of that form to be carried out, another conception needs to be itself worked out. That is in part the project of the relationship between revolutionary thought and practice.

JS: I do think the ecological crisis does open the possibility for left critique and action. But whatever you want to call it, we aren’t going to get an emancipatory politics of the city without accomplishing much greater public control over social investment. I don’t think the corporate world is going to provide the changes in the way we produce and consume that are needed if we’re going to sustain human life on Earth. There are flash eruptions against neoliberalism occurring across the world. I think there is a role for Marxism or socialism, as a form of political organization, to help cohere this social unrest and protest into some kind of governing emancipatory project. We are in a period of crisis, where a lot of people do know that something’s profoundly wrong, and that human well-being is threatened. But what to do with these openings is what we have to sort out by actually doing politics.

CC: I want to make a closing plea for the plausibility, even if somewhat politically distant, of Marxism as still in the present. It is present to the degree to which we can call the contradiction of society at a global scale as being that between wage labor and capital. Do we still live in a society that reproduces the conditions for wage labor? Do we still live in a society that is dominated by the need to valorize capital? I think both of these are still in effect. This is not just a description of an objective state of the economy, but is also a description of a circumstance for potential politics. Marx was not only a philosopher of modern history, or an analyst of the capitalist economy, but also a political strategist. His orientation to the wage-laboring class was a strategic estimation of politics. In that respect, what we lack, unlike previous historical phases of capitalism, is an adequate political mediation of the problem of capitalism. In other words, capitalism doesn’t manifest at the level of politics, where the contradiction between capital and wage labor is fought out. Perhaps it won’t manifest in the future in the way it did in the past, but it seems to me that the alternative to that attempt to politicize the capital and wage-labor relationship will be further barbarism: The decline of potential political responsibility, and the locking-up of politics among a small group of ideologues and technocrats. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review #69 (September 2014).


  1. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm>. []
  2. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm>. []
  3. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm>. []
  4. Marx, ‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophies of Nature’, (1839-41). Quoted in The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker ed., Norton 1978 (p. 10). []
  5. Negative Dialectics, Trans. E.B. Ashton, Continuum, 1973 (p. 3). []
  6. ‘Future City’, New Left Review 21, May-June 2003. URL=<http://newleftreview.org/II/21/fredric-jameson-future-city>. []
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The concept of Left and Right

Chris Cutrone, Nikos Malliaris and Samir Gandesha

Platypus Review 68 | July 2014

 

On April 5, 2014, at the sixth annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, the following panel discussion took place of which this is an edited transcript. Full panel description and audio recording can be found on-line at: http://platypus1917.org/2014/04/05/the-concept-of-left-and-right/

 

“We are the 99%”
—Occupy Wall Street (2011)

“The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.”
Leszek Kolakowski, “The Concept of the Left” (1968)

The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology;” by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and the 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011—from the Arab Spring to Occupy—there seemed a sense that the Left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by Left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, Left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik—a better tactical response—rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the Right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?

 

Chris Cutrone: “The concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the Revisionist Dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility—a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities—political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution—crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom—the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom—in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed.

Nikos Malliaris: I have a mostly unorthodox approach since I come from a political tradition that considers the distinction between Left and Right to be obsolete and politically irrelevant since, let’s say, the sixties. Indeed, part of the critique that thinkers such as Lasch and Castoriadis, or even Hannah Arendt, address, from the sixties on, has been articulated around this basic idea. A distinction between Left and Right seems obsolete not only because the Old Left, the Left that was, has lost many of its properly left-wing traits, moving more and more to the Right. Christopher Lasch’s critique of the notion of progress has shown that the real problem lies in the fact that many fundamental Left-wing beliefs—such as the belief in progress, technophilia, and the primacy of material economic factors—were in reality, right from the start, shared by both Right and Left. The same goes of course for Castoriadis’s critique of Marxism as an ideology that perverted the revolutionary project by trying to articulate it using basic elements of the bourgeois worldview, such as the belief in progress, economism, scientism, technophilia, or even the distinction between revolutionary experts and uneducated masses. There is nothing absolutely new in all this, as non-orthodox Marxists such as Karl Korsch attacked the pseudo-scientific Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals. The first generation of Frankfurt School thinkers were the first to undertake an attempt to renovate revolutionary theory. We can say that Lasch and Castoriadis just made a step forward by historically and philosophically expanding—and politically in the latter’s case—such a critique.

In any case, the main conclusion of this philosophical and sociological point of view is that the Left actively participated in the gradual crystallization of the contemporary social paradigm—what we would call consumer society. This is a society constituted by the historical revolution that gave birth to the old industrial and capitalist societies, based on productivism and technophilia, and whose inherent ideology we would sum up as cultural liberalism—the celebration of the all-important individual. What is the point of stressing the importance of all these issues? They form a context for raising the issue of defining such concepts as Left and Right.

Both terms originate in the debates that shook revolutionary France back in the 1790s. They express the mounting current of political republicanism and constitute its two main forms: the Left a radical one, and the Right its more moderate counterpart. That means it is wrong to confuse Right-wing with reactionary or conservative ideologies. The latter are forms of defending the pre-revolutionary monarchical, or even feudal, political and social edifices, whereas the former is a moderate way to support the post-revolutionary order. The Right believes social equality is already achieved and that a moderate, parliamentary regime—even based on a sense of suffrage, as was the case in the 19th century—is a sufficient guarantee of real equality. Left-wing movements and theories, on the other hand, believe that such equality isn’t enough, or that it was nothing more than a form of new inequality that should be reversed.

An additional difference between Right and Left—that is, between political liberalism and Marxism or anarchism—lies in the way that each of these political traditions perceives the coming of liberty and social equality. The former believes it should be gained gradually while the latter believe only a revolution can really transform existing society. In any case, what we should underline is that Marxism and liberalism are not as radically opposed as it is commonly believed, since they are part of the same political and theoretical family; they may not be brothers, but they should surely be considered as first cousins. So we see that such terms as Left and Right are far more problematic than we are used to believing. An interesting example: Ayn Rand. Was she Right-wing or Left-wing? The same goes for various anarcho-capitalist sects that are fiercely capitalist as far as economy and politics are concerned, but are generally liberal and anti-authoritarian with regards to ethics or cultural issues. Jean-Claude Michel, a contemporary French philosopher, reminds us that when parts of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead were translated for the first time in French, they were thought to be a kind of Left-wing critique of traditional bourgeois mentality, as Rand celebrated the creating of an individual and his determination to oppose every obstacle that attempts to hinder the realization of his inner vision.

Capitalism’s inner logic lies in an unending destruction of every form of social and cultural tie that limits the pursuit of the all-important individual. That means that capitalists’ inherent ideology, if there is one, is what I’d call cultural liberalism: the idea that the individual should act as it wishes without being restrained by any form of social convention, belief, or control. Beginning with the attack on feudal, aristocratic, and religious archaism, this ideology raised the attack on such archaism to an end in itself. When real archaism ceased to exist, the need to justify our theoretical conception leads to an absurd attack on every social form or institution, without the least coherence. Coherence itself is being seen as fascist or oppressing, and with poststructuralism and postmodernism, we saw similar attacks on language and even anatomical differences between the sexes (take for example Foucault, Butler, or even Edward Said). All this was done in the name of the Left, historically amounting to nothing more than the further consolidation of consumer society with this inherent cultural and philosophical relativism. And it is precisely this fertile ground where the poisonous plant of far-Right movements grows nowadays, especially in Europe.

So I would raise the questions: Is contemporary capitalism really Right-wing? And can the invocation of the Left, at least at its present form, help us articulate a radical form of democratic and emancipatory critique, and an analysis of the total social collapse that we are facing?

Samir Gandesha: Since 1956, with the invasion of Hungary and the formation of the New Left in what’s been called a democratic, anti-imperialist form of socialism, there has been a tremendous degree of confusion concerning Left and Right.

A further series of confusions date back to 1989, with the transformation of the Soviet bloc, the appearance of Alexander Dubček on the podium, with Václav Havel, which really put paid to the moment of 1968 in the former Czechoslovakia—there was no possibility of “socialism with a human face.” Obviously the nineties, with the implosion of Yugoslavia and the different kinds of positions that were taken by various Leftists vis-à-vis the Serbian side in particular, and Milosevic, betrayed a certain kind of unclarity and confusion. The wars in the Gulf also led to a kind of paralysis and confusion about the commitments the Left would make, the sides it would take up in these conflicts. More recently, though not as monumental as the previous examples, the controversy over Judith Butler receiving the Adorno prize is quite revealing, given the fact that she had declared Hamas and Hezbollah as part of the global anti-imperialist Left. Not to defend Butler’s critics, but rather what one would want to do in that situation is to say here is a form of historical amnesia, that Hezbollah was created by the Revolutionary Guards, who played an absolutely violent role in suppressing the Left in the Iranian Revolution and actually helped to turn it, when it had a secular and genuinely Left complexion, to the Islamist revolution that we know. There’s an amnesia about these categories and an unfortunate kind of participation in identity politics, and this exemplifies that.

Today we have to understand social struggles as manifesting a distinction between Left and Right, in terms of whether they can be understood as anti-capitalist struggles. As to whether the Left makes typically collective demands whereas the Right makes typically individualistic types of demands, this is a complicated question. You’d have to answer it dialectically, insofar as the Left could be understood, at least historically, in terms of making collective demands in the interest of liberation of the individual and individuality, which would be understood in relation to the collective—the freedom of the individual is conditional on the freedom of all and vice versa. The Right tends to make demands on part of the individual, but those demands are often at the same time couched in terms of some notion of the larger whole, some attachment to nationality, to an imperial project, and so on.

In Marx you have one account of taking hold of capitalism in the Manifesto, and a very gripping account of “all that is solid melts into air,” but only a few years later we see in The Eighteenth Brumaire a much more complicated relationship between the forces of capital in transforming the landscape—wresting the whole of tradition from social subjects to social actors only for those traditions to come back and to “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” This is a complex dialectic in Marx. It is not necessarily the case that we can say that capitalism is merely liberating the individual: it’s a much more complicated sort of relationship.

A great example would be Narendra Modi, who has ruled with an iron fist in the state of Gujarat. Gujarat is being put forward in India as a viable model of economic development. It has experienced a sort of hyperprocess of development, but at the same time the worst excesses of Hindu fundamentalism have been unfolding there. This is what Perry Anderson calls the “Indian ideology”—free-market emphasis on the individual, but at the same time, appeal to the most reactionary kinds of traditions and interpretations.

Getting back to the realm of ideas, Left and Right are defined by their relationship to the French revolution. The Left seeks to realize the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment, whereas the Right—going all the way back to 1790 and Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France—takes up a much more complicated relationship, trying to defend the standpoint of particularity. This is the key thing about the Right: unmediated particularity. Language, tradition, culture, family. The way this plays itself out of course in Germany and in the aftermath of Napoleon is in terms of Hegel’s, “the real is the rational and the rational is the real.” The Right of course sees the institutions of modern society and state as always already rational—no more work to be done—whereas the Left takes this up as the rallying cry—that the world must be made philosophical. This is the opening of hitherto unrealized and also unrecognized possibilities. We don’t even know what the possibilities will be like in the future.

Ultimately what’s at stake and why ideas matter is because we really have to look at forms of reason. What does it mean to make the world philosophical? That goes to the contemporary possibility of reason, because the questions of reason and freedom in the tradition we’re talking about are inextricable. Freedom isn’t simply your ability to do what you want willy-nilly but is rather some notion of rational self-determination as autonomy. So when we talk about freedom, we are also talking about reason and rationality.

I’ll just finish on the fact that in Canada today, you have a government that’s absolutely hostile to the tradition of the Enlightenment insofar as it is clearly anti-science. It has essentially destroyed national scientific libraries, it has closed the experimental lakes area, and it has said we are not going to fund any more basic research. This is quite extraordinary—reactionary and anti-Enlightenment—whereas the Left has to take up a dialectical relation, a critique of techno-science but in an era of global climate change. We have to articulate a particular relationship to that tradition of reason. It’s very embarrassing for the so-called postmodern Left today, because the positions it has taken up over the last couple of decades are exactly the positions of the conservative government today in its anti-science rhetoric and practice. It has simply thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

CC: One thing I’d like to say, rather provocatively, is that I’m a member of a generation that has come up through a return of this “end of ideology” concept—the argument of needing to get “beyond Left and Right” is just a Right-wing argument. You see it in many figures from the last generation. Foucault would be one for example—the Iranian Revolution was raised with respect to this.

The other point that I was going to make, but that Samir made in his opening remarks, is that freedom would have to be understood as both collective and individual. This is because society is both a collective and individual affair. Really, going back to the era of classical liberalism—rather than liberalism in Ayn Rand’s deranged definition—freedom of the individual would have been understood to be a moment of the freedom of the collective, and vice versa.

With respect to free market ideology, an old mentor of mine, Adolph Reed, recently said that what’s interesting about the political Right in the mainstream is that it has a dual agenda: It has an agenda of upward redistribution of resources, and it has a free-market agenda. But guess which one is sacrificed in a pinch? Actually, the free-market ideology is sacrificed. And that means perhaps the whole question of “free-market ideology” would have to be addressed as a matter of ideology, not a simple manner of “free market equals Right-wing,” but rather that it is a necessary form of misrecognition of the potential for freedom in this form of society. One of the unfortunate characteristics of living in the neoliberal era is the idea that we’ve been moving to the Right since the mid-20th century, and that Right-ward drift is to be characterized entirely in terms of the erosion of the welfare state and its replacement by the market.

In my own political imagination I go back a lot further, and I would see in the state-centric capitalism of the 20th century the form of the counterrevolution. In other words, we are dealing with phases of the Right, first in the form of statism and now in the form of post-statism, rather than non-statism. That’s where my Adolph Reed quotation comes in—what really is the agenda of the Right? It’s not really that the state is being taken down in favor of the free market, but rather that the state remains as an upward redistribution mechanism, and that the free market ideology serves merely as an ideology. It’s not really going on.

That raises the question of anti-capitalism. I would say that it’s unfortunate for the Left to categorize its politics as “anti-capitalist.” This is something that goes back to the New Left. Rather we should be thinking about post-capitalism—what would it mean to get beyond capitalism rather than fighting against capitalism? How can we redeem the history of the past two hundred years, the history of capitalism, as a pathological form of freedom, but nonetheless as a form of freedom? Certainly, with respect to what came before. I do take to heart we have a distinction to be made between two kinds of Right—a pro-capitalist Right and an anti-capitalist Right. Again, this is where Kolakowski is useful. What’s interesting is that his conception was really not about ostensible capitalism, but rather, ostensible socialism, meaning what crimes were justified by the pursuit of socialism. But we could also talk about what crimes are committed in the pursuit of capitalism, which raises the question of what capitalism actually is. Capitalism requires a dialectical treatment, and the Left has largely ceased to be a Left in having an undialectical treatment of capitalism itself.

NM: I totally agree that discourse on free-market is a lie. There is no capitalism without the state. A real free market would be something highly egalitarian and really democratic, a social space where there are no economic differences or hierarchical positions.

I would like to stress this: We cannot say that the Right has nothing to do with freedom because free-market ideology is only ideology. When we analyze Left and Right, we have to look at the philosophical and theoretical level on one hand, and of the concrete and historical on the other. As we cannot judge Marxism simply by what happened in the Stalinist regime, we cannot judge the Right by saying we have no free market so the Right has nothing to do with freedom. We are speaking of the really existing neoliberalism as we had really existing socialism, which had nothing to do with socialism. Kolakowski has a tendency to reduce Left and Right to abstract philosophical concepts, and then to identify the Left as “Good” compared to the Right as “Evil.” I cannot comprehend how he can say the Right is a dead force without openness to the future. For the first liberals, capitalism was the way to ensure real social equality and progress, so capitalism is highly open to the future.

American society, at the ideological and anthropological level, is profoundly egalitarian as opposed to European societies. That’s why American capitalism is stronger; it is not hindered by precapitalist, archaic social and economic forms. So I would say capitalism does not have an inherent ideology—that’s why it’s compatible with almost any form of political regime.

I do not agree with the distinction between freedom and justice. I don’t think social justice is an economic and social issue as opposed to freedom or equality, which are political issues, so that we could have justice without freedom or freedom without justice. That would be a Stalinist, and at the same time, a capitalist argument. The capitalist would say we could have freedom without social justice, and the Stalinist would and have said we had social justice without freedom.

Finally, you’re right Samir; we have to clarify our position towards techno-science and the tradition of the Enlightenment in general. That is the core of the philosophical enterprise of the Frankfurt School—that the Enlightenment was not something monolithic. Capitalism is the product of the Enlightenment. We have to keep some things from the Enlightenment and criticize some others.

SG: Anti-capitalism versus post-capitalism brings into play whether we are looking at a form of abstract or determinate negation. Abstract negation would be simply mean being anti-capitalist in orientation, whereas determinate negation would really draw upon progressive elements within the present, and seek to deepen and extend them. In that sense, the work of the present is completing the historical tasks of the past. But how we imagine that is a very complex question. Liberalism, utilitarianism, these in their moment were extremely progressive and, in a sense, Left-wing in terms of opening up new possibilities. When they become entrenched and reified, they turn into their opposite. There is a tendency of this within capitalism, and not just in the external ways I was describing—the Gujarat model and so on. You need external support for a certain kind of free-market logic, which is going to be highly disruptive. For all of his faults, Foucault’s discussion of neoliberalism is very interesting precisely because it was recognized that there had to be a strong, institutional framework for the unleashing of the market. That’s insightful in terms of our own neoliberal present, where the state doesn’t disappear. It is a form of class struggle that’s happening—the redistribution upwards of wealth. But at the same time there’s a transformation of the regulatory framework towards a very narrow understanding of freedom, which cancels the idea that there are certain resources and capacities people need to even exercise this negative conception of freedom. Hence the destruction of the welfare state.

That capitalism has no inherent ideology, that is problematic to me, Nikos, because the very commodity form—what Marx calls a “socially necessary illusion,”—is ideology in that we cannot directly, immediately perceive the conditions of our existence. The work of critique and the work of reason are required to understand the social whole. The market will always rely, as Hegel shows very clearly, on law—the moment of ethical life is actually presupposed in those abstract market relations, which only then becomes clear once the dialectic has done its work.

Q & A

Nikos, would you consider radical liberals, such as Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant as Leftist, and how would you perhaps discern this radical liberalism from 20th century radical liberals like Hayek? Would you consider them Right-wing? Would you consider them both Left-wing and Right-wing? How would you replace the obsolete Left and Right distinction?

NM: We have two types of criteria for judging if someone is Left-wing or Right-wing. I would say, from a historical point of view, both of them—Kant, Mill, Locke, and on the other hand, Hayek, Rand, the Chicago School, etc.—are the same mixture of Left-wing and Right-wing elements. The difference is the latter form degenerated from what great thinkers like Kant, Mill or Locke expressed. From a political point of view, I would say there is as huge difference between those two categories. I would categorize the former as democratic, whereas the latter would be nondemocratic liberals. For me, that is the categorization that has to replace Left-wing and Right-wing: democratic and non-democratic. Democratic for me also means egalitarian. In Kant, Mill and Locke, and other liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries, you had a real democratic spirit that was expressed in a limited manner, whereas in Hayek, Rand, etc., you have no democratic spirit at all. What they keep of the Left-wing elements of liberalism is just the justification of brutal individualism.

I would like to pose the question of the working class, because Left-wing liberals refer to the Third Estate and the working class, and also Marxism had its reference to the proletariat. So the Left is an idea, but there was a reference to a social group. How do you navigate this relationship?

CC: Left and Right, because it dates back to the French Revolution, doesn’t predate Hegel’s notion of contradiction, but it does predate Marx’s specification of contradiction with respect to capitalism. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is the developing self-contradiction of bourgeois society that points beyond it, in some way. Therefore, the working class had to negate itself, and what that means has been up for a great deal of interpretation, reinterpretation, and misinterpretation. It’s actually quite different from the notion of the revolt of the Third Estate in the earlier period. To redefine society in terms of labor and its exchange as opposed to tradition and custom was the bourgeois, revolutionary project. But for Marx, after the Industrial Revolution the working class represents the self-contradiction of bourgeois society. The idea is that bourgeois society should, according to its ideals, not have a proletariat—an expropriated class of workers who are formally free to participate in society according to the principle of their labor but are actually alienated from the results of their activity in society. It brings up the question of self-contradiction, because capitalism is both freedom and the constraint of freedom at the same time. The bourgeois revolutionaries did not recognize feudalism as freedom and unfreedom. Bourgeois society is self-contradictory in capitalism in a way that feudalism was not.

SG: I largely agree with your analysis. Marx’s idea of the proletariat, as you suggest, is one that is grounded in philosophical conceptuality in the early writings, and then of course becomes more concretized in his systematic working out of the logic of capital, in specific analysis of the extraction of surplus value. In chapter six of volume one of Capital, you have this transformation and the appearance of the dramatis personæ, moving from the realm of the freedom of property in Bentham to the realm of production.

NM: I think that the Frankfurt School tried to generalize the idea of the contradictions of bourgeois society, projecting these contradictions into the history of Western modernity. This very important because we cannot understand what is going on with our difficulty of defining the Left and Right otherwise. Both of them are products of Western modernity. Western modernity, from the 12th or 13th century on, is categorized by a fundamental, anthropological contradiction—trying to incarnate at the same time two contradictory world visions. On one hand, we have this project of social and individual emancipation, and on the other this paranoia with bureaucratic, scientific, and economic exploitation and domination. I would say that both the Left and the Right incarnate parts of these contradictory worldviews. We could say capitalism is the Western creation that incarnates both of them in the most eloquent way.

The first society in history that destroyed every formal limit, be it reactionary, patriarchal, or not, is the modern West. The first to analyze that in a very profound manner was Oswald Spengler, who was a reactionary. You cannot have the idea that we have to liberate the market—liberate productive forces—if you are not formed in a society that knows no limits. That is why, for example, the world as we know it is a Western creation. The Westerners were the first to get out of the geographical and cosmological limits to colonize the whole of the planet. So globalization is not a fact of the 20th century—it lies at the core of Western civilization.

I wanted to ask a question on the obsolescence or the uselessness of the idea of the Left today. How we might think about this as coming out of a legacy in two forms: what the Left has done, meaning the real elements of the Left in libertarianism or neoliberalism, and what has been done to the Left, the denigration of the emancipatory project of the Left in history?

NM: If I rightly understood you, you are reproaching me for treating in the same manner Ayn Rand, and let’s say, Marx. But I think that the Left itself calls for such a treatment, because what is the Left, historically and empirically? In Greece, for example, you have Leftists that are supportive of all anti-Western regimes—for Ahmandinejad, for Hezbollah, for Hitler, for Pol Pot, for Stalin. The Greek Left was pro-Hitler because they told us Great Britain was the main imperial force that attacked Germany. The Left has need of a really radical and vehement critique.

One of the propositions of the panel was that the Left and Right ought not to be defined in sociological groups—as in, “are working-class people Left or Right?” I think more importantly, it should be said that no Left party gets to hold the mantle of being Left indefinitely, despite whatever may come. It’s quite easy for a Left party to engage in Right-wing actions, or develop a Right-wing ideology like those ones you’re describing. I’m not sure if that really cuts to the core of the saliency of the categories of Left and Right.

NM: But could we say the contrary? For me anti-totalitarianism is Left-wing, because totalitarianism is the worst form of domination that ever appeared in human history. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick—they were profoundly Right-wing anti-totalitarianists. So then what are we going to say? That they took some Left-wing elements?

But the panel’s description concedes this—that what is Left can be taken up by the Right, in the Left’s abdication of its own responsibilities. So if there’s no Left opposition to totalitarianism, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are forced to make an alliance with the Right.

NM: You are right that, according to the panel and Kolakowski, we should not reduce the Left and Right to a sociological aspect, but I do not completely agree with this.

CC: This essay, on the concept of the Left, occupies an interesting moment in that it is part of the background for the New Left as a global phenomenon. Therefore, it’s not only of its moment, but it looks back and looks ahead. I am struck by the way it looks back. Even though, in a sense, Kolakowski was never really a Marxist, he does take Marxism a lot more seriously than the standard ideologues of the Polish Communist Party at the time would have done so. Just to give a little historiography, Khrushchev condemns Stalin as a “criminal against Leninism”—that was the form that the critique of Stalin took, even though Khrushchev himself clearly fell short in that respect. If I had to speculate on the mechanism of Kolakowski’s essay, I think that’s it—what is it about Marxism as a utopian ideology, what happened to that ideology? Essentially what he says is it compromised with reality too much. He starts off the essay by saying “every revolution is a compromise between utopia and reality.” He’s able to generalize a greater phenomenon out of the problem of Marxism—that the attempt to change the world seemed to have gone wrong at some point.

One could extrapolate that with respect to the bourgeois revolution and capitalism. What do we make of a freedom project that’s gone wrong? Then the question is how do we specify that? Marx attempted to specify the freedom problem of his moment in terms of capitalism and what was very much of the 19th century, namely the Industrial Revolution and the creation of an unskilled wage-laboring proletariat. Marx was attempting to reflect on an attempt to change the world that had taken a certain trajectory and manifested in his own time. He could be considered a Left Hegelian in the sense that Samir raised earlier—not treating the world as already rational, but rather to be made rational. The problem of making the world rational in Marx’s time was manifested in the working class struggle for socialism.

Is that happening now? Can we point to any attempt to change the world now that’s manifesting the fundamental problem of freedom of our time? That’s a complicated question because one could plausibly look to various social movements and say, this is the struggle for freedom now, this is how we could grasp the true nature of our society today. The problem is that we also live under the shadow of previous attempts to change the world. There is no attempt to change the world today that doesn’t have looking over its shoulder the ghost of Marxism, even the Right, although less acutely now. In the early 20th century the reason Hayek could be plausible is that he said, “Look, Marxism led to fascism, it’s right there, it’s right in front of us. The fascists imitated the Marxists, and therefore the Marxists were responsible for fascism.” We don’t have that kind of acute contradiction today. Maybe we could claim, in 1979, that Khomeini had Marx looking over his shoulder; at least other Islamists did (for instance Ali Shariati).

There is this radical notion to change the world, but it has failed in some way. That’s what raises the question of opportunism. The Left might be defined by its own coherence and its demand for its own self-clarification. When Kolakowski says that the Left is unclear to this day, what he is saying is that the Left, almost by its definition, is tasked by its own self-clarification, whereas the Right can remain incoherent. The world striving towards coherence—that you can’t have reason without freedom or freedom without reason in the Hegelian framework that Marxism inherits. The Right is not so tasked, and therefore is characterized not only by opportunism, tactics without ideas, crimes, but it also doesn’t leave the same kind of intellectual legacy.

How does democracy relate to the era of liberalism? I’d suggest it was the radical ideology of capitalism that first posed the need for democracy, and it was in that historical period that the whole issue arises. In what way does history mediate the demand for democracy?

NM: I sense a certain Marxist-progressivist account of history in your question. For me the Western emancipatory project, at the political level, begins with the first attempts of medieval cities to become self-organized and self-governed. The first members of the bourgeois were the merchants who managed to escape feudal bonds. That’s why at the time we had the famous German formulation, the era of the free city, because if you managed to stay free in the city for one year, then the feudal lord could not touch you. These cities were highly opportunistic and tried to safeguard their newly acquired autonomy by aligning themselves with priests against the emperor, then with the emperor against the feudal lords, etc. Sometimes they had directly democratic forms of government that didn’t last for long, but they did exist. The people who were most inspired by this were merchants who were also fighting for their economic liberty. So democracy was mixed up with liberalism in a more general sense, meaning the creation of a worldview of democracy at the cultural and anthropological level.

Marx says that one is only capable of understanding the world insofar as one is capable of changing it. What happens to the idea of freedom if there is no Left capable of changing the world?

SG: I want to end on a note of the relationship between theory and practice, and this idea of not being able to understand the world unless you’re in a position to change it. That’s exactly the starting point of Negative Dialectics, to get back to a reflection on the history of failure within the Left. It opens with this invocation of the moment to realize the philosophy that is missed, which then throws us back to a certain kind of reflection on this tradition, and in particular, a reflection on the freedom project that was defeated or failed to come to fruition. You get out of that an attempt to rethink fundamentally, in a dialectical way, the conception of autonomy. You arrive at the idea that autonomy without the moment of heteronomy is ultimately self-destructive. It can’t sustain itself because this logic of self-preservation gone wild leads to the exact opposite. Those are the stakes of our current age: rethinking freedom that can be brought in line with democracy and self-determination, but within the context of the recognition of the real limits that we face. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 68 (July-August 2014).

Wrong life

Chris Cutrone

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Originally published as a letter in Weekly Worker 997, February 13, 2014. Rex Dunn replied in Weekly Worker 998, February 20, 2014.

With a series of exclamation points, Rex Dunn attacks Paul Demarty’s assertion that Robert Mapplethorpe’s black male nude photos are “hot”. Why?

Dunn attacks ‘sexual fetishism’ as a species of ‘commodity fetishism’ in Marx’s sense. But this specifically neglects and actively elides the crucial difference of Marx’s critique of anthropological ‘fetishism’ from Freudian psychoanalysis’s theory of ‘(sexual) fetishism’ that postdates Marx and has nothing to do with political economy. Marx’s theory of ‘commodity fetishism’ has nothing to do with truth versus deception, and everything to do with the ‘way things really are’, the Hegelian “necessary form of appearance” of social reality.

Dunn makes a plea for “humanism” and for “the person” against sexual objectification, claiming that Demarty’s defence of avant garde art is in league with the capitalist dehumanisation of people, the “shock effect” that enhances “exchange value”, but is spurious as the true aesthetic value of art. But is that all that the avant garde can be reduced to? Aren’t Mapplethorpe’s nudes more meaningful – don’t they make one think? – rather than merely shocking? Demarty makes a good case for Mapplethorpe’s art as art.

Dunn restates something observed originally in bourgeois thought long ago: that art must go beyond mere propaganda or entertainment (which is what all art in traditional civilisation was), that it must make one think about aesthetic experience. The question is how it might do so. Sexual objectification can be an occasion for thought and not only mindlessness. It is impossible to separate art – ‘good art’, that is: art that makes one think – from the transformation of humanity in capital, however that may be distorted by unfreedom.

If Dunn thinks that an overly great theoretical effort is required to redeem avant garde art’s social value, then this neglects Hegel’s observation that art in modern society cannot stand on its own, but must be made sense of conceptually, through criticism and historical comparison, which Demarty’s article does attempt to do – for instance, showing how Bjarne Melgaard’s ‘chair’ might relate to its historical reference and predecessor as artwork, Allen Jones’s The chair. By contrast, Dunn seeks to anathematise art works, such as Mapplethorpe’s black male nudes, for their complicity in capitalism, as if it were possible to be otherwise.

Yes, in capitalism, sex is “bought and consumed” as a commodity in the ‘culture industry’. But is that what is wrong with capitalism, that people participate in sexual availability through commodification? Or is the problem rather that human sexuality is rendered worthless, the way any commodity is, in the ‘alienated’ crisis of value in capital? Furthermore, if art that participates in sexual objectification is rendered out of court, then this will cut us off from being able to contemplate and think about the specifically aesthetic experience of sex (not reducible to and apart from its other aspects: for instance, emotional intimacy).

Why is the appreciation of another as a sexual object in itself dehumanising? Aren’t human beings (also) objects? As Kant put it in the moral ‘categorical imperative’, the point is to not treat other humans ‘only’ as objects, but ‘also’ as subjects. We inevitably treat one another as objects in our social relations, but this is not the problem with capitalism. The problem in capitalism is that objects (and not only subjects) become worthless. We all want to be valued objects, erotically and otherwise.

Dunn’s comparison with ‘alienation’ in religion is problematical, in that it turns religion into an attribute of social oppression in itself, rather than recognising that this is what it became in retrospect, by comparison with bourgeois freedom. Religion not only oppressed the peasants, but also made their lives meaningful. The analogue between capitalist alienation and religion is retroactive: indeed, the ancient gods were not nearly as evil as capital!

It won’t do to attack the ‘false idols’ of art for participating in capitalism. For human beings in the present system are no less false. As Adorno wrote, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”

— Chris Cutrone, Platypus Affiliated Society

Rousseau, Kant and Hegel

Revolution without Marx? Rousseau and his followers for the Left

Chris Cutrone

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

Introduction

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

Marx and Rousseau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rousseau in the 18th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rousseau and Kant

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

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

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

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

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

Hegel and the philosophy of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully, still. | §

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

The legacy of the 1980s Left

2013 annual Platypus President’s report

Chris Cutrone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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