LEADING PUBLIC MEMBER of the Socialist Workers Party of the United Kingdom, Richard Seymour, who made a name for himself with the book The Liberal Defense of Murder (2008), polemicizing against campaigns of “humanitarian” military intervention such as the Iraq War, recently released his book on the late Christopher Hitchens, Unhitched, demonstrating that Hitchens remains an enduring and indeed indispensable phenomenon in the present system of thinking on the “Left.”
Hitchens became a flashpoint in his support for the U.S. and allied invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why was Hitchens’s position so significant? After all, arguably many millions of people around the world supported the war and its aims. Hitchens, of course, was a former member of the “Marxist Left,” and even continued to avow his adherence to this, accusing the “Left” rather of deserting him, at least as much as it could be claimed that he had deserted it. Not many accepted Hitchens’s position. It’s unclear that Hitchens fully accepted it himself.
So, Hitchens was and continues to be denounced as a “renegade.” But a renegade from what? The “Left,” which is supposed to express potential and possibility.
As a politics, the Left, like any other, must express the “art of the possible.” The exercise of the faculty of political judgment has been sorely tested in recent decades, and not only on the ostensible “Left.” It is an endemic problem. Such judgment over the course of events, and what if any actions are to be taken therein, must risk the gamble of engaging reality with the aim of changing it. In so doing, accommodation to reality or of changing it only in worse ways, inadvertently reinforcing current trends, may defeat any attempted political action and threaten its goals. The degree to which anyone can claim to be a political actor at all, one must argue for action that does not simply sanctify existing tendencies, but can actually claim responsibility for its effects. Politics cannot succeed dishonestly. At least not for the Left.
To give political cover for what’s going to happen anyway is mere opportunism, the worst sin in politics. For this renders politics, that is, deliberate action attempting to take responsibility for the course of events, superfluous. It degrades agency, and evades rather than actually taking responsibility. Politics properly aims to be more than merely the mask or the performative rehearsal of the status quo. Politics aims at agency, and agency of change. Maintenance of the status quo doesn’t require politics, but only reproductive technique. At issue in politics is the direction of change: What ought to happen that isn’t already happening? How do we rally people for such a cause? What is to be done? And where do we want such action to take us? There is always much to dispute in this. Contention is the essence of politics. The only question is, what can be possibly and desirably contested?
In the case of the Iraq War, there were many avowed goals on the part of the U.S. and its allies. But perhaps the most compelling ideological aim was the “democratization” of Iraq (beyond the merely technocratic aim of removing “weapons of mass destruction” from Iraq, legalistically enforcing a prior United Nations mandate), freeing it from Baathist tyranny. This was the aim of the neo-conservatives, for example. And this aim was attacked by many, including traditional conservatives such as reelected President Obama’s current nominee for U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. A conservative Republican, Hagel earned the ire of many in his party for his dissent from the Iraq War, based on his opposition to the military adventurism motivated by the neo-conservative ideologues. In this sense, Hagel’s opposition to the neo-cons was from the Right, that is, conservative with respect to action: better to not do something than to do something wrong(ly).
But the opposition to the war from the avowed “Left” was supposed to be different from this: neither merely technical (as in favoring economic sanctions over military action) nor conservative.
Hitchens debated Tariq Ali on the Iraq War, and they argued over the relation between their shared opposition to the Vietnam War, previously, and their disagreement over the Iraq War, now.
One memorable exchange went as follows:
[Hitchens:] I think that the United States and coalition forces are not militarily defeatable in Iraq. . . . I think it’s important to know first what can’t happen. . . . Unless the United States chooses to be defeated in Iraq, it cannot be. Therefore, the insurgency, so-called, will be defeated. And all logical and moral conclusions you want to draw from that, should be drawn.
[Ali:] Well, I think Christopher is right on this, that militarily, it is virtually impossible to defeat the United States. After all, they were not defeated militarily in Vietnam, either. . . . The question is this: The United States army cannot be defeated militarily; they’re incredibly powerful, but can the Iraqi people be defeated? Can Iraq be anything else but a lame colony, a mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo under foreign occupation? . . . And so one has to move to a situation of U.S. withdrawal, and the emergence of an elected Iraqi government, which will determine its own future, including control of its own oil. There’s no other way out.
What is remarkable about this exchange is how both Ali and Hitchens appear to have been correct in their estimations, however drawing opposite political conclusions. The U.S. was not defeated militarily by the insurgency; and there has been the emergence of an elected Iraqi government exercising independent sovereignty. And, as a result of both these eventualities, as the only possible outcome, the U.S. and allies have militarily withdrawn from Iraq.
While Hitchens may have been wrong with respect to the success of the military invasion and occupation, Ali was also quite wrong that the result of the war would be to render Iraq a “mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo under foreign occupation.” Also, what Ali described as the only “way out” was achieved not by military resistance to the U.S. and allied occupation but rather its forcible subdual.
At the same time, what Hitchens warned about the “theocracy” threatened in Iraq, while perhaps not quite as virulent as Hitchens may have feared, has indeed triumphed, and precisely as a result of the occupation.
This renders the Iraq War a curious non-event. All that happened was great bloodshed, and at enormous financial and other social costs. The only question remaining, then, is: Was it necessary? Was it worth it? Was the war avoidable? Was the atrocity avertable?
What has the history of the Iraq War shown to be possible and desirable, moving forward? No one wants a repeat of what happened. Does that mean that the war was a mistake? What was the alternative?
The unspoken point of Ali in his debate with Hitchens was that not only, as Hitchens put it, was the U.S. and allied military defeat not possible but “all logical and moral conclusions” must be drawn from that, but that what the U.S. and allies (at least the neo-cons) aimed to do, democratize and otherwise liberate Iraq, was also impossible, and that “all logical and moral conclusions” must be drawn from that, too.
The “democracy” aimed at by the neo-cons and others in invading and occupying Iraq was only ever going to be a neoliberal farce: only the neoliberal version of “democracy.” If the U.S. and allies aimed at democratizing Iraq, this raised the question of the agency for doing so: How democratic, really, were the U.S. and its allies, as political agents, themselves? How democratic was the war? How democratic could it be, anyway? And: Could the ends of democracy be achieved by non-democratic means?
War in the modern era is only ever regrettable necessity. But it is also opportunity. Not only Hitchens sought to make it so, and perhaps none did so with less venality. Did the Bush administration seek to make use of Hitchens or did Hitchens try to make use of the Bush administration? There is a certain tragedy in that, however masked by Hitchens’s false bravado, easily rendered pathetic.
So that leaves the war itself. Was it inevitable? The sanctions regime, including “no-fly” zones over vast regions of northern and southern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime faced opposition among the Kurds and Shia, respectively, had come into crisis. Neither Saudi Arabia, nor Iran, or Turkey would have accepted a return to a pre-sanctions status quo. Neither would have Kurdish and Shia opposition groups. At the very least, a civil war in Iraq was inevitable. Indeed, it was already ongoing. Of course such an ethnicized and culturalized civil war would have (for it already did) involve mass conflict, displacements and killings. Some advocated the war (Kurdish opposition groups); others took advantage of it (Shia opposition groups). Yet others resisted it (former Baathists and Sunni leaders) or at least tried to alter the course of its effects to their advantage. This was all more or less opportunism, however, not policy.
False necessities abounded, and were deployed opportunistically by both sides, such that further, growing threats could supposedly only be averted by military means: that it was preferable, for example, to face U.S. and allied military attack than to open Iraq to transparent arms inspections by the U.N., or that the political power of Baathist tyranny could be broken with desirable outcome only by military intervention. The two essential actors in the war were the Iraqi and U.S. regimes. And their conflicting politics were masked by crisis. (Internationally, the sanctions regime, the embargo that allowed only “oil for food,” was unraveling, whereas domestically, the Baathist regime was more tenuous, subsisting on an ever narrower basis.)
Not so Ali and Hitchens, neither of whom were in politically responsible positions or otherwise faced exigencies of necessity, but both of whom could only comment from the sidelines. They both advocated freedom for Iraq, but had radically different visions, not only of how to achieve this, but what it meant.
Hitchens’s pro-U.S. and allies position and Ali’s “anti-imperialism” both contained a kernel of truth: Hitchens that the Iraqi “resistance”/insurgency against occupation could only further the bloodshed and not advance the sovereignty of the Iraqi people and Ali that the invasion and occupation could only make things worse, undermining the very goals Hitchens and the neo-cons avowed, the liberation of Iraq.
Iraq is arguably more “democratic” and more politically dynamic today, involving more people and more diversely, as a result of the ouster of Saddam, than had been possible under the latter’s Baathism. But this has had nothing to do with genuine self-determination for the people of Iraq: no democracy. Nor has the debacle of the U.S. and allied military effort (the farce of a neoliberal, privatized/”outsourced” military policy) yielded a salutary political effect for people outside Iraq. The anti-war movement was as spectacular a failure as the war itself—and as spectacular a success. All around, common sense prevails. The political controversy died a quiet death, settled apolitically. Of the war, what opportunity could be made, was made. And we are all in great measure curiously in the same place as before. — All, that is, but the dead, who are not in a different place, but simply ended.
In certain respects, the Iraq War has not ended—will never end.
Victory is no victory; triumph is no triumph. Rather, misery prevails.
Failure has become success, and success has become failure. Ideologues were replaced by technocrats and technocrats by ideologues. Baathist state torture poses in retrospect as the only alternative to communitarian violence and civil war; and communitarianism as the only alternative to state repression. Obama was the only alternative to Bush; but only after Bush’s Presidency ended, guaranteeing Obama’s victory as the only “change” that could be “believed in.” “Sensible” political opposition to what the Obama campaign called “tactical success within strategic failure” triumphed; but still without undoing either the failure or the success of the war. McCain lost because no one wanted to face the war any longer. The only clear victims are the dead—and not all of them, for some must be counted among the war’s “victors,” having fallen willingly in pursuit and at least to some achievement of their goals. They, and politics.
And the victors? They have buried themselves in lies and crimes of opportunity.
The costs remain, but any sort of balance sheet is lacking. All political gain must deny itself, shamefaced. A solemn if not entirely satisfied silence rules that is no less opportune than the opportunism of the war itself.
Both sides—that is, both George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al., and former Baathists, as well as both pro- and anti-war politicians and commentators such as Ali and Hitchens—can continue to claim to having been in the right: to have wanted the right things and pursued them in the only ways possible. And both remain wrong.
The only question is, where has this left us, now? | §
Originally published in The Platypus Review 53 (February 2013). Re-published in The North Star.
If the Bolshevik Revolution is — as some people have called it — the most significant political event of the 20th century, then Lenin must for good or ill be considered the century’s most significant political leader. Not only in the scholarly circles of the former Soviet Union, but even among many non-Communist scholars, he has been regarded as both the greatest revolutionary leader and revolutionary statesman in history, as well as the greatest revolutionary thinker since Marx.
— Encyclopedia Britannica
Time magazine nominated “the protester,” from the Arab Spring to the #Occupy movement, as “Person of the Year” for 2011.2 In addressing the culture of the #Occupy movement, Time listed some key books to be read, in a sidebar article, “How to stock a protest library.”3 Included were A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci, Multitude by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Žižek.
Cover of Time magazine vol. 175 no. 28 (December 26, 2011 – January 2, 2012), design by Shepard Fairey
Time’s lead article by Kurt Anderson compared the Arab Spring and #Occupy movement to the beginnings of the Great French Revolution in 1789, invoking the poem “The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement” by William Wordsworth. Under the title “The Beginning of History,” Anderson wrote that,
Aftermaths are never as splendid as uprisings. Solidarity has a short half-life. Democracy is messy and hard, and votes may not go your way. Freedom doesn’t appear all at once…. No one knows how the revolutions will play out: A bumpy road to stable democracy, as in America two centuries ago? Radicals’ taking over, as in France just after the bliss and very heaven? Or quick counterrevolution, as in France 60 years later [in 1848]? (75)
The imagination of revolution in 2011 was, it appears, 1789 without consequences: According to Wordsworth, it was “bliss… in that dawn to be alive” and “to be young was very heaven.” In this respect, there was an attempt to exorcise the memory of revolution in the 20th century — specifically, the haunting memory of Lenin.
1789 and 1917
There were once two revolutions considered definitive of the modern period, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Why did Diego Rivera paint Lenin in his mural “Man at the Crossroads” (1933) in Rockefeller Center, as depicted in the film Cradle Will Rock (1999), about the Popular Front against War and Fascism of the 1930s? “Why not Thomas Jefferson?,” asked John Cusack, playing Nelson Rockefeller, ingenuously. “Ridiculous!,” Ruben Blades, playing Rivera, responded with defiance, “Lenin stays!” [video clip]
Detail of Diego Rivera, “Man at the Crossroads” (1933), mural at Rockefeller Center, New York City, photographed by Lucienne Bloch before it was destroyed on Nelson Rockefeller’s orders in 1934.
Still, Jefferson, in his letter of January 3, 1793 to U.S. Ambassador to France William Short, wrote,
The tone of your letters had for some time given me pain, on account of the extreme warmth with which they censured the proceedings of the Jacobins of France…. In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands, the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.4
The image of 18th century Jacobins and 20th century Bolsheviks haunts any revolutionary politics, up to today. Lenin characterized himself as a “revolutionary social democrat,” a “Jacobin who wholly identifies himself with the organization of the proletariat… conscious of its class interests.”5 What did it mean to identify as a “Jacobin” in Lenin’s turn-of-the-20th century socialist workers’ movement? Was it to be merely the most intransigent, ruthless revolutionary, for whom “the ends justify the means,” like Robespierre?
But the question of “Jacobinism” in subsequent history, after the 18th century, involves the transformation of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century. To stand in the tradition of Jacobinism in the 19th century meant, for Lenin, to identify with the workers’ movement for socialism. Furthermore, for Lenin, it meant to be a Marxist.
There is another date besides 1789 and 1917 that needs to be considered: 1848. This was the time of the “Spring of the Nations” in Europe. But these revolutions failed. This was the moment of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, published in anticipation of the revolution, just days before its outbreak. So, the question is not so much, How was Lenin a “Jacobin”?, but, rather, How was Lenin a “Marxist”? This is because 1848, the defining moment of Marxism, tends to drop out of the historical imagination of revolution today,6 whereas for Marxism in Lenin’s time 1848 was the lodestar.
Rosa Luxemburg, in her speech to the founding congress of the German Communist Party (Spartacus League), “On the Spartacus programme” (1918), offered a remarkable argument about the complex, recursive historical dialectic of progression and regression issuing from 1848. Here, Luxemburg stated that,
Great historical movements have been the determining causes of today’s deliberations. The time has arrived when the entire socialist programme of the proletariat has to be established upon a new foundation. We are faced with a position similar to that which was faced by Marx and Engels when they wrote the Communist Manifesto seventy years ago…. With a few trifling variations, [the formulations of the Manifesto]… are the tasks that confront us today. It is by such measures that we shall have to realize socialism. Between the day when the above programme [of the Manifesto] was formulated, and the present hour, there have intervened seventy years of capitalist development, and the historical evolutionary process has brought us back to the standpoint [of Marx and Engels in the Manifesto]…. The further evolution of capital has… resulted in this, that… it is our immediate objective to fulfill what Marx and Engels thought they would have to fulfill in the year 1848. But between that point of development, that beginning in the year 1848, and our own views and our immediate task, there lies the whole evolution, not only of capitalism, but in addition that of the socialist labor movement.7
This is because, as Luxemburg had put it in her 1900 pamphlet Reform or Revolution, the original contradiction of capital, the chaos of production versus its progressive socialization, had become compounded by a new “contradiction,” the growth in organization and consciousness of the workers’ movement itself, which in Luxemburg’s view did not ameliorate but exacerbated the social and political crisis and need for revolution in capital.
By contrast, however, see Luxemburg’s former mentor Karl Kautsky’s criticism of Lenin and Luxemburg, for their predilection for what Kautsky called “primitive Marxism.” Kautsky wrote that, “All theoreticians of communism delight in drawing on primitive Marxism, on the early works, which Marx and Engels wrote before they turned thirty, up until the revolution of 1848 and its aftermath of 1849 and 1850.”8
Marxism and “Leninism”
In 2011, it seems, Time magazine, among others, could only regard revolution in terms of 1789. This is quite unlike the period of most of the 20th century prior to 1989 — the centenary of the French Revolution also marked the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union — in which 1789 could be recalled only in terms of 1917. A historical link was drawn between Bolshevism and the Jacobins. In the collapse of 20th century Communism, not only the demon of 1917 but also 1789 seemed exorcized.
Did 1917 and 1789 share only disappointing results, the terror and totalitarianism, and an ultimately conservative, oppressive outcome, in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Empire and Stalin’s Soviet Union? 1917 seems to have complicated and deepened the problems of 1789, underscoring Hegel’s caveats about the terror of revolution. It would appear that Napoleon stands in the same relation to Robespierre as Stalin stands to Lenin. But the problems of 1917 need to be further specified, by reference to 1848 and, hence, to Marxism, as a post-1848 historical phenomenon.9 The question concerning Lenin is the question of Marxism.10
This is because there would be no discussing Marxism today without the role of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. The relevance of Marxism is inevitably tied to Lenin. Marxism continues to be relevant either because of or despite Lenin.11 But what is the significance of Lenin as a historical figure from the point of view of Marxism?
For Marx, history presented new tasks in 1848, different from those confronting earlier forms of revolutionary politics, such as Jacobinism. Marx thus distinguished “the revolution of the 19th century” from that of the 18th.12 But where the 18th century seemed to have succeeded, the 19th century appeared to have failed: history repeated itself, according to Marx, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”13 Trying to escape this debacle, Marxism expressed and sought to specify the tasks of revolution in the 19th century. The question of Lenin’s relevance is how well (or poorly) Lenin, as a 20th century revolutionary, expressed the tasks inherited from 19th century Marxism. How was Lenin, as a Marxist, adequately (or inadequately) conscious of the tasks of history?
The recent (December 2011) passing of Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) provides an occasion for considering the fate of Marxism in the late 20th century.14 Hitchens’s formative experience as a Marxist was in a tendency of Trotskyism, the International Socialists, who, in the 1960s and early 1970s period of the New Left, characterized themselves, as Hitchens once put it, as “Luxemburgist.” This was intended to contrast with “Leninism,” which had been, during the Cold War, at least associated, if not simply equated, with Stalinism. The New Left, as anti-Stalinist, in large measure considered itself to be either anti-Leninist, or, more generously, post-Leninist, going beyond Lenin. The New Left sought to leave Lenin behind — at least at first. Within a few short years of the crisis of 1968, however, the International Socialists, along with many others on the Left, embraced “Leninism.”15 What did this mean?
The New Left and the 20th century
Prior to the crisis of the New Left in 1968, “Leninism” meant something very specific. Leninism was “anti-imperialist,” and hence anti-colonialist, or, even, supportive of Third World nationalism, in its outlook for revolutionary politics. The relevance of Leninism, especially for the metropolitan countries — as opposed to the peripheral, post-colonial regions of the world — seemed severely limited, at best.
In the mid-20th century, it appeared that Marxism was only relevant as “Leninism,” a revolutionary ideology of the “underdeveloped” world. In this respect, the metropolitan New Left of the core capitalist countries considered itself to be not merely post-Leninist but post-Marxist — or, more accurately, post-Marxist because it was post-Leninist.
After the crisis of 1968, however, the New Left transitioned from being largely anti-Leninist to becoming “Leninist.” This was when the significance of Maoism, through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, transformed from seeming to be relevant only to peasant guerilla-based revolutionism and “new democracy” in the post-colonial periphery, to becoming a modern form of Marxism with potential radical purchase in the core capitalist countries. The turn from the 1960s to the 1970s involved a neo-Marxism and neo-Leninism. The ostensibly Marxist organizations that exist today are mostly characterized by their formation and development during this renaissance of “Leninism” in the 1970s. Even the anti-Leninists of the period bear the marks of this phenomenon, for instance, anarchism.
The New Left leading up to 1968 was an important moment of not merely confrontation but also cross-fertilization between anarchism and Marxism. This was the content of supposed “post-Marxism”: see, for example, the ex-Marxist, anarchist Murray Bookchin, who protested against the potential return of Leninism in his famous 1969 pamphlet, Listen, Marxist! In this, there was recalled an earlier moment of anarchist and Marxist rapprochement — in the Russian Revolution, beginning as early as 1905, but developing more deeply in 1917 and the founding of the Communist International in its wake. There were splits and regroupments in this period not only among Social Democrats and Communists but also among Marxists and anarchists. It also meant the new adherence to Marxism by many who, prior to World War I and the Russian Revolution, considered themselves “post-Marxist,” such as Georg Lukács.
The reconsideration of and return to “Marxism/Leninism” in the latter phase of the New Left in the 1970s, circa and after the crisis of 1968, thus recapitulated an earlier moment of reconfiguration of the Left. The newfound “Leninism” meant the New Left “getting serious” about politics. The figure of Lenin is thus involved in not only the division between “reformist” Social Democrats and “revolutionary” Communists in the crisis of World War I and the Russian and other revolutions (such as in Germany, Hungary, and Italy) that followed, or the division between liberalism and socialism in the mid-20th century context of the Cold War, but also between anarchists and Marxists, both in the era of the Russian Revolution and, later, in the New Left. It is in this sense that Lenin is a world-historical figure in the history of the Left.16 “Leninism” meant a turn to “revolutionary” politics and the contest for power — or so, at least, it seemed.
But did Lenin and “Leninism” represent a progressive development for Marxism, either in 1917 or after 1968? For anarchists, social democrats and liberals, the answer is “No.” For them, Lenin represented a degeneration of Marxism into Jacobinism, terror, and totalitarian dictatorship, or, short of that, into an authoritarian political impulse, a lowering of horizons — Napoleon, after all, was a Jacobin! If anything, Lenin revealed the truth of Marxism as, at least potentially, an authoritarian and totalitarian ideology, as the anarchists and others had warned already in the 19th century.
For avowed “Leninists,” however, the answer to the question of Lenin as progress is “Yes”: Lenin went beyond Marx. Either in terms of anti-imperialist and/or anti-colonialist politics of the Left, or simply by virtue of successfully implementing Marxism as revolutionary politics “in practice,” Lenin is regarded as having successfully brought Marxism into the 20th century.
But perhaps what ought to be considered is what Lenin himself thought of his contribution, in terms of either the progression or regression of Marxism, and how to understand this in light of the prior history leading into the 20th century.
Lenin as a Marxist
Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet, The State and Revolution, did not aspire to originality, but was, rather, an attempted synthesis of Engels and Marx’s various writings that they themselves never made: specifically, of the Communist Manifesto, The Civil War in France (on the Paris Commune), and Critique of the Gotha Programme. Moreover, Lenin was writing against subsequent Marxists’ treatments of the issue of the state, especially Kautsky’s. Why did Lenin take the time during the crisis, not only of the collapse of the Tsarist Russian Empire but of the First World War, to write on this topic? The fact of the Russian Revolution is not the only explanation. World War I was a far more dramatic crisis than the Revolutions of 1848 had been, and a far greater crisis than the Franco-Prussian War that had ushered in the Paris Commune. Socialism clearly seemed more necessary in Lenin’s time. But was it more possible? Prior to World War I, Kautsky would have regarded socialism as more possible, but after World War I, Kautsky regarded it as less so, and with less necessity of priority. Rather, “democracy” seemed to Kautsky more necessary than, and a precondition for the possibility of socialism.
For Lenin, the crisis of bourgeois society had matured. It had grown, but had it advanced? For Lenin, the preconditions of socialism had also been eroded and not merely further developed since Marx’s time. Indeed Kautsky, Lenin’s great Marxist adversary in 1917, regarded WWI as a setback and not as an opportunity to struggle for socialism. Lenin’s opponents considered him fanatical. The attempt to turn the World War into a civil war — socialist revolution — seemed dogmatic zealotry. For Kautsky, Lenin’s revolutionism seemed part of the barbarism of the War rather than an answer to it.
Marx made a wry remark, in his writing on the Paris Commune, that the only possibility of preserving the gains of bourgeois society was through the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx savaged the liberal politician who put down the Commune, Adolphe Thiers. However, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx regarded his followers as having regressed behind and fallen below the threshold of the bourgeois liberals of the time. Marx castigated his ostensible followers for being less “practically internationalist” than the cosmopolitan, free-trade liberals were, and for being more positive about the state than the liberals.
Lenin marshaled Marx’s rancor, bringing it home in the present, against Kautsky. World War I may have made socialism apparently less possible, but it also made it more necessary. This is the dialectical conception of “socialism or barbarism” that Lenin shared with Rosa Luxemburg, and what made them common opponents of Kautsky. Luxemburg and Lenin regarded themselves as “orthodox,” faithful to the revolutionary spirit of Marx and Engels, whereas Kautsky was a traitor — “renegade.” Kautsky opposed democracy to socialism but betrayed them both.
The relevance of Lenin today: political and social revolution
All of this seems very far removed from the concerns of the present. Today, we struggle not with the problem of achieving socialism, but rather have returned to the apparently more basic issue of democracy. This is seen in recent events, from the financial crisis to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy, to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little. The need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself. Political revolution seems necessary — again.
Lenin was a figure of the struggle for socialism — a man of a very different era.17 But his self-conception as a “Jacobin” raises the issue of regarding Lenin as a radical democrat.18 Lenin’s identification for this was “revolutionary social democrat” — someone who would uphold the need for revolution to achieve democracy with adequate social content. In this respect, what Lenin aspired to might remain our goal as well. The question that remains for us is the relation between democracy and capitalism. Capitalism is a source of severe discontents — an undoubted problem of our world — but seems intractable. It is no longer the case, as it was in the Cold War period, that capitalism is accepted as a necessary evil, to preserve the autonomy of civil society against the potentially “totalitarian” state. Rather, in our time, we accept capitalism in the much more degraded sense of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous expression, “There is no alternative!” But the recent crisis of neoliberalism means that even this ideology, predominant for a generation, has seemingly worn thin. Social revolution seems necessary — again.
But there is an unmistakable shying away from such tasks on the Left today. Political party, never mind revolution, seems undesirable in the present. For political parties are defined by their ability and willingness to take power.19 Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness. Indeed, forming a political party aiming at radical democracy, let alone socialism — a “Jacobin” party — would itself be a revolutionary act. Perhaps this is precisely the reason why it is avoided. The image of Lenin haunting us reminds that we could do otherwise.
It is Lenin who offers the memory, however distant, of the relation between political and social revolution, the relation between the need for democracy — the “rule of the people” — and the task of socialism. This is the reason that Lenin is either forgotten entirely — in an unconscious psychological blind-spot20 — or is ritualistically invoked only to be demonized. Nevertheless, the questions raised by Lenin remain.
On December 17, 2011, I gave a presentation on “The relevance of Lenin today” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, broadcasting it live on the Internet. This essay is an abbreviated, edited and somewhat further elaborated version, especially in light of subsequent events. Video and audio recordings of my original presentation can be found online at <http://chriscutrone.platypus1917.org/?p=1507>. [↩]
Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence and other writings (Verso Revolutions Series), ed. Michael Hardt (London: Verso, 2007), 46–47. Also available online at <http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/592/>. [↩]
The death of Marxism and the emergence of neo-liberalism and neo-anarchism
At the 2012 Platypus Affiliated Society’s (PAS) annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago March 30–April 1, Chris Cutrone, President of the PAS, delivered the following presentation, which has been edited for clarity. A full audio recording is available online at <http://archive.org/details/2012PresidentsReport>.
IN THE TRADITION we established just two years ago, there is a Platypus President’s report, speaking to the historical moment. At our convention last year, I presented on the “anti-fa” vs. “anti-imp” Left, as a division in the history of the Left that bears upon the present.1 In the year prior to that, in my first report, I presented on the 1970s as a decade in the history of the Left that continues to inform the present, but in ways that are usually not acknowledged.
This year, I am presenting on “1873 to 1973: The century of Marxism.” The reason that I, in consultation with my comrades and colleagues, chose this topic, is to attempt to grasp the crisis of 2007–08 as closing the period of neoliberalism that began with the crisis of 1973. One thing to consider, therefore, is the parallel but also lack or disparity between the period from 1873 to, say, 1912 vs. the period from 1973 to today. I think this bears upon how we might consider our present historical moment. So the provocative formulation I have is to call the period from 1873 to 1973 the “century of Marxism,” locating Marxism itself historically in this period.
I will begin with some historical dates, the birth and death years of various figures in the history of Marxism that are of prime importance for Platypus. The “century of Marxism” is, principally, after Marx’s time, and ends, roughly, around the time of Adorno’s death.
1818–1883 Karl Marx
1820–1895 Friedrich Engels
1870–1924 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
1871–1919 Rosa Luxemburg
1879–1940 Leon Trotsky
1885–1971 Georg Lukács
1889–1914 Second International
1892–1940 Walter Benjamin
1895–1973 Max Horkheimer
1903–1969 Theodor W. Adorno
If, according to Jim Creegan, in his article on #Occupy, “Hot autumn in New York,”2 the events of 2011 were similar to but different in certain key respects from those of 1968 and 1999, this is due to 1968, as a crisis year of the New Left, and 1999, the year of the Battle of Seattle, taking place during periods of economic boom, whereas 2011 took place during the economic crisis that began in 2007–08. However, in terms of similarities and differences, what this comparison neglects is the crisis of 1973, the crisis of Keynesianism and Fordism that occurred in the aftermath of the New Left explosion of 1968. One can say, perhaps, that 1968 took place during an economic boom, but the 1970s phase of the New Left took place during a period of economic crisis, after 1973. Why Creegan, among others, may choose to forget this is that it raises the question of Marxism in the 1970s, the last time that there was a potential renascence of the Left during an economic crisis on the order of magnitude we’re facing today. The 1970s were a period whose failure conditions any attempts at Marxism in the present.
The last apparent renascence of Marxism, in the 1970s “Marxist-Leninist” turn of the New Left, may indeed be considered, rather, Marxism’s long-delayed death. In other words, Marxism didn’t come back to life in the ’70s so much as it finally died then. This is quite different from considering the collapse of the Soviet Bloc beginning in 1989 to be the crisis and death of Marxism. For it was in the 1970s that the crisis of Keynesian Fordism led to the neoliberal era, symbolized by the election of Thatcher and Reagan by the end of the decade. Neoliberalism has this crucial history in the 1970s, two decades before the 1990s, despite the preponderant consciousness today of later anti-globalization protests.
If the recent crisis is to be considered a crisis of neoliberalism, then it recalls the birth of the neoliberal era in the failure of the New Left, specifically the failure of New Left Marxism in the 1970s. The Marxist-Leninist turn of the New Left is coincidental historically with neoliberalism, so neoliberalism can be considered a historical phenomenon of the failure of the New Left. It was this failure that led to “postmodernist” anti-Marxism, specifically the death of the Left in its “post-political” phase of the 1980s–90s that we describe in Platypus’s official Statement of Purpose.
The century of Marxism: 19th and 20th centuries
The question before us, then, is the century of Marxism, considered as the emergence, crisis, death, and memory of Marxism. That question can be historically periodized as 1873–1973.
Marx’s thought predates this period, and is properly considered a phenomenon circa and in the aftermath of the Revolutions of 1848.3 If Marx’s own thought was born in the crisis of the 1840s (the “hungry ’40s”), then Marx-ism (as distinct from Marx’s own thought and practice), as a form of politics sui generis, a Marxist politics per se, dates from the collapse of the First International (International Workingmen’s Association) and the formation of the German Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SPD) in the 1870s. As such, Marxism is contemporaneous with the first Great Depression that began with the crisis of 1873. Marxism, as a form of politics distinct from other forms of socialism, dates from this period. Prior to this, there was no question of “Marxism” but, rather, Marx and Engels and their close colleagues participated in the broader socialist movement.
1873 is commonly regarded as the end of the mid-19th century “liberal” era (which saw a certain heyday in the 1860s, also when Leftist politics emerged from post-1848 reaction). In Marxist historiography, the period after 1873 dates the emergence of the “monopoly” era of capitalism, the era of modern “imperialism.” By contrast, the 1860s is the decade, for instance, marked by the U.S. Civil War, which conditioned the formation of the First International.4 However, that period ended by the 1870s.
Significantly, 1873 was a blow to, and not a boon for, the First International. If we take the First International as paradigmatic of 19th century socialism, the crisis of 1873 did not boost 19th century socialism as much as it was coincidental historically with the crisis of 19th century socialism, namely, the collapse of the First International. The 1870s signaled a shift. This shift, towards what became “Marxism,” therefore, was bound up with other changes.5 These changes can be summed up in the historical shift from the liberal era to the state-centric era of capitalism.
“State capitalism” and Marxism
“State capitalism” is a tricky category, with a variety of different meanings. For instance, Friedrich Pollock, a member of the Frankfurt School, wrote an influential essay on “state capitalism,” published in the early 1940s, which referred to changes in the inter-war years of the early 20th century. But, in another sense, “state capitalism” can be dated in two very different ways: from 1873 or 1914, either Bismarck or WWI. The fact that state capitalism can be characterized as having such very different start dates is significant: it places, specifically, the period between these two dates under certain questions. This period, 1873–1914, is coterminous with another historiographic period, the time between the Franco-Prussian War and WWI (in France, this is the period of the Third Republic, after the collapse of the Louis Bonaparte’s Second Empire and the suppression of the Paris Commune), which developed towards a certain flowering of global capitalism in the Belle Époque. This is also the period of Marxism. Thus, it is significant that Marxism, in its “classical” era, can be considered a phenomenon of the turn to state capitalism. Marxists of this period called this era “imperialism,” or the “highest stage of capitalism,” the eve of socialist revolution. In other words, the period of the emergence of Marxism as a politics sui generis was also understood by Marxists of the time as sharing the historical moment of capitalism’s highest possible stage. “State capitalism,” in this view, was not the overcoming but rather the exacerbation of the contradictions of capitalism. Marxism was thus bound up with heightening contradiction.
The late-19th to early-20th century period of “imperialism” resulted in the First World War, which was, of course, the crisis of Marxism: the collapse of the Second International. The question is how Marxism was bound up with the imperialist phase of capitalism, and how the crisis of Marxism in WWI was connected to the other results of this period of history. In other words, how did the crisis of Marxism itself share in the historical moment of the emergence and crisis of state capitalism, understood by Marxists at the time as “imperialism”?
For the Marxists of this time, WWI was the crisis of capitalism in its period of “revolution,” which was signaled, in an inaugural sense, by the Russian Revolution of 1905. Marxists such as Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky regarded this period as one confronted by the choice of “socialism or barbarism,” or, more specifically, the “civil war” of the workers against the capitalists or a “world war” between imperialist states. This was the prognosis.
The 20th century (1): The death of Marxism
Both predictions, of civil war and world war, in fact, came spectacularly true. Up to that time, Marxists understood this as either one alternative or the other. As it turned out, it was both. There was a world war and a civil war in 1914–19, in which the Second International collapsed and Marxism was divided. Marxism was divided specifically on the questions of both the imperialist world war and the class-struggle civil war that followed. So the crisis of Marxism was not only over the world war but was also over the civil war.
Marxism, specifically as a form of politics sui generis (distinguished from the greater 19th century history of socialism, from the Utopians to Proudhon, Blanqui, Lassalle, Bakunin, et al.) that had developed in the preceding period, from 1875–1914, did not survive its crisis in WWI and the revolutions that followed. Rather, Marxism died then.
The failure of Marxism can be seen most clearly in the birth of a new right-wing form of politics, fascism, in this period, issuing directly out of the crisis of Marxism in WWI (see, for instance, Benito Mussolini, who before the war was a leading member of the Marxist Left of the Italian Socialist Party). Fascism, 20th century social-democratic reformism, 20th century forms of nationalism (i.e., “anti-colonialism”), and Stalinism were the predominant (but not exclusive) results of the failed crisis of Marxism 1914–19.
So, how are we to regard the history of Marxism post-1919? Precisely as its post-history, its memory.
The 20th century (2): The memory of Marxism
The memory of Marxism was carried, for the purposes of our project in Platypus, principally by two figures: Trotsky and Adorno. Trotsky, as the major surviving figure of Second International radicalism (Luxemburg died in 1919, and Lenin in 1924); and Adorno, as the “Critical Theorist” who tried to sustain the insights of Lukács and Korsch in the aftermath of 1917–19 (also through the attempt to sustain Benjamin’s work, which was itself inspired by Lukács and Korsch’s work of the early 1920s). Trotsky and Adorno represented the disintegration of theory and practice that had characterized the crisis and failure of Marxism as a relation of theory and practice, as a form of thinking and political action sui generis, as it had developed up to 1914. In other words, Marxism developed from the 1870s, it ran into a crisis by 1914, and then it became divided in its theory and practice, especially around the revolutions of 1917–19. These two figures, Trotsky and Adorno, exemplify the effects of this history. But what they actually exemplify, to be more precise, is not the separation of theory (Adorno) from practice (Trotsky), but, rather, both Adorno and Trotsky are symptoms of the disintegration of Marxism as a relation of theory and practice that developed in the preceding period. The theory and practice problem exists on both sides of Trotskyism and the Frankfurt School.
The memory of Marxism haunted the 20th century, especially regarding the grotesque farce of Marxism in Stalinism. If there was a tragedy of Marxism in 1914–19, then this was followed by the farce of Stalinism. Both Trotsky and Adorno exemplify the possibilities for anti-Stalinist Marxism.
What died in the 1970s (let alone in 1989!) was not Marxism but rather the memory of Marxism, which had been only tenuously sustained. Between 1919 and 1973, we had the memory of Marxism, which faded out: this memory did not really survive Adorno’s death. This is not to say that Adorno was the personal embodiment of the memory of the Marxism, but that it didn’t really survive the time of Adorno’s death. The reason that the passing of the memory of Marxism might date, coincidentally, with the death of Adorno (who was more a thinker and not a very overtly political actor), is that “Trotskyism” as a form of Marxist politics did not really survive Trotsky’s death in 1940.
What is of interest, then, is how the last great renaissance of interest in Marxism, in the 1970s, actually marked the “death” of its effective memory. The apparent recovery of Marxism in the ’70s was actually the effective obscuring of its memory.
What we have been living through more recently, say, since the 2000s, is the exhaustion and falling away of the means for obscuring the memory of Marxism that emerged and developed in the 1970s–80s–90s, which were a process of forgetting Marxism. The 1990s were an especially interesting period in this history, as there were already some intimations of the exhaustion of the postmodernism of the previous 1970s–80s. In this sense, 1989 can be considered a certain end to the “long 1960s” that had extended into the ’70s and ’80s (or, ’89 can be considered as an “inverted ’68”).
The period from 1914 to 1973 (or, perhaps, 1989) was the essential, “short” 20th century.6
Platypus: Marxism in the 21st century?
Now, what does this say about Platypus in this regard? There are two different generations of Platypus, broadly speaking: the generation of the 1990s and that of the 2000s. These two generations express (the tensions within) the possible recovery of the memory of Marxism against its passing means of effacement. Thus, two different founding moments of Platypus’s own historical consciousness—1999, Seattle, and 2007, the exhaustion of the anti-war movement—are interrelated and interact specifically as different modulations of the exhaustion of processes for obscuring the memory of Marxism. Platypus, therefore, has two histories: a pre-history, 1999–2007; and an actual history, 2007–11/12.
If we compare our historical period with one a hundred years ago, the specificity of our project can be thrown into stark relief.
Whereas Marxism up to 1914 responded to and participated in the culmination of the imperialist phase of post-1873 capitalism, Platypus circa 2012 faces the very different challenges of the crisis of the neoliberal phase of post-1973 capitalism. In other words, our project in Platypus is a product of the end of the post-1973 neoliberal era. In this respect, the era of Marxism 1873–1914 could not contrast more starkly with our time, 1968/73–2011. Where one, 1873–1914, was a mounting crisis and a deeply ambivalent process of historical progression and regression, the other, our period, is one of spiraling decomposition.
This is how Platypus must relate to the history of Marxism: through the profound contrasts of post-1873 vs. post-1973 history.
Unprecedented historical moment
The reason that our project in Platypus is unprecedented is precisely because our historical moment is unprecedented: without the post-1848 and post-1873 projects of Marxism, and without the memory of Marxism 1914/19–73. Our period is a “post-Marxist” time in a totally unparalleled way. We are entering into a time not only very much unlike post-1873 or post-1914, but also significantly unlike the decades post-1973 (1970s–80s) and post-1989 (1990s–2000s).
This is why our project is so specifically one of the 21st century, of its first, and, now, its second decade. We need to attend closely to the various ways in which our project is so conditioned. The specificity of our time is our task.
Reference to the history of Marxism, as the ghost that might still haunt us, helps specify the peculiarities of our time, in which a fundamental transformation of Marxism is necessary for it to continue at all—for Marxism to be reborn, or, more precisely, to be reincarnated, in the traditional sense of spirit forgetting its past life. Such forgetting today, however, is a pathological repression. We must make Marxism remembered, if however, and necessarily, obscurely.
Unredeemable legacy of the 20th century
The 20th century, the period of the emergence, crisis, death, and memory of Marxism, cannot really be redeemed. In other words, the language of redemption you find in the Second International, with figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, or even with figures such as Benjamin or Adorno (who followed Luxemburg), their notion of redemption doesn’t apply for us in the 21st century. The reason that the 20th century cannot be redeemed is that, unlike the 19th century, we can say that the 20th century was one of unnecessary suffering. This is because the failure of Marxism was unnecessary—which is why it cannot be properly forgotten.
Rather, all of (prior) human history is now filtered through the 20th century—not through capital (as in the 19th century, for Marx), but rather through the failure of Marxism. The postmodernist attempt to overturn “grand narratives” of history was first and foremost the attempt to overcome Marxism as the grandest of all narratives of history. But postmodernism was not successful in this.
Whereas, for Marx, capital was the crossroads of human history as it had culminated in the 19th century, the 20th century was characterized by the crossroads of Marxism. This affects what came after. All ideology today is anti-Marxism, thus always returning to the question of Marxism. This is why Platypus is not about Marxism as an answer to the crisis of history, but rather as a question. That means that Platypus as a project is peculiar and unlike any other Marxist project historically, and the reason that we are unlike any other Marxist project today is that we emerged when we did. Our historical moment is unlike any other period. We cannot pose Marxism as an answer but only as a question.
Now, our claim is not that Marxism is a question, but is, rather, the more emphatic one, that Marxism is the question.
Because of the nature of the last year, 2011–12, this narrative requires a postscript, on anarchism.
Neo-anarchism and neo-liberalism
I just narrated 1873–1973 with respect to Marxism. Now, I’d like to narrate 1873–1973 in terms of anarchism.
Post-1873, anarchism was a waning ideology in the wilderness, excluded from the Second International, and thus cast into the shadows.
Post-1973, by contrast, it has become impossible to avoid anarchism. There is a way in which everything has become a kind of anarchism. Everything becomes filtered through an ethos of anarchism. Such (pseudo-)”anarchism” is more ideologically prevalent today than ever before.
It is significant that anarchism was excluded from the Second International. For the Second International, it didn’t seem that this was to any political detriment.
Starting in 1905, however, with the Russian Revolution, there began to be a changed relationship between anarchism and Marxism. After the 1870s, Marxism felt entirely justified in regarding anarchism as an antiquated and obsolete ideology. After 1905, however, this is no longer really the case. There are splits in both Marxism and anarchism that point to a changed relationship between Marxism and anarchism. Starting with 1905, anarchists become Marxists and, also, Marxists become (somehow) more anarchist. For instance, it was important for Rosa Luxemburg to argue, with respect to her pamphlet on 1905, The Mass Strike, the Trade Unions and the Political Party (1906), that she was not offering an anarchist argument or apologia for anarchism.
And, later, again, with the Russian Revolution in 1917, significantly, anarchists became Marxists.
From 1920/24–73, however, dissident Marxism becomes (“neo”-)anarchism, as seen in “council-communism,” Korsch’s later (post-1924) trajectory, figures such as Castoriadis, Murray Bookchin, the Situationist International, etc.
In 1969, Adorno wrote, in his last essay, “Resignation,” that “the return of anarchism is that of a ghost,” that (historical) Marxism’s critique of anarchism remained valid (see there Adorno’s paraphrasing of Lenin’s 1920 pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder).
Marxism’s failure to transcend anarchism post-1919 means that the recrudescence of anarchism becomes an important symptom of the failure of Marxism. But this return of anarchism is not true but rather “pseudo.”
More broadly speaking, socialism’s failure to transcend liberalism in the 20th century means that liberalism becomes an important symptom of the failure of socialism, i.e., neo-liberalism. There are thus significant parallels between neo-liberalism and what we might call neo-anarchism after the failure of Marxism in the world revolution 1917–19.
Why characterize (pseudo-”)anarchism(“) as “dishonest liberalism,” or, as “hysterical” liberalism?7 What might we mean by that? This is because anarchism is the only serious non-Marxian approach to socialism—other versions of socialism, for instance 20th century Social Democracy, are more clearly apparently relapses into (decadent, “ideological” forms of) liberalism. (Hence, Luxemburg’s characterization, in Reform or Revolution?,1900/08, of Eduard Bernstein’s “reformism” as “liberalism.”)
The failure of Marxist socialism thus has two essential results: neo-anarchism and neo-liberalism. They are distinguished not in principle, as their proponents might imagine, but only on a spectrum of opportunism. Hence, the indicative, symptomatic ideology of “libertarian socialism” in our post-1973 era. Libertarianism is merely an ideologically cruder version of anarchism, or, (neo- or pseudo-)anarchism post-1973 is merely an ideologically overwrought libertarianism. Anarchists are libertarians who take themselves too seriously; and libertarians are anarchists who are content to remain muddled in their thinking.
Following the Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky (and Luxemburg), Stalinism, as a form of “state socialism” is not to be defined properly as “authoritarian” but rather as opportunist. It was not simply a “wrong way,” but an opportunistic adaptation to defeat (or failure), what Trotsky called the “great organizer of defeat.” Hence, neo-anarchism is to be defined as dishonest opportunism, or as “(reactionary-)utopian ideology.”
The primary character of such ideology is the obscuring of history—the effacing of post-1848 political authoritarianism (“Bonapartism”) as a historical symptom that cannot be avoided but must be worked through. Anarchism is indicted by its anti-Marxism. This is what it means to say that (neo-)anarchism lacks historical consciousness or theory, replacing this with anthropology or psychology.
In speaking about the “unnecessary suffering” of the 20th century, what did you mean?
It is significant that it is only in the late 19th century that one finds, for instance, a genocidal policy towards indigenous peoples (e.g., Native Americans). But, also, there is a new kind of racism, whether Dreyfus Affair anti-Semitism, or the new post-(collapse of) Reconstruction anti-black racism in the U.S. These came to characterize the 20th century. I would assert that such pathologies were not historically necessary but avoidable.
What about Bonapartism, as a post-1848 vs. post-1873 phenomenon?
This is related to the difference between Marx and Marxism, which is potentially obscure. Is there a difference in Bonapartism post-1848 and post-1873? Perhaps. This is the importance of “state capitalism.” What is the difference between the 1848 Revolutions and the (1870–71) Paris Commune? What is the difference between the First and Second Internationals? Marx and Engels did not seek to make “Marxism,” whatever that would be, hegemonic in the First International. But it seems to become necessarily hegemonic in the Second International. This expresses a historical shift.
I have two questions about the historical periodization: perhaps two blind spots. What about the period between the death of Trotsky in 1940 and the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s? This would appear to be an important bridge period. Also, aren’t you collapsing the post-1973 and post-1989 periods? What about the 1980s, before the collapse of Stalinism, but after the efflorescence of the 1970s? One sees this, for example, in the degeneration of the Spartacist League, among other Marxist organizations, after the 1970s.
The 1980s were importantly characterized by the disintegration of the Left into academicism and activism. Hence, there were two phases of what I’m calling the obscuring of the memory of Marxism, in which this occurred differently: the 1970s and the 1980s.
In terms of the mid-20th century period, one could say this was the heyday of Stalinism, as well as of ersatz or quasi-Stalinism, that is, Third World nationalism and Maoism, Castroism/Guevarism, etc. The Cold War films of the period showed the “blob” of the “Red Menace” growing. But this was not, I would contend, the growth of Marxism.
The memory of Marxism was sustained by the farce of Marxism in Stalinism.
But wasn’t Adorno’s own work a response to this mid-20th century moment?
I would say that neither the Frankfurt School nor Trotskyism experienced any real development in the mid-20th century, after 1940. At best, they held their ground. At worst, they retreated.
What about the 1860s? What about Bonapartism as an epochal development? What about Marx’s own growth and maturity as a political thinker? In 1873, from my understanding of European history, the kind of state interventionism one sees then is a political choice, not (merely) an economic one. When was the crisis of Marxism? How does this relate to the crisis of neoliberalism in the present? Why do you place such emphasis on Trotsky and Trotskyism? I know you were once around the Spartacist League. But wasn’t Trotskyism a farce as much as Stalinism? Didn’t Trotsky underestimate the profound, paralyzing influence of Stalinism? Wasn’t Stalinism a profounder problem than Trotsky thought? Isn’t there a problem with the “red thread” argument, linking Marx, through Lenin, Trotsky, etc.?
I must say that I don’t think Trotsky’s Fourth International project was particularly viable. But I also don’t think the Third, Communist International project was viable. Now, of course, Lenin and Trotsky had to hope against hope with the Third International.
But this is not to fault Trotsky (or Lenin!). When Trotsky was launching the Fourth International—people had spoken of the October Revolution as one characterized by “youth;” the soldiers were teenagers—there was still a living memory of the Revolution in the 1930s. Those who were once 20 were then 40, and thus still capable of making revolution. There is also the problem of what I would call Trotsky’s self-vulgarization, his propaganda orientation. Moreover, there was a problem in Trotsky trying to split the Third International, and basing his politics on the early Third International. But we must bear in mind that after 1933 Trotsky also oriented towards the remnants of Second International Social Democracy (as expressed in the so-called “French turn”), and refused to characterize Stalinism as somehow more Left than Social Democracy. I think that Trotsky’s “crisis of leadership” estimation of political possibilities meant something more supple than what his followers offered later. I think he recognized the profundity of the problem and its historical roots.
Let me be clear: The failure of Marxism was profound. Hence, there is no Marxism to return to. There is no answer, only a question. The question is the failure of Marxism.
The reason I am putting such emphasis on post-1873 history is to raise the issue of Marxism per se. Not the question of the workers’ movement or of socialism, but of Marxism. This is not posed later, in 1938 (the founding of the Fourth International) or 1933 (the failure of Third International to stop Nazism), or 1923 (the definitive end of the post-WWI revolutionary wave) or 1919 (the crushing of the German Revolution) or 1917 (the October Revolution as revolutionary split in Marxism) or 1914 (the collapse of the Second International in WWI). The question of Marxism is posed already at the outset in the 1870s. Why was the SPD necessary? Why does the SPD take the form it does? Why did Marxists join a Lassallean party?
So, there is the issue of the SPD, founded in 1875, being what Moishe Postone, for one, has called a “Lassallean party with Marxist verbiage.” Wasn’t it always a Lassallean party with “Marxist” window-dressing? My question is, is there such a thing as a “Marxist party?” Or, is there, rather, a socialist party with Marxists participating in it? Marxism was the “historical consciousness” of the socialist workers’ movement. There’s a famous photograph of Rosa Luxemburg, flanked on stage by portraits of Lassalle and Marx. Now, what did that mean? Certainly, Luxemburg was aware of Marx’s critique of and political opposition to Lassalle. So, what did it mean for an avowed “Marxist” such as Luxemburg to participate in a socialist workers’ movement and political party with a strong tradition of Lassalleanism?
But the history of Marxism was always characterized by the critique of socialism, starting with Marx in the 1840s, but carried forward, for instance, in Lenin’s critique of Narodnism, “Legal Marxism,” and “Economism.” Or, more generally, in the Marxist critique of anarchism, whether of Proudhon or Bakunin, et al. There is also the “Revisionist Dispute” within Marxism itself in the 1890s. What would it mean, then, to speak of Marxism as a form of politics per se?
Just as Marxism as a philosophy or theory is peculiar, as a political practice it is also quite peculiar. If, for Marxists, the socialist workers’ movement always shades off into liberalism and anarchism, is always overlaid with anarchist and liberal ideology, then Marxism is always in a constant struggle against these. But this is not a struggle merely of opposition but of critical recognition.
About the “maturity” of Marxism, there is a question. I don’t think of the “mature Marx” as the writer of Capital, but also and perhaps more importantly as a political figure. In the critique of Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) by Kautsky that we published,8 Kautsky accuses Korsch, along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks (including Trotsky), for being enamored of “primitive Marxism,” i.e., that of Marx and Engels in the 1840s, and ignoring subsequent development.9 Both Korsch and Kautsky have some points to score in that debate. What’s the difference, for example, between Marx in the Manifesto and in the “Programme of the Parti Ouvrier” (1880)?10 These differences are potentially vital. But can they be considered simply as development?
There is, for instance, the issue that Marx himself was accused (in the 1860s) of being right-wing or opportunistic, in his endorsement of unions and workers’ consumer cooperatives, etc. Lukács is good at pointing this out (in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness, 1923), that is, the symptomatic character of Lassalle’s criticism of Marx for supposedly being “economistic” and neglecting politics. But Lassalle criticized the “economic” struggles of the workers more generally, going so far as to call this the mere struggle of economic “objects” as objects (of capitalism). But Lukács’s point was that Marx recognized a dialectic of economics and politics, or, of the workers as both “objects” and “subjects” of capitalism. Marx didn’t take unions or cooperatives as good in themselves, but rather as historical (and symptomatic) forms that the workers’ movement was taking, to be pushed through. They are the forms through which the possibility for socialism can be grasped. They can’t be accepted in their own terms, but they’re also not to be criticized, let alone rejected as such.
That’s why I emphasize this period of the collapse of the First International and the birth of the SPD in the 1870s, to bring out the issue of Marxism as such.
What about the crisis of liberalism? When does the crisis of liberalism become the necessity for Marxism? When was this shift?
For Marx, certainly liberalism was “dead” as an emancipatory politics already in 1848. It was liberals, after all, who put down the workers in June 1848. Liberalism dies several deaths. The death of liberalism in 1848 is different from that in the 1870s (for example, with the failure of Reconstruction in the U.S.).
This raises the question of historical “progress.” The necessity for socialism grows between 1848 and 1873. Engels, for example, in his 1895 Introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France,11 discusses the still not exhausted potential for capitalist development after 1848. But this wasn’t for Engels merely “economic” but political. Capitalism continues to grow, economically, in a sense. The question was whether such growth was a political advance. The evidence of “progress,” for Engels, was the growth of the socialist workers’ movement. What Marx and Engels had “underestimated” was the potential for capitalism to contribute to the growth of the workers’ movement for socialism. But that is precisely what we have not seen since 1973! Perhaps not since 1919.
What about Marx’s (infamous) Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), about “productive forces” and “relations of production?” To call the 20th century one huge ball of unnecessary suffering seems to belie Marx’s sense of contradiction. This is part of the continuing strange character of “what it means to live.” Chris, I’ve heard you address, for instance, financial techniques as forces of production, still contributing to the development of social possibilities. The 20th century as unnecessary suffering fails to get at that aspect of history. Capitalism hasn’t shut down yet. On the other hand, Marx and Engels, in the Manifesto, project the rest of the 19th century as unnecessary. So, the 20th century could be seen still as necessary, while the 19th century could also be seen as unnecessary.
The reason I put it this way, highly tendentiously, is to focus the question of Marxism. In other words, will Marxism play a role in emancipation? If it does, then the 20th century was unnecessary. If it does not, then perhaps the 20th century was necessary, in getting beyond, and transcending, Marxism. If the history of actual Marxism as politics plays no role, then the New Left was right, revolution in 1917 had been premature. If this history still has a role to play, however, then perhaps 1917 was not so premature, and what came later was not so necessary.
We must ask, in what ways might the history of Marxism play a role? As practical politics? As theory? How? As a relation of theory and practice, as Adorno puts it in “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (1969)? In what way was and is Marxism necessary?
Why should a project such as ours, beginning in the 21st century, be “Marxist?” Why shouldn’t we be “post-Marxist?” Why can’t we say, simply, that the history of Marxism has some contributions to make, but look at all these other things, anarchism, etc.?
How is it that Stalinism, Maoism, etc., weren’t Marxism? Is it because they abandoned an emancipatory vision? Is it because they became one-sided in their opposition to capitalism, and denied its contributing to emancipatory possibilities? So that, today, it doesn’t seem that capitalism holds such possibilities. What would it take to make that possibility active again? It would seem that the only way to do that would be to work through the history of the 20th century.
I’m not exactly saying that (about Stalinism and Maoism, etc.). To get back to the issue of Trotskyism, yes, Trotskyism was farcical in a sense. It was not the Marxism practiced by Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky himself in an earlier period. It was not the relation between theory and practice that Marxism once was. This is what makes the history of Trotskyism, including Trotsky’s own in the 1920s and ’30s, farcical, in a sense.
Why isn’t Trotsky a tragic figure, why is he farcical? Well, because the real tragic figures of Marxism, to my mind, are Lenin and Luxemburg. Lenin, to me, was a tragic figure. Also, Marx and Engels themselves. Marxism was the tragedy.
The ambiguity of the 20th century raises the issue of ideology. Could Marxism again become a guiding ideology?
There is the difference of the dialectic of history, as expressed by Marxism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the exhaustion of history in our present period. That’s what Fukuyama meant by the “end of history.” While untrue in a certain sense, it is symptomatically expressive in another sense.
What is the possibility of the recovery of the memory of Marxism? I think that the casualty of the death of Marxism was the workers’ movement itself, despite the 1930s, let alone the ’60s and ’70s. The “class struggle,” as previously found in history, ended. Not labor militancy, but class struggle. The failure of Marxism is the failure of the socialist workers’ movement. Stalinism was not only the farce of Marxism but also of the socialist workers’ movement. This is related to social democracy and even fascism. When Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom (1944), said that the roots of fascism are to be found in pre-WWI social democracy, even a benign case like Austrian Social Democracy, he had a point. Horrific if true, still, there is the problem of the plausibility of Hayek’s account, which was influential. Hayek, after all, is a key progenitor of neo-liberalism, that is, 20th century liberalism.
The 20th century was the rehash of 19th century ideology. There’s nothing new. Hayek, for instance, doesn’t come up with anything new, but rather goes back to liberalism, to ideology before socialism. The recrudescence of old ideologies is indicative. The 19th century, by contrast, was very new at the level of ideology.
What about fascism? What about fundamentalism? Aren’t they new in the 20th century?
Well, fundamentalism might be new, but I am emphasizing the Left. Fundamentalism is obviously conservative, and reaches back well before the 19th century. Fascism has roots in the 19th century, specifically in history after the 1870s. But, on the Left, liberalism and anarchism, as forms of anti-Marxism, still claim to be emancipatory, not conservative ideologies. They, like Marxism, originate in the 19th century. They are still with us today. The question is whether and how Marxism still is. | §
Transcribed with the assistance of Nikolas Lelle
Originally published in The Platypus Review 47 (June 2012).
The following was written for distribution as a flyer [PDF] at the occupation protests.
HOW ARE WE to regard the history of revolutions? Why do revolutions appear to fail to achieve their goals? What does this say about consciousness of social change?
One common misunderstanding of Marx (against which, however, many counter-arguments have been made) is with respect to the supposed “logic of history” in capital.
The notion of a “historical logic” is problematic, in that there may be assumed an underlying historical logic that Marx, as a social scientist, is supposed to have discovered. Marx’s (and Engels’s) idea of “science,” however, is not the conventional one of recognizing objective facts independent of the scientific observer, but rather the Hegelian one of knowledge aware of its own conditions of possibility.
This philosophical approach to “science” began with Kant, and regards theoretical concepts as self-critical reflections arising from practice. In other words, Hegelian “science,” in the original Marxist sense of Marx and Engels’s use of the term, is the attempt to raise practice to greater self-awareness. “Consciousness” is formed in the dialectic of theory and practice. Furthermore, consciousness develops in a dialectic with “social being.”
This is because Marxism was not concerned with how social being “determines” consciousness, but with how both social being and consciousness can change. It was the unfreedom of this process of change in modern society that Marx sought to address in his critical account of capital. For Marx, the “logic of capital” was not a logic at all.
Capital was, in Marx’s view, a process of social disintegration, in fits and starts, and no wheel of history — at least not in terms of freedom.
In what way was Marxist thought and political practice “critical?” Marx sought to raise greater awareness of the potential possibility of the transformation of society in freedom, which meant as a function of changes in consciousness as well as in social being. Following Kant and Hegel, Marxism asks: is consciousness merely to be the Stoical recognition and submission to inevitable change?
How are we to regard the history of the Left?
One plausible way regards the history of political change as belated response to social development. In this view, revolutions come about as adjustments to processes of social change already underway or completed. Political revolution crowns the achievement of social transformation, as the old order reveals itself to be already gone. Knowledge appears only in retrospect: according to Hegel, the “Owl of Minerva flies at dusk.”
But what of the obverse? What if revolution was only the delicate beginning of change, and consciousness its dawning awareness? Then failure would be explicable: failure to think or act.
L: Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Black Power turn of the Civil Rights Movement; R: Bayard Rustin.
As Bayard Rustin described the Black Power turn of the late 1960s, “Passionate self-assertion can be a mask for accommodation.”1 This spoke to the entire 1960s moment. In hindsight, it is difficult to disagree with this diagnosis.
At the time, such a disenchantment of protest was regarded as a conservative response to a potentially revolutionary situation.
But the point was that the apparent revolution was not the one the revolutionaries claimed to want, but rather one that used their discontents for other purposes. This involves a complex theory of social change that is worth considering. How might avowedly “revolutionary” ideology repress actual possibilities?
We are living in a time of change. The question is whether and how we can claim to be bringing this change about. Or, is the change already happening, beyond our control, and are we merely, in protest, registering our pain in the transition, as we accommodate and adapt to it?
Can politics be something more and other than the process of submission to domination? Is the goal of emancipation possible? History seems to show otherwise.2
If we imagine that history is on our side, we threaten to rationalize a course of change already underway that we have yet to control. Our protest against it may already be our resignation to it, in the guise of calling us to task.
The world is changing. The question is whether and how we are a function of that change. | §
Originally published in The Platypus Review42 (December 2011–January 2012).
Quoted in John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (New York: Free Press, 2003), 475. See also: Rustin, “The Failure of Black Separatism,” Harper’s Magazine (January 1970); Adolph Reed, “Black Particularity Reconsidered,” Telos 39 (1979), later expanded as “The ‘Black Revolution’ and the Reconstitution of Domination,” in Reed, Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999); and Reed, “The Limits of Anti-Racism: Vague Politics about a Nearly Indescribable Thing,” Left Business Observer 121 (September 2009), available on-line at: <http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Antiracism.html>. [↩]
The following was written for distribution as a flyer [PDF] at the occupation protests.
THE PRESENT OCCUPATION movement expresses a return to the Left of the late 1990s, specifically the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.
They both have taken place in the last year of a Democratic U.S. Presidential administration, been spearheaded by anarchism, had discontents with neoliberalism as their motivation, and been supported by the labor movement.
This configuration of politics on the Left is the “leaderless” and “horizontal” movement celebrated by such writers as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth), John Holloway (Change the World without Taking Power), and others.
A dominant theme in the self-understanding of the 1990s-era Left was, as in the current occupation movement, “resistance,” rather than pressing for reforms — let alone revolution.1
From the 1990s to the present
The collapse of Stalinism in 1989 began a period of disorientation and retreat for the avowed “Marxist” Left in the 1990s. This changed in the late 1990s, as disenchantment with Clinton grew.
Something similar has taken place ever since Obama’s election, amid the financial crisis, in 2008. The anti-war movement collapsed with the end of the Bush II administration. There is a lesson to be learned about the treacherous political effect of election cycles.
The bailout of Wall Street at first prompted a Right-wing response, the “Tea Party” movement. But, after some brief rumblings in campus occupations against austerity in 2009, ever since the Republicans captured a Congressional majority in the 2010 midterm elections, there has been a shift towards Left-wing discontents, beginning with the Wisconsin State House occupation.
Looking back, the movement that emerged in the late 1990s (finding an exemplar in Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela2), blossoming in the 1999 Seattle protests, was dealt a sharp blow, right after the Genoa G-8 protests in summer 2001 that sought to build upon Seattle, by the 9/11 attacks.
The standard narrative is that the anti-globalization movement was spiked and diverted by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath — perhaps even intentionally so, as the Left-wing 9/11 “truth” movement (indicatively prominent in the current occupation movement) was paranoid that the U.S. (or Israeli) government, and not al Qaeda, had perpetrated the attacks. Anti-globalization protest became occluded in the “War on Terror” era.
2000s anti-imperialist “Marxism”
The Left that developed in the 2000s was in contrast to the 1990s. The 2000s Left saw the return of the “Marxist” political organizations, pulling the strings of the anti-war coalitions after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, especially in the lead-up to and after the invasion and occupation of Iraq.3
The preceding 1990s Left consciousness expressed by Hardt and Negri et al. was displaced, precisely because the apparent reassertion of traditional great-power “imperialism,” regarding the U.S. neocons as the essential political players in the post-9/11 wars, defied notions of global neoliberal “Empire.”
The anti-war movement of the 2000s meant a more traditional “Left” of political sectarian groups orchestrating a protest movement that had as its target a Republican U.S. administration. This meant that the anti-war movement inevitably became a shill for the Democrats, especially after Bush’s re-election in 2004, as most of the sentiment of “Left” opposition to the wars was taken from the so-called “realist” vs. neocon foreign policy perspectives of many Democrats, European statesmen, and even some Republicans.4
Obama’s election dispelled the Left that yearned for a Democratic administration, revealing the bankruptcy of the “Marxist” Left opposing Bush’s wars.
But the “anti-imperialist” turn in the 2000s had been regrettable from the perspective of the 1990s Left activists who had crystallized their experience in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001, as well as in the burgeoning “World Social Forum” movement.
The younger generation of Leftists who came of age around the anti-war movement was divided between those who received their political education from Marxism vs. anarchism. The young leaders in the new Students for a Democratic Society were, for example, mentored in the Chomskyan and Parecon perspective of Z-magazine writers Michael Albert, et al. The new SDS struggled to be more than an anti-war cause. Anti-Marxism informed the new SDS’s “anti-ideological” bias, whose echoes return today in the occupation movement.5
Certainly the “Marxism” of the anti-war movement’s “anti-imperialism” was deeply problematic, to say the least. The financial collapse and deepening economic crisis after 2008 is better ground for the Left than the U.S. wars of the 2000s had been. The issue of capitalism has re-emerged.
It is only right that such inadequate “Marxism” falters after the 2000s. Today, the “Marxist” ideological Left of sectarian organizations struggles to catch up with the occupation movement and threatens to be sidelined by it — as Marxist groups had been in Seattle in 1999.
It is a measure of the bankruptcy of the “Marxist” Left that organizations could only rejuvenate themselves around the anti-war movement, in terms of “anti-imperialism,” submerging the issue of capitalism. But that moment has passed.
In its place, as in Seattle in 1999, an apparently unlikely alliance of the labor movement with anarchism has characterized the occupation movement. Oppositional discontents, not with neoconservatism and imperialism as in the 2000s, but with neoliberalism and capitalism as in the 1990s, characterize the political imagination of the occupation movement. This is the present opportunity for Left renewal. But it is impaired by prior history.
The issues of how capitalism is characterized and understood take on a new importance and urgency in the present moment. Now, properly understanding capitalism and neoliberalism is essential for any relevance of a Marxist approach.6
The discontents with neoliberalism pose the question of capitalism more deeply and not only more directly than imperialism did. A Marxist approach is more seriously tasked to address the problem of capitalism for our time.
The need for Marxism is a task of Marxism
Anarchism and the labor movement, respectively, will only be able to address the problem of capitalism in certain and narrow terms. Marxist approaches to the labor movement and anarchism are needed.7
The need for Marxism becomes the task of Marxism. Marxism does not presently exist in any way that is relevant to the current crisis and the political discontents erupting in it. Marxism is disarrayed, and rightfully so.
The danger, though considerable, is not merely one of the labor movement and the broader popular milieu of the occupation movement feeding into the Democratic Party effort to re-elect Obama in 2012. Rather, the challenge is deeper, in that what is meant by anti-capitalism, socialism, and hence Marxism might suffer another round of superficial banalization and degradation (“We are the 99%!”) in responses to the present crisis. The Left may suffer a subtle, obscure disintegration under the guise of its apparent renaissance.
Nonetheless, this is an opportunity to press the need for Marxism, to reformulate it in better terms and on a more solid basis than was possible during the anti-war movement of the 2000s.
This is the gauntlet that both anarchism and the labor movement throw down at the feet of Marxism. Can Marxist approaches rise to the challenge?8 | §
Originally published in The Platypus Review41 (November 2011).
Stalin, Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin in 1919. Kalinin was the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, or head of state of the Soviet Union, 1919–46.
THE PRINCIPAL MISTAKE MADE by those who contemplate Lenin’s political thought and action is due to assumptions that are made about the relation of socialism to democracy. Lenin was not an “undemocratic socialist” or one who prioritized socialism as an “end” over the “means” of democracy. Lenin did not think that once a majority of workers was won to socialist revolution democracy was finished. Lenin was not an authoritarian socialist.1
Socialism is meant to transcend liberalism by fulfilling it.2 The problem with liberalism is not its direction, supposedly different from socialism, but rather that it does not go far enough. Socialism is not anti-liberal. The 20th century antinomy of socialism versus liberalism, as expressed in Isaiah Berlin’s counterposing of “positive and negative freedoms” or “freedom to [social benefits] versus freedom from [the state],”3 or the idea that social justice conflicts with liberty, travesties (and naturalizes) and thus degrades the actual problem, which is not a clash of timeless principles—liberalism versus democracy—but a historically specific contradiction of capitalism. To clarify this, it is necessary to return to a Marxist approach, such as Lenin’s.
The error consists of addressing a dialectical approach to politics such as Lenin’s in an undialectical and eclectic manner, as if there were a number of criteria to be checked off (anticapitalism, democracy, etc.), rather than a set of intrinsically interrelated historical problems to be worked through together. The actual dialectic of the historically interrelated developments of capitalism, democracy, and the struggle for socialism demands a dialectical approach in both practice and theory. The reason that various moments of Lenin’s thought and action can appear contradictory is due to an undialectical interpretation of Lenin, not to Lenin himself. Lenin is subject to the same interpretive problem as Marx: the question of Lenin cuts to the heart of Marxism.4
This is recognizable by way of considering Lenin’s various discussions of the state, political parties, and society.5 Lenin assumed that these were not the same thing and did not assume that “socialism” meant making them into the same thing. Most of Lenin’s readers (both followers and detractors) either praise or denounce Lenin, mistakenly, for his supposed attempts to make society into an undifferentiated totality. Not only what Lenin said, but what he did shows otherwise. Furthermore, one must take into account how Lenin avowedly sought to be true to Marx, whether one judges Lenin to have been successful in this or not. Therefore, at least in part, one must reckon with the problem of evaluating Lenin as a Marxist.
It is a fundamental error to regard Lenin as a largely unconscious political actor who was reduced to theoretically “justifying” his actions. Readers often commit the fallacy of projecting their own inclinations or fears onto Lenin and misinterpret him accordingly. On the contrary, one must address what Lenin said and did in terms of the coherence of his own self-understanding. For this, it is necessary to regard the historical, that is, social and political, circumstances within which Lenin not only acted but spoke. From the various available records, Lenin did not write treatises but political pamphlets, moreover with propagandistic purpose, including his most “theoretical” works such as The State and Revolution (1917).
What is clear is that Lenin did not advocate the partyification of the state (or statification of the party) or the statification of society—in this crucial respect, Lenin remained a “liberal.” Both of these phenomena of Stalinization post-date Lenin and need to be addressed in terms of a process beginning after Lenin’s medical retirement, the dangers of which Lenin was well aware and against which he struggled, in vain, in his final years.6
The ban on factions that seems to impugn Lenin’s motives and show a supposed continuity between him and Stalin can be addressed rather straightforwardly. Lenin came in 1921 to advocate banning organized factions—not dissent!—within the Russian Communist Party, precisely because of the differentiated realities of the party, the state, and society in the Soviet workers’ state of the former Russian Empire. Many careerist state functionaries had joined the party (though, according to Lenin, they deserved only to be “shot”), and the party-controlled state faced a deeply divided society, in which he thought that the party could become a plaything in the hands of other state and greater societal forces. The ban on factions was meant not only to be merely a temporary measure, but it should be noted that Lenin did not call for such ban on factions in the Communist International, which was considered a single world party divided into national sections. The ban on factions was meant to address a danger specific to the Bolsheviks being a ruling governmental party under certain conditions, and it was inextricably tied to the contemporaneous implementation of the New Economic Policy. One might interpret the ban as directed against the Left, whereas in fact it was directed against the Right, that is, directed against the power of the status quo in the former Russian Empire swamping the politics of social revolution. So, the ban on factions was a self-consciously limited and specifically local compromise to Lenin’s mind, and not at all the expression of any kind of principle. It is a serious mistake to regard it otherwise. The fact that the ban on factions helped lead to Stalinism does not make it into an “original sin” by Lenin. Revolution beyond the Soviet Union was the only way to ameliorate the problems of Bolshevik rule, as Rosa Luxemburg, for one, recognized.7
The other mistake, indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of the relation of the struggle for proletarian socialism to democracy and the politics of the state, is to regard problems of economics and politics as similar in kind. There is no contradiction between democracy in politics and hierarchy of authority in various concrete activities, whether economic or military. The question is one of social and political leadership and responsibility. Is a factory responsible only to its own employees, or to society as a whole? Lenin was certainly not a syndicalist or “council communist,” that is, Lenin did not think that socialist politics can be adequately pursued by labor unions or workers’ councils (or more indeterminate “democratic assemblies”) alone, but this does not mean Lenin was undemocratic. The issue of democracy in economic life cannot be considered in an unmediated way without doing violence to the societal issues involved. The point of “democratizing the economy” is not to be understood properly as simply workplace democracy. This is because socialism is not merely a problem of the organization of production, let alone merely an economic issue. Socialism is not merely democratic. Rather, democracy poses the question of society and, from a Marxist perspective, the “social question” is capitalism. Marxism recognizes the need for democracy in capitalism. Lenin addressed the possibility of overcoming the necessity of the state or, more precisely, the need for democracy. Marxism agrees with anarchism on the goal of superseding democracy, but disagrees on how to get there from here. Marxism recognizes the need for a democratic state posed by capitalism that cannot be wished away.
The society and state in question were addressed by Lenin with respect to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which is, importantly, not a national state. His vision was for a workers’ state at a global scale. Because the bourgeois state is a global and not a national phenomenon, neither is the Marxist vision of the “workers’ state.” Lenin did not pursue a national road to socialism. As a Marxist, he recognized that, under capitalism, “the state”—of which various national states were merely local components—was essentially the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” This did not mean that there were no political struggles among the capitalists to which various nation states could and did become subject. Rather, the need for socialism was tied to a need for a global state as well as a truly free global civil society already expressed under capitalism.8 Only by understanding what Marx meant by the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” in liberal democracy can we understand what Lenin meant by the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in a revolutionary “workers’ state.”9
Lenin was a liberal because he understood the necessity of politics within the working class, which does not and cannot take place outside the domains of bourgeois rights and politics, but which is rather inevitably and necessarily part and parcel of them. Lenin did not advocate the unmediated politicization of society, which he knew would be regressive, whether understood in authoritarian or “libertarian” terms. The Soviet workers’ state in Lenin’s time was indeed like the Paris Commune of 1871, if it had been led by Marx and Engels, had fought off Versailles, and had held on to power.
The Russian Revolution presented new problems, not with regard to socialism, which was never achieved, but rather with regard to the revolution, which failed. Like the Commune, the revolution that opened in 1917 was abortive. Isolation in Russia was defeating: the failure of the German Revolution 1918–19 was the defeat of the revolution in Russia. Stalinism was the result of this defeat, and adapted itself to it. Lenin already contended with this defeat, and distinguished his Marxism from both Right opportunism and ultra-Leftism.10 The question is, what can we learn about this failure, from Lenin’s perspective?
Because democratic discontents, the workers’ movement, and anti-capitalist and socialist political parties, operate in a differentiated totality of bourgeois society that must be transformed, they are subject to politicization and the problems of democratic self-determination that liberal bourgeois society has historically placed on the agenda. Proletarian socialism, in Lenin’s view no less than Marx’s, does not nullify these problems but seeks to allow them a fuller scope of activity. Lenin advocated not only a workers’ “state,” but also workers’ political parties and other workers’ civil society institutions such as labor unions and workers’ publications, which the struggle for socialism necessitated. This is true after the revolution even more than before because the workers’ social revolution is meant to build upon the existing society. Lenin was an avowed Marxist “communist.” As Marx put it, communism seeks a society in which the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”11
Both “libertarian” and authoritarian tendencies in socialism tend to avoid the importance of Lenin’s Marxism on this score, because both tendencies tend to conflate society and politics. This is not only anti-liberal but illiberal—and un-Marxist—whether understood hierarchically or “democratically.” Capitalism is already a “grassroots” and thus a democratic phenomenon, and not merely a baleful hierarchy of authority: its problem goes beyond democracy.
The proletarian socialist revolution, in Lenin’s view as well as Marx’s, was not meant to bring about the Millennium, but rather to clear certain obstacles to the struggle for the working class’s social and political self-determination (not exclusively as a matter of the state), which Marx and Lenin thought could lead society beyond capitalism. Moreover, this was conceived largely “negatively,” in terms of problems to be overcome. The revolution, in Marxist terms, does not produce an emancipated society ready-made, but only, perhaps, political forms through which emancipatory social transformation, otherwise blocked by capitalism, might be pursued and developed further. Lenin, like Marx, thought that overthrowing both the rule of capitalist private property in the means of production and the subjection of society to the vicissitudes of the market, the classic demands of proletarian socialism as it had developed after the Industrial Revolution, might allow this.
Neither Marx nor Lenin came with blueprints for an emancipated society in hand. Rather, Lenin, following Marx, advocated pursuing the forms of the struggle for socialism that had emerged historically in and through the development of the workers’ movement itself. Historical Marxism did not formulate independent schemes for emancipation, but sought the potential social-emancipatory content of emergent political phenomena in light of history. Lenin as well as Marx advocated the workers’ right to rule, but followed other socialists in doing so. It is necessary to address Lenin as a consistent advocate of workers’ power, and consider how he understood the meaning of this in the struggle for socialism.
Socialism in the original Marxist sense that Lenin followed does not seek to undo but rather tries to press further the gains of historically “bourgeois” liberal democracy. Liberalism is not meant to be negated but fulfilled by democracy, just as bourgeois society is not meant to be torn down but transcended in overcoming capitalism. Liberal and democratic concerns need to answer to the historical tasks of emancipatory social transformation, not timeless political “principles.”
Lenin himself was very clear on this, even if neither most of his supposed followers nor his detractors have been. The problem is anti-Marxist interpretive bias that is blinding. | §
Originally published inThe Platypus Review40 (October 2011).
See Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” trans. Lewis White Beck, in Kant on History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963). [↩]
The reason why the global state under capital tends toward liberal democracy at the core but tolerates tyranny in its subordinate domains or peripheral extremities is the expediency or convenience of opportunism; despotism in the center, by contrast, is highly politically contentious and untenable. Indeed, it has led to world wars. [↩]
United States Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and his men from USS Enterprise attacking the Barbary pirate ketch Mistico on December 23, 1803. Painting by Dennis Malone Carter (1827–81).
“AFTER ME, THE DELUGE,” the saying attributed to Louis XV (1710–74), would have been better said by his son and heir Louis XVI, who was soon thereafter overthrown by the French Revolution that began in 1789. Muammar Qaddafi has said something similar, that if he is overthrown Libya will be condemned to chaos. Qaddafi even claims to be fighting off “al-Qaeda.” Perhaps he is.
On the one hand, this is all clearly self-serving on Qaddafi’s part. On the other hand, the kernel of truth in such a statement, specifically with regard to Libya, might bear scrutiny.
The U.S. administration that attacked Libya before Obama was that of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s foreign policy advisor and United Nations ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, famously distinguished between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” dictatorships, and thought that the U.S. should support the former and oppose the latter because of the relative ease with which the former could transition to democracy as opposed to the latter, whose pathology ran deeper, and so the effects would prove more lasting obstacles to freedom.
The comparison of Libya to its neighbor Egypt in the recent uprising against Mubarak seems to prove Kirkpatrick’s point. Egypt seems poised on a relatively painless transition to democracy, while Libya portends a much darker future, with or without Qaddafi. One might also, for good measure, point out the more intractably “totalitarian” tyranny of the political regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose potential democratic replacement is also highly uncertain, not least because its Islamic Revolution in 1979 was “democratic” in ways that the origins of the Egyptian or Libyan regimes were not.
Back in the 1980s, another famous dictator who was toppled, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, warned that if his “New Society” was overthrown it would mean only the return of the traditional oligarchy of wealthy families, to the detriment of the people. While the Philippines today is certainly more politically democratic, and in this sense “free,” than under Marcos, his prediction has come spectacularly true. The Philippines today is ruled by its traditional wealthy families, unimpeded, rather than by the upstart cronies cultivated under Marcos, himself a parvenu intolerable to the old Filipino elite. Furthermore, the rate of growth and development in the Philippines has stagnated, and is today much lower than it had been under Marcos. The wealth gap is much greater and poverty levels much worse at the bottom, and more endemically pervasive in the Philippines today than before. The Philippines remains, and will remain, just as swamped, in some ways worse than it was under Marcos.
Many of the former republics of the USSR after the collapse of Stalinism are as well.
But what is the point of saying so?
The potential further development of Libya after the passing of Qaddafi suggests something darker than what happened after “People’s Power” in the Philippines, in terms of violence and other forms of overt brutality — as opposed to the “softer” brutality that continues to prevail in the Philippines, as elsewhere. Libya may become more like Somalia. Or Yemen. Or Afghanistan or Iraq. Who knows?
If Qaddafi thought that the tsunami that hit Japan would distract the U.S. from attacking his regime and allow suppression of the rebellion in Libya, he was mistaken. Rather, Qaddafi underestimated the global deluge of capital, at whose leading edge the U.S., for better or worse, operates. The flood was not to spare Qaddafi. It always stands poised to crash, cresting menacingly somewhere off shore. The rebels in Libya may have wished it to rain down on Qaddafi like a Biblical plague on the Pharaoh, tearing down the pride of his sinful glory. It will. But it may not spare them, either. There is little if any justice to history. Especially to a place like Libya, history happens.
Protest against the U.S./NATO/UN bombing of Libya is no less hopeless than Qaddafi is.
Interior of the ancient Berber city of Ghadames, Libya.
Qaddafi’s regime was, like Marcos’s in the Philippines — and the “totalitarian” regimes of the USSR and Eastern Europe, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, etc. that Kirkpatrick and Reagan opposed — a “modernizing” project. Horrifically so. Perhaps this is what Kirkpatrick actually had in mind in her distinction between “authoritarian,” meaning more traditional, and “totalitarian” dictatorships — and why the former would end up being more benign than the latter. Perhaps.
The tsunami hits Japan, March 11, 2011.
Qaddafi moved the Berbers out of their traditional community in Ghadames into new apartment buildings. The ancient city — hallucinatory in its cavernous complexes — was left intact and preserved as a cultural museum. It still stands, alluring next to the decrepit hovels the modern high-rises have become. Perhaps the Berbers will return to their ancient city, evacuated by Qaddafi. But really it is no longer there, even if it remains in Libya. The deluge has not spared it. Nor will it. The only difference is how hard the wave might hit. | §
Originally published in The Platypus Review 34 (April 2011).
. See my “Egypt, or, history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848,” Platypus Review 33 (March 2011).
Lenin’s Marxist politics has been profoundly misconstrued and distorted, both positively and negatively, as supposedly having wanted to strip capitalist society of its deceptive veneer and assert the unadorned proletariat as the be-all and end-all of “socialist” society. Certainly not merely the later Stalinist history of the Soviet Union, but also practices of the Soviet state under Lenin’s leadership in the Civil War, so-called “War Communism,” and the Red Terror, lent themselves to a belief in Lenin as a ruthless destroyer of “bourgeois” conditions of life. But, then, what are we to make, for instance, of Lenin’s pamphlets on The State and Revolution and “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder? For they emphasized both the necessary persistence of “bourgeois right” among the workers in the long transition from socialism to communism, requiring the continuation of state mediation, and the fact that Marxists had understood their effort as trying to overcome capital “on the basis of capitalism” itself. A prime example of Lenin’s insistence on the mediation of politics in society was his opposition to Trotsky’s recommendation that labor unions be militarized and subsumed under the state. Lenin wanted to preserve, rather, the important non-identity of class, party, and state in the Soviet “workers’ state,” which he recognized as necessarily carrying on, for the foreseeable future, “state capitalism” (characterized by “bureaucratic deformations” due to Russian conditions). Lenin thus wanted to preserve the possibility of politics within the working class, a theme that reached back to his first major pamphlet, What is to be Done? Lenin’s “last struggle” (Moshe Lewin) was to prevent the strangling of politics in the Soviet state, a danger he regarded not merely in terms of Stalin’s leadership, but the condition of the Bolsheviks more generally. For instance, Lenin critically noted Trotsky’s predilection for “administrative” solutions.
Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch and Theodor Adorno, teasing out a “Hegelian” dimension to Lenin’s Marxism, derived from Lenin’s theoretical writings and political practice an elaboration of the Marxist theory of social mediation in capital, through the politics of proletarian socialism, that sought to recover Lenin from a bad utopian perspective of the desire to do away with politics altogether. Rather, such Marxist critical theory following Lenin understood overcoming the “alienation” and “reification” of capital as providing the possibility for the true practice of politics, a neglected but vital contribution Lenin made to the development of Marxism. Lenin did not attempt to destroy modern forms of political mediation, but rather to achieve the true mediation of theory and practice, in politics freed from society dominated by capital. This was the content of Lenin’s liberalism, his “dialectical” Marxist attempt, not to negate, but rather to fulfill the desiderata of bourgeois society, which capital had come to block, and which could only be worked through “immanently.”
The controversy about Lenin
Lenin is the most controversial figure in the history of Marxism, and perhaps one of the most controversial figures in all of history. As such, he is an impossible figure for sober consideration, without polemic. Nevertheless, it has become impossible, also, after Lenin, to consider Marxism without reference to him. Broadly, Marxism is divided into avowedly “Leninist” and “anti-Leninist” tendencies. In what ways was Lenin either an advance or a calamity for Marxism? But there is another way of approaching Lenin, which is as an expression of the historical crisis of Marxism. In other words, Lenin as a historical figure is unavoidably significant as manifesting a crisis of Marxism. The question is how Lenin provided the basis for advancing that crisis, how the polarization around Lenin could provide the basis for advancing the potential transformation of Marxism, in terms of resolving certain problems. What is clear from the various ways that Lenin is usually approached is that the necessity for such transformation and advance of Marxism has been expressed only in distorted ways. For instance, the question of Marxist “orthodoxy” hinders the proper evaluation of Lenin. There was a fundamental ambiguity in the way Marxism addressed its own historical crisis, in the question of fidelity to and revision of Marx, for instance in the so-called “Revisionist Dispute” of the late 19th century. Lenin was a leading anti-revisionist or “orthodox” Marxist. This was also true of other Second International radical Marxists, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. In what ways did these figures, and above all Lenin, think that being true to Marx was required for the advancement and transformation of Marxism?
The Frankfurt School Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno, in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics, wrote of the degeneration of Marxism due to “dogmatization and thought-taboos.” There is no other figure in the history of Marxism who has been subject to such “dogmatization and thought-taboos” as much as Lenin. For Adorno, figures in the history of Marxism such as Lenin or Luxemburg or Kautsky should not be approached in terms merely of their theoretical perspectives or practical actions they took or advocated, but rather in their relation of theory and practice, or, why they thought they did what they did when they did so. As Adorno put it, theory and practice have a changing relation that “fluctuates” historically.
Lenin, among other Marxists, thought that the political party served an important function with regard to consciousness, and wrote in What is to be Done? of the key “importance of the theoretical struggle” in forming such a party. Lenin thought that theory was not simply a matter of generalization from experience in terms of trial and error, as in traditional (pre-Kantian) epistemology, but, importantly, in the Hegelian “dialectical” sense of history: this is how Lenin understood “theory.” As Lenin put it, history did not advance in a line but rather in “spirals,” through repetitions and regressions, and not simple linear “progress.” In this respect, the past could be an advance on the present, or, the present could seek to attain moments of the past, but under changed conditions. And such changed conditions were themselves not to be regarded simply as “progressive.” Rather, there was an important ambivalence to history, in that it exhibited both progress and regress. In his 1915 Granat Encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx, describing “dialectics” from a Marxian perspective, Lenin wrote,
In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.
With Marxism, the “crisis” of bourgeois society was recognized. The crisis of bourgeois society circa 1848 was what Marx called “capital,” a provocative characterization. The spiral development through which Lenin, among other Second International radicals such as Luxemburg and Trotsky, thought that history in the modern era had regressed through the “progress” since Marx and Engels’s time in 1848, the moment of the Communist Manifesto, showed how and why the subsequent development of Marxism sought to re-attain 1848. Was history since 1848 progress or regress? In a certain sense, it was both. In this history, bourgeois society appeared to both fulfill and negate itself. In other words, bourgeois society had become more itself than ever; in other respects, however, it grew distant from its earlier achievements and even undermined them. (For instance, the recrudescence of slave labor in the decades leading up to the U.S. Civil War.) The Second International radicals thus sought to return to the original potential of bourgeois society in its first moment of crisis, circa 1848. As Karl Kraus put it, in a way that registered deeply with Walter Benjamin and Adorno, “Origin is the goal.” Even though the crisis of capital or bourgeois society grew, the question was whether the crisis advanced. The Second International radicals recognized that while the crisis of capital, in Marx’s sense, grows, the crisis must be made to advance, as history does not progress automatically. It was in this sense that there was, potentially, a return of the 1848 moment in the development of Marxism itself, which was the attempt to make the growing crisis — what Luxemburg and Lenin called “imperialism,” and what Lenin termed capitalism’s “highest stage” — a historical advance.
The paradox of such development and transformation of Marxism itself through the return to the past moment of potential and resultant “crisis” was expressed well by Karl Korsch, who wrote, in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy,”
[The] transformation and development of Marxist theory has been effected under the peculiar ideological guise of a return to the pure teaching of original or true Marxism. Yet it is easy to understand both the reasons for this guise and the real character of the process which is concealed by it. What theoreticians like Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Lenin in Russia have done, and are doing, in the field of Marxist theory is to liberate it from the inhibiting traditions of [Social Democracy]. They thereby answer the practical needs of the new revolutionary stage of proletarian class struggle, for these traditions weighed “like a nightmare” on the brain of the working masses whose objectively revolutionary socioeconomic position no longer corresponded to these [earlier] evolutionary doctrines. The apparent revival of original Marxist theory in the Third International is simply a result of the fact that in a new revolutionary period not only the workers’ movement itself, but the theoretical conceptions of communists which express it, must assume an explicitly revolutionary form. This is why large sections of the Marxist system, which seemed virtually forgotten in the final decades of the nineteenth century, have now come to life again.
So, what were these “revolutionary” aspects of Marxism that were recovered in the course of the “crisis of Marxism” (Korsch’s phrase), and how did Lenin help recover them?
Lenin: history not linear but spiral
Lenin and the political party
Lenin made a portentous but indicative remark in the first footnote to his book What is to be Done?, in which he stated that,
Incidentally, in the history of modern socialism [there] is a phenomenon . . . in its way very consoling, namely . . . the strife of the various trends within the socialist movement. . . . [In] the[se] disputes between Lassalleans and Eisenachers, between Guesdists and Possibilists, between Fabians and Social-Democrats, and between Narodnaya Volya adherents and Social-Democrats, . . . really [an] international battle with socialist opportunism, [will] international revolutionary Social-Democracy . . . perhaps become sufficiently strengthened to put an end to the political reaction that has long reigned in Europe?
In other words, could working through the issue of opportunist-reformist “revisionism” within Marxism be the means for overcoming capital? This would appear to be the self-centrality of Marxism taken to its fullest flower. But there was a rationale to this. Not only did Lenin (subsequent to What is to be Done?) want the Mensheviks thrown out of Russian Social Democracy (Lenin agreed with the Mensheviks on excluding the so-called “economistic” tendencies of Marxism and the Jewish Bund workers’ organizations), but a seldom remarked fact was that Luxemburg, too, wanted the reformist Revisionists thrown out of the German Social Democratic Party (Kautsky waffled on the issue). Lenin and Luxemburg wanted to split the Second International from its reformists (or, “opportunists”).
Lenin not only thought that splits, that is, political divisions, in the Left or the workers’ movement were possible and desirable, but also necessary. The only differences Lenin had with figures such as Luxemburg or Kautsky were over particular concrete instances in which such splits did or could or should have occurred. For instance, Luxemburg thought that the split in Russian Social Democracy in 1903 was premature and so did not concur with Lenin and the Bolsheviks on its benefits. And, importantly, the question was not merely over whether a political split could or should take place, but how, and, also, when. Politics was a historical phenomenon.
There is the specific question of the “party” as a form of politics. Marx and Engels had written in the Communist Manifesto that, “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.” So, this would appear to present a problem in the case of Lenin, who is notorious for the “party question.” But it poses a problem for the question of Marxism in general, for Marxism confronted other, opposed, political tendencies in the working class, for instance anarchism in the First International. What had changed between Marx and Engels’s time and Lenin’s?
As Marxists, Lenin and Luxemburg considered themselves to be vying for leadership of the social democratic workers’ movement and its political party; they didn’t simply identify with either the party or the movement, both of which originated independently of them. Both the workers’ movement and the social-democratic party would have existed without Marxism. For them, the party was an instrument, as was the workers’ movement itself. In responding to Eduard Bernstein’s remark that the “movement is everything, the goal nothing,” Luxemburg went so far as to say that without the goal of socialism the workers’ movement was nothing, or perhaps even worse than nothing, in that it exacerbated the problem of capitalism, for instance giving rise to the “imperialist” form of capitalism in the late 19th century. How were the social-democratic movement and its political parties understood by Marxists? For considering this, it is necessary to note well Marx’s critique of the Gotha Programme that had founded the German SPD and Engels’s subsequent critique of the Erfurt Programme that had made Marxism the official perspective of the Social Democratic Party. They critiqued these programmes because that’s what Marxists do: critique. No matter what had been written in these programmes, it was certain to elicit critiques from Marx and Engels.
The Marxists, that is, Marx and Engels, seem to have reluctantly gone along with the formation of a permanent party of social democracy, but not without serious reservations and caveats. The endorsement of party politics was provisional and conditional. For instance, in 1917, Lenin himself threatened to quit the Bolshevik party. Lenin thought that he could quit the party and continue to lead the revolution, that he would quit the party in order to lead the revolution.
Luxemburg’s biographer, British political scientist J.P. Nettl, traced the question of the social-democratic party to a set of problematic conceptions, all of which were challenged in practice and theory by the radical Left in the Second International, in figures such as Luxemburg and Lenin. The party could be conceived as an interest-aggregator and pressure-group on the state, advancing the interests of the working class. Or it could be conceived, as it was most overtly by its leadership, under its organizational leader August Bebel and its leading theorist Karl Kautsky, as a “state within the state,” or what Nettl termed an “inheritor party,” aiming to take power. Involved in the latter was a theory not only of revolution but also of socialism, both of which were problematical. Specifically troublesome was the idea of building up the working class’s own organization within capitalism so that when its final crisis came, political power would fall into the hands of the social democrats, who had organized the working class in anticipation of such an eventuality. But these were conceptions that were challenged and critiqued, not only by later radicals such as Luxemburg and Lenin, but also by Marx and Engels themselves. Marxists such as Marx and Engels and Lenin and Luxemburg were, rightly, deeply suspicious of the social-democratic party as a permanent political institution of the working class.
The problem of party politics
To situate this discussion properly, it is important to return to the classical liberal scorn for political parties. There was no term of political contempt greater than “party man,” or “partisan” politics, which violated not only the value of individuals thinking for themselves but also, perhaps more importantly, the very notion of politics in the liberal-democratic conception, especially with regard to the distinction between the state and civil society. Whereas the state was compulsory, civil society institutions were voluntary. While political parties, as forms of association, could be considered civil society organizations, the articulation of such formations with political power in the state struck classical liberal thinkers as particularly dangerous. Hegel, for one, explicitly preferred hereditary monarchy over democracy as a form of executive authority, precisely because it was free of such a problem. For Hegel, civil society would remain more free under a monarchy than under democracy, in which he thought political authority could be distorted by private interests. The danger lay in the potential for a civil society group to capture state power in its narrow, private interests. Moreover, in the classical liberal tradition, the idea of the professional “politician” was severely objectionable; rather, state-political figures rose through other civil society institutions, as entrepreneurs, professors, priests, etc., and only reluctantly took on the duty of public office: “It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.”
This problem of modern politics and its forms recurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to thinkers such as Robert Michels, a student and associate of Max Weber, similarly concerned with the problem of modern “bureaucracy,” who, in a landmark study, compared the German SPD to the Democratic Party in the U.S., specifically with regard to the issue of the “party machine,” with its “ward bosses,” or machine-party politics, and the resulting tendency towards what Michels called “oligarchy.” Michels had been a member of the SPD, in its radical wing, until 1907. (Michels, who also studied the Socialist Party in Italy, went on to join Italian fascism under the former Socialist Benito Mussolini, because he thought fascism was a solution to the problem of “bureaucracy,” but that’s another story.) So the problem of party-politics was a well-known issue in Lenin’s time. For Second International radical Marxists such as Luxemburg and Lenin, the workers’ social-democratic party was not to be an interest-aggregator and permanent political institution of social power like the Democratic Party in the U.S. (which ultimately became the party of the labor unions). What, then, was the function of the social-democratic party, for figures such as Lenin and Luxemburg?
Obviously, Lenin’s concerns with politics were not the same as those of liberals, who sought to prevent the ossification of political authority from stymieing the dynamism of civil society in capitalism. For Lenin’s concern was above all with revolution, that is, fundamental social transformation. But was the issue of politics thus so different in Lenin’s case? This raises the important issue of in what way social revolution and transformation was related to “politics,” in the modern sense. That is, whether Lenin was interested in the “end” of politics as conceived in liberalism and practiced under capitalism, or instead concerned with overcoming the obstacle to the practice of politics that capitalism had become. How was overcoming the social problem capitalism had become a new beginning, for the true practice of politics? In this sense, it is important to address how political mediation was brought into being but ultimately shaped and distorted by the modern society of capital, especially after the Industrial Revolution.
“Politics” is a modern phenomenon. Modern politics is conditioned by the crisis of capital in modern history. Traditional civilization, prior to the bourgeois, capitalist epoch, was subject to crises that could only be considered natural or divine in origin. Modern society is subject, for Marxists (as well as for liberals), rather, to human-made crisis thus potentially subject to politics. Bourgeois politics indeed responds to the permanent crisis of capitalism — in a sense, that’s all it does — but in inadequate terms, naturalizing aspects of capitalism that should be regarded as changeable, but can only be so regarded, for Marxists, as radically and consistently changeable, from a proletarian or working-class socialist perspective. Thus, modern politics has been haunted by the “specter of communism,” or socialism. As Marx put it, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,
Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is . . . stigmatized as “socialism.”
Furthermore, the concrete meaning of socialism or communism is subject to change. For Marxists, the demand for socialism in the 19th century was itself an engine of capitalist development, historically. The story of socialism, then, is bound up with the development of capital, and the question of whether and how its crisis was growing and advancing.
Moreover, the question of party-politics per se is a post-1848 phenomenon, in which modern socialism was bound up. In other words, the crisis of bourgeois society in capital after the Industrial Revolution and the failure of the “social republic” in 1848, was the crisis of bourgeois society as liberal. The rise of party-politics was thus a feature of the growing authoritarianism of bourgeois society, or, the failure of liberalism. As such, socialism needed to take up the problems of bourgeois society in capital that liberalism had failed to anticipate or adequately meet, or, to take up the cause of liberalism that bourgeois politics had dropped in the post-1848 world. For Marx, the problem was found most saliently in Louis Bonaparte’s popular authoritarianism against the liberals in Second Republic France, culminating in the coup d’état and establishment of the Second Empire. As Marx put it, the capitalists were no longer and the workers not yet able, politically, to master the bourgeois society of capital. Party-politics was thus bound up with the historical phenomenon of Bonapartism.
Lenin and the crisis of Marxism
The period of close collaboration between Luxemburg and Lenin around the 1905 Russian Revolution saw Luxemburg leveling a critique of the relation that had developed between the social-democratic party and the labor unions in her pamphlet on The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions. (Also, during this time Luxemburg wrote a defense of Lenin against the Menshevik charge of “Blanquism,” which she called “pedantic,” and thought said more of the reformist opportunism of those leveling the charge against Lenin than about its target.) In her Mass Strike pamphlet, Luxemburg delineated specific and non-identical roles for the various elements she mentioned in her title, that is to say, general strike committees, political parties, and labor unions (not mentioned specifically were the “soviets,” or workers’ councils). In this sense, the “mass strike” was for Luxemburg a symptom of the historical development and crisis of social democracy itself. This made it a political and not merely tactical issue. That is, for Luxemburg, the mass strike was a phenomenon of how social democracy had developed its political parties and labor unions, and what new historical necessities had thus been brought into being. Luxemburg’s pamphlet was, above all, a critique of the social-democratic party, which she regarded as a historical symptom. This was prefigured in Luxemburg’s earlier pamphlet on Reform or Revolution?, where she addressed the question of the raison d’être of the social-democratic movement (the combination of political party and labor unions).
From this perspective of regarding the history of the workers’ movement and Marxism itself as intrinsic to the history of capitalism, then, it becomes possible to make sense of Lenin’s further articulations of politics in his later works, The State and Revolution and “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, as well as in the political disputes that attended the young Soviet state that had issued from the Russian Revolution and had endured the Civil War and stabilization of international capitalism in the aftermath of WWI. Lenin maintained a strictly minimal conception of the state, restricting it to the monopoly of authority for the exercise of force, precisely in order to avoid an all-encompassing conception of the state as the be-all and end-all of politics. Similarly, Lenin deemed “infantile” the impatience of supposed radicals with existing forms of political mediation, such as parliaments, stating unequivocally that while Marxism may have “theoretically” surpassed a liberal conception of the state, this had not yet been achieved “politically,” that is, in practice. In response to Trotsky’s recommendation that labor unions be militarized in the Soviet state, Lenin maintained that unions needed to remain independent not only of the state, but also of the Communist Party itself. The workers needed the ability, according to Lenin, of asserting their rights against the party and the state. Lenin recognized the necessity of an articulated non-identity of state, political parties, and other voluntary civil society institutions such as labor unions. This was grounded in Lenin’s perspective that capitalist social relations could not be abolished in one stroke through political revolution, that, even though the state had been “smashed,” it was reconstituted, not on the basis of a new social principle, but on the continuation of what Lenin called “bourgeois right,” long after the political overthrow and even social elimination of a separate capitalist class. “Bourgeois right” persisted precisely among the workers (and other previously subordinate members of society) and so necessarily governed their social relations, necessitating a state that could thus only “wither away.” Politics could be only slowly transformed.
Finally, there is the question of Adorno’s continued adherence to Lenin, despite what at first glance may appear to be some jarring contradictions with respect to Lenin’s own perspective and political practice. For instance, in a late essay from 1969, “Critique,” Adorno praised the U.S. Constitutional system of “divisions of powers” and “checks and balances” as essential to preserving the critical function of reason in the exercise of political authority. But this was an example for Adorno, and not necessarily to be hypostatized as such. The making common of executive and legislative authority in the “soviet” system of “workers’ councils” was understood by Lenin, as Adorno well knew, to coexist with separate civil society organizations such as political parties, labor unions and other voluntary groups, and so did not necessarily and certainly did not intentionally violate the critical role of political mediation, at various levels of society.
It has been a fundamental mistake to conflate and confuse Lenin’s model of party politics for a form of state in pursuing socialism. Lenin presupposed their important non-identity. The party was meant to be one element among many mediating factors in society and politics. Moreover, Lenin’s party was meant to be one among many parties, including multiple parties of the working class, vying for its adherence, and even multiple “Marxist” parties, differing in their relation of theory and practice, or means and ends.
By contrast, there was nothing so repressive and authoritarian as the Kautskyan (or Bebelian) social-democratic “party of the whole class” (or, the “one class, one party” model of social democracy, that is, that since the capitalists are of one interest in confronting the workers, the workers need to be unified against the capitalists). The social-democratic party, after all, waged the counterrevolution against Lenin and Luxemburg.
Lenin preserved politics by splitting Marxism. For this, Lenin has never been forgiven. But, precisely for this, Lenin needs to be remembered. | §
Originally published in The Platypus Review 36 (June 2011).
THE UPRISING IN EGYPT, which followed soon after the toppling of the old regime in Tunisia, succeeded in bringing down Hosni Mubarak on February 11, the 32nd anniversary to the day of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Already, before this timely coincidence, comparisons between the Iranian Revolution and the revolts gripping the Arab world had started to be made. But other historical similarities offered themselves: the various “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Central Asian states and Lebanon in recent years; and the collapse of Communism in the Soviet bloc and beyond (the former Yugoslavia) starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Behind these revolutions on the pattern of 1989 stood the event of which 1989 itself had been the bicentennial, the Great French Revolution of 1789. The Bastille is to be stormed again, anew. Who would not welcome this?
A more pessimistic, if no less invidious comparison offered itself, especially prior to Mubarak’s ouster: the equally dramatic but failed Green Movement in the election crisis in Iran that marked 30 years of the Islamic Revolution in 2009. Just as the Green Movement posed the question of reforming the Islamic Republic, events in Egypt have raised the specter of authoritarianism continuing, despite everything, albeit without Mubarak as tyrant. Indeed, comparisons of Egypt with Iran, both in 1979 and 2009, are telling in several different respects. To be sure, the emancipatory prospects in Egypt today are even more remote than in Iran in either 1979 or 2009. If there is a more fruitful comparison to be made it is with Iran not in 1979 but 2009.
The destruction of the Left, historically, has been naturalized more completely in present-day Egypt than it had been in Iran by 1979. Going back to the 1950s, because of Nasserism’s subordination and suppression of the Left, the strongest opposition movement in Egypt today is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a longer history and is much stronger than Khomeini-style Islamism had been in Iran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution. While the Khomeiniite Islamic Republic has destroyed the Left more completely in Iran since 1979, it is also the case that the reform movement in the Islamic Republic has had a longer history of organization — for almost 20 years, now — than the opposition in Egypt has at present. The prospects for organized reform, in other words, ran deeper in Iran at the moment of the Green Movement election crisis in 2009 than is the case in Egypt today. This poses both more radical possibilities and dangers for Egypt than in Iran two years ago. The Green Movement could beat a retreat in the face of defeat in ways that the unfolding crisis in Egypt might not be so controlled. But this spiraling out of control that has raised much greater radical prospects in Egypt, as opposed to Iran in 2009, may prove to be the case at least as much for ill as for good. The military has been able to come to the rescue of the state in Egypt, and this has been met with joy not angry disappointment. What links both eruptions of democratic discontent, in Iran and Egypt, then, is their authoritarian outcome.
Putting aside the rather superficial narratives that emphasize how events in Egypt and Tunisia disprove the supposed intractability and lack of “democratic” spirit in the Arab or Muslim world — as if this needed proving — we must nevertheless ask about the legacy of the history of the Left — its defeats and failures — that condition present possibilities. The history of the Left, both locally and globally, and reaching back for generations, is important, perhaps not so much for the obvious reasons — a relative lack of “democratic institutions” in one or another part of the world, or, indeed, globally, today, by contrast with the past — as that it raises the question of history per se. What resources does history provide to the present? For the comparisons — however invidious — with the situation in and for Egypt are all historical in nature. So the question of history and its effects presses for consideration. Whether one approaches the matter of historical precedence with hope or anxiety, still, there is the question of how appropriate to the present any reach for such precedence may truly be. Like any event, the massive popular uprising in Egypt is in important ways unprecedented and new. This is its power. It demands its moment in the sun and refuses all comparisons, insisting upon its sui generis character, which it cannot be denied, even if it is not yet fully revealed. What impresses itself is how much this moment will be allowed to realize itself — to make its departure from previous history. Or, conversely, how it will be drawn back into and subsumed by history’s ineluctable force. Why should we care about history, when emancipation makes its attempt at escaping its dead hand? — How is the unfolding present already history?
Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
Beneath the elation — if not euphoria — of the international Left at the popular overthrow of Mubarak is the fundamental ambiguity and so radical ambivalence of democratic revolution in our time. But this has been so not only since 1979 or 1989 but 1789. However, unlike the French Revolution of 1789, whatever its tortured career and the opposed judgments about it, democratic revolutions since then have been dogged by the specter of failure. One thing that cannot be said of 1789 is that it failed, however ambiguous was its success. Yet a repressed, largely unknown, and importantly failed moment has haunted the history of modern revolutions, the event that prompted Marx’s famous phrase about history “weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living”: 1848. “The Spring of the Nations” in 1848, the revolutions in France, Germany and beyond, has completely escaped the imagination of present considerations of the moment of democratic revolution. This present absence is itself quite revealing, and needs to be addressed. For it may be that comparison with 1848 is the most obscure but important of all.
For Marxism, 1848 is the canon of failure. What once made Marxism — whose founding political statement was 1848’s Communist Manifesto — such an important force in the world was its awareness of the problem of 1848, or, why 1789 has kept repeating itself over and over in modern history, but without success. The converse of the Manifesto’s rousing call to action, to treat history as the “history of class struggles,” was Marx’s writing the history of his present moment, the culminating climax and failure of the 1848 Revolution in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. But these two of Marx’s most widely quoted writings were documents of both promise and defeat.
What made the 1848 Revolution so important to Marx and subsequent Marxism was the light that it shed on the history of the bourgeois revolution. 1848 was both the last of the classical bourgeois revolutions and the first of the socialist revolutions that have marked the modern, bourgeois era. Henceforth, the fates of liberalism and socialism have been indissolubly tied — even if their connection has been extremely fraught. Liberalism could not do without socialism, nor socialism without liberalism. Every democratic revolution since 1848 has faced this two-fold task — and has, without exception, foundered on the shoals of its contradictions. Marxism was the attempt to transcend the antinomy of individual and collective freedom — or of liberalism and socialism in “social democracy” — to realize both, by transcending both. Marx and Engels emblazoned this demand in their Manifesto with the slogan of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need!,” which was to be realized in the “freedom of each” as the “precondition for the freedom of all.” — Importantly, Marx and Engels were the originators of neither of these catchphrases for what “communism” meant. The twin fates of liberalism and socialism after 1848 have shared in the failure of this Marxist vision for emancipation.
What explains the undemocratic outcomes of democratic revolution in the modern era? Certainly one can take only so much comfort in Thomas Jefferson’s saying that a revolution every generation or so is a good thing — as if frequent revolutions are necessary to restore democracy. Or, if so, the reasons for this must still be explained, beyond “corruption,” the perennial complaint of the subaltern. Whence does this recurrent “corruption” of the democratic moment spring? And why does it manifest itself so much more dramatically at some times than others? Perhaps revolution is not always such an unambiguously good thing. Especially if, as Marx put it, it threatens to be the “first time as tragedy” and the “second time as farce.” What comes of revolution if it is taken to be fate? There is nothing so “revolutionary” as capital itself.
The 1848 Revolution had secured universal suffrage and established the 2nd Republic in France, but at the price, wryly observed by Marx, of bringing an authoritarian demagogue, Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), to power — to the horror of liberal democratic sentiment at the time — as its first elected President, promising to “save society.” It is because Bonaparte overthrew the 2nd Republic, and established a 20-year 2nd Empire that followed at the end of his term as President less than four years later, that the massacre of the workers in June 1848 did not become forgotten as a historical footnote and regarded as merely a bump in the road of democracy, for it came to presage the authoritarian repression of society that followed, in which members of the bourgeoisie became subject to the same treatment first meted out to the rebellious workers. Marxists used the term “Bonapartism” to describe this phenomenon of suppression of democracy with popular assent, which has repeated itself so consistently in history after 1848 — for instance, in “Nasserism” in Egypt and other forms of Arab nationalism (the so-called “Arab Revolution”) in the 1950s–60s. Such Orwellian reality of all subsequent history has its beginning, with Marx, in 1848. The soldier held aloft triumphantly on the shoulders of democratic demonstrators in the streets of Cairo already wears the mask of Bonaparte — not the greater but the lesser. For such turns of modern revolution, after 1848, do not vouchsafe progress, however dubiously, but rather wager its foolhardy chances, mocking them. As Horkheimer put it in the 1920s, after the ebbing of the failed world revolutionary wave of 1917–19, “As long as it is not victorious, the revolution is no good.” So, the question becomes, what would be the conditions for true victory? What success can we aspire to win?
Egyptian military officer cheered on by demonstrators in Cairo.
Marx attempted to capture this problem in his demand that the revolution “take its poetry from the future” rather than the past. But if this is more than the banal statement it appears at first glance, then it raises a rather obscure difficulty: In what way can present revolution draw upon the emancipatory energy of the future? And Marx’s dedicated follower Walter Benjamin’s caveat echoes closely behind, that faith in the future sapped the strength of the revolution, which, Benjamin wrote, needed to be “nourished with the image of enslaved ancestors rather than liberated grandchildren.” But we may need both imaginations — of emancipation and redemption — today. The question is, how so?
Marx and the history of Marxism still speak, even if their voices are drowned out in the clamoring din of the present. In history after 1848, Marx understood a world — the present — caught between past and future. Marx’s term for this historical world, “capital,” refers to the radical ambivalence of the present: its being already past, accumulating all of history and annexing the future, continually crowding the moment off stage; and its constant liquidation of that history, the incessant consumption of the moment in light of a future that never arrives. Past and future seem to recede infinitely beyond the horizons of a present that is as perpetual as it is empty and futile, trapped, static but constantly in motion. So we resign ourselves to the present’s eternal passing and recurrence, in which “everything changes” and yet “remains the same.”
Hosni Mubarak and son Gamal cast votes in the last election.
Egyptians may be driven today by the specter of enslaved ancestry, provoked by the force of what Benjamin described as the “hatred” and spirit of “self-sacrifice” necessary to make a bid for history. But they are also certainly prompted, as Benjamin put it, to “activate the emergence brake” on the “locomotive” of history that would otherwise condemn posterity. They may be motivated not only to redeem past sacrifice but to prevent future loss that could yet be rendered unnecessary. It is not that Mubarak’s rule became too long or old, but that it threatened to become indefinite — the leering face of the son — that provoked the demand for its end, precisely at the risk of the present. “I don’t care if I die,” the sentiment widely expressed around Tahrir Square, is the signal moment to which Benjamin’s philosophy of history attends: to bring time to a halt. But such resolve expresses the will to live, although not merely to continue life unchanged.
Not only are we history, but the future will be.
The problem we must face is that the imagination of emancipation — which defines the “Left” as such — is today divided, between the desperation of wishing for the unprecedented new, and desiring for return to the missed moments of opportunity, the potential embodied in past attempts, however failed — attempts at both the escape from and the redemption of history. 1789, 1848, 1871, 1917, 1979, 1989: they will not return — thank God! But we mourn them nonetheless. What was lost with them? Perhaps nothing. An emancipated future beckons; however, it eludes our grasp, outrunning us in the onrush of time. “Time waits for no one.” The future grants no refuge. There is no peace, not even of the graveyard. As Benjamin put it, “Even the dead are not safe.” But history remains. It may be unavoidable — as much as the future is. So, the question is, what are we going to do with it? If we are trapped between past and future, perhaps we will not be crushed but can bring them together and galvanize their force even more powerfully in the present: we are pulverized all the more surely for trying to slip the vise. Past failures may dispirit, and bewildering, dystopic futures may threaten. Or: History and utopia can both be enlisted to the aid of the present. If only.
“What now?,” Egypt asks us. We do not ask it. This question should be posed, not as it is wont, as a hope or a fear, but as a task, however exclaimed or whispered. It is not to be answered with exuberance or resignation, but determination. The resolution that not only are we, inevitably, history, but the future will be. | §
Originally published in The Platypus Review #33 (March 2011).
2. See Hamid Dabashi, “The False Anxiety of Influence,” Al Jazeera English, February 12, 2011. Available on-line at: <http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201121215216318526.html>. Undeniably, as Dabashi writes, “From Tehran to Tunis to Cairo and beyond, our innate cosmopolitan cultures are being retrieved, our hidden worlds discovered, above and beyond any anxiety of influence.”
J.M. Bernstein, Lydia Goehr, Gregg Horowitz, and Chris Cutrone
On Saturday, November 20, 2010, Platypus hosted a panel entitled “The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today” moderated by Chris Mansour at The New School for Social Research in New York. The panel consisted of Philosophy Professors J.M. Bernstein (The New School), Lydia Goehr (Columbia University), and Gregg Horowitz (Pratt Institute and Vanderbilt University), and Chris Cutrone (Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago), member of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the event. Full video is available online at <http://newyork.platypus1917.org/what-is-critique-symposium-video-documents>.
Chardin, The House of Cards (1735)
J.M. (Jay) Bernstein: Some 25 years ago, I asked Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson why two revolutionary Marxists spend so much time talking about Jane Austen. They replied, “Because that’s where the bourgeoisie have pitched their tent.” I felt that answer was true, but also insufficient. If the bourgeoisie have a stake in high culture, as one of the ways society reproduces itself, then it makes sense for Marxists to critique the practices that constitute high culture. But, beyond the issue of social integration, what stake do Marxists have in art?
The Marxist story runs something like this: By a certain moment, everyday life in modernity had become formed by the reduction of use-values to exchange-values, the fungibility and exchangeability of all material artifacts, the rule of technology, the rule of bureaucracy, the domination of capital markets, and the disenchantment of nature. Now, if you were Adorno, you would say that all of this amounts to the hegemony of instrumental reason over all forms of human reasoning. You would further say that art, in becoming purposeless, could become a refuge for another form of world address. Artworks are not fungible, not replaceable by one another, and not quantifiable. Rather, artworks make a claim on us simply by virtue of their material complexion, their ordering of sensual materials.
Modern art—I see modernism as the extension of modern art—is the attempt to think through this moment. First and foremost, the autonomy of art from politics, from science, from all the functions it might have in the world, was a world-historical calamity. Modern art begins as a kind of disaster. To understand the meaning of art is to understand the nature of that disaster. Art was taken out of the world and deposited in this realm where it has to make sense of its practice wholly in terms of itself. The puzzle of modern art is this functional emptiness that is nonetheless a form of content. First for Friedrich von Schiller, then for Adorno, the autonomy of art became a sort of opportunity. I think you can read all of modern art, right through high modernism into certain versions of postmodernism, as having embarked on the same project.
Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601)
Yves-Alain Bois, along with all the writers who are part of what I will call “the aesthetic,” agree in one way or another that the primary gesture of modern art is the tearing away from materials, ideologies, and formalisms. At first—that is, with Dutch Realism in the 17th century, as with Caravaggio and, later, Chardin—this tearing away is emancipatory. It frees art from religious and related forms of reference, allowing representations to become immanent in gesture, rather than exemplifying some presumptively eternal idea. It is here that we see art becoming autonomous. In this respect, modern art was part of the secularizing of the world, but with this secularization came the idea that a wholly secular world could be infinitely valuable. Thus, with secularization came the project of sacralizing the everyday, but in a wholly secular way.
However, this project became increasingly harassed and defensive as modernity itself became an ideology, a series of forms of closure and domination. At that moment modernity ceased to be the emancipator, and became a problem. I would place that moment somewhere around 1848, with the failure of the bourgeois revolutions, though of course for some, notably Rousseau and Schiller, modernity had become a significant problem much earlier.
The notion of decoding, for Yves-Alain Bois, is broadly what Jacques Rancière means by the shift from the representational regime to the aesthetic regime. It is what Adorno means by the retreat of form in the face of materials that are in-formed, and what Gilles Deleuze means by the shift from representation to sensation. All of these I take to be riffs on the notion of purposefulness without purpose, which has this thought behind it: What painting provides is an account of our conviction in, and connection to, the world through visual experience. With modern art it became natural to find the authority of painting in its capacity to demonstrate how objects have a more than instrumental call on our capacity to live with them. That thought is fully there, for example, in Dutch Realism and in the tradition of the still life. By placing physical things in the visual environment and purifying them of any uplifting or instrumental features, by just letting them be there for our visual inspection, art returns us to this world. It allows us to be present to ourselves and for the world to be present to us.
Van Gogh, Chair (1888)
This is both enthralling and a disaster, because it means that everyday life has begun to disintegrate. I think of Van Gogh’s Chair (1888) as an eloquent moment connecting the dignity of the mere thing with the dignity of paint on canvas. Van Gogh’s moment is just that, a moment in which object and canvas speak to one another, each lending the other its authority. In the very moments of art’s so-called existential emptiness, of its not being about the world, there is the appearance of the world. This is art’s power.
Philistines hate art for that moment of emptiness. This moment, at one level, is irredeemable. But this moment of emptiness is art’s moment of fullness. Modern art imbricates and provides a refuge for a disenchanted but affirmative materialism in which objects could be meaningful in themselves, and not just in what they are useful for. These objects are sources of compelling experience amidst a world of sensory bombardment. They are a promise of happiness.
Though this promise is wildly different from Benjamin to Adorno to Rancière, these thinkers all avow some version of it. The promise is often taken to be insufficient as, after all, artworks are not life. What they promise is a different future, and in so doing artworks threaten to leave our present evacuated. This is the central difficulty of all modern art practices: If art has no other power than its mere presence, the attempt to provide it with political significance from the outside is always bound to fail. Art can only have what it offers, namely the salience of visual experience, by embracing the difficulty of that moment of protest by allowing for visual fullness.
Having said that, I need to return to where I began. This moment of protest in art only has cultural significance if the world cares about culture. I take the problem of the present not to be that art has gone awry, but that culture has gone awry. The bourgeoisie has discovered that capital can reproduce itself without social integration. Capital can get on very well with a dispersed, fragmented, wholly disarticulated cultural domain. The difficulty of modern art, in my judgement, is this: How can art address the problem of cultural weight when the bourgeoisie has disavowed it altogether?
Lydia Goehr: To Adorno critique is not the promise of happiness, nor the promise of freedom. It is always immanent critique, the turning of thought back upon itself. Asking the question, “What is critique?” might indicate that we have raised the very notion of critique to a concept. In that respect we fetishize the concept of critique, just as we have fetishized the concepts of “happiness,” “life,” “history,” and so on. Critical theory is about the immanent critique of our language, which is to say, the language of our thought and the language of our concepts. Language is our concepts, our concepts are our social logics. The way in which we think through thought is by producing a challenge to that which has authority over us, namely our concepts, like “personality,” “narrative,” and “subject.” The paradox, or the extreme difficulty, of doing immanent critique is that we have to use the tools that are the subject of our critique, so the critique always has to turn back on itself as an ongoing process. In that sense it has no external objects, although it is constantly mediated by the objects that are antithetical to our thinking—namely, things like works of art.
The real difficulty is that you can never break out of the thinking about thinking. You are constantly confronted by the things that have most authority over you, namely the concepts you are actually implying. I want to illustrate this by one example I like to use from the field of music. When we perform a musical work there’s this idea of Werktreue, of being true to the work. We know that the work has authority over our performance insofar as we are performing a work, but Adorno suggests that the way we are true to a work is precisely by being untrue to it. What he meant was that, insofar as we perform the work against its grain, by not just trying to replicate it, but by playing with it, we challenge the authority that the work-concept has over us. To be true to the work ends up being untrue to the concept of the work. Performance of music, then, becomes a way to redeem something about the musical work, if the musical work is resisting the concept under which it falls, namely the concept of “a musical work.”
This is the way that some of the so-called “social truth content” comes out of critique: It exposes the authority that concepts have over us. My suggestion is that one way to think about critique is in terms of looking for ways in our thinking to break the authority our thinking has over us. In that sense, there is nowhere to go outside of our own capacity to think.
Gregg Horowitz:I started really thinking about this panel around ten days ago. At the end of every day, it was almost tomorrow, which meant that the thoughts were already too late. I only found my way out of this conundrum through this extraordinary document that has been published in a recent issue of the New Left Review, of a discussion between Adorno and Horkheimer in 1956, which Gretel Adorno recorded.  They discussed what it would mean to rewrite the Communist Manifesto. And I thought—that’s a thought about today. It is visibly a thought about today. For such a project, you would think the main themes in connecting up the past, the present, and the future, would be something like this: The past was the revolution, the present is actually existing socialism, and the future depends on whether actually existing socialism points in a meaningful way to a socialism worth endorsing. But that’s not what they talk about. Rather, the past is the party, understood as an audience whom a writer interested in socialism might address. Marx, after all, begins the Communist Manifesto with an address to the party. The future, then, is a question of who would care about the writing. And the present, it turns out, is largely a matter of motorbikes. This is Europe in 1956, and youths are riding on motorbikes all over, making pestiferous noise. The question kept occuring to Horkheimer and Adorno, “Why does everybody love motorbikes?” Now this seems to be what it means to think about the present: thinking about the sound of motorbikes roaring in your ears as you think through the party, on the one hand, and whom to address, on the other.
If our future is anywhere, the thought usually goes, it will be in the present. No other future can matter other than the future that is here in the present. This self-conscious entrenchment in the present reminds us that critical theory, both as it was articulated but also, more importantly, as we have to receive it, was not simply a response to social regression, but a symptom of social regression. As Adorno said, philosophy carries on because its moment of realization was missed. For philosophy, as for critical theory, something has migrated into the realm of thought that is somehow not at home in the realm of thought. In this sense philosophy is struck by the same regression that critical theory takes itself to be reflecting on.
To put this point in a more general register, thinking is not self-determining, but is always shaped by the practices out of which it emerges and to which it instinctively tries to return. The more it is frustrated in this endeavor, the more insistent it is to return. The idea that thinking is not self-determining represents the decay of a certain image of philosophy. At that point one wants to assert that the whole project of spinning a system of thought out of concepts is now simply behind us. It is for this reason that we can say that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud remain the central background figures, because they sought to think through, not the future completion, but the radical incompleteness of philosophy. That philosophy, of all disciplines, would be radically incomplete implies that all practices are radically incomplete. No thought, no practice, can cordon itself off from the social world of which it is a part. Critique wants to get behind the veil, to get to the bottom of things from which we can start over in the full light of truth. But precisely this impulse, this thought, has to be treated as symptomatic—it ends up inhibiting thought.
We always start exactly where we are. This is neither to say that nothing of the past is left, nor that everything is so thoroughly mediated that the origin has disappeared. Rather, there is no starting over because nothing of the past ever goes away. The urge to start over attests to a learned distrust in our capacity to remember, to sustain experience. Memory is weak, and in response to this weakness the feeling arises that things are going away, and we want to get back to the things themselves. This weakness is crucial to reflect on. For it is not in the strength, but in this moment of memory’s weakness that the past rises up in the light of that future which we cannot determine in the present.
All understanding of the present has to start with the acknowledgement that we are not the future the past had in mind and that, for this reason, in some sense we stand in the way of the future the past had in mind. I do not know how to sustain this thought for long—it hurts. One task that we can pose to critique, insofar as we turn against ourselves in this moment of weakness, is to unlock another future—perhaps another modernity.
I am putting to critique the task of understanding the present, but to understand the present is to grasp it as if it has already passed away. In the dialogue between Adorno and Horkheimer, Adorno makes the comment that the horror of the present is that we live in a world where we cannot imagine a better one. To say that we live in a world where we cannot imagine a better one is to say that we cannot see this world as one that has passed away. We cannot see the present in the light of a future that the present does not intend. The standard line is that, for critical theory, to grasp the world as past has meant totalizing the world, or seeing it from the point of view of its completeness, with nothing falling outside the totality. But this is a limited conception of totalization. It is not merely that nothing falls outside, but that anything that does fall outside of the totality is a harbinger or an ambassador of a different world. This thought has been susceptible to a religious interpretation that I am going to do everything I can to avoid. Totalization in this respect is the precondition for opening up the cracks through which the light of the future can shine, right now, on the past and the present. Horkheimer says in his dialogue with Adorno, “I don’t believe things will turn out well.” And by “things” he means everything. But the thought that things might turn out well is indispensable. Nothing falls outside but the thought that something in the present does shine a light on the past.
With regard to art, I agree with Jay that modernist art has been taken up as a kind of self-overcoming of the present. Modernist art is not the future—Heaven forbid—but, rather, it is the light that shines from the future onto the past, the light whose uselessness is what the present does not yet know how to make use of. Adorno only articulated this thought retrospectively. That is, Adorno felt that the moment of modernist art’s capacity to be this light had already passed. Modernist art had been absorbed by the culture industry.
The contrast between the culture industry and modernist art is often articulated so radically that absorption is thought of as cancellation. But absorption is not the same as negation. Rather, I think of absorption the way I think of how, when you wash your dishes, the sponge absorbs the odor of what is being discarded. It is retained in trace form. The inevitability of the absorption is clear once the demand for a different future has been articulated. Once made, that demand is already on the way to becoming a commodity. What we need is not a demand for another future, but for another past. We need the paradoxical demand of a past that will steer us toward a future that we cannot anticipate. From this it follows that no art practice can ever be “subversive.” Art practices can be subverted, but no art practice can ever be subversive. Art is, and should be, too much in love with experience in the present to ever be subversive. For any art that is worth taking seriously, absorption in the culture industry seems inevitable.
However controversial this statement may be, I believe critical theory has before it now the task of demolishing the false overvaluation of art, in order to save us from the idea that art will save us. Perhaps critical theory is tasked with helping us to expect less of art. At one point in this exchange between Horkheimer and Adorno, Horkheimer says, “The more eager one is to break the taboo, the more harmless it is…. One must be very down to earth, measured, and considered so that the impression that something or other is not possible does not arise.”  What Horkheimer calls for here is a toning down of the rhetoric, because with every moment of melodrama in the effort to cancel the present moment, we render the weight of the present moment insignificant. It becomes the occasion for a spectacular display of pathos, which Horkheimer is trying to resist. Perhaps what we should drive toward, critically, is lower expectations for art, so that we have an opportunity to experience, not our distance from, but our proximity to, what is better—though this proximity is also a kind of distance, and what is better remains obscure.
Chris Cutrone: The scholar of Benjamin’s and Adorno’s work, Susan Buck-Morss provided a pithy formulation for defining the tasks of both art and criticism in the modern era: “[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience; our job as critics is to recognize this.”  Two aspects of Buck-Morss’s formulation of the work of artists need to be emphasized—“sustaining the critical moment” and “aesthetic experience.” The subjective experience of the aesthetic is what artists work on, and they do so in order to capture and sustain, or make available, subjectivity’s “critical moment.”
Adorno, in his 1932 essay “The Social Situation of Music,” analogized the position of modern art to that of critical social theory: The role of both was to provoke recognition. Adorno further warned that there could be no progress in art without that of society. His posthumously published but unfinished monograph Aesthetic Theory can be considered to have at its center, organizing the entire discussion of the modern experience of art, the theme of the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of art. In this, Adorno was elaborating in the aesthetic realm his thesis in Negative Dialectics, that philosophy and critical theory were both necessary and impossible, simultaneously.
What does it mean to practice art in an epoch of its impossibility and continuing necessity? A clue can be found in Adorno’s claim in Negative Dialectics that “philosophy lives on because its moment of realization was missed.” Adorno’s treatment of philosophy and art is modeled on Marx’s treatment of capital. The potential for a dialectical historical transformation, in which capital would be simultaneously realized and abolished, became for Adorno the question of what it would mean to simultaneously realize and overcome the aspirations of modern philosophy and art. What would it mean to overcome the necessity that is expressed in modern practices of art? The Hegelian thought figure of art’s attaining to its own concept, while transcending it through a qualitative transformation, was mobilized by Adorno to grasp both the history of modern art and the desire to overcome its practices.
The Hegel scholar Robert Pippin, in his response to the journal Critical Inquiry’s 2003 forum on the current state and potential future for critical theory, described postmodernism as a repetition of the “Romantic recoil” from modernity.  Specifically, Pippin pointed to modern literary and artistic forms as derived from such Romanticism, of which postmodernism was the mere continuation, but in denial of its repetition. And Pippin pointed out that such repetition is in fact a “regression,” because consciousness of the historical condition of the problem had grown worse.
Hegel posed the question of the “end” of art. He meant by this not the cessation of practices of art, but rather the ability of those practices to make the activity of “Spirit” appear in a self-contained and self-sufficient manner. While religion had been superseded by art, art had come to be superseded by “philosophy.” By this, Hegel meant that art needed philosophical interpretation to be able to mean what it meant. Art needed criticism in order to be itself. This was a specifically modern condition for art, which Hegel addressed in a rather optimistic manner, seeing art’s need for criticism as a hallmark of enlightenment rather than a disability or liability.
But Adorno took this Hegelianism with respect to art and turned it from an explanation of art’s historical condition to a critique of those historical conditions. Like Marx who had turned Hegel on his head, or put Hegel back on his feet, Adorno inverted the significance of Hegel’s philosophical observation. Where Hegel had, for instance, regarded modern politics as the realm of reflection on the state, and by extension the self-objectification of civil society in the state, Marx regarded the modern distinction between state and civil society as expressing the pathological necessity of capital, in which the self-contradiction of capital was projected. Adorno similarly addressed the complementary necessities of art and criticism as expressing a self-contradiction in (aesthetic) subjectivity.
As Adorno put it, however, this did not mean that one should aspire to any “reconciliation” of art and philosophy, nor of theory and practice. Just as Marx critiqued the Left Hegelians for their Romantic desire to merely dissolve the distinction between state and civil society, so too did Marx and Adorno alike regard this separation as the hallmark of freedom. In a late essay, “Marginalia to Theory and Practice” (1969), Adorno attacked “Romantic socialism” for wanting to dissolve the distinction and critical relationship between theory and practice, maintaining that, by contrast with traditional society, the modern separation of theory and practice was “progressive” and emancipatory. So too was the separation in meaning between art, as non-conceptual knowledge, and criticism, informed by theoretical concepts.
Adorno, like Marx, looks forward, not to a return to a pre-modern or pre-capitalist unity of theory and practice, nor to a reconciliation of form and content, as had been the case in traditional culture, but to a qualitative transformation of the modern division of meaning in art and criticism, in which each would be simultaneously realized and abolished as presently practiced. The problem is that, rather than being raised to ever more acute levels, there was already in Adorno’s lifetime a retreat from the productive antagonism, the dialectic of theory and practice, or in this case art and criticism.
Adorno drew upon and sought to further elaborate the approach of his friend and mentor Walter Benjamin, who argued in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer” that no art could be of correct “political tendency” unless it was also of good aesthetic quality.  Furthermore, Benjamin argued that every great work of art “either founds or dissolves a genre.”  As Benjamin put it, the work of art that fails to teach artists teaches no one. Artists do not “distribute” aesthetic experience, but produce it. New art re-works and transforms, retrospectively, the history of art. Benjamin argued that there could be no progress in society without that of art, for necessarily involved in both is the transformation of subjectivity.
The history of modern art, as Benjamin and Adorno recognized, presents a diverse multiplicity of practices, none of which has been able to come to full fruition. Benjamin described this poignantly in his Arcades Project as “living in hell.”  Benjamin and Adorno’s thought-figure for such historical consciousness of modern art comes from Trotsky, who pointed out, in a June 1938 letter to the editors of the American journal Partisan Review, that the modern capitalist epoch displayed the following phenomenon in its historical course:
[N]ew tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the [first] few decades [of the 20th century]—cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism—follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.
This was because, as Trotsky put it,
The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch…. The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base.
Trotsky said of art that, “a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.”  And not merely rebellion against existing conventions of art, but against the conditions of life in capitalism.
But what, then, would be a “liberating art?” Adorno addresses this in terms of the aspiration for “artistic autonomy,” or the self-justification of aesthetic experience. This is related to how Kant described the experience of the beautiful, in nature or art, as the sympathetic resonance the subject experiences of an object, which thus appears to embody “purposiveness without purpose,” or a telos—an end-in-itself. Except, for Adorno, this empathy between subject and object in Kant’s account of aesthetic experience is not affirmative, but critical. In Adorno’s account of the modern experience of art, the subject recognizes not the power of experiential capacities and the transformative freedom of the human faculties, but rather their constraint and unfreedom, their self-contradictory and self-undermining powers. The subject experiences not its freedom in self-transformation, but rather the need for transformation in freedom. Adorno emphasized that the autonomy of art, as of the subject, remains under capitalism an aspiration rather than an achieved state. Works of art embody the striving for autonomy that is denied the subject of the modern society of capital, and thus artworks also embody failure. Hence, the history of art furnishes a rich inventory of failed attempts. This is why this history remains unsettled and constantly returns. Modern works of art are necessarily failures, but are nonetheless valuable as embodiments of possibility, of unfulfilled potential.
The constrained possibilities embodied in modern art are, according to Benjamin’s formulation, approached by the subject with a combination of “desire and fear.” Modern artworks embody not only human but “inhuman” potentials—that is, the possibilities for the qualitative transformation of humanity, which we regard with desire and fear. They thus have simultaneously utopian and dystopian aspects. Modern artworks are as ambivalent as the historical conditions they refract in themselves, “prismatically.” But it is in such ambivalence that art instantiates freedom. It is the task of theory, or critique, to register the non-conceptual while attempting to bring it within the range of concepts. As Adorno put it, the aspiration of modern art is to “produce something without knowing what it is.”  In so doing, art acts not only on the future, but also on history.
Modern artworks find inspiration in art history. This is the potentially emancipatory character of repetition. Artists are motivated by art history to re-attain lost moments by achieving them again, but differently. Artists produce new works that, in their newness, unlock the potentials of past art, allowing us to re-experience history. But this work on history is not without its dangers. As Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe” from the ambivalent “progress” of history, because this history unfolds in capital as a “mounting catastrophe.”  The history of modern art, like that of capital more generally, furnishes a compendium of ruins. The simultaneously progressive and regressive dynamics of history find their purchase in this: that historical forms of experience and consciousness inform present practices, for better or worse. It is the work of critique to attempt to better inform, through greater consciousness, the inevitable repetition in the continuing practices of art, and thus attempt to overcome the worst effects of the regression involved in such practices.
In the Hegelian sense adopted by both Marx and Adorno, the greater consciousness of freedom is the only available path for freedom’s possible realization. Consciousness is tasked to recognize the potential that is its own condition of possibility. This is why Adorno and Benjamin addressed works of art as forms of consciousness. Art can be ideological or it can enlighten, provoking consciousness to push itself further.
The dialectic of art and criticism is necessary for the vitality of art. The self-abnegation of criticism, on the other hand—the disenchantment of consciousness that characterized “postmodernism”—has clearly demonstrated the barrenness of such abdication of responsibility on the part of critics and theorists more so than artists, who were thus left at the mercy of poor, unclarified concepts. The challenge posed by modern critical-theoretical approaches to art has been warded off rather than engaged and pushed further.
Artists’ work continues to demand critical recognition, whether the critics recognize this or not. What such critical recognition of the work of history taken up by art would mean is what Marxist aesthetic theorists like Adorno and Benjamin pursued, and from whose efforts we can and indeed must learn. For a new condition of art has not been attained, but only an old set of conditions repeated, without their repetition being properly recognized. The relation between art and social modernity, or capital, continues to task both art and theory. Art is not merely conditioned by, but is itself an instance of the modern society of capital. But, like society, for art to progress, theory must do its work.
LG: Chris, you seemed to read Adorno’s distinction between regression and progression as if progress is simply the bit we want, but it seems to me that Adorno’s point was that the progressive and the regressive are two sides of the same coin, both of which lead to catastrophe.
CC:In Benjamin and Adorno’s philosophy of history, which they are deriving from Marx, capital is simultaneously progressive and regressive. Capital progresses through a kind of recursive movement, and so they understand overcoming capital as also completing capital. Benjamin and Adorno take up the concept of Aufhebung—the sublation, the realization through negation, or the self-overcoming—to articulate this “completion.” Art, far from being outside capital, is part and parcel of capital’s historical movement. Art moves historically through a “progress,” if you will, of progress and regress—like capital. Of course, this raises the question of emancipation. Colloquially, progress is usually thought of in these terms: “Are we making progress? Is progress progress? Or, is it actually progress in domination, in which case it is not progress?” I feel that an unfamiliar aspect of Benjamin and Adorno’s thought is an idea they take from Marx, which complicates the relationship between progress and regress: Capital moves through a process of the discontents capital itself produces. The opposition to capital that these discontents engender form the basis for the reconstitution of capital in a new form, though there are important differences in the form these discontents take. You can have a system of discontents that advances capital in one way, or in a completely different way.
Goebbels touring a Nazi exhibition of "degenerate" modernist art, Berlin, 1937
To take perhaps the most dramatic example, I’m sure we are familiar with the anti-totalitarian idea that communism and fascism are simply two sides of the same coin. In a way, for Benjamin and Adorno, fascism was the necessary doppelgänger of communism, in that both communism and fascism had an ambivalent relationship to the progress and regress of capital. Nevertheless, one could distinguish between communism and fascism, as Benjamin and Adorno themselves did. One could distinguish between how the contradiction of capital is being pushed through communism versus the way it was being pushed, in a more obscure manner, through fascism. One salient point here would be Wilhelm Reich’s argument, in “Ideology as a Material Force” (1933), that Marxists had failed to recognize the progressive character of fascism, which of course did not mean that Reich found fascism “progressive.” Rather, Reich meant that fascists were more in tune with the ambivalent progress and regress of capital than the Marxists were. The Marxists, in a sense, were helpless in the face of the progress of capital—therefore, the ambivalent progress of capital took the form of fascism rather than communism in Germany.
GH: Of course, after 1848, modernity becomes not the solution, but the problem. However, I resist a certain version of the argument which posits that, since modernity is the problem, there must be something which is not modernity that provides, if not the solution, at least the answer. The full secularization of history entails that there is nothing outside history. So I think modernity has to be the answer to the problem it raises. In my remarks I held up what I am calling “another modernity,” which I acknowledge to be only a sort of marker. It is possible we may have to make out this other modernity by figuring out, again, the difference between communism and fascism, though I find this possibility a bit dreadful. However, this would mean withdrawing from the language of disaster and catastrophe—a withdrawal I would justify on the basis of Adorno’s resistance to pessimism. Pessimism is the conviction that things will inevitably get worse. But, for Adorno, it is the dark gift of history that this is false. The only gift of having survived 1945 is the dead certainty that things cannot get any worse. From this anti-pessimistic thought, I think there must emerge something like an anti-catastrophic line of thinking.
JB: You would have to think past Adorno to do that, though. I keep pointing back to early modern art, and to what I have called the “secular sacralization” of the everyday. I do this because one of the things Adorno thematized, but did not see in the art he loved, was the burden of giving everyday life the intensity and fullness of satisfactions once found in religious forms of life. Adorno and Benjamin were overly impressed by the sacred, or the messianic, and this was their worst temptation. If they were alive now, I fear they would be doing political theology, which is the worst thing to happen in political thought since Carl Schmitt. As I see it, Adorno’s anti-representationalism ultimately led him to think of what was utopian in distorted ways.
Bartolomeo Manfredi, Cupid Chastised (1613)
CC: Your critique of Benjamin and Adorno points to the difference between understanding modernity as post-Renaissance, versus understanding modernity as post-1848. Art after 1848 is about disenchantment, secularization, and sacralization of the everyday, but in a fundamentally different way than the art from the Renaissance period through the Romantic period, up until the time of Hegel. This difference hinges on the difference between Kant and Hegel, on the one hand, and Marx, on the other, which should not be understood simply as a difference in thinking. Rather, it is a matter of the real historical difference between the pre-1848 and post-1848 world, which makes it necessary to pose quite differently the question of Enlightenment, disenchantment, desacralization, and resacralization.
Jay, I think you have posed art as occupying a space outside capital, outside modernity, representing a romantic response to the instrumentalization of the world. I believe there were elements of this in Lydia’s remarks as well. In contrast, I think Adorno and Benjamin challenge us to see how art also becomes instrumental reason, in the sense that art is an instrument of capital. It is not as though there is reason that is used instrumentally, and reason that is not used instrumentally. Rather, reason becomes instrumentalized by capital so that the Enlightenment becomes a more ambiguous phenomenon after 1848. There is a reversal of means and ends after 1848 such that one can no longer understand capital as the advance of Enlightenment, but can only see the Enlightenment as the means of capital. Rather than “non-conceptual knowledge,” Adorno and Benjamin see art as part of the reason of capital, but also, therefore, as bearing the ambivalence of capital and potentially making that ambivalence recognizable.
A similar difficulty, which came up in Gregg’s presentation, is getting beyond an understanding of emancipation in terms of cracks or fragments in society. This conception of emancipation traces back to a kind of Romantic Counter-Enlightenment, from which Marx and, thus, Benjamin and Adorno, would have to be distinguished. I take great issue with the claim that Adorno and Benjamin were enchanted by the sacred. Like Hegel, they were tasked with understanding continuity and change in the desacralization of the world. Hegel had to account for the ways that religious metaphysics remain with us in spite of, and even through, the disenchantment of the world. Kant and Hegel understood this in the sense that religion was a prior form of reason, but I do not think they argue for a Romantic re-enchantment of the sacred against the disenchanted world. Marx, Benjamin, and Adorno certainly do not.
LG:This treats Adorno and Benjamin as if they are producing a theory of society or a theory of art in a traditional sense—that is, taking a step back, coming up with a theory, and then imposing it upon society, art, or capitalism. What Adorno and Benjamin share in their writing is precisely this turning back on themselves to ask how, actually, does one write about this. They always turn back on the structures of thought and writing.
CC:I don’t think I implied that Adorno and Benjamin felt they could step outside their object of critique. They consider their own thinking symptomatic of capital, which means that they understand their own opposition to capital as itself being a symptom of capital. In this sense the only difference they could establish between their own thinking and others’ was the measure of self-clarification and self-awareness they achieved, which is an issue of the philosophy of history. There is a difficulty in understanding what opposition to capitalism means. The usual approach is to look at how capital breaks down—to look for apparent cracks, which provide the grounds for “resistance.” This is the typical language of the Left in the late 20th century, down to the present. In contrast, Benjamin and Adorno follow from Marx in recognizing that it is not the case that capital moves by a smooth logic, interrupted by moments of collapse representing something outside of capital. Rather, part of what makes capital an “alienated” logic is that it is no logic at all; it reproduces itself not in spite of, but precisely through breakdown, resistance, discontents, and a host of contingent or “spontaneous” factors.
There is an undigested Romantic legacy, in the wake of 1789, of positioning oneself, along with all humanity, under the treads of history. This tends toward a one-sided understanding of capital as instrumental reason, whereas in fact Adorno and Benjamin, like Marx and Hegel, are actually trying to overcome a Romantic rejection of modernity. Trying not to fall on one side of that Romantic rejection is hard without seeming to speak from some kind of objective view outside of the phenomenon, but I think that is primarily an issue of style and presentation.
Q & A
Q: In your comments, Gregg, you said that returning to the distinction between fascism and communism seemed dreadful. But what hope for the redemptive power of art, or even of thought itself, exists outside of the hope for socialism, a movement that the revolutionary Marxist tradition understood as the attempt, for the first time, to put social relations under the dominion of social consciousness?
GH: My expression of despair was only at the prospect of having to frame the problem that way. The articulation of socialism necessarily involves the retrieval of the emancipatory moment of “actually existing socialism.” But what must we return to in order to retrieve this emancipatory moment? I don’t have an answer to that, but if there is an answer afoot, we need to hear it. Several times in the last month I have heard the following remarkable thought—and when I say remarkable I simply mean I want to know more—that Khrushchev represented an actual breakthrough, from which we might retrieve a different practice of communism. That is the kind of thought that I do not know how to make use of, even in trying to think about what you and I share, which is a view of socialism as the horizon of emancipatory political practice.
Q: Jay, in your remarks you have described our culture as being problematic in its relation to art, which I took to mean that we have a “wrong culture.” What do you mean by this?
JB: “Wrong culture” would be optimistic. I am interested in how the culture question has lapsed. It was standard even in the 1960s to articulate how system integration, the way in which various institutions make capital reproduction possible, required social integration, whereby people would have harmonious beliefs, values, and ideals. At a certain moment, capital recognized that this was not strictly necessity, and that people did not actually need a whole lot of ideological forming. My claim is that an image of radical culture was parasitic on the idea that there was a dominant culture. There is no longer a coherent dominant culture against which to mount a critique that could push forward the formation of an alternative political will. This is what requires us to rethink the notion of critique.
CC: I think the world appears to lack a common culture holding the system together because the common culture that exists is poorly recognized. Counterintuitively, I think there are a great deal of assumptions shared by Islamic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, postmodern bohemians, and so on, but these common assumptions go unrecognized and unremarked. These assumptions have become ideology in a classic sense. The task would be provoking recognition of this commonality in order to make legible the unity of the opposites in our world, rather than thinking that we live in some sort of cultural plurality that resists any attempt to understand it as a totality. That this appears to be the case is simply an artifact of our failure to understand it. One could just as well make a plausible argument, from the standpoint of the 19th century, that the world was being held together without a hegemonic culture in 1830, 1848, or 1870. The task would be to find the hegemonic culture that is there, but which is completely naturalized.
LG:But are we talking here about culture with a small C, or Kultur with a capital K?
GH: I had a version of that question in mind. In a review of the Anselm Kiefer art show that appeared recently in the New York Times, Roberta Smith hauled out of the dustbin of history a critical concept you almost never see anymore: She referred to Kiefer as a “middlebrow painter.”  The concept seemed archaic to me. Even though it was clearly meant as a slander, “middlebrow” had none of the negative charge it used to have. Suddenly there was, in the concept of middlebrow, a whiff of democracy. It sounded optimistic, as though it is something to aspire to. So, I don’t mean to imply by this that Anselm Kiefer is a great painter or anything, but reading this review of his work suggested to me that, whatever might come to count as a common culture, it is definitely not going to be culture with a capital K—it is not going to be a matter of cultivation, in that sense.
JB: With respect to what I am calling the breakdown or the loss of culture, I am thinking about what goes on, for instance, in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, which captures how ideality or hopefulness is no longer available as something that could be transformative. It is not simply “ideology,” or a series of false beliefs, that make a culture, even with a small C. There has to be a notion of ideality. That notion, which appeared in Germany under the phrase “critique of pure cynicism,” really has its American moment now, and it is that difficulty I was pointing to.
LG: From that, it follows that the real confrontation now would not be between critical theory and capital, directly, but between critical theory and democracy. This is really where the issue is for politics.
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (1913)
CC: The word I want to introduce into the discussion is “kitsch.” Maybe we now have kitsch culture and kitsch politics. There are interesting parallels between Clement Greenberg and Benjamin and Adorno. It is interesting that Greenberg foregrounds the question of democracy by treating avant-garde and kitsch as symptoms of democracy. But in this way Greenberg also raises the question of the relationship between capital and democracy. The culture industry was a concept that Adorno meant to embrace high art as well. Schoenberg and Stravinsky were also a part of the culture industry. In that respect I think one has to see how avant-garde and kitsch practices subsist on a common ground and how Schoenberg and Stravinsky are two sides of the same coin. Adorno certainly was not just a partisan for Schoenberg over Stravinsky, which is how Adorno is usually read.
Q: A few of you tonight have touched upon the concept that an artwork is not successful unless critique is doing its job. But what is critique’s job description, so to speak, in relation to art today? And what should it be?
Beethoven, Symphony 5 (1804–08), I. Allegro con brio
LG:It is not that art will not function unless critique does its job, but that critique is this ongoing process of rethinking what is being asserted. One of the reasons Adorno admired Schoenberg was that he thought you could not reduce Schoenberg to whistling, and this meant that in some way Schoenberg was not assimilable by the culture—in its form it would always rub up against culture. If you understood what it was that made Schoenberg so difficult and so unassimilable, so unwhistleable, you could perhaps understand again what was amazing about a Beethoven symphony or even, in my view, a Puccini opera like La Bohème. This is where I think even Adorno got himself wrong, in that he made too many blanket statements about the kind of music that was subsumable by this society. The real resistant potential is to try and listen to Puccini as a great composer, not to listen to Puccini as a composer under the conditions of commodification.
Puccini, La bohème (1896), O soave fanciulla
CC:I don’t think Schoenberg was unassimilable—if anything, his work was assimilated. But I also do not think that Adorno thought Schoenberg was unassimilable, and so I don’t think unassimilability is what Adorno valued in Schoenberg. Adorno talks about Schoenberg and the culture industry in terms of “the inevitable” versus “the incomprehensible,” as a sort of antinomy within a historical moment of the culture industry. Inevitability and incomprehensibility are, to Adorno, two aspects of the same thing. The operation of capital is not comprehensible by individuals but it is clearly socially assimilable. In this sense, capital is inevitable and incomprehensible. What Adorno valued about Schoenberg was that, in Schoenberg, you cannot escape that simultaneous inevitability and incomprehensibility as easily as you can escape it by putting on Puccini, for instance, or Stravinsky, who gives you the comprehensible sublime.
Q: In your comments, Jay, you have proposed the everyday as a different route to go besides the messianic or sacred. But how is the everyday supposed to get beyond all the problems you have raised with shareability, for instance? Doesn’t everydayness run into all the same problems we run into with culture?
Schoenberg, Erwartung/Expectation (1909)
JB: I think the everyday has always been the question for modern art. Whatever we might mean by modernity, it has to be the thought of a wholly secular form of life. What we don’t know is what shareability is going to look like. That is something art practices will need to invent, in the sense of figuring out, as they go along, variations on this idea of immanent sharebility, which comes out of the practice itself and yet remains a practice. What makes art particular, at least for me, is that it bears this burden.
Q: I think the theme of the failure of postmodernism to advance historical consciousness has not been fully fleshed out. What is it about how postmodernism saw art that has left us with less access to historical self-awareness or consciousness?
CC:There have been assumed but, unfortunately, naturalized and invisible categories we have used in discussing art and critique, and I think the invisibility of these categories points to problems of historical consciousness. In a sense, we necessarily read figures like Adorno or Benjamin—or, as I pointed out before, Marx—in terms of categories that they themselves wanted to transcend. One thinks of how the classic postmodernist art critics, the October group, separated the avant-garde from modernism. I do not think critics like Benjamin and Adorno, or Clement Greenberg for that matter, would have accepted the opposition of the avant-garde to modernism in the way that postmodern critics superimpose on the history of modern art. Similarly, the relationship between Romanticism and modernism has been a troubled one throughout our discussion. To the degree there has been a critique of Adorno and Benjamin, the critique was of a residual Romanticism they purportedly exhibit. That they appear to retain a Romantic understanding of modernity is itself a signal of how much influence postmodernism, and particularly postmodern art criticism, has exerted on how we think about modernism. Thus, for instance, modernist art becomes a kind of secular religion. A return to these figures as points of reference—especially Adorno, as someone who anticipated but preceded emphatic postmodernism in art criticism—is salient today precisely to the extent it allows us to estrange ourselves from these kinds of rhetorics. We should resist the notion of Adorno and Benjamin as mandarin intellectuals and holdover Romantics, and we should resist a Romantic conception of modernism, whether we use that term positively or negatively. I say this in hopes of at least pointing to how our discussion bears the damage that has been done by the way we talk about art after postmodernism. Our discussion bears the traces of an abdication of criticism over at least the last 40 years, since Adorno’s time. In all the ways we have talked about the modern work of art—in terms of whether modernism is finished or unfinished, how it subsists, how and why it is still necessary, and so on—I think we have been forced to concede something. | §
Originally published in The Platypus Review #31 (January 2011). Transcribed by Andony Melathopoulos