The Sandernistas: Postscript on the March 15 primaries

Chris Cutrone

Postscript to “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s” (December 2015).

The primary elections for the nomination of the Democrat and Republican candidates for President have demonstrated the depth and extent of the disarray of the two Parties. Sanders has successfully challenged Hillary and has gone beyond being a mere messenger of protest to become a real contender for the Democratic Party nomination. But this has been on the basis of the Democrats’ established constituencies and so has limited Sanders’s reach. Turnout for the Democratic Party primaries has not been significantly raised as Sanders hoped. The Republican primaries by contrast have reached new highs.

Donald Trump has been the actual phenomenon of crisis and potential change in 2016, taking a much stronger initiative in challenging the established Republican Party, indeed offering the only convincing possibility of defeating Clinton. The significant crossover support between Sanders and Trump however marginal is very indicative of this crisis. Trump has elicited hysteria among both established Republicans and Democrats. Their hysteria says more about them than about him: fear of the base. Sanders has attempted to oppose the 1930–40s New Deal and 1960s–70s Great Society and New Left base of the Democratic Party, established and developed from FDR through the Nixon era, against its 1980s–2010s neoliberal leadership that has allegedly abandoned them. Trump has done something similar, winning back from Obama the “Reagan Democrats.” But the wild opportunism of his demagogy allows him to transcend any inherent limitations of this appeal.

Trump is no “fascist” nor even really a “populist,”1 but is what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat (like the blowhard former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch). He challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar Centrist positions in U.S. politics, whatever their differences on policy. But Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Sanders could potentially best Trump, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 85 (April 2016).


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

Chris Cutrone

Chris Cutrone is a college educator, writer, and media artist, committed to critical thinking and artistic practice and the politics of social emancipation. ( . . . )

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Back to Herbert Spencer

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

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

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

Audio recording

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Sandernistas

The final triumph of the 1980s

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 82 | December 2015 – January 2016


Bernie Sanders with Jesse Jackson in the 1980s

THE CAMPAIGN CYCLE for the 2016 general election in the U.S. has been characterized by some throwbacks to the 1980s, most notably in the two major party challengers, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Most remarkably, the Sanders campaign has introduced the word “socialism” into mainstream political discourse. It’s clear that what socialism means in Sanders’s mouth, however, is New Deal liberalism — despite the poster of Eugene V. Debs that hangs in Sanders’s Senate office.1 The specter of “socialism” is just that: the meaning it has for Obama’s Tea Party opponents. As Marx wrote over 150 years ago,

“Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatized as ‘socialism’.” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)

Just because Sanders embraces instead of rejecting the pejorative hurled at any and all proposed reforms of capitalism doesn’t make the charge any more true in fact: for Sanders it is a mere ethic. But it appeals nonetheless.2 Sanders’s candidacy seems to fulfill the demands borne of the post-2008 economic crisis and downturn, the discontents with neoliberalism — itself an artifact of the post-1973 crisis that was met by the 1980s “Reagan revolution” — and to offer the electoral vehicle for the Occupy Wall Street generation of activists disenchanted by Obama and the Democrats after 2012.3

weekend_at_bernies-med size

Weekend at Bernie’s?

The Occupy generation’s wielding of the corpse of social democracy in getting behind Sanders as the standard-bearer of reform recalls the 1980s film Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), in which the protagonists in the movie hide behind the eponymous man’s body as an excuse for wild adventure — in this case, a hardly naïve adolescent misadventure with the Democrats. It is regressive. In a dynamic reminiscent of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaigns of the 1980s, Sanders has offered “Left” opposition to Democratic Party Centrism, but not by opposing but trying to capture it as well. Sanders meeting with Killer Mike isn’t the answer — Mike already had endorsed him back in June.

Sanders’s campaign from its inception in May has been surprisingly and increasingly successful. But it has since plateaued. For a moment in September, it looked like Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy was in jeopardy due to the Benghazi hearings. Even Obama threw the Democrats’ favorite under the bus, acknowledging in an interview on 60 Minutes (October 11, 2015) that Clinton had mishandled her email communication as Secretary of State. In the same interview, Obama asserted that he would win a third election, and — much the same thing — that Biden’s experience as Vice President eminently qualified him to be President. But Hillary survived Benghazi; and Biden bowed out.

The Democrats, since the 2014 midterm elections in which they failed to dislodge the Republicans’ Congressional majority, have been faced with the problem of reproducing the “Obama majority” that was victorious in 2008 and 2012.4 This has been described as the challenge of uniting the Democrats’ “Left” and “Center” voters: the “Left” is organized labor and others concerned with socio-economic issues; the “Center” — really, the Right — are those concerned with identity-group politics, women, blacks and gays. This potentially fatal split among the Democrats was seen in the 2015 Chicago city-wide election, in which Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was challenged by fellow Democrat, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, who had the support of the Chicago Teachers Union that had struck against Emanuel and his neoliberal education reforms in 2012, seeking to embarrass the Chicago native Obama precisely during his campaign for reelection.

In the 2015 Chicago mayoral election, black Democrats supported Rahm against Chuy. This was not merely a division between blacks and Latinos, but rather a split of and within the Democrats’ organized labor base from its ethnic constituency “community”-based neoliberal politics. The former 1960s Black Panther, U.S. Congressional Representative Bobby Rush, for instance, denounced Chuy’s campaign for trying to usurp the mantle of the (first black mayor of Chicago) “Harold Washington majority” (as against the prior Daley political machine) that first emerged in the 1980s, which Rush implied could only be reproduced (if at all) by black (and not Latino) leadership — that is, a neoliberal Center/Right majority, and not a labor-based politics. Washington was supported by the “Left:” his campaign chief was a former Maoist — shades of Van Jones? For Rush and other black Democrats in Chicago, Rahm is the “Washington majority” candidate. As Obama was, and Hillary will be. Chuy’s challenge to Rahm has actually provided Emanuel with the opportunity for achieving the electoral mandate endorsement he previously lacked: now a majority has voted in favor of his neoliberal policies. Far from a crisis for neoliberalism, neoliberalism has been further consolidated against any contenders. This is a lesson for Sanders’s supporters: when Hillary is elected by primary voters as the Democratic Party candidate for President, they will have chosen and given a mandate to neoliberalism.

Hillary’s ability to unite the “Left” and Right of the Democrats is uncertain: if she can do so, still, she will not be able to generate the same level of enthusiasm that Obama did in 2008. Certainly this goes for labor. Obama’s 2008 campaign for instance offered organized labor the prospect of passing the Employee Free Choice Act under a Democratic majority, but was unceremoniously dropped after the election. Obama’s campaign demanded — and achieved — a reuniting of labor in the AFL-CIO from its split in the Change to Win Federation, so that they would have to negotiate with only one rather than multiple labor constituencies: Obama sought to bring labor under control, specifically in the context of the potentially explosive 2008 economic crisis. The Democrats did not face a labor insurgency. Neither will they now.

Into this bitter legacy steps Sanders, whose call for “political revolution” he explicitly described as an electoral strategy for raising turnout, especially among younger, newer voters, and thus returning the Democrats to a Congressional majority that they enjoyed when Obama was elected until the 2010 Tea Party Congressional election insurgency. Sanders has offered himself as a better champion for the Democrats in the 2016 general election than Hillary can be. The problem has been on the Democratic Right: Sanders’s alleged “problem with women and blacks.” Hillary has supposedly maintained appeal to the social identity constituencies, despite some turbulence from Black Lives Matter and the memory by gays that both Clintons have had a poor record on marriage equality. The presumptive character of Hillary’s nomination, especially as a woman candidate, has exhibited a complacency that chafes and is not guaranteed to pay off in terms of voter mobilization.5

The degree to which the “Left” has gotten on-board with Sanders, it has been in the form of the alleged “brocialists” — straight white men. “Socialism” has meant a backlash against identity politics, an attempt to return to the Democrats’ historic role as economic reformers going back to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, which had pressured the Republicans such that even Eisenhower and Nixon were purportedly to the “Left” of the Clintons on economic policy. There is also the sense that in the post-2008 environment Sanders could appeal to and win back an older generation of disaffected voters, the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” whose shifting allegiances allowed the Republicans to triumph since the ’80s, now approaching retirement age and concerned about the opportunities for their children and grandchildren bequeathed by 30 years of decrepit neoliberalism.6

Sanders thus offers the Democrats an answer to the Tea Party that has been sorely lacking since 2010, as expressed by the frustration that bubbled over in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. A new generation of activists was mobilized to “get the money out of politics,” especially in opposition to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows unlimited campaign spending, a generation whose concerns about “social justice” and the erosion of “democracy” Sanders speaks to. The question has been whether the Sanders campaign is “for real,” or whether, rather, it is merely a protest pressure-tactic on Hillary, slowing and perhaps redirecting, however slightly, the Clinton juggernaut.7 Sanders’s claim that higher turnout means electoral gains for the Democrats neglects that not only the Republicans but they themselves engage in and benefit from voter suppression, especially among blacks, especially in the Democrats’ urban strongholds. The Democrats have no interest in popular political mobilization, even behind the most anodyne and unthreatening symbolic gestures — see Black Lives Matter — and so seek to curtail it.8

Not least, this is because the Democrats don’t want the political responsibility that would come with large majorities, as was clear in 2008-10, in which they bent their Congressional supermajority over backwards to placate the utterly prostrate Republicans. Any substantial increase in the voting electorate would present problems of political integration. See the Tea Parties’ challenge to the Republican establishment, which would really rather do without such berserkers in their midst. Even before the Tea Parties, in the 2008 bailout crisis, it was unclear whether Congressional Republicans were to fall victim to their own neoliberal rhetoric instead of taking required action to prevent a complete financial meltdown. International financial markets constantly worry over the “political paralysis” in the U.S. yielded by the Republicans hostage to the Tea Party Congressmen and the implications of this for the world economy. The Democrats would be challenged by such unruly voters (especially at the local level of municipal and state governments, as in Illinois) at least as much if not more so than the Republicans are.

Neoliberalism needs to be seen as both an accommodation to and a reinforcement of social and political demobilization after the 1960s, visible for instance in the decimation of labor unions but also of other civil society institutions, after abandonment of their original liberal raison d’être in favor of integration in what the Frankfurt School called the authoritarian “administered state,” already observable to C. Wright Mills and other political scientists after the waning of the radicalization of the 1930s through WWII: what remained was the political parties’ organization of a “power elite.” But even this structure has atrophied since the 1960s. Privatization through NGOs has not meant a renaissance of civil society, but has left the political field abandoned of any substantial forces for reform since the 1980s. Even what Eisenhower decried as the “military-industrial complex” in the Cold War has been revealed after the Iraq war as a massively corrupt freewheeling affair, and not a political force to be reckoned with: Enormous sums of money may be thrown around to government contractors, but this hardly amounts to political control over policy; 1970s Ford administration veteran Donald Rumsfeld went to war not only against foes in Afghanistan and Iraq but against the Pentagon itself, in a neoliberal privatization campaign of “slimming down” the military, to the embitterment of the officer corps, even amid soaring expenditures. What C. Wright Mills warned about “political irresponsibility” in “liberal rhetoric and conservative default” has only grown more unchecked since the ’60s. Indeed, Mills seems too optimistic in light of even more miserable realities today. The “political establishment” is actually quite threadbare and in evident disarray, not a convincing “power elite.” But: “There is no alternative.”

The issue is whether the post-2008 crisis has been an opportunity for undoing neoliberalism — reversing the ’80s — or for further entrenching it. But to overcome neoliberalism there would need to be an organized political force for doing so. The Democrats are decidedly not this, in any conceivable way. The crisis in Europe has demonstrated an opportunity for expanding and deepening neoliberalism, and not for returning to “social democracy” — despite SYRIZA, Podemos, and Jeremy Corbyn’s wresting seasoned 1980s (Bennite) leadership of the U.K.’s Labour Party, back away from the “Third Way” spectacularly unconvincing 1990s-offspring Blairite runts.

Sanders has more evident conviction than Hillary could ever exhibit. This recalls heroic opposition to Reaganism — why his followers have been affectionately nicknamed after the Sandinistas. One key issue for the Sandernistas that is also similar to the dynamic of Corbyn’s supporters in the U.K. is the 2000s George W. Bush-era anti-war movement as touchstone: Sanders, like Corbyn, opposed the Iraq war, which makes him amenable to the “Left.” Does the Sanders campaign represent a potential political turn, or is it the last gasp of Occupy activism before growing up and joining the fold of the Democrats? Sanders’s abandoning his hitherto vintage 1960s “independence” from the Democrats points the way for the younger generation of 21st century activists.

The “Left” may be tempted to imagine the Sanders campaign as a potential crisis for the Democrats — just as Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party could be seen as a crisis and opportunity for the “Left.” It is more likely that — just as Corbyn will save and not wreck the Labour Party — Sanders will boost and not undermine the Democrats’ campaign around Hillary in 2016. Or at least that is his avowed hope.

What if any kind of political movement could come out of the Sanders campaign? The Sandernistas certainly do not think of the campaign as a way to reconcile themselves to the Democratic Party but rather hope to transform it. Like with Chuy in Chicago, the hope is to mobilize new forces through the campaign that will be sustained after the election. Will this be within or outside the Democratic Party? Perhaps it will be both. In the 1980s, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was established; in 2004, the Progressive Democrats of America was founded out of the Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich Presidential campaigns. The first was, in DSA founder Michael Harrington’s words, “a remnant of a remnant” of the New Left; the second was in many respects a repeat of the first. These have not been auspicious developments indicating possibilities for where the Sandernistas might go after 2016. The DSA supported Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Party campaign for President, which Sanders also endorsed, in protest against Reaganism. The precedents in the 1980s legacy of the 1960s New Left suggest the further adaptation to — through protest of — the Democrats’ moving ever Right-ward.

Sanders like Trump demonstrates the hollowness of the two U.S. political parties today, if only through the inability to stop their candidacies by the “establishment.” The parties are no longer the formidable “machines” they were in the 20th century — confronted by the 1960s New Left generation — but are merely brandings anyone can buy into — whether wholesale by billionaire magnates like Trump himself or the Koch Brothers Tea Party-backers, or through tiny payments to Sanders’s 2016 campaign, as had been made to Obama in 2008, as an internet media phenomenon. Clinton at least still needs to win over union endorsements and particular capitalist business-sector funding. But in any case there is no political process involved, but only the aestheticization of politics as a consumer article9. As such it can and will be rendered in typical postmodernist pastiche of non-partisan eclecticism. “Politics” means what any- and everyone wants to make of it. This is even claimed as a virtue, of “divided government.”

The worst possible outcome of this is the most likely, that Hillary will be elected as President, but the Republicans will retain a Congressional majority, reproducing the polarized stalemate and deadlock that actually sustains — stabilizes — U.S. politics around a conservative neoliberal consensus, in which certain social issues are given obligatory genuflections without being actually addressed let alone ameliorated. Since the Democrats won the “culture wars” under Obama’s neoliberal leadership, a new division of labor with the Republicans has been established: that the Republicans will represent “straight white men,” especially in rural and exurban areas; and the Democrats, under the leadership of the Clintonite neoliberal Center/Right, will represent “women, blacks and gays” in their petit bourgeois ethnic constituency urban (and more urbane suburban) communities. Welcome to the “new normal.” It began in the ’80s with Reagan’s Presidency, under which the Democrats retained control of Congress.

In the 1980s, the “yuppies” — young urban professionals, that is to say, grown-up children of the 1960s — were regarded as new but conservative; today, they are called “hipsters” and considered liberal as well as entirely normal: an electoral demographic spanning everyone from college to middle-age, referred to in conventional polling analysis as “voters under 50,” i.e., the generation that came of age after the ’80s. Sanders (like Trump) indicatively does best among them — where Clinton does better among those over 50. In the 1980s, identity politics consolidated the accommodation to and resolution of neoliberalism in the “Reagan revolution.” What Adolph Reed has called the “Jesse Jackson phenomenon” exemplified this. It has continued up to the present, through such eminently respectably conservative measures as gay marriage equality. Obama has not brought about any social changes, but only granted them legal legitimacy. But where Obama at least seemed to symbolize “change” — a new post-’60s generation — Sanders as well as Clinton represent a return: diminished expectations. Sanders raising the specter of the “Old Left” 1930s-60s New Deal Coalition’s venerable political heritage for the Democrats, which came to grief in the ’80s, will be the means not for resuscitating but finally burying it.

daniel ortega

Daniel Ortega in the 21st century

There will be no “political revolution” — apart from the one already long underway since the 1980s. The final decades of the 20th century were successfully seized by the same “end of history” to which the 21st century will yet continue to belong, evidently for a long time to come. Daniel Ortega’s return to power as part of the greater Latin American “Pink Tide” in the 2000s represented the final surrender — or was it rather the ultimate triumph? — of the Sandinistas, and put paid to any ’80s “Left” nostalgia on which he may have traded. The same will go for Sanders. Sanders, as an outlier 1960s remnant of the Reagan era, becomes a mainstream political phenomenon today only as a function of giving up the ghost. The 1960s were not defeated but institutionalized in the 1980s. Today, this recent historical process has been completely naturalized, the domesticated televised version of the 1960s as historical curiosity. What needs to be reconciled today — by contrast with 2008 — is not the ’60s but the ’80s: not the last hurrah of the former 1960s radical Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers who helped Obama get his political start as a generational bequest 40 years after Chicago’s Days of Rage, but the 1980s Mayor of Burlington, Vermont (alongside the vintage 1980s New York City real estate speculator) will be the specter haunting 2016.

The 1960s New Left in which Sanders and Clinton — and Corbyn — took part could not and will not give any rebirth to “socialism,” however defined. It could not prevent and indeed actively assisted and not merely accommodated the demise of the Great Society. Whatever regrets it may have now do not point any way forward, but only towards its retirement, and a historical settling of the past.

Just as Clinton’s election in 1992 did not reverse Reaganite neoliberalism by pot-smoking former campaigners in 1972 for George McGovern, Sanders’s late protest today may seal neoliberalism’s unalloyed triumph. Margaret Thatcher claimed Tony Blair as her ultimate achievement. Sanders begging to differ from Hillary before her election as Clinton II will thus be the final victory of the 1980s. | §

Postscript on the March 15 primaries

The primary elections for the nomination of the Democrat and Republican candidates for President have demonstrated the depth and extent of the disarray of the two Parties. Sanders has successfully challenged Hillary and has gone beyond being a mere messenger of protest to become a real contender for the Democratic Party nomination. But this has been on the basis of the Democrats’ established constituencies and so has limited Sanders’s reach. Turnout for the Democratic Party primaries has not been significantly raised as Sanders hoped. The Republican primaries by contrast have reached new highs.

Donald Trump has been the actual phenomenon of crisis and potential change in 2016, taking a much stronger initiative in challenging the established Republican Party, indeed offering the only convincing possibility of defeating Clinton. The significant crossover support between Sanders and Trump however marginal is very indicative of this crisis. Trump has elicited hysteria among both established Republicans and Democrats. Their hysteria says more about them than about him: fear of the base. Sanders has attempted to oppose the 1930–40s New Deal and 1960s–70s Great Society and New Left base of the Democratic Party, established and developed from FDR through the Nixon era, against its 1980s–2010s neoliberal leadership that has allegedly abandoned them. Trump has done something similar, winning back from Obama the “Reagan Democrats.” But the wild opportunism of his demagogy allows him to transcend any inherent limitations of this appeal.

Trump is no “fascist” nor even really a “populist,”10 but is what the Republicans accuse him of being: a New York-style Democrat (like the blowhard former 1980s New York City Mayor Ed Koch). He challenges Hillary precisely because they occupy such similar Centrist positions in U.S. politics, whatever their differences on policy. But Trump more than Sanders represents something new and different: a potential post- and not pre-neoliberal form of capitalist politics, regarding changes in policies that have continued from Reagan through Obama, driven by discontents of those alienated from both Parties. Sanders could potentially best Trump, but only on the basis of a much greater and more substantial mobilization for a different politics than it is evidently possible to muster through the Democrats. The biggest “party” remains those who don’t vote. | §

P.P.S. on Trump and the crisis of the Republican Party

June 22, 2016

Further amendment after the end of the primary elections.

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

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


  1. Bernie Sanders, Speech on “democratic socialism,”, November 19, 2015; and Dylan Matthews, “A leading socialist explains what Bernie Sanders’s socialism gets right — and wrong: An interview with Jacobin magazine editor Bhaskar Sunkara,”, November 20, 2015 []
  2. Ben Geier, “Bernie Sanders is a socialist, but he’s not a Socialist,” Fortune, September 19, 2015; and “Bernie Sanders just answered the biggest question of his campaign,” Fortune, November 19, 2015 []
  3. Walker Bragman, “More like Reagan than FDR: I’m a Millennial and will never vote for Hillary Clinton,”, November 30, 2015  []
  4. Jonathan Martin, “After losses, liberal and centrist Democrats square off on strategy,” New York Times, November 14, 2014 []
  5. Michael Eric Dyson, “Yes she can: Why Hillary Clinton will do more for black people than Obama: A skeptic’s journey,” The New Republic, November 29, 2015 []
  6. Christopher C. Schons, “From Reagan to Bernie Sanders: My political odyssey,” Counterpunch, November 4, 2015 []
  7. Bruce A. Dixon, “Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: Sheepdogging for Hillary and the Democrats in 2016,” Black Agenda Report, May 6, 2015 []
  8. Glen Ford, “Blacks will transform America, and free themselves, but not at the ballot box in 2016: Black voters cannot be counted on to support the most progressive presidential candidates available at the polls,” Black Agenda Report, October 21, 2015 []
  9. See Walter Benjamin, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (1936). []
  10. See Tad Tietze, “The Trump paradox: A rough guide for the Left,” Left Flank (January 25, 2016). Available on-line at:<>. []

Postscript on party politics

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 – January 2015

Coda to “What is political party for Marxism? Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital: On Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy (2008),” The Platypus Review 71 (November 2014). Originally published in abridged form as a letter in Weekly Worker 1035 (November 20, 2014).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is political party for Marxism?

Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital

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

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 71 | November 2014

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

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

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

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

New politics

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

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

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

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

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

Class and history

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

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

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

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

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

“Party of the new type”?

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

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

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

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

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

Symptomatic socialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberalism and socialism

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

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

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

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

Redeeming history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript on party politics

Platypus Review 72 | December 2014 – January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cutrone, Chris. “Capital in history” PR 7 (October 2008)

Cutrone, Chris “1917” PR 17 (November 2009)

Cutrone, Chris. “The Marxist hypothesis” PR 29 (November 2010)

Cutrone, Chris. “Egypt, or, history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848” PR 33 (March 2011)

Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s liberalism” PR 36 (June 2011)

Cutrone, Chris. “The philosophy of history” WW 869 (June 9, 2011)

Cutrone, Chris. “Defending Marxist Hegelianism” WW 878 (August 10, 2011)

Cutrone, Chris. “Lenin’s politics” PR 40 (October 2011)

Cutrone, Chris. “Whither Marxism?” PR 41 (November 2011)

Cutrone, Chris. “1873-1973: The century of Marxism” PR 47 (June 2012)

Cutrone, Chris. “The relevance of Lenin today” WW 922 (July 12, 2012); and PR 48 (July-August 2012)

Cutrone, Chris. “Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today” PR 51 (November 2012)

Cutrone, Chris. “Why still read Lukács?” WW 994 (January 23, 2014); unabridged version in PR 63 (February 2014)

Cutrone et al. “Revolutionary politics and thought” PR 69 (September 2014)

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

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

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

When was the crisis of capitalism?

Moishe Postone and the legacy of the 1960s New Left

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 70 | October 2014

LENIN STATED, infamously perhaps, that Marxists aimed to overcome capitalism “on the basis of capitalism itself.” This was in the context of horrors of not only industrial exploitation but also and especially of war: WWI. Lenin was not, as he might be mistaken to be, merely advocating so-called “war communism” or statist capitalism.1 No. Lenin recognized state capitalism as the advancing of the contradiction of capitalism. By contrast, after Lenin, there was state capitalism, but no active political consciousness of its contradiction. This affected the Left as it developed—degenerated—subsequently.2

The question is, when was the definitive crisis of capitalism, after which it could be plausibly asserted that the world suffered from the overripeness for change? Was it in 1968, as the New Left supposed? Or was it much earlier, in WWI, as Marxists such as Lenin thought?

Moishe Postone is arguably the—by far—most important interpreter of Marx to come out of the generation of the 1960s-70s “New Left.” Contributing to that generation’s “return to Marx,” motivated by the widespread discontents and political crisis of the 1960s, and finding increased purchase in the economic crisis and downturn of the ’70s, Postone’s work on Marx participated in the shaping of the self-understanding of the transition from what has been called the “Keynesian-Fordist” synthesis of predominant modes of capitalism in the mid-20th century to its neoliberal form starting in the 1970s. If Postone, as well as others of the New Left generation, found neoliberalism to be the travesty of the emancipatory aspirations of the 1960s, where does this leave his work today? For Postone’s work was very much of its moment, the 1960s-70s. It recalls an earlier era.

A full generation has passed since Postone’s initial works,3 and 20 years since publication of his book Time, Labor and Social Domination (1993): younger readers of Marx who encounter Postone’s interpretation are likely to have been born after Postone’s formulations were written and published. The recent economic crisis, the still on-going “Great Recession,” has prompted a renewed “return to Marx” moment that has reached back to the prior generation’s return to Marx in the 1960s-70s. The most perspicacious of young would-be Marxisants have discovered Postone’s work, and have begun to try to make sense of the present in Postone’s terms.

Such belated recognition of Postone’s work is well and long-deserved and can only be welcomed by anyone interested in Marx’s distinctive and indeed sui generis approach to the problem of capitalism.

Postone’s specific contribution was to direct attention to Marx’s critique of the relation between abstract labor and abstract time in the self-contradiction of value in capital. This allowed Postone to recognize how Marx grasped the accumulation of history in capital, the antagonism between “dead labor” and “living labor” in the ongoing reproduction of capital and of the social relations of the exchange of labor in the commodity form of value.

Much of the basis for resistance to Postone’s critical insights into Marx’s approach to capitalism, largely of a political character, has since fallen away. This centered on the question of “proletarian-transcending” vs. “proletarian-constituting” politics and the problem of the “ontology of labor.” At the same time, however, the political assumption for Postone’s work—the possibility of transcending the politics of labor—has become eroded and undermined along with the basis for resistance to it: Postone’s object of critique in recovering Marx in the 1960s-70s has largely if not entirely disappeared. Most importantly, the political prognosis that motivated Postone was falsified by subsequent history: Postone’s work was not able to help clarify the New Left moment to itself because the New Left failed in its aspirations. It did not help to transcend capitalism.

Liberal and statist periods of capitalism—individualist and collectivist discontents

The failure of the New Left is a deeply obscure problem because its success wears the mask of failure and its failure wears the mask of success: the New Left failed precisely where it thought it succeeded; and succeeded precisely where it thought it failed. But neither its failure nor its success had anything to do with being part of the history of the Left but rather with its furnishing the ideological consciousness for a renewed Right.

For instance, where the New Left thought it transformed with greater freedom a diversely heterogeneous multiplicity of socio-cultural practices, relations and identities, for instance, of “race, gender and sexuality,” as against what it supposed was a stultifying, oppressive and even genocidal homogenizing social conformism rooted in industrial-capitalist labor, in fact it smoothed the way towards even more widespread and deeper social participation in the capitalist labor process on a global scale that has not made corporations and governments more responsible to their constituencies but rather more intractably elusive as targets of political action.

Few on the avowed “Left” today would claim that there has been greater progress against capitalism let alone towards socialism since the 1960s: whatever the “balance sheet” of “gains and losses” in the past generation, the scale tilts ineluctably in the direction of loss. Still, the idea that “we know better now,” as an accomplishment of and development beyond the New Left, is unfortunately prevalent.

But every generation thinks it improves upon previous ones. It is this assumption of progress that is perhaps the most pernicious of ideological phenomena of consciousness.

The metaphysics of consciousness—the fact that consciousness transcends its concrete empirical moment in time and space—means that history does not constitute merely a factual record of events, but rather that purported historical “causality” is grasped only according to changes in “theoretical” perspectives on our on-going practices and their reproduction in society. History is not merely a set of accumulated effects but a development of consciousness—or at least should be, according to Hegel.4 The question is whether and how the development of social practices has facilitated or rather hindered and retarded—perhaps even blocked—the further development of consciousness.

So, what kind of consciousness is provided by Moishe Postone’s work, and how has this been grasped by Postone’s followers? What does this tell us about the history from the formative moment of Postone’s consciousness to the present?

The 1960s New Left moment

It is necessary to characterize the moment of the 1960s New Left. What kind of an opportunity was that moment?

The 1960s saw the deepening crisis of the Keynesian–Fordist liberal social-democratic “welfare state.” In the United States, which set the pattern for the rest of the world, the New Deal political coalition of the leading Democratic Party became unraveled. First, the Civil Rights Movement undermined the Democrats in the South, the so-called “Dixiecrats.” Then, the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam undermined the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Civil Rights Movement offered to go “part of the way with LBJ” in the election of 1964, in hopes of trading a quieting of protest against the U.S. anti-Communist war in Southeast Asia for LBJ’s support for Civil Rights legislation. Johnson’s reelection raised the prospects of a crisis in the Democratic Party, which was seen as an opportunity for its transformation. Bayard Rustin wrote that it was necessary to move the Civil Rights Movement “From Protest to Politics” in order to remake the Democrats into a party of blacks and labor, building upon the labor unions’ support for both the Civil Rights Movement and the new Students for a Democratic Society that emerged from the Civil Rights and student Free Speech Movements of the late 1950s–early ’60s. This didn’t happen, but rather the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” first floated in the 1964 election but fully realized in 1968 moved the southern Democratic voters to the Republicans’ camp. The tide change in U.S. politics is illustrated by the contrast between the 1952 and 1968 Presidential elections: Where the Democrats lost to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Adlai Stevenson winning only states in the Deep South; in 1968 the South provided the base for Republican Richard Nixon’s victory. What Rustin’s plan would have meant was a rejuvenation of the New Deal Coalition under changed conditions. It failed. The Democrats, who had been the majority party since 1932, went on the defensive, however holding onto Congressional majorities all the way up to the 1994 “Republican Revolution” led by Newt Gingrich. Since the 1930s, the Republicans were the party of opposition, which is still the case today in 2014. The Democrats have remained most often the majority party in Congress. The Republicans have never enjoyed the sustained occupation of the Presidency and majority in Congress that the Democrats have enjoyed more or less consistently since the 1930s. This character of ruling-class politics in the U.S. has meant certain conditions for any purported “Left.”

In the 1960s, being on the “Left” politically meant opposing an overwhelming Democratic majority government, and moreover one which claimed to be in the interest of working-class and minority people. The 1930s New Deal Coalition saw an uneasy alliance of white working class people including in the South with ethnic minority constituencies in the Northern cities, cities which exploded in the 1960s. For instance, it was only in the 1930s that blacks began voting in large numbers for Democrats, having supported Republicans since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Blacks were integrated into the Democrats’ New Deal Coalition as yet another Northern urban ethnic constituency vote: Adam Clayton Powell personified this politics. There was the Great Migration of blacks out of the South to the North from the period of WWI through WWII and the unionization of blacks through the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) in the 1930s Great Depression-era radicalization as well as in the war industries of the 1940s.

By the mid-1960s, LBJ, who was far more supportive of Civil Rights demands than JFK had been, while dramatically escalating the war in Vietnam, was opposed by the emergent New Left as a “fascist”—a representative of the authoritarian state that seemed to stand in the way of social change rather than as its instrument. The Civil Rights Movement’s pressure on the Democratic Party (seen in the Mississippi Freedom Democrats’ protest at the 1964 national convention) was met by the military risk to the state in the Cold War running hot in Southeast Asia.

A note on the Vietnam War: The U.S. proceeded through the Korean War and into the Vietnam War with the attempt to sustain and mobilize the United Nations of WWII, turning from opposition to fascism to opposing Communist “totalitarianism:” the U.S. prosecuted both the Korean War and increasingly in the 1960s the Vietnam War as extensions of strategies pursued in WWII and its immediate aftermath. The Greek Civil War set the pattern for counter-insurgency in the post-WWII world. Already in Korea the U.S. and its allies pursued counterinsurgency and not only a conventional military war. In Vietnam, counterinsurgency gave way to conventional warfare with the bombing campaigns initiated by LBJ and pursued further by Nixon succeeding him. The form of warfare pursued placed certain pressures on the Keynesian-Fordist social-democratic “welfare state” administered by the U.S. Democratic Party’s New Deal Coalition. Those pressures were political and socio-cultural as well as economic: such pressures were political-economic and social-political in character, setting the stage for the New Left.

The U.S. New Deal Coalition’s alliance of labor with the “welfare state” set the pattern throughout the world in the Cold War era, both in advanced capitalist countries and in newly independent post-colonial states. Its unraveling also set the historical political pattern, for student and worker discontent, in the 1960s. Moreover, discontent with the conservatism of the Soviet-bloc by the end of the 1950s meant an identification of the New Deal Coalition and the social-democratic “welfare state” with Stalinism in “state capitalism” and “state socialism,” both regarded as politically compromised obstacles to new upsurges “from below” in the 1960s. Political problems of both capitalism and socialism were thus identified with the state.

The political defections identified with the crisis of the Democrats’ New Deal Coalition involved not only the disaffection of blacks and other workers, especially among younger people, but also intellectuals of the establishment. There was a crisis in the ideological edifice of the post-WWII state. For instance, “neo-conservatism” was a phenomenon of the loss of confidence in the Democrats’ successful prosecution of the Cold War, both at home and abroad. Many former supporters of and even ideologues for the Democrats provided the brain-trust for the Republicans taking political advantage of this crisis. For instance, there was former Frankfurt School assistant Daniel Bell, who first supported and then opposed the Democrats on grounds of non-ideological technocracy.

Thus discontents with the post-WWII state were far-ranging and even endemic by the 1960s, reaching both down among those marginalized at the bottom of society and up into top echelons of governmental power.

In France, May 1968 was a deep crisis of the post-WWII Gaullist state. It began as a student protest against gender segregation of student dormitories—against the educational–institutional repression of sex—and grew into a student and working class mass mobilization against the state. It was rightly regarded as a potential revolutionary situation. But it failed politically. Many on the French New Left became a New Right.

Moishe Postone characterized this as a crisis of “new social movements” expressing discontents with “state capitalism” as a historical formation. That formation could trace it roots, prior to the 1940s and WWII and the Great Depression of the ’30s, back to WWI and perhaps even further, back to the late 19th century transformations that took place after the economic crisis of 1873, such as the post-Civil War and Reconstruction “imperial Presidency” in the U.S., Bismarckian policies in Germany, state-sponsored capitalist development in Meiji Restoration Japan, among other phenomena.

1968 and 1917

Postone attributes “state capitalism” to the crisis of WWI and the Russian Revolution of 1917 and characterizes Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks as unwitting instruments of state capitalism. In this view, in certain respects common with and descending from the Frankfurt School of the 1930s, Lassallean social democracy, fascism, Lenin’s Bolshevism as well as ostensible “Leninism” (meaning Stalinism), Keynesianism (FDR New Deal-ism), all participated in the turn from 19th century liberal laissez-faire capitalism to 20th century state capitalism, which went into crisis by the time of the 1960s New Left.

The crisis of modernist state capitalism led, however, not to socialism in Marx’s sense but rather to the neoliberal “postmodernist” turn of capitalism in the 1970s-80s, leading to the present. Postone’s idea was that the 20th century was a “post-bourgeois” form of capitalism. But for the Frankfurt School, it was a form of bourgeois society in extremis: as Adorno put it, “the new is the old in distress.”5

There is an important equivocation with respect to the Russian Revolution in Postone’s view. Postone condemns the USSR et al.’s “state capitalism,” as not merely inadequate but also misleading regarding potential possibilities for socialism. But such state capitalism was (and remains) a form of political mediation of the working class to the means of production. Postone, despite his critique of and political opposition to Soviet Communism, addresses the USSR as a progressive development, in ways that Adorno, for instance (or Trotsky in his critique of Stalinism), did not. Rather, the USSR et al. (as well as fascism) could be regarded as a decadent, barbaric form of bourgeois society, rather than as Postone attempted to address it, as “post-bourgeois.” On the other hand, Postone is (retrospectively) opposed to Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in the October Revolution, whereas Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School were supportive. Postone treats such support as a combination of theoretical blindness and historical limitation—unripeness of the means as well as the relations of production for socialism. The character of that “progress”—really, regression—of capitalism in the 20th century would be in terms of advancing the contradiction of the commodity form of labor, and how to make sense of and work through that contradiction politically.

The proletariat would need to be constituted politically, subjectively, and not merely “objectively” (economically). The commodity form of the value of labor needs to be constituted through political action, but such action, today, like at any moment since the Industrial Revolution, would manifest the self-contradiction of the commodity form.

The question is, what constitutes a “social relation?” It must be addressed not as a static fact but a developing social activity in history. Postone addresses it economically but not politically. In this he follows Marx’s Capital, which however was left incomplete and hence not mediated “all the way up” to the level of politics—as if Marx never wrote anything else that indicated his politics. Yes, the question is, as Postone puts it, not the existence of a capitalist (that is, private-property-in-the-means-of-production owning) class, but rather the existence of a proletariat, in the sense of a class of people who relate to the means of production through their social activity of wage-labor. That class still exists, “objectively” economically, but the question is, how is it mediated, today, politically?

Do we still live in capitalism?

James Heartfield has pointed out that the present-day “Left” considers such Marxist categories as “class” to be “objective.” This has effaced the purchase of politics regarding capitalism. If the working class has ceased to constitute itself as a class “for itself,” subjectively, then this has affected politics more generally.6 Moreover, it means that the working class is not even constituted as a class “in itself,” objectively. For Marx, there was a subject-object dialectic at work — in which subjectivity was objectively determined, and objectivity was subjectively determined, in practice—in the working class’s struggle for socialism.

Marx pointed out that after the Industrial Revolution, the working class can only constitute its labor-power as a commodity collectively. Marx also pointed out that the capitalist class is constituted as such, as capitalist, only in opposition to the working class’s collective demands for the value of its labor. This was because, as Postone points out, for Marx, the dynamics of the value of the time of labor has become that of society as a whole. For Marx, the collective bargaining for the value of labor-power measured in time does not take place at the level of trade unions in individual firms or even in industrial unions across entire fields of production, but rather at the societal level in the form of the workers’ political struggle for socialism. Without that struggle for socialism, the working class is not constituted as such, and so neither is the capitalist class. Rather, as Adorno observed in the mid-20th century, society had devolved into a war of “rackets” and had thus ceased to be “society” in the bourgeois sense at all. Politics for Marx was the “class struggle”—the struggle for socialism. Without that, politics itself, as Marx understood it, ceases.

In this sense, we must confront the question of whether we still live in capitalism as Marxists historically understood it. An admirer of Postone, Jamie Merchant of the Permanent Crisis blog, spoke in dialogue with Elmar Flatschart of EXIT! and Alan Milchman of Internationalist Perspective at a Platypus panel discussion on Wertkritik. They stated the following in response to the question that I posed to them:

Neoliberalism might well have obscured the experience of the Fordist era, rendering it more esoteric, but didn’t Fordism, and the nationalism from which it is inseparable, in its own way occlude even deeper issues of capitalism? Elmar [Flatschart], you warn against “privileging” the workers as a revolutionary subject, but you seem to conflate earlier Marxism, in which the proletariat’s role is characterized negatively, with 20th century Stalinism and Social Democracy. What other subject would manifest the self-overcoming of capitalism “on the basis of capitalism itself,” as Lenin put it in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920)?

EF: Marx had a negative notion of class, insofar as he saw it as immanent to capitalism and this is evident in the logical approach of Capital. But then again you already have with Marx, and more so with Engels, this political privileging of class as an emancipatory actor. There were no other questions of oppression, and hence no other emancipatory subjectivities. There is no one subject anymore, and this is what we can learn from the New Left and the postmodern turn.

JM: Yes, Fordism definitely occluded capital in many ways, especially, in the Cold War context, in terms of the role of the nation-state. But my point was that it was a form of society in which the social whole did appear, and so the idea of society had more currency. There was this concern during the Fordist period of the individual being absorbed into the social whole and losing individualism. But this was just the inversion of the cultural logic of neoliberalism. The point is that different periods of accumulation provide different versions of society and apprehension of the “social”; the social form appears in differently mediated ways. Different regimes of accumulation can lead to different perceptions of what society is, which could open up avenues for new forms of politics.7

These responses seem rather optimistic, especially regarding the legacy of the 1960s-70s New Left moment, let alone that of 1980s-90s postmodernism. Postone avers that whereas traditional Marxism affirmed and indeed aspired to the social totality of capitalism, true socialism would abolish it. But the question is its transformation—its “sublation” (Aufhebung). If Marxism ever recognized capitalism as a “totality,” it was critically, as a totality of crisis, a total crisis of society, which the struggle for socialism would advance, and not immediately overcome. But the crisis has been occulted, appearing only in disparate phenomena whose interrelatedness remains obscure.

Postone offered the clearest consciousness of the discontents of the 1960s understood as the first opportunity to transcend capitalism, by transcending proletarian-constituting forms of politics. But this was not transcended but rather liquidated without redemption. To transcend proletarian politics, it would be necessary first to constitute it.

We continue to pay the price for past failures of Marxism, which have become naturalized and hypostatized: reified. In this sense, we must still redeem Lenin. We still need to overcome capitalism on the basis of capitalism itself. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 70 (October 2014).

  1. Lenin wrote that, “The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not ‘demand’ such development, we do not ‘support’ it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!” (The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution, 1916/17, available on-line at: < >.) []
  2. See my “1873-1973: The century of Marxism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available on-line at: <>. []
  3. See Moishe Postone, “Necessity, Labor, and Time: A Reinterpretation of the Marxian Critique of Capitalism,” Social Research 45:4 (Winter 1978). []
  4. Hegel, The Philosophy of History. []
  5. “Reflections on class theory,” Can One Live after Auschwitz?, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (University of California Press, 2003), 95. []
  6. Sp!ked May 9, 2014, available on-line at: <>. []
  7. “Marx and ‘Wertkritik’,” Platypus Review 56 (May 2013), available on-line at: <>. []

Revolutionary politics and thought (forum transcript)

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

Platypus Review 69 | September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. <>. []
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  4. Marx, ‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophies of Nature’, (1839-41). Quoted in The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert C. Tucker ed., Norton 1978 (p. 10). []
  5. Negative Dialectics, Trans. E.B. Ashton, Continuum, 1973 (p. 3). []
  6. ‘Future City’, New Left Review 21, May-June 2003. URL=<>. []
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The concept of Left and Right

Chris Cutrone, Nikos Malliaris and Samir Gandesha

Platypus Review 68 | July 2014


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q & A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1914 in the history of Marxism

2014 annual Platypus President’s report

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 66 | May 2014


At the Platypus Affiliated Society’s annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago April 4–6, 2014, Chris Cutrone delivered the following President’s Report. An edited transcript of the presentation and subsequent discussion appears below. A full video recording is available online at <>.

Cover of the Vorwärts, the SPD’s party organ in 1914; the headline reads, “Social Democracy and the War!” The SPD voted for war credits to the First World War almost 100 years ago on August 4 1914. Lenin was so incredulous at the SPD’s vote for war credits that he thought this issue of Vorwarts was a forgery by the German government.

Cover of the Vorwärts, the SPD’s party organ in 1914; the headline reads, “Social Democracy and the War!” The SPD voted for war credits to the First World War almost 100 years ago on August 4 1914. Lenin was so incredulous at the SPD’s vote for war credits that he thought this issue of Vorwärts was a forgery by the German government.

One hundred years later, what does the crisis and split in Marxism, and the political collapse of the major parties of the 2nd International in 1914, mean for us today?

The Spartacists, for example, are constantly in search of the “August 4” moment, the moment of betrayal of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism by various tendencies in the history of Marxism. The Spartacists went so far as to confess their own “August 4th” when they failed to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there.

So, what happened, from a Marxist perspective, on August 4, 1914, when the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) members of the Reichstag voted to finance the Prussian Empire’s war budget?

Two things: the parliamentary representatives of the SPD went against past resolutions to vote down the war effort of the German government; and the disorganization of the SPD leadership, what has been called the effective but illegitimate takeover of the party by the parliamentary delegation. No legitimate political authority of the party sanctioned this action. In all respects of principle and practice, the SPD was destroyed as a political organization as it had existed up to that point.

August 4, 1914, has been called—by the Spartacists—the first great internal counterrevolution in the history of Marxism. This is entirely true.

But it was a counterrevolution conducted not merely by the leadership of the SPD, however they may have abetted it, but rather by the Reich’s government against the SPD membership.

What was the specific character of this counterrevolution, and how was it made possible?

There was a famous pair of sayings by the SPD’s chairman, Bebel: “Not one man or one penny for this rotten system!” and “If it’s against Russia, I myself will pick up a gun!”

The German High Command, in preparation for war, took aim precisely at the contradiction between these two statements by Bebel.

The German High Command wielded the specter of counterrevolution through occupation by Tsarist Russian troops against the SPD in order to prompt their preemptive counterrevolution, which they saw as an act of self-preservation, as the lesser evil. Furthermore, they thought that getting behind the war would allow them to (somehow) control it, to make the government dependent on them and so wrest political concessions from it, perhaps even undermining it, in political favor of the proletariat.

This was not an unreasonable judgment. The question is whether their compromise was too much, whether the act of ostensible self-preservation was in fact actually an act of self-destruction.

The SPD leadership did not want the war. They thought, however, that they couldn’t prevent it: unleashing a class-struggle civil war to stop the international war was not feasible in terms of success, but would only result in the crushing of the SPD’s organization, which was at least preserved if subordinated to the government through the war.

So the issue is what was preserved through the compromise, the surrender to the blackmail of the war?

The German government, which the original Spartacus League of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht considered responsible for the war, adopted a strategy of a two-front war—against both the Russians and the British and the French—despite the evident military risks of doing so. They did so in order to ensure the adherence of the Social Democrats to the war effort, out of defense against the Russians. The threat of Russian invasion and occupation, and destruction of the social-democratic workers’ movement, was enough to preempt such active counterrevolution with the passive counterrevolution of the social-democratic cooperation with the war effort.

In all politics there is, as Lenin put it, a “who-whom?” question: who is the agent and who is the object. The most catastrophic political mistakes the Left has made historically are in terms of this who-whom problem: for instance, the Iranian left tried to use the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamists, but it was Khomeini who instead used the Left.

The German Social Democrats, by contrast, did not seek so much to undermine the German government through cooperation, but rather merely to survive the war.

Still, when the German war effort collapsed in 1918, the Social Democrats were, as a result of their collaboration, in the position to have the mantle of government fall to them, in what they considered to be a democratic—and not socialist—revolution.

The apparent separation of the democratic from the socialist revolution in 1918 is what retrospectively condemns the SPD’s collaboration with the German government’s war effort. What confirms the political character of the vote for war credits of August 4, 1914, was the counterrevolutionary role played by the SPD in 1918–19. If the SPD had fought for socialism in 1918, then its choice to avoid confrontation and repression in 1914 would have been justified. It was not only the horror of the war that indicted the SPD’s compromise in 1914, but the division around the struggle for socialist revolution later at the conclusion of the war that confirmed Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Lenin’s perspective.

However, there was the perspective of Kautsky, who was consistent in considering the war an utter calamity and not any kind of occasion for struggling for socialism, either in 1914 or in 1917, and 1918–19.

Kautsky condemned the Bolsheviks’ overthrow of the Russian Provisional Government in 1917, which stood with the Entente against the Germans. Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks were regarded by Russian nationalists as German agents for promoting an armistice, to pull Russia out of the war. But Lenin wanted to pull Russia out of the international war in order for it to participate in the civil war between the global classes of workers and capitalists.

Thus Kautsky and Lenin could accuse one another of complicity in the war: Kautsky for voting for war credits to defend the SPD in the present, and thus the possibility of the struggle for socialism in the future; and Lenin for trying to use the war as an occasion for socialist revolution. Each could accuse the other of opportunism in the historical moment and of undermining—betraying—the true struggle for socialism.

Luxemburg agreed with Lenin that, in itself, and apart from the immediate application of the goal in the struggle for socialism, the SPD was nothing or indeed worse than nothing, part of sustaining capitalism.

For Luxemburg and Lenin, the SPD was duty-bound to launch a civil war against the German government rather than allow it to launch an international war. This is precisely the repression of the SPD Kautsky and other leaders of the SPD feared, why they thought it was impossible to stage a political confrontation with the government in 1914. Its failure to do so rendered it, in Luxemburg’s terms, a “stinking corpse;” that is, dead for long enough that it was putrefying already in 1914. August 4 revealed the SPD as already dead: its past failures accumulated in it. This was not a matter of mere tactics, a military appraisal of the SPD’s chances against the government’s forces in 1914, but rather a matter of principle—preserving the honor of Marxism and of the workers’ movement for socialism more generally.

Recently, the anarchist Wayne Price spoke on a Platypus panel about the dual failure of Marxism in the 2nd and 3rd Internationals, that Marxism revealed its authoritarian statism at two clear moments, when Marxists of the 2nd International supported the war in 1914, and when Lenin suppressed other socialists in the Russian Revolution and Stalin did so in the Spanish Civil War.1

The role of Marxist parties in these instances was to serve the counterrevolution rather than the revolution.

The question, then, would be not what Kautsky and Lenin had in common, but how they differed. And they differed most clearly around the issue of the war in 1914, from which their later difference over the revolution in both Russia and Germany in 1917–18 was derived.

The question is the workers’ movement for socialism. Kautsky considered it an end in itself, thus retroactively agreeing with Bernstein’s Revisionist-reformist view of the “movement is everything, the goal nothing.” Preserving the movement meant betraying its goals, whereas Luxemburg and Lenin were willing to sacrifice the movement for the goal of socialism. That is the only reason they opposed the war by opposing the war policies of the various antagonistic governments, to precipitate a global civil war of workers against capitalists. They thus did not reject the war on pacifist grounds, as Kautsky might have done, compromising with it on defensive grounds, but rather identified the war as the necessary expression of, and occasion for, the need for the struggle for socialism.

As it turns out, perhaps the preemptive counterrevolution by the German government through the war must be deemed in retrospect to have been successful. Certainly the struggle for socialism let alone Marxism in the advanced capitalist countries never did recover from it.

Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky tried to make the First World War really into what Woodrow Wilson merely promised, a “war to end all wars.” Wilson thought it was to defeat remnant feudalism; Marxists understood rather that it was to overcome capitalism.

As such, Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky launched a civil war: first and foremost a civil war within Marxism itself, between those who accepted the task and those who rejected and thus betrayed the duties of that civil war. That they failed in this is not proof against the task of socialism. Wilson regarded and fought against the Marxists as extremists—extremism bred of political repression in undemocratic states. But of course the conservative and opportunist character of Wilson’s politics was different from that of the SPD’s capitulation to the war. Or was it? Wilson didn’t think that Prussian militarism or Tsarism indicted bourgeois society but were backward violations of its norms. The SPD similarly addressed the war as an abnormality. Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky addressed the war as the norm: the endemic crisis of capitalism raised to a fever pitch. But the SPD and Wilson considered them to be opening the world to greater war and horror, to the greater barbarization of bourgeois society. If Wilson was no socialist, he still considered himself a defender against the threats of both Prussian militarism and Bolshevism of the norms of liberal democratic bourgeois society, which socialists considered the base-line minimum of the standards for a better society. The question and the political dispute was over how to best protect, defend, and promote the principles of that better society, to which all political actors might claim adherence, and what compromises can be justifiable in that pursuit. It is thus not a matter of pure principles but of means to their end, the true dispute of politics.

Nineteen fourteen was not proof of the Marxist analysis of “imperialism” or the demonstration of the horrors of capitalism, or any other such thing: It was the division of Marxism in war and revolution at the Götterdämmerung of bourgeois society that haunts the struggle for socialism to this day, the task and duty of civil war from which the “Left” today shrinks, thus becoming a “stinking corpse,” now as before.

The war and the revolution are all around us, all the time. As Lenin put it, it is not as conveniently posed as the capitalists lining up on one side and the workers on the other, which would make the task very simple. No: 1914 is still with us to the extent that the workers are on both sides, and both sides could plausibly claim to be on the true side of the struggle for socialism, or at least for a better society, which is what “socialism” after all means.

Nineteen fourteen was the division in the workers’ movement for socialism, which was the precondition for the politics of revolution. The fact that we no longer have that politics can be traced back to the problem and task that 1914 revealed.

Q & A

The idea that we’ve inherited from 1914—Lenin as revolutionary defeatist, and defeatism as Marxist orthodoxy—really represents an innovation. It was not the norm even of Marxists who opposed the war at the time, e.g. the Zimmerwald center. Marx and Engels did not take a revolutionary defeatist stance in the wars of German unification or Franco-Prussian war, but instead tactically adopted different positions in different wars. The idea of a principled revolutionary defeatism came from Lenin’s consciousness that bourgeois society had changed in the decades since then. To him, 1914 represented simultaneously the overripeness and rottenness of both bourgeois society and the SPD. This is expressed in the theory of imperialism, which is taken to be a new stage of bourgeois society. The problem with the “Leninist” view is that after the long period from 1914–1933, the principle of revolutionary defeatism becomes detached from concrete politics and is upheld simply as a principle. This is especially pronounced after WWII. When this principle is detached from the concrete possibility of a global class civil war, everything is changed.

CC: I want to touch on something I glossed over in my comments in light of this. On the one hand, Luxemburg and Lenin were on the same side in the war; but on the other, they were on opposite sides. They were both revolutionary defeatists in certain respects. But one of Luxemburg’s first critiques of the Bolsheviks in power is of their armistice with Germany. Luxemburg thought that by doing this Lenin would be embracing German militarism. We forget this in light of other criticisms, but it was a live issue at the time. The way these disputes—imperialism, revolutionary defeatism, etc.—are remembered by the Left now is in terms of principles, but in a particular way. Rather, we should raise the issue of the need to split the worker’s movement post-1914. Lenin’s “principled” assessment of WWI was bound up with this need at his historical moment. It’s a principled stance with respect to a certain historical situation, but not principled in the manner of pacifism. It is actually in a way a kind of pro-war sentiment.

When you said, “1914 is still with us,” could you relate this to the anti–Iraq war protests? Was there still some kind of consciousness on the Left of the way the problems of 1914 are still with us? If not, what factors stand in the way of raising these problems to consciousness on the Left?

CC: A government going to war takes a huge political risk, even in the case of the U.S. invading a far weaker country. The government could delegitimate itself, and thus release all sorts of problems. But the anti-war protests before the war gave the Left the false impression that there was a kind of mass sentiment, waiting to take advantage if the governments took a misstep in the war. But the anti-war protests didn’t have the content the Left wanted to attribute to it. Both these protests and the Left were bound up in a conservative opposition to war, a kind of fear. But in 1914 the situation is quite different—there is the presence of the Second International. I brought up Lenin’s critique of Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet, where he’s basically saying, “OK, comrade, just hold on, these governments are undermining themselves and revolution can still happen.” Of course this isn’t just based upon the war, but of his perception of the strength of the Second International and the SPD. Now where Luxemburg may have been right against Lenin was in thinking that the SPD was a paper tiger. But Lenin had the cooler head with respect to the historical moment.

The main organizers in the 2003 anti-war movement were the International Socialist Organization, Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and the Workers World Party and its various offshoots like the Party for Socialism and Liberation. So the RCP would show up with their sound system and their rabble-rousers, and they would deliver speeches that sounded like they were out of a monster truck rally—except with Leftist language as their content. They thought the war just showed how fascistic the world really is. They were stuck in this 1930s frame of fascism versus communism: if you aren’t a communist, you’re a fascist, and if you don’t think you’re living under fascism, the war shows that you really are. This is far degraded, neither Luxemburg nor Lenin.

Let’s say the U.S. government had been completely delegitimated in the course of the Iraq war, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers were left in Iraq. Do we really think socialism would have been the result of that? Obviously not. What would have happened was a military takeover of the U.S. government, and it would have been popular. People would think only the military could save the troops in Iraq; if the executive and congress can’t do it, the military will. There would have been a military coup, a state of emergency; there would not have been socialist revolution—that’s for sure.

I want to bring anarchists into the discussion. In 1914, many anarchists opposed the Bolsheviks and supported the war. But nowadays we see anarchists taking up the defeatist position in an even more consistent manner than Leninists. So it seems there is an opposite course over time.

CC: The anarchists who supported the war in 1914 capitulated in the same manner as Marxists in the Second International. So it is interesting that the Third International emerges not only from a split within the Second International, but also among anarchists. However, today’s anarchists and Marxists aren’t in a position of political responsibility, so theirs are a pseudo-anarchism and pseudo-Marxism. These people aren’t going to capitulate to anything, because they don’t have the political responsibility that would force them into a choice. Anarchists in 1914 were actually faced with a political choice.

I would like to raise the issue of nationalism. We have until now talked about the stances of the so-called leadership of the worker’s movement—but WWI showed how deeply rooted nationalist sentiments were in the masses. Before 1914 the view was that workers internationally had a common interest that would led them to fight together against their exploiters. But this illusion was destroyed by WWI. As anti-nationalists we need to keep this in mind, as it seems there is the mistaken impression that nationalism can be dispensed with easily. People think that common interests are enough to overcome nationalist ideology. Marxists—Lenin included—thought that it would not be a problem, and so the USSR gave land to various ethnicities. But we could actually say that the nation was the necessary ground for the growth of the workers’ movement, and nationalism was deeply rooted in it.

CC: I take exception to this, very strongly. First of all, the question of the workers “supporting the war” is tricky. That young, 18–20-year-old people could be recruited to be very nationalistic troops is very different from saying that 30–40-year-old workers organized in the SPD supported the war. There was a cosmopolitan—not merely international—culture among workers before WWI that was actively destroyed during the war. The German government estimated that the SPD was anti-war, but could be maneuvered into supporting one. They thought that as the SPD grew, and as Germany generally became more liberal and democratic, any hope of reordering Europe by military means would be progressively undermined. So the German government blackmailed them with the threat of Russian invasion. So it’s not as if the war occurred independently, and the SPD underestimated the workers’ support for it. These are much more closely bound up phenomena, where the thinking was of the SPD as a piece on the playing field militarily. None of the workers wanted the war.

The earlier points about Lenin and Luxemburg are important here. I do believe it is correct to say that Lenin had a “cooler head” than Luxemburg with respect to their historical conjuncture. The problem is that regression in a way makes it appear that Luxemburg was right. I think that Lenin’s response to nations, nationalism, and self-determination was basically a continuation of a bourgeois-democratic project. But having experienced the 20th century, there is a way that Luxemburg’s anti-nationalism seems more accurate. But I think one has to separate oneself from the sense that we know what happened; there can be a kind of historical optical illusion. This issue came up in current debates about Ukraine. Putin said that the Bolsheviks irrationally gave away historically Russian territory to the Ukrainians. But this was a perfectly reasonable belief: Ukrainians, as a separate people, should have the right to self-determination within the overarching bounds of a soviet socialist federation. You can say at this point in history that it was a naïve belief; but it only became a naïve belief. It was at the time a very sane, rational belief that was an extension through Marxism of basic liberal ideas. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 66 (May 2014).

1. See Wayne Price’s remarks for the Platypus panel discussion Radical Ideologies Today: Marxism and Anarchism, at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), March 19 2014. The sound recording is available online at <>.

Why still read Lukács? The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 63 | February 2014


The following is based on a presentation given on January 11, 2014 in Chicago. Video recording available online at: <>; audio recording at: <>.

Georg Lukács in 1913

Georg Lukács in 1913

The role of “critical theory”

Why read Georg Lukács today?[1] Especially when his most famous work, History and Class Consciousness, is so clearly an expression of its specific historical moment, the aborted world revolution of 1917–19 in which he participated, attempting to follow Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Are there “philosophical” lessons to be learned or principles to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Mike Macnair has put it, of “theoretical overkill,” stymieing of political possibilities, closing up the struggle for socialism in tiny authoritarian and politically sterile sects founded on “theoretical agreement?”

Mike Macnair’s article “Lukács: The philosophy trap”[2] argues about the issue of the relation between theory and practice in the history of ostensible “Leninism,” taking issue in particular with Lukács’s books History and Class Consciousness (1923) and Lenin (1924), as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy.” The issue is what kind of theoretical generalization of consciousness could be derived from the experience of Bolshevism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that “philosophical” agreement is not the proper basis for political agreement, but this is not the same as saying that political agreement has no theoretical implications. I’ve discussed this previously in “The philosophy of history”[3] and “Defending Marxist Hegelianism against a Marxist critique,”[4] as well as in “Gillian Rose’s ‘Hegelian’ critique of Marxism.”[5] The issue is whether theoretical “positions” have necessary political implications. I think it is a truism to say that there is no sure theoretical basis for effective political practice. But Macnair seems to be saying nothing more than this. In subordinating theory to practice, Macnair loses sight of the potential critical role theory can play in political practice, specifically the task of consciousness of history in the struggle for transforming society in an emancipatory direction.

A certain relation of theory to practice is a matter specific to the modern era, and moreover a problem specific to the era of capitalism, that is, after the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of the modern proletarianized working class and its struggle for socialism, and the crisis of bourgeois social relations and thus of consciousness of society involved in this process.

Critical theory recognizes that the role of theory in the attempt to transform society is not to justify or legitimate or provide normative sanction, not to rationalize what is happening anyway, but rather to critique, to explore conditions of possibility for change. The role of such critical theory is not to describe how things are, but rather how they might become, how things could and should be, but are not, yet.

The political distinction, then, would be not over the description of reality but rather the question of what can and should be changed, and over the direction of that change. Hence, critical theory as such goes beyond the distinction of analysis from description. The issue is not theoretical analysis proper to practical matters, but, beyond that, the issue of transforming practices, with active agency and subjective recognition, as opposed to merely experiencing change as something that has already happened. Capitalism itself is a transformative practice, but that transformation has eluded consciousness, specifically regarding the ways change has happened and political judgments about this. This is the specific role of theory, and hence the place of theoretical issues or “philosophical” concerns in Marxism. Marxist critical theory cannot be compared to other forms of theory, because they are not concerned with changing the world and the politics of our changing practices. Lukács distinguished Marxism from “contemplative” or “reified” consciousness, to which bourgeois society had otherwise succumbed in capitalism.

If ostensibly “Marxist” tendencies such as those of the followers of Tony Cliff have botched “theory,” which undoubtedly they have, it is because they have conflated or rendered indistinct the role of critical theory as opposed to the political exigencies of propaganda: for organizations dedicated to propaganda, there must be agreement as to such propaganda; the question is the role of theory in such propaganda activity. If theory is debased to justifying propaganda, then its critical role is evacuated, and indeed it can mask opportunism. But then it ceases to be proper theory, not becoming simply “wrong” or falsified but rather ideological, which is a different matter. This is what happened, according to Lukács and Korsch, in the 2nd/Socialist International, resulting in the “vulgarization” of Marxism, or the confusion of the formulations of political propaganda instead of properly Marxist critical theorization.

“Proletarian socialism”

The “proletariat” was Marx’s neologism for the condition of the post-Industrial Revolution working class, which was analogous metaphorically to the Ancient Roman Republic’s class of “proletarians:” the modern industrial working class was composed of “citizens without property.” In modern, bourgeois society, for instance in the view of John Locke, property in objects is derived from labor, which is the first property. Hence, to be a laborer without property is a self-contradiction in a very specific sense, in that the “expropriation” of labor in capitalism happens as a function of society. A modern “free wage-laborer” is supposed to be a contractual agent with full rights of ownership and disposal over her own labor in its exchange, its buying and selling as property, as a commodity. This is the most elementary form of right in bourgeois society, from which other claims, for instance, individual right to one’s own person and equality before the law, flow. If, according to Marx and Engels, the condition of the modern, post-Industrial Revolution working class or “proletariat” expressed a self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, this was because this set of social relations, or “bourgeois right,” was in need of transformation: the Industrial Revolution indicated a potential condition beyond bourgeois society. If the workers were expropriated, according to Marx and Engels, this was because of a problem of the value of labor at a greater societal level, not at the level of the individual capitalist firm, not reducible to the contractual relation of the employee to her employer, which remained “fair exchange.” The wage contract was still bourgeois, but the value of the labor exchanged was undermined in the greater (global) society, which was no longer simply bourgeois but rather industrial, that is, “capital”-ist.

The struggle for socialism by the proletariat was the attempt to reappropriate the social property of labor that had been transformed and “expropriated” or “alienated” in the Industrial Revolution. Marx and Engels thought this could be achieved only beyond capitalism, for instance in the value of accumulated past labor in science and technology, what Marx called the “general (social) intellect.” An objective condition was expressed subjectively, but that objective condition of society was itself self-contradictory and so expressed in a self-contradictory form of political subjectivity, “proletarian socialism.” For Marx and Engels, the greatest exemplar of this self-contradictory form of politics aiming to transform society was Chartism in Britain, a movement of the high moment of the Industrial Revolution and its crisis in the 1830s–40s, whose most pointed political expression was, indicatively, universal suffrage. The crisis of the bust period of the “Hungry ’40s” indicated the maturation of bourgeois society, in crisis, as the preceding boom era of the 1830s already had raised expectations of socialism, politically as well as technically and culturally, for instance in the “Utopian Socialism” of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen et al., as well as in the “Young Hegelian” movement taking place around the world in the 1830s, on whose scene the younger Marx and Engels arrived belatedly, during its crisis and dissolution in the 1840s.

One must distinguish between the relation of theory and practice in the revolutionary bourgeois era and in the post-Industrial Revolution era of the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism and the proletariat’s struggle for socialism. If in the bourgeois era there was a productive tension, a reflective, speculative or “philosophical” relation, for instance for Kant and Hegel, between theory and practice, in the era of the crisis of bourgeois society there is rather a “negative” or “critical” relation. Hence, the need for Marxism.

As the Frankfurt School Marxist Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno put it, the separation of theory and practice was emancipatory: it expressed the freedom to think at variance with prevailing social practices unknown in the Ancient or Medieval world of traditional civilization. The freedom to relate and articulate theory and practice was a hallmark of the revolutionary emergence of bourgeois society: the combined revolution in society of politics, economics, culture (religion), technique and philosophy—the latter under the rubric “Enlightenment.” By contrast, Romantic socialism of the early 19th century sought to re-unify theory and practice, to make them one thing as they had been under religious cosmology as a total way of life. If, according to Adorno, Marxism, as opposed to Romantic socialism, did not aspire to a “unity of theory and practice” in terms of their identity, but rather of their articulated separation in the transformation of society—transformation of both consciousness and social being—then what Adorno recognized was that, as he put it, the relation of theory and practice is not established once-and-for-all but rather “fluctuates historically.” Marxism, through different phases of its history, itself expressed this fluctuation. But the fluctuation was an expression of crisis in Marxism, and ultimately of failure: Adorno called it a “negative dialectic.” It expressed and was tasked by the failure of the revolution. But this failure was not merely the failure of the industrial working class’s struggle for socialism in the early 20th century, but rather that failure was the failure of the emancipation of the bourgeois revolution: this failure consumed history, undermining the past achievements of freedom—as Adorno’s colleague Walter Benjamin put it, “Even the dead are not safe.” Historical Marxism is not a safe legacy but suffers the vicissitudes of the present. If we still are reading Lukács, we need to recognize the danger to which his thought, as part of Marxism’s history, is subject in the present. One way of protecting historical Marxism’s legacy would be through recognizing its inapplicability in the present, distancing it from immediate enlistment in present concerns, which would concede too much already, undermining—liquidating without redeeming—consciousness once already achieved.

The division in Marxism

The title of Lukács’s book History and Class Consciousness should be properly understood directly as indicating that Lukács’s studies, the various essays collected in the book, were about class consciousness as consciousness of history. This goes back to the early Marx and Engels, who understood the emergence of the modern proletariat and its political struggles for socialism after the Industrial Revolution in a “Hegelian” manner, that is, as phenomena or “forms of appearance” of society and history specific to the 19th century. Moreover, Marx and Engels, in their point of departure for “Marxism” as opposed to other varieties of Hegelianism and socialism, looked forward to the dialectical “Aufhebung” of this new modern proletariat: its simultaneous self-fulfillment and completion, self-negation, and self-transcendence in socialism, which would be (also) that of capitalism. In other words, Marx and Engels regarded the proletariat in the struggle for socialism as the central, key phenomenon of capitalism, but the symptomatic expression of its crisis, self-contradiction and need for self-overcoming. This is because capitalism was regarded by Marx and Engels as a form of society, specifically the form of bourgeois society’s crisis and self-contradiction. As Hegelians, Marx and Engels regarded contradiction as the appearance of the necessity and possibility for change. So, the question becomes, what is the meaning of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society, the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, expressed by the post-Industrial Revolution working class and its forms of political struggle?

Marx and Engels regarded the politics of proletarian socialism as a form of bourgeois politics in crisis and self-contradiction. This is what it meant for Marx and Engels to say that the objective existence of the proletariat and its subjective struggle for socialism were phenomena of the self-contradiction of bourgeois society and its potential Aufhebung.

The struggle for socialism was self-contradictory. This is what Lukács ruminated on in History and Class Consciousness. But this was not original to Lukács or achieved by Lukács’s reading of Marx and Engels, but rather mediated through the politics of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: Lenin and Luxemburg provided access, for Lukács as well as others in the nascent 3rd or Communist International, to the “original Marxism” of Marx and Engels. For Marx and Engels recognized that socialism was inevitably ideological: a self-contradictory form of politics and consciousness. The question was how to advance the contradiction.

As a participant in the project of the Communist International, for Lukács in his books History and Class Consciousness and Lenin (as well as for Karl Korsch in “Marxism and philosophy” and other writings circa 1923), the intervening Marxism of the 2nd or Socialist International had become an obstacle to Marx and Engels’s Marxism and thus to proletarian socialist revolution in the early 20th century, an obstacle that the political struggles of Lenin, Luxemburg and other radicals in the 2nd International sought to overcome. This obstacle of 2nd International Marxism had theoretical as well as practical-political aspects: it was expressed both at the level of theoretical consciousness as well as at the level of political organization.

2nd International Marxism had become an obstacle. According to Luxemburg, in Reform or Revolution? (1900) and in Lenin’s What is to be Done? (1902) (the latter of which was an attempted application of the terms of the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International to conditions in the Russian movement), the development of proletarian socialism in the 2nd International had produced its own obstacle, so to the speak, in becoming self-divided between “orthodox Marxists” who retained fidelity to the revolutionary politics of proletarian socialism in terms of the Revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, and “Revisionists” who thought that political practice and theoretical consciousness of Marxism demanded transformation under the altered historical social conditions that had been achieved by the workers’ struggle for socialism, which proceeded in an “evolutionary” way. Eduard Bernstein gave the clearest expression of this “Revisionist” view, which was influenced by the apparent success of British Fabianism that led to the contemporary formation of the Labour Party, and found its greatest political support among the working class’s trade union leaders in the 2nd International, especially in Germany. In Bernstein’s view, capitalism was evolving into socialism through the political gains of the workers.

Marxism of the Third International

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Lukács and Korsch among others following them, thought that the self-contradictory nature and character—origin and expression—of proletarian socialism meant that the latter’s development proceeded in a self-contradictory way, which meant that the movement of historical “progress” was self-contradictory. Luxemburg summarized this view in Reform or Revolution?, where she pointed out that the growth in organization and consciousness of the proletariat was itself part of—a new phenomenon of—the self-contradiction of capitalism, and so expressed itself in its own self-contradictory way. This was how Luxemburg grasped the Revisionist Dispute in the Marxism of the 2nd International itself. This self-contradiction was theoretical as well as practical: for Luxemburg and for Lenin the “theoretical struggle” was an expression of practical self-contradiction. Leon Trotsky expressed this “orthodox Marxist” view shared by Lenin and Luxemburg in his 1906 pamphlet Results and Prospects, on the 1905 Revolution in Russia, by pointing out that the various “pre-requisites of socialism” were self-contradictory, that they “retarded” rather than promoted each other. This view was due to the understanding that proletarian socialism was bound up in the crisis of capitalism which was disintegrative: the struggle for socialism was caught up in the disintegration of bourgeois society in capitalism. For Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, contra Bernstein, the crisis of capitalism was deepening.

One of the clearest expressions of this disintegrative process of self-contradiction in Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky’s time was the relation of capitalism as a global system to the political divisions between national states in the era of “monopoly capital” and “imperialism” that led to the World War, but was already apprehended in the Revisionist Dispute at the turn of the 20th century as expressing the need for socialism—the need for proletarian political revolution. Lenin and Luxemburg’s academic doctoral dissertations of the 1890s, on the development of capitalism in Russia and Poland, respectively, addressed this phenomenon of “combined and uneven” development in the epoch of capitalist crisis, disintegration and “decay,” as expressing the need for world revolution. Moreover, Lenin in What is to be Done? expressed the perspective that the Revisionist Dispute in Marxism was itself an expression of the crisis of capitalism manifesting within the socialist workers’ movement, a prelude to revolution.

While it is conventional to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “revolutionary socialism” to Bernstein et al.’s “evolutionism,” and hence to oppose Luxemburg and Lenin’s “dialectical” Marxism to the Revisionist “mechanical” one, what is lost in this view is the role of historical dynamics of consciousness in Lenin and Luxemburg’s (and Trotsky’s) view. This is the phenomenon of historical “regression” as opposed to “progress,” which the “evolutionary socialism” of Bernstein et al. assumed and later Stalinism also assumed. The most important distinction of Luxemburg and Lenin’s (as well as Trotsky’s) “orthodox” perspective—in Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) view, what made their Marxism “dialectical” and “Hegelian”—was its recognition of historical “regression:” its recognition of bourgeois society as disintegrative and self-destructive in its crisis of capitalism. But this process of disintegration was recognized as affecting the proletariat and its politics as well. Benjamin and Adorno’s theory of regression began here.

Historical regression

The question is how to properly recognize, in political practice as well as theory, the ways in which the struggle for proletarian socialism—socialism achieved by way of the political action of wage-laborers in the post-Industrial Revolution era as such—is caught up and participates in the process of capitalist disintegration: the expression of proletarian socialism as a phenomenon of history, specifically as a phenomenon of crisis and regression.

This history has multiple registers: there is the principal register of the post-Industrial Revolution crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, its crisis and departure from preceding bourgeois social relations (those of the prior, pre-industrial eras of “cooperation” and “manufacture” of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, in Marx’s terms); but there is also the register of the dynamics and periods within capitalism itself. Capitalism was for Marx and Engels already the regression of bourgeois society. This is where Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) perspective, derived from Luxemburg and Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) views from 1900-19, what they considered an era of “revolution,” might become problematic for us, today: the history of the post-1923 world has not been, as 1848–1914 was in the 2nd International “orthodox” or “radical” Marxist (as opposed to Revisionist) view, a process of increasing crisis and development of revolutionary political necessities, but rather a process of continued social disintegration of capitalism without, however, this being expressed in and through the struggle for proletarian socialism.

It is important to note that Lukács (and Korsch) abandoned rather rapidly their 1923 perspectives, adjusting to developing circumstances of a non-revolutionary era.

Here is where the problematic relation of Tony Cliff’s political project to Lukács (and Korsch), and hence to Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, may be located: in Cliff’s perspective on his (post-1945) time being a “non-revolutionary” one, demanding a project of “propaganda” that is related to but differs significantly from the moment of Lenin et al. For the Cliffites and their organizations, “political practice” is one of propaganda in a non-revolutionary period, in which political action is less of a directly practical but rather of an exemplary-propagandistic significance. This has been muddled by their strategy of “movement-building.”

This was not the case for Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, whose political practice was directly about the struggle for power, and in whose practical project Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) “theoretical” work sought to participate, offering attempts at clarification of self-understanding to revolutionaries “on the march.” Cliff and his followers, at least at their most self-conscious, have known that they were doing something essentially different from Lenin et al.: they were not organizing a revolutionary political party seeking a bid for power as part of an upsurge of working class struggle in the context of a global movement (the 2nd International), as had been the case for Lenin at the time of What is to be Done? (1902), or Luxemburg’s Mass Strike pamphlet and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution of 1905. Yet the Cliffites have used the ideas of Lenin and Luxemburg and their followers, such as Lukács and Korsch as well as Trotsky, to justify their practices. This presents certain problems. Yes, Lenin et al. have become ideological in the hands of the Cliffites, among others—“Leninism” for the Stalinists most prominently. So the question turns to the status of Lenin’s ideas in themselves and in their own moment.[6]

Mike Macnair points out that Lukács’s (and Korsch’s) works circa 1923 emphasized attack and so sought to provide a “theory of the offensive,” as opposed to Lenin’s arguments about the necessities of “retreat” in 1920 (as against and in critique of “Left-Wing” Communism) and what Macnair has elsewhere described as the need for “Kautskyan patience” in politically building for proletarian socialism (as in the era of the 2nd International 1889–1914), and so this limits the perspective of Lukács (and Korsch), after Lenin and Luxemburg (and Trotsky), to a period of “civil war” (circa 1905, and 1914/17–19/20/21). In this, Macnair is concerned, rightly, with “theory” becoming a blinder to proper political practice: “theoretical overkill” is a matter of over-“philosophizing” politics. But there is a difference between active campaigning in the struggle for power, whether in attack or (temporary) retreat, and propagandizing, to which Marxism (at best) has been relegated ever since the early 20th century.

However, in raising, by contrast, the need for a conscious openness to “empirical reality” of political experience, Macnair succumbs to a linear-progressive view of history as well as of political practice, turning this into a matter of “lessons learned:” it becomes a quantitative rather than qualitative matter. Moreover, it becomes a matter of theory in a conventional rather than the Marxist “critical” sense, in which the description of reality and its analysis approach more and more adequate approximations.

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, and so Lukács (and Korsch), as “orthodox” as opposed to “revisionist” Marxists, conceived of the development of consciousness, both theoretically and practically-organizationally, rather differently, in that a necessary “transformation of Marxism,” which took place in the “peculiar guise” of a “return to the original Marxism of Marx and Engels” (Korsch), could be an asset in the present. But that “present” was the “crisis of Marxism” 1914–19, which is not, today, our moment—as even Cliff and his followers, with their notion of “propaganda” in a non-revolutionary era, have recognized (as did Lukács and Korsch, in subsequently abandoning their circa-1923 perspectives).

So what is the status of such ideas in a non-revolutionary era?

Korsch and the problem of “philosophy”

Karl Korsch, Lukács’s contemporary in the 3rd International, whose work Macnair deliberately and explicitly puts aside, offered a pithy formulation in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and philosophy,” that, “a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch.” That is, we may live under the shadow of a problem that goes beyond us.

This is a non-linear, non-progressive and recursive view of history, which Korsch gleaned from Luxemburg and Lenin’s contributions to the Revisionist Dispute in the 2nd International (e.g., Reform or Revolution?, What is to be Done?, etc.; and Trotsky’s Results and Prospects). It has its origins in Marx and Engels’s view of capitalism as a regressive, disintegrative process. This view has two registers: the self-contradiction and crisis of bourgeois social relations in the transition to capital-ism after the Industrial Revolution; and the disintegrative and self-destructive process of the reproduction of capitalism itself, which takes place within and as a function of the reproduction of bourgeois social relations, through successive crises.

Marx and Engels recognized that the crisis of capitalism was motivated by the reproduction of bourgeois social relations under conditions of the disintegration of the value of labor in the Industrial Revolution, producing the need for socialism. The industrial-era working class’s struggle for the social value of its labor was at once regressive, as if bourgeois social relations of the value of labor had not been undermined by the Industrial Revolution, and pointed beyond capitalism, in that the realization of the demands for the proper social value of labor would actually mean overcoming labor as value in society, transforming work from “life’s prime need” to “life’s prime want:” work would be done not out of the social compulsion to labor in the valorization process of capital, but rather out of intrinsic desire and interest; and society would provide for “each according to his need” from “each according to his ability.” As Adorno, a later follower of Lukács and Korsch’s works circa 1923 that had converted him to Marxism, put it, getting beyond capitalism would mean overcoming the “law of labor.”[7]

Korsch’s argument in his 1923 essay “Marxism and philosophy” was focused on a very specific problem, the status of philosophy in Marxism, in the direct sense of Marx and Engels being followers of Hegel, and Hegel representing a certain “end” to philosophy, in which the world became philosophical and philosophy became worldly. Hegel announced that with his work, philosophy was “completed,” as a function of recognizing how society had become “philosophical,” or mediated through conceptual theory in ways previously not the case. Marx and Engels accepted Hegel’s conclusion, in which case the issue was to further the revolution of bourgeois society—the “philosophical” world that demanded worldly “philosophy.” The disputes among the Hegelians in the 1830s and ’40s were concerned, properly, with precisely the politics of the bourgeois world and its direction for change. The problem, according to Korsch, was that, after the failure of the revolutions of 1848, there was a recrudescence of “philosophy,” and that this was something other than what had been practiced either traditionally by the Ancients or in modernity by revolutionary bourgeois thinkers—thinkers of the revolution of the bourgeois era—such as Kant and Hegel (also Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith, et al.).

What constitutes “philosophical” questions? Traditionally, philosophy was concerned with three kinds of questions: ontology, what we are; epistemology, how we know; and the good life, how we ought to live. Starting with Kant, such traditional philosophical “first questions” of prima philosophia or “first philosophy” were no longer asked, or, if they were asked, they were strictly subordinated or rendered secondary to the question of the relation of theory and practice, or, how we account to ourselves what we are doing. Marxism is not a philosophy in the traditional sense, any more than Kant and Hegel’s philosophy was traditional. Lenin, in the Conclusion of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908), summed up that the late 19th century Neo-Kantians “started with Kant and, leaving him, proceeded not [forwards] towards [Marxist] materialism, but in the opposite direction, [backwards] towards Hume and Berkeley.” It is not, along the lines of a traditional materialist ontology, that firstly we are material beings; epistemologically, who know the world empirically through our bodily senses; and ethically we must serve the needs of our true, material bodily nature. No. For Kant and his followers, including Hegel and Marx, rather, we consciously reflect upon an on-going process from within its movement: we don’t step back from what we are doing and try to establish a “first” basis for asking our questions; those questions arise, rather, from within our on-going practices and their transformations. Empirical facts cannot be considered primary if they are to be changed. Theory may go beyond the facts by influencing their transformation in practice.

Society is the source of our practices and their transformations, and hence of our theoretical consciousness of them. Society, according to Rousseau, is the source of our ability to act contrary to our “first nature,” to behave in unnatural ways. This is our freedom. And for Kant and his followers, our highest moral duty in the era of the process of “Enlightenment” was to serve the cause of freedom. This meant serving the revolution of bourgeois emancipation from traditional civilization, changing society. However Kant considered the full achievement of bourgeois society to be the mere “mid-point” of the development of freedom.[8] Hegel and Marxism inherited and assumed this projective perspective on the transitional character of bourgeois society.

Marx and Engels can be considered to have initiated a “Second Enlightenment” in the 19th century the degree to which capitalism presented new problems unknown in the pre-Industrial Revolution bourgeois era, because they had not yet arisen in practice. By contrast, philosophers who continued to ask such traditional questions of ontology, epistemology and ethics were actually addressing the problem of the relation of theory and practice in the capitalist era, whether they recognized this or not. Assuming the traditional basis for philosophical questions in the era of capitalism obscured the real issue and rendered “philosophy” ideological. This is why “philosophy” needed to be abolished. The question was, how?

The recrudescence of philosophy in the late 19th century was, according to Korsch, a symptom of the failure of socialism in 1848, but as such expressed a genuine need: the necessity of relating theory and practice as a problem of consciousness under conditions of capitalism. In this respect, Marxism was the sustaining of the Kantian-Hegelian “critical philosophy” but under changed conditions from the bourgeois-revolutionary era to that of capitalism. Korsch analogized this to the recrudescence of the state in post-1848 Bonapartism, which contradicted the bourgeois-revolutionary, liberal prognosis of the subordination of the state to civil society and thus the state’s “withering away,” its functions absorbed into free social relations. This meant recognizing the need to overcome recrudescent philosophy as analogous to the need to overcome the capitalist state, the transformation of its necessity through socialism. “Bonapartism in philosophy” thus expressed a new, late found need in capitalism, to free society. We look to “philosophers” to do our thinking for us the same way we look to authoritarian leaders politically.

As Korsch put it, the only way to “abolish” philosophy would be to “realize” it: socialism would be the attainment of the “philosophical world” promised by bourgeois emancipation but betrayed by capitalism, which renders society—our social practices—opaque. It would be premature to say that under capitalism everyone is already a philosopher. Indeed, the point is that none are. But this is because of the alienation and reification of bourgeois social relations in capitalism, which renders the Kantian-Hegelian “worldly philosophy” of the critical relation of theory and practice an aspiration rather than an actuality. Nonetheless, Marxist critical theory accepted the task of such modern critical philosophy, specifically regarding the ideological problem of theory and practice in the struggle for socialism. This is what it meant to say, as was formulated in the 2nd International, that the workers’ movement for socialism was the inheritor of German Idealism: it was the inheritor of the revolutionary process of bourgeois emancipation, which the bourgeoisie, compromised by capitalism, had abandoned. The task remained.

Transformation of Marxism

Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, “orthodox Marxists” of the 2nd International who radicalized their perspectives in the crisis of the 2nd International and of Marxism in world war and revolution 1914–19, and were followed by Lukács and Korsch, were subjects of a historical moment in which the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism was expressed by social and political crisis and the movement for “proletarian socialist” revolution, beginning, after the Industrial Revolution, in the 1830s–40s, the attempt to revolutionize society centrally by the wage-laborers as such, a movement dominated from 1889–1914 by the practical politics as well as theoretical consciousness of Marxism.

Why would Lukács and Korsch in the 20th century return to the origins of Marxism in Hegelianism, in what Korsch called the consciousness of the “revolt of the Third Estate,” a process of the 17th and 18th centuries (that had already begun earlier)? Precisely because Lukács and Korsch sought to address Marxism’s relation to the revolt of the Third Estate’s bourgeois glorification of the social relations of labor, and the relation of this to the democratic revolution (see for example the Abbé Sieyès’s revolutionary 1789 pamphlet What is the Third Estate?): how Marxism recognized that this relation between labor and democracy continued in 19th century socialism, however problematically. In Lukács and Korsch’s view, proletarian socialism sustained just this bourgeois revolution, albeit under the changed conditions of the Industrial Revolution and its capitalist aftermath. Mike Macnair acknowledges this in his focus on the English Enlightenment “materialist empiricism” of John Locke in the 17th and 18th centuries and on the British Chartism of the early 19th century, their intrinsic continuity in the democratic revolution, and Marx and Engels’s continuity with both. But then Macnair takes Kant and Hegel—and thus Lukács and Korsch following them—to be counter-Enlightenment and anti-democratic thinkers accommodating autocratic political authority, drawing this from Hume’s alleged turn away from the radicalism of Locke back to Hobbes’s political conservatism, and Kant and Hegel’s alleged affirmation of the Prussian state. But this account leaves out the crucially important influence on Kant and German Idealism more generally by Rousseau, of whom Hegel remarked that “freedom dawned on the world” in his works, and who critiqued and departed from Hobbes’s naturalistic society of “war of all against all” and built rather upon Locke’s contrary view of society and politics, sustaining and promoting the revolution in bourgeois society as “more than the sum of its parts,” revolutionary in its social relations per se, seminal for the American and French Revolutions of the later 18th century. Capital, emerging in the 19th century, in the Marxist view, as the continued social compulsion to wage-labor after its crisis of value in the Industrial Revolution, both is and is not the Rousseauian “general will” of capitalist society: it is a self-contradictory “mode of production” and set of social relations, expressed through self-contradictory consciousness, in theory and practice, of its social and political subjects, first and foremost the consciousness of the proletariat. It is self-contradictory both objectively and subjectively, both in theory and in practice.

Marx and Engels’s point was to encourage and advance the proletariat’s critical recognition of the self-contradictory character of its struggle for socialism, in what Marx called the “logical extreme” of the role of the proletariat in the democratic revolution of the 19th century, which could not, according to Marx, take its “poetry” from the 17th and 18th centuries, as clearly expressed in the failure of the revolutions of 1848, Marx’s famous formulation of the need for “revolution in permanence.”[9] What this means is that the democratic revolutionary aspirations of the wage-laborers for the “social republic” was the self-contradictory demand for the realization of the social value of labor after this had already taken the form of accumulated capital, what Marx called the “general intellect.” It is not the social value of labor, but rather that of this “general intellect” which must be reappropriated, and by the wage-laborers themselves, in their discontents as subjects of democracy. The ongoing democratic revolution renders this both possible and superfluous in that it renders the state both the agency and obstacle to this reappropriation, in post-1848 Bonapartism, which promises everything to everyone—to solve the “social question” of capitalism—but provides nothing, a diversion of the democratic revolution under conditions of self-contradictory bourgeois social relations: the state promises employment but gives unemployment benefits or subsidizes the lost value of wages; as Adorno put it, the workers get a cut of the profits of capital, to prevent revolution.[10] Or, as Adorno’s colleague, the director of the Frankfurt Institute Max Horkheimer put it, the Industrial Revolution and its continued social ramifications made not labor but the workers “superfluous.”[11] This created a very dangerous political situation—clearly expressed by the catastrophic events of the 20th century, mediated by mass “democratic” movements.

Marxism in the 20th century

In the 20th century, under the pressure of mass democracy—itself the result of the class struggle of the workers—the role of the state as self-contradictory and helpless manager of capitalism came to full fruition, but not through the self-conscious activity of the working class’s political struggle for socialism, confronting the need to overcome the role of the state, but more obscurely, with perverse results. Lenin’s point in The State and Revolution (1917) was the need for the revolutionary transformation of society beyond “bourgeois right” that the state symptomatically expressed; but, according to Lenin, this could be accomplished only “on the basis of capitalism itself” (“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, 1920). If the working class among others in bourgeois society has succumbed to what Lukács called the “reification” of bourgeois social relations, then this has been completely naturalized and can no longer be called out and recognized as such. For Lukács, “reification” referred to the hypostatization and conservatization of the workers’ own politics in protecting their “class interest,” what Lenin called mere “trade union consciousness” (including that of nationalist competition) in capitalism, rather than rising to the need to overcome this in practice, recognizing how the workers’ political struggles might point beyond and transcend themselves. This included democracy, which could occult the social process of capitalism as much as reveal it.

One phenomenon of such reification in the 20th century was what Adorno called the “veil of technology,” which included the appearance of capital as a thing (as in capital goods, or techniques of organizing production), rather than as Marxism recognized it, a social relation, however self-contradictory.

Film still of Hannah Arendt (2013) directed by Margarethe von Trotta.

Film still of Hannah Arendt (2013) directed by Margarethe von Trotta.

The anti-Marxist, liberal (yet still quite conservative) Heideggerian political theorist Hannah Arendt (and antagonist of Adorno and other Marxist “Critical Theorists” of the Frankfurt School, who was however married to a former Communist follower of Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League of 1919), expressed well how the working class in the 20th century developed after the failure of Marxism:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in an actual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor [by technical automation], and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.[12]

This was written contemporaneously with the Keynesian economist Joan Robinson’s statement that, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”[13] (Robinson, who once accused a Marxist that, “I have Marx in my bones and you have him in your mouth.”[14]) Compare this to what Heidegger offered in Nazi-era lectures on “Overcoming metaphysics,” that, “The still hidden truth of Being is withheld from metaphysical humanity. The laboring animal is left to the giddy whirl of its products so that it may tear itself to pieces and annihilate itself in empty nothingness;”[15] and, in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” (1964), the place of Marx in this process: “With the reversal of metaphysics which was already accomplished by Karl Marx, the most extreme possibility of philosophy is attained.”[16] But this was Heidegger blaming Marxism and the “metaphysics of labor” championed politically by the bourgeois revolt of the Third Estate and inherited by the workers’ movement for socialism, without recognizing as Marx did the self-contradictory character in capitalism; Heidegger, for whom “only a god can still save us” (meaning, only the discovery of a new value to serve),[17] and Arendt following him, demonized technologized society as a dead-end of “Western metaphysics” allegedly going back to the Socratic turn of ‘science” followed by Plato and Aristotle in Classical Antiquity, rather than recognizing it as a symptom of the need to transform society, capitalism and its need for socialism as a transitional condition of history emerging specifically in the 19th century.

This was the resulting flat “contradiction” that replaced the prior “dialectical” contradiction of “proletarian socialism” recognized by Marxism, whose theoretical recovery, in the context of the crisis of Marxism in the movement from the 2nd to 3rd Internationals, had been attempted by Lukács and Korsch. What Arendt called merely the (objective) “human condition,” the “vita activa” and its perverse nihilistic destiny in modern society, was, once, the (subjective) “dialectical,” self-contradictory “standpoint of the proletariat” in Marxism, as the “class consciousness” of history: the historical need for the proletariat to overcome and abolish itself as a class, including its own standpoint of “consciousness,” its regressive bourgeois demand to reappropriate the value of labor in capitalism, which would both realize and negate the “bourgeois right” of the value of labor in society. Socialism was recognized by Marxism as the raising and advancing of the self-contradiction of capitalism to the “next stage,” motivated by the necessity and possibility for “communism.” What Arendt could only apprehend as a baleful telos, the society of labor overcoming itself, Marxism once recognized as the need for revolution, to advance the contradiction in socialism.

When Marxists such as Adorno or Lukács can only sound to us like Arendt (or Heidegger), this is because we no longer live in the revolution. Adorno:

According to [Marxist] theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat. . . . If all the oppression that man has ever inflicted upon man culminates in the cold inhumanity of free wage labor, then . . . the archaic silence of pyramids and ruins becomes conscious of itself in materialist thought: it is the echo of factory noise in the landscape of the immutable. . . . This means, however, that dehumanization is also its opposite. In reified human beings reification finds its outer limits. . . . Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power. . . . Even if the dynamic at work was always the same, its end today is not the end.[18]


[As Hegel said,] directly before the emergence of something qualitatively new, the old state of affairs gathers itself up into its original, purely general, essence, into its simple totality, transcending and absorbing back into itself all those marked differences and peculiarities which it evinced when it was still viable. . . . [I]n the age of the dissolution of capitalism, the fetishistic categories collapse and it becomes necessary to have recourse to the “natural form” underlying them. . . . As the antagonism becomes more acute two possibilities open up for the proletariat. It is given the opportunity to substitute its own positive contents for the emptied and bursting husks. But also it is exposed to the danger that for a time at least it might adapt itself ideologically to conform to these, the emptiest and most decadent forms of bourgeois culture.[19]

Why still “philosophy?”

The problem today is that we are not faced, as Lukács and Korsch were, with the self-contradiction of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism in the political problem of the reified forms of the working class substituting for those of bourgeois society in its decadence. We replay the revolt of the Third Estate and its demands for the social value of labor, but we do not have occasion to recognize what Lukács regarded as the emptiness of bourgeois social relations of labor, its value evacuated by technical but not political transcendence. We have lost sight of the problem of “reification” as Lukács meant it.

As Hegel scholar Robert Pippin has concluded, in a formulation that is eminently agreeable to Korsch’s perspective on the continuation of philosophy as a symptom of failed transformation of society, in an essay addressing how, by contrast with the original “Left-Hegelian, Marxist, Frankfurt school tradition,” today, “the problem with contemporary critical theory is that it has become insufficiently critical:” “Perhaps [philosophy] exists to remind us we haven’t gotten anywhere.”[20] The question is the proper role of critical theory and “philosophical” questions in politics. In the absence of Marxism, other thinking is called to address this—for instance, Arendt (or worse: see Carl Schmitt[21]).

Recognizing the potential political abuse of “philosophy” does not mean, however, that we must agree with Heidegger, that, “Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world” (Der Spiegel interview). Especially since Marxism is not only (a history of) a form of politics, but also, as the Hegel and Frankfurt School scholar Gillian Rose put it, a “mode of cognition sui generis.”[22] This is because, as the late 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim put it, (bourgeois) society is an “object of cognition sui generis.” Furthermore, capitalism is a problem of social transformation sui generis—one with which we still might struggle, at least hopefully! Marxism is hence a mode of politics sui generis—one whose historical memory has become very obscure. This is above all a practical problem, but one which registers also “philosophically” in “theory.”

The problem of what Rousseau called the “reflective” and Kant and Hegel, after Rousseau, called the “speculative” relation of theory and practice in bourgeois society’s crisis in capitalism, recognized once by historical Marxism as the critical self-consciousness of proletarian socialism and its self-contradictions, has not gone away but was only driven underground. The revolution originating in the bourgeois era in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave rise to the modern philosophy of freedom in Rousseauian Enlightenment and German Idealism and that advanced to new problems in the Industrial Revolution and the proletarianization of society, perverting “bourgeois right” into a form of domination rather than emancipation, and expressed through the Bonapartist state’s perversion of democracy, which was recognized by Marxism in the 19th century but failed in the 20th century, may still task us.

This is why we might, still, be reading Lukács. | §

Originally published in The Platypus Review 63 (February 2014). Re-published by Philosophers for Change.

1. See Marco Torres, “Politics as a Form of Knowledge: A Brief Introduction to Georg Lukács,” Platypus Review 1 (November 2007), available online at: <>.
2. Weekly Worker 987 (November 21, 2013), available on-line at: <>.
3. Weekly Worker 869 (June 9, 2011), available on-line at: <>.
4. Weekly Worker 878 (August 11, 2011), available on-line at: <>.
5. Platypus Review 21 (March 2010), available on-line at: <>.
6. See my “The relevance of Lenin today,” Platypus Review 48 (July–August 2012), available on-line at: <>.
7. Quoted in Detlev Claussen, Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 48.
8. “Idea for a universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view” (1784), available on-line at: <>.
9. “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League” (1850), available on-line at: <>.
10. “Late capitalism or industrial society?” AKA “Is Marx obsolete?” (1968).
11. “The authoritarian state” (1942).
12. The Human Condition [Vita Activa] (1958).
13. Economic Philosophy (1962).
14. See Mike Beggs, “Joan Robinson’s ‘Open letter from a Keynesian to a Marxist’” (July 2011), which quotes in full Robinson’s letter from 1953 to Ronald Meek, available on-line at: <>.
15. The End of Philosophy, ed. and trans. Joan Stambaugh (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 87.
16. Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 433.
17. 1966 interview in Der Spiegel, published posthumously May 31, 1976.
18. “Reflections on class theory” (1942).
19. “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness (1923).
20. “On Critical Inquiry and critical theory: A short history of non-being,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), 416–417.
21. See Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (1927/32).
22. Review of the English translation of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics [1973] in The American Political Science Review 70.2 (June 1976), 598–599.