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Современная архитектура: Organ of architectural modernism in the Soviet Union, 1926-1930

 
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[Modern Architecture, or SA] was published every other month by the Society of Modern Architects [OSA] from 1926 to 1930. In all, the magazine ran for thirty issues, counting double-issues as two. A few years ago I uploaded some crude photographs of individual pages from originals stored in Columbia’s Avery Library. Tatlin has since republished the iconic journal, however, so anyone with the money and means to scan them could upload much higher-quality versions. For now, here are some that have been digitized for the Russian website Techne, which I’ve taken the liberty of running through ABBYY FineReader:

Moisei Ginzburg served as SA’s chief editor from its inaugural issue through to the end of 1928. Victor, Aleksandr, and Leonid Vesnin also helped organize it and solicit articles. The journal was intended to function primarily as a theoretical organ for constructivist architecture, providing a forum for debate and a platform for the promotion of avant-garde ideas about building methods and design. It was formatted by Aleksei Gan, author of the 1922 treatise Konstruktivizm, who sought to systematize the constructive principles of Tatlin and Rodchenko. Nevertheless, this continuity in terms of personnel should not blind us to the fact that architectural constructivism was distinct from constructivism in art. By 1926, SA’s various editors and contributors had absorbed the influence of Le Corbusier in France, JJP Oud in Holland, as well as Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus school in Germany. Ginzburg and the Vesnins regarded Tatlin’s old proposal for a monument to the Third International as a bit of impracticable symbolism. El Lissitzky explained in 1928 that “[t]he present ‘constructivist’ generation of professional architects looks upon this work [by Tatlin] as formalistic or even ‘symbolic’.”

first OSA conference 1928OSA members

In addition to its own articles, SA also translated texts from prominent European and American modernists such as Bruno Taut, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier. Journalistic coverage of international events, like the Stuttgart-Weißenhof exhibition in 1927, also appeared in its pages. Occasionally polemics were written, usually against the older, academic forms of architecture, but also against rival avant-garde tendencies such as VOPRA and ASNOVA. Toward the end of its run, under Roman Khiger’s editorship, there was an editorial dispute over the question of cities, as many wondered whether urban agglomerations would endure the abolition of the town and country divide. Some — like Ginzburg, Barsch, and Pasternak — sided with the sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich, embracing his “disurbanist” vision of ribbon cities and decentralized dwelling spaces. Others — the Vesnins, Krasil’nikov, and Burov — sided with the economist Leonid Sabsovich, advocating his “urbanist” proposals for mid-sized concentric cities of about 50,000 a pop. In 1931, however, the magazine was dissolved into Sovetskaia arkhitektura [Soviet Architecture], and included representatives of other schools of architectural thought besides constructivism.

Below are some of the page scans, which you can enlarge by clicking on them. You can also read an uncharacteristically favorable review by the Dutch modernist and De Stijl founder Theo van Doesburg, where he discusses SA in the context of Russia and the international style.

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The capital vs. the countryside:

             OSA’s propaganda for a modern communist architecture

Theo van Doesburg
Het Bouwbedrijf
February 1929
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Translated by Charlotte I. Loeb and Arthur L. Loeb.
On European Architecture: Complete Essays from
Het Bouwbedrijf. (Bïrkhauser, Berlin: 1990)

 
Without any doubt a small country will succeed faster in the realization of its cultural potential than will such an immensely vast country as Russia. Did they not recently discover a city of around 60,000 inhabitants there, in which the population was still living completely according to the notions of the 18th century? These people are totally ignorant, lived in the most primitive way, lacked the simplest modern lighting fixtures, etc., and were completely unaware of the events in Europe, the war, and the Russian Revolution.

How will the Russian authorities, no matter of which persuasion, ever be able to “electrify,” as Lenin called it, not only the cities, but the countryside as well? Such a country, the size of half a continent, should be measured by a different standard, and doubtlessly it is beyond the Russian mentality to initiate a well-balanced cultural development, comparable to that in other European counties. In the latter, even the most remote province has a cultural nucleus from where the countryside can be culturally controlled. Formerly, religion used to constitute this cultural nucleus, and construction served religion. In Russia, however, culture is concentrated between Moscow and Leningrad. In this zone new architecture has potential for realization. Russia totally lacks the neutralization of the cultural factors across the whole country, which is beneficial to the development of construction. Holland and Germany are in this favorable position, and this is the cause of the prominence which these countries have achieved in the field of architecture.

Partial view of the lateral façade of the Rusakov Club, Moscow, 1929 or later

In Russia, everything is grandiose…in conception, architecture, and the freely creative arts as well, but in the long run everything gets lost in detail, in vapidities, before being finally crushed by the country’s enormous size. Although architecture is primarily the functional control of space, for the new generation in Russia as well, it is secondly the organization of required materials, and finally, in its completion, a life structure. These are the three fundamental tasks to be fulfilled by the new Russian architecture…but they will, alas, never be fulfilled, in the first place because of the immeasurable space, secondly because of the lack of materials, and finally because of the total lack of every notion of method and the chaotic character of the form of life.

If we proceed very objectively and take the time to study the essential causes of the beneficial factors for construction as a primary cultural activity in a small country, more or less reliant on its own forces (such as Holland, for example), we shall see that the factors which I touched upon above not only exist there, but that they are correlated. Holland controls its extent and therefore it experiences a healthy architectural development, in contrast to Russia, which will never control its extent and therefore will never achieve an extensive solution to its architectural problems. Germany controls its extent as well, although on a different scale from that in Holland or France, but because of that it is in a more favorable position to push architecture as a primary cultural activity to a very high level: for it has all the factors at its disposal which are necessary for the realization of the architectural tasks dictated by modern life. Continue reading

20 - Assignment 01 - Pawlowska - Malgorzata - Tatlin

Tatlin’s tower

Nico Israel has a book out that looks fairly interesting, Spirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth Century Art and Literature. In it he discusses Wyndham Lewis’ vorticism, Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International, land Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (among other things). He also relates a few famous lines by Lenin about the spiraling course of the dialectic in history, from his 1915 Granat Encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx:

In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.

Marx and Engels were not the the first to put dialectical development in the shape of a spiral. As Lenin indicates, Hegel before him visualized it as such. There’s another source of the “whirled image” in Marx’s theory: Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi. Fredric Jameson pointed out in his recent book, Representing Capital, that “repetition — the selling of labor power week after week, its productive consumption by the capitalist in a cycle Sismondi rightly recharacterized as a spiral — never knew a first time in the first place.”

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For Marx, the spiral motion first appears as circulating capital:

Exchange-value posited as the unity of commodity and money is capital, and this positing itself appears as the circulation of capital. (Which is, however, a spiral, an expanding curve, not a simple circle)…As the subject predominant [übergreifend] over the different phases of this movement, as value sustaining and multiplying itself in it, as the subject of these metamorphoses proceeding in a circular course — as a spiral, as an expanding circle — capital is circulating capital. Circulating capital is therefore initially not a particular form of capital, but is rather capital itself, in a further developed aspect, as subject of the movement just described, which it, itself, is as its own realization process.

In Capital, Marx explicitly acknowledged his debt to Sismondi in this respect: “Looked at concretely, accumulation can be resolved into the production of capital on a progressively increasing scale. The cycle of simple reproduction alters its form and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.” Put another way, capital comes to ground this expansive outward movement, in which all sorts of violent jolts, fits, and spasms take place. Capital in history establishes a sort of treadmill pattern of transformation and reconstitution, as the sociologist Moishe Postone put it. Yet without its integral antithesis, class conscious wage-laborers mobilized in opposition to it, capital’s inherent dynamism is itself diminished. Adorno thus astutely observed in his 1965 lectures on History and Freedom: “Without wasting time on the overworked notion of a spiral development in history, it can be said that a direct progress towards freedom cannot be discerned.” (Rodney Livingstone suspected Adorno might have had Toynbee in mind, but I think he was commenting on the old Leninist dictum).

When Tatlin built his monument to the Third Revolution, progress did not seem such an impossibility. Though Europe lay in ruins, a new world seemed to open up. A hundred years on, this possibility seems by now closed. In our present moment, the key to the future resides in the past. Below are a few period pieces reflecting on Tatlin’s tower that express this bygone sensibility. Enjoy.

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The monument to the Third International

Nikolai Punin
Iskusstvo kommuny
September 1920

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In 1919 the Department of Fine Arts within the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment commissioned the artist V. E. Tatlin to develop a design for a monument to the Third International. The artist Tatlin immediately set to work and produced a design. The artists I.A. Meerzon, M.P. Vinogradov, and T.M. Shapiro formed a “Creative Collective,” then developed the design in detail and constructed a model.

The main idea of the monument is based on an organic synthesis of the principles of architecture, sculpture and painting and was intended to produce a new type of monumental structure, uniting in itself a purely creative form with a utilitarian form. In accordance with this idea, the design of the monument consists of three large glass structures, erected by means of a complex system of vertical struts and spirals. These structures are arranged one above the other and are contained within different, harmoniously related forms. A special type of mechanism would enable them to move at different speeds. The lower structure (A), in the form of a cube, moves on its axis at the speed of one revolution a year and is intended for legislative purposes. Here may be held conferences of the International, meetings of international congresses and other broadly legislative meetings… The next structure (B), in the form of a pyramid, rotates on its axis at the speed of one full revolution a month and is intended for executive functions (the Executive Committee of the International, the secretariat and other administrative and executive  bodies). Finally, the upper cylinder (C), rotating at a speed of one revolution a day, is intended to be a resource center for the following facilities: an information office; a newspaper; the publication of proclamations, brochures and manifestos — in a word, all the various means of broadly informing the international proletariat, and in particular a telegraph, projectors for a large screen located on the axes of a spherical segment (a1-b3), and a radio station, the masts of which rise above the monument. There is no need to point out the enormous possibilities for equipping and organizing these structures. The details of the design have not yet been specified, they can be discussed and worked out (luring subsequent elaboration of the monument’s interior.

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It is necessary to explain that according to the artist Tatlin”s conception, the glass structures should have vacuum walls (a thermos) which will make it easy to maintain a constant temperature within the edifice. The separate parts of the monument will be connected to one another and to the ground by means exclusively of complexly structured electrical elevators, adjusted to the differing rotation speeds of the structures. Such are the technical bases of the project. Continue reading

[Antisemitic demonstration by members of poland's right-wing nationalist party giving the nazi salute, Jewish district of Warsaw

The Jews and Europe

Max Horkheimer
Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung
December 1939

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Whoever wants to explain anti-Semitism must speak of National Socialism. Without a conception of what has happened in Germany, speaking about anti-Semitism in Siam or Africa remains senseless. The new anti-Semitism is the emissary of the totalitarian order, which has developed from the liberal one. One must thus go back to consider the tendencies within capitalism. But it is as if the refugee intellectuals have been robbed not only of their citizenship, but also of their minds. Thinking, the only mode of behavior that would be appropriate for them, has fallen into discredit. The “Jewish-Hegelian jargon,” which once carried all the way from London to the German Left and even then had to be translated into the ringing tones of the union functionaries, now seems completely eccentric. With a sigh of relief they throw away the troublesome weapon and turn to neohumanism, to Goethe’s personality, to the true Germany and other cultural assets. International solidarity is said to have failed. Because the worldwide revolution did not come to pass, the theoretical conceptions in which it appeared as the salvation from barbarism are now considered worthless. At present, we have really reached the point where the harmony of capitalist society along with the opportunities to reform it have been exposed as the very illusions always denounced by the critique of the free market economy; now, as predicted, the contradictions of technical progress have created a permanent economic crisis, and the descendants of the free entrepreneurs can maintain their positions only by the abolition of bourgeois freedoms; now the literary opponents of totalitarian society praise the very conditions to which they owe their present existence, and deny the theory which, when there was still time, revealed its secrets.

No one can demand that, in the very countries that have granted them asylum, the émigrés put a mirror to the world that has created fascism. But whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism. The English hosts today fare better than Frederick the Great did with the acid-tongued Voltaire. No matter if the hymn the intellectuals intone to liberalism often comes too late, because the countries turn totalitarian faster than the books can find publishers; the intellectuals have not abandoned hope that somewhere the reformation of Western capitalism will proceed more mildly than in Germany and that well-recommended foreigners will have a future after all. But the totalitarian order differs from its bourgeois predecessor only in that it has lost its inhibitions. Just as old people sometimes become as evil as they basically always were, at the end of the epoch class rule has taken the form of the “folk community” [Volksgemeinschaft]. The theory has destroyed the myth of the harmony of interests [between capital and labor]; it has presented the liberal economic process as the reproduction of power relations by means of free contracts, which are compelled by the inequality of the property. Mediation has now been abolished. Fascism is that truth of modern society which has been realized by the theory from the beginning. Fascism solidifies the extreme class differences which the law of surplus value ultimately produced.

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No revision of economic theory is required to understand fascism. Equal and just exchange has driven itself to the point of absurdity, and the totalitarian order is this absurdity. The transition from liberalism has occurred logically enough, and less brutally than from the mercantile system into that of the nineteenth century. The same economic tendencies that create an ever higher productivity of labor through the mechanism of competition have suddenly turned into forces of social disorganization. The pride of liberalism, industry developed technically to the utmost, ruins its own principle because great parts of the population can no longer sell their labor. The reproduction of what exists by the labor market becomes inefficient. Previously the bourgeoisie was decentralized, a many-headed ruler; the expansion of the plant was the condition for every entrepreneur to increase his portion of the social surplus. He needed workers in order to prevail in the competition of the market. In the age of monopolies, the investment of more and more new capital no longer promises any great increase in profits. The mass of workers, from whom surplus value flows, diminishes in comparison to the apparatus which it serves. In recent times, industrial production has existed only as a condition for profit, for the expansion of the power of groups and individuals over human labor. Hunger itself provides no reason for the production of consumer goods. To produce for the insolvent demand, for the unemployed masses, would run counter to the laws of economy and religion that hold the order together; no bread without work.

Even the façade betrays the obsolescence of the market economy. The advertising signs in all countries are its monuments. Their expression is ridiculous. They speak to the passers-by as shallow adults do to children or animals, in a falsely familiar slang. The masses, like children, are deluded: they believe that as independent subjects they have the freedom to choose the goods for themselves. But the choice has already largely been dictated. For decades there have been entire spheres of consumption in which only the labels change. The panoply of different qualities in which consumers revel exists only on paper. If advertising was always characteristic of the faux frais of the bourgeois commodity economy, still, it formerly performed a positive function as a means of increasing demand. Today the buyer is still paid an ideological reverence which he is not even supposed to believe entirely. He already knows enough to interpret the advertising for the great brand-name products as national slogans that one is not allowed to contradict. The discipline to which advertising appeals comes into its own in the fascist countries. In the posters the people find out what they really are: soldiers. Advertising becomes correct. The strict governmental command which threatens from every wall during totalitarian elections corresponds more exactly to the modern organization of the economy than the monotonously colorful lighting effects in the shopping centers and amusement quarters of the world.

The economic programs of the good European statesmen are illusory. In the final phase of liberalism they want to compensate with government orders for the disintegrating market economy’s inability to support the populace. Along with the economically powerful they seek to stimulate the economy so that it will provide everyone with a living, but they forget that the aversion to new investments is no whim. The industrialists have no desire to get their factories going via the indirect means of taxes they must pay to an all-too-impartial government simply to help the bankrupt farmers and other draft animals out of a jam. For their class such a procedure does not pay. No matter how much progovernmental economists may lecture the entrepreneurs that it is for their own benefit, the powerful have a better sense of their interests and have greater goals than a makeshift boom led with strikes and whatever else belongs to the proletarian class struggle. The statesmen who, after all this, still wish to run liberalism humanely, misunderstand its character. They may represent education and be surrounded by experts, but their efforts are nonetheless absurd: they wish to subordinate to the general populace that class whose particular interests by nature run contrary to the general ones. A government that would make the objects of welfare into subjects of free contracts by garnering the taxes of employers, must fail in the end: otherwise it would involuntarily degenerate from the proxy of the employers into the executive agency of the unemployed, indeed, of the dependent classes in general. Nearly confiscatory taxes, such as the inheritance tax, which are forced not only by the layoffs in industry, but also by the insoluble agriculture crisis, already threaten to make the weak into the “exploiters” of the capitalists. Such a reversal of circumstances will not be permitted in the long run by the employers in any empire. In the parliaments and all of public life, the employers sabotage neoliberal welfare policies. Even if these would help the economy, the employers would remain unreconciled: economic cycles are no longer enough for them. The relations of production prevail against the humanitarian governments. The pioneers from the employers’ associations create a new apparatus and their advocates take the social order into their hands; in place of fragmented command over particular factories, there arises the totalitarian rule of particular interests over the entire people. Individuals are subjected to a new discipline which threatens the foundations of the social order. The transformation of the downtrodden jobseeker from the nineteenth century into the solicitous member of a fascist organization recalls in its historical significance the transformation of the medieval master craftsman into the protestant burgher of the Reformation, or of the English village pauper into the modern industrial worker. Considering the fundamental nature of this change, the statesmen pursuing moderate progress appear reactionary.

b_250241 Berlin, Ged‰chtnisfeier f¸r Rathenau

The labor market is replaced by coerced labor. If over the past decades people went from exchange partners to beggars, objects of welfare, now they become direct objects of domination. In the prefascist stage the unemployed threatened the order. The transition to an economy which would unite the separated elements, which would give the people ownership of the idle machines and the useless grain, seemed unavoidable in Germany, and the world-wide danger of socialism seemed serious. With socialism’s enemies stood everyone who had anything to say in the Republic. Governing was carried out by welfare payments, by former imperial civil servants, and by reactionary officers. The trade unions wished to transform themselves from organs of class struggle into state institutions which distribute governmental largesse, inculcate a loyal attitude in the recipients, and participate in social control. Such help, however, was suspect to the powerful. Once German capital had resumed imperialist policies, it dropped the labor bureaucrats, political and trade unions, who had helped it into power. Despite their most honest intentions, the bureaucrats could not measure up to the new conditions. The masses were not activated for the improvement of their own lives, not to eat, but to obey — such is the task of the fascist apparatus. Governing has acquired a new meaning there. Instead of practiced functionaries, imaginative organizers and overseers are needed; they must be well removed from the influence of ideologies of freedom and human dignity. In late capitalism, peoples metamorphose first into welfare recipients and then into followers [Gefolgschaften].

Continue reading

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Art into life

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Marx once declared, critiquing Hegel, that the historical task confronting humanity was “to make the world philosophical.” Hegel had completed philosophy, effectively brought it to a close. Now all that was left was to make this philosophy real by transforming the world according to its dictates. As he put it:

It is a psychological law that the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy, and, leaving the shadowy empire of Amenthes as will, turns itself against the reality of the world existing without it. (From a philosophical point of view, however, it is important to specify these aspects better, since from the specific manner of this turn we can reason back towards the immanent determination and the universal historic character of a philosophy. We see here, as it were, its curriculum vitae narrowed down to its subjective point.) But the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It’s the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea. But this immediate realization of philosophy is in its deepest essence afflicted with con­tradictions, and this its essence takes form in the appearance and imprints its seal upon it.

When philosophy turns itself as will against the world of appearance, then the system is lowered to an abstract totality, that is, it has become one aspect of the world which opposes another one. Its relationship to the world is that of reflection. Inspired by the urge to realize itself, it enters into tension against the other. The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards. The result is that as the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly, that its realization is also its loss, that what it struggles against on the outside is its own inner deficiency, that in the very struggle it falls precisely into those defects which it fights as defects in the opposite camp, and that it can only overcome these defects by falling into them. That which opposes it and that which it fights is always the same as itself, only with factors inverted.

Reflecting on these lines nearly a century later, in the aftermath of the stillborn October Revolution, Karl Korsch famously concluded that “[p]hilosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.” In other words, it is vital not to cast philosophy unceremoniously aside simply because its time has passed. One must come to terms with it, and critically engage it, before doing away with it completely. Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in many ways a sequel to Korsch’s essay on “Marxism and Philosophy,” thus begins with the sobering observation: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who corresponded for decades with Adorno, explained at the outset of his monumental work on Intellectual and Manual Labor, provided a clue as to what this might have meant:

[Work on the present study] began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor W. Adorno, and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter.

Korsch’s insight into this theme from the early thought of Karl Marx, reaffirmed subsequently by Adorno and his best followers, can be extended to encompass art and religion as well. For Hegel, of course, art and religion each provided — in their own, particular way — privileged access to the Absolute. Art reigned supreme in the ancient world, while religion dominated medieval thought (with its “great chain of being”). By the time Hegel was writing, however, these modes of apprehending the Absolute had been surpassed by philosophy, which rationally comprehended the Absolute Idea in its spiritual movement. Intuition and belief had been supplanted by knowledge. Science, or Wissenschaft, had been achieved.

Yet this achievement did not last long. After Hegel’s death, his successors — Left and Right, Young and Old — battled for possession of the master’s system. Only Marx succeeded in carrying it forward, precisely by realizing that philosophy itself must be overcome. The same may perhaps be said for those older forms of life which had the Absolute as their object, art and religion. Feuerbach’s religion of humanity, which read theology as secret anthropology, perhaps found its most revolutionary articulation in the writings of Bogdanov, Gorky, and Lunacharsky, who promoted a project of “God-building” [богостроиетльство]. Lenin rightly scolded them for their excessive, premature exuberance, but they were on the right track. Similarly, the avant-garde project of dissolving art into life, in hopes of bringing about the death of art, can be read as an effort to make the world artistic (“to make the world philosophical”). Or, better, to make the world a work of art.

Continue reading

Abbildung zu Objekt Inv.Nr. III-14785 von Frankfurter Goethe-Haus / Freies Deutsches Hochstift

Capitalism and bourgeoisie: The sorcerer’s apprentice

The magic and necromancy
of commodity production

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Goethe’s famous 1797 ballad Der Zauberlehrling [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice] provides probably the best allegory for Marx’s own conception of capitalism, which he memorably described as partaking of a kind of sorcery — “the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities.”

Under the capitalist mode of production, the producer is ruled by the products of his labor rather than the other way around. Living labor in the present serves the accumulated dead labor of the past. “We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! [The dead holds the living in its grasp!]

An illustration of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found on nucius.org

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels implicitly allude to Goethe’s poem, comparing society’s relation to capital to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Marshall Berman, the late Marxist critic, reflected on this line at some length in his 1982 masterpiece All that is Solid: The Experience of Modernity:

This image evokes the spirits of that dark medieval past that our modern bourgeoisie is supposed to have buried. Its members present themselves as matter-of-fact and rational, not magical; as children of the Enlightenment, not of darkness. When Marx depicts the bourgeois as sorcerers — remember, too, their enterprise has “conjured whole populations out of the ground,” not to mention “the specter of communism” — he is pointing to depths they deny. Marx’s imagery projects, here as ever, a sense of wonder over the modern world: its vital powers are dazzling, overwhelming, beyond anything the bourgeoisie could have imagined, let alone calculated or planned. But Marx’s images also express what must accompany any genuine sense of wonder: a sense of dread. For this miraculous and magical world is also demonic and terrifying, swinging wildly out of control, menacing and destroying blindly as it moves. The members of the bourgeoisie repress both wonder and dread at what they have made: these possessors don’t want to know how deeply they are possessed.

All this ought to be perfectly familiar to attentive readers of Marx. Remarking on this peculiar double aspect, by which all things seem to engender their own negation, Marx observed: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, as if by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.”

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To illustrate this, here is Walt Disney’s animated epic Fantasia, starring Mickey Mouse. (Walter Benjamin and Sergei Eisenstein already recognized Mickey as a revolutionary in the early 1930s). Capital appears here as a spell to alleviate necessary labor, the bewitched broomsticks as automata. But it works too well. It overwhelms its putative master, resulting in serial overproduction, overflowing basins of water, etc.

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Stuttgart-Weißenhof, 1927: Modern architecture comes into its own

The significance of the Werkbund exhibition on “Die Wohnung” at Stuttgart-Weißenhof in 1927 is universally attested. Organized by Mies van der Rohe two years prior, it aimed to unite the various strands of modern architecture that had been developed earlier in the decade. Despite its commitment to internationalism, its international character was nevertheless somewhat limited by sheer geographical proximity and the haste with which it was thrown together. As Reyner Banham pointed out, it was a largely Berlin affair:

[I]n spite of these international overtones, Weißenhof was primarily a manifestation of Ring architecture, and apart from…four non-German designers…the remaining eleven were mostly Berliners by professional domicile, birth, or attachment — Mies himself, Gropius, Hilberseimer, the Tauts, Scharoun, Döcker, Behrens, etc. The style to which the foreign designs conformed was the style of Berlin by sheer pressure of numbers. No other city at the time could have mustered, as Berlin could by this date, over a dozen convinced modernists of recognizable talent.

Van Doesburg noted at the time that Corbusier, whose distinctive style was already well known, was strongly influenced by the Neues Bauen architects at the Weißenhof estate. Functionalism was out in full force, and van Doesburg had no illusions about its origin: “Principally this trend came from Russia, and therefore it concurs with the communist philosophy of life.” His intuition wasn’t too far off, and indeed the Nazis would denounce the settlement ten years later for its “Bolshevik depravity.” Wolfram von Eckardt, the architectural historian, recalls that the fascists installed pitched roofs onto the flat terraces in order to render them more palatable. Bombs dropped by Allied planes during World War II destroyed several of the buildings. Restoration since has only been partial.

Schulze strikes a slightly different note in his Critical Biography of Mies. In his view, the functionalism on display at the Stuttgart exhibition was more apparent than it was ever actual, largely an aesthetic effect. “To the extent that functionality was one of the New Architecture’s objectives at Stuttgart,” avers Schulze, “it is hard to defend the rapid deterioration of most of the houses — stunningly, within as little as a year or two. In short, Weißenhof was never a triumph of Sachlichkeit and functionalism, but of the image of modernism.”

Below you can read a selection of articles in translation about the exhibit at the time.

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Stuttgart-Weißenhof, 1927: The famous Werkbund exhibition on “the dwelling”

Theo van Doesburg
Het Bouwbedrijf
November 1927

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Some remarks about the prehistory. The demonstrative architectural exhibition, being held in Stuttgart from July 23 on, means the realization of an idea which has existed for years in the minds of the younger generation grouped around the periodical G (Gestaltung). This notion can be worded thus: since all exhibitions, whether of art objects or of architecture or technology, only show separate portions of an entity, Einzelstücke, and because on the other hand in our modern time the Gesamtarbeit, the unity of a collective stylistic purpose, is the only thing that counts, it must be clear to everyone that the exhibition of separate works of art, architectural models and designs lacking an inner coherence is pointless and passé. On the contrary, the requirement should be the following: demonstration of an entity in which all parts (meaning: color, furniture, utensils etc.) are organically combined. With the regular manner of exhibiting: the placing and hanging of loose objects next to, or on top of, each other, this was of course impossible, because that would be too much of a strain on the imaginative powers of the masses. They wanted to place the visitor within, instead of opposite, the new environment and make him “experience” it, instead of “looking at” it. This new requirement to demonstrate instead of exhibit was put into words for the first time in 1922, at the international artists’ congress in Dusseldorf, by the constructivists: “Stop holding exhibitions. Instead: space for demonstrations of collective work.” And under point 4: “Stop separating art from life. Art becomes life.”[1]

In fact, as everybody will remember, the aim to achieve a Gesamtarbeit formed the basis of the modern art movement in Holland, which around 1916 propagated its ideas in the modest periodical De Stijl and took up the defense for a collective rendering as opposed to an individualistic one. Then, in the midst of the war, no trace of this zeal was to be discerned in other countries, and this is understandable when we realize that this new tendency postulated an international orientation.

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The periodical G, in which the functionalists started publishing their views on architecture in 1923, was primarily based on the ideas of the Dutch and Russian artists, the former of which were becoming more and more the aorta of the new direction in Europe. It is because of the initiative of the architect Mies van der Rohe, by far the strongest personality of the group of German constructivists, the core of the circle around G (only five issues of this periodical were ever published), that the common ideal of a demonstrative architecture exhibition was almost completely realized. Not only is the Siedlung Weißenhof Mies van der Rohe’s work with respect to grouping etc., but the stands of construction materials and ingredients in the Gewerbehalle [Trade Hall] and the Plan- und Modellausstellung [exhibit of plans and models] — all of which are of great importance for the entire planning of the exhibition — can be considered his mental property as well. Neither should we forget the Versuchsgelände [testing area], located next to the Weißenhofsiedlung, where the visitor can get acquainted with the construction and building method and the materials used here. Various kinds of solutions for roof covering of flat roofs, sound proof walls etc. are displayed here. Certainly nobody will be surprised that the realization of this wide-ranging demonstration required enormous energy, all the more because unexpected difficulties, prejudices and even political complications had to be overcome; not to speak even of the financial difficulties, resulting from the tight budget with which the organizers had to work. We have to credit the architect Mies van der Rohe, vice president of the Werkbund for having tackled the majority of these problems, assisted by the 15 collaborating architects as well as by his faithful supporters Werner Gräff, Willi Baumeister, Hilberseimer, Döcker etc.; the latter undertook the supervision of the execution of the work.

It is not premature to state that — leaving the quality of the architectural products themselves aside for the moment — this undertaking of a demonstrative exhibition is the product of a modern necessity, not only putting the traditional way of exhibiting in the shadow, but surpassing it, and rendering it obsolete for future use. Those who have visited the exhibition held in Paris in 1925 and compare it to this exhibition, will have to acknowledge that the former sinks into insignificance compared to the construction manifest in Stuttgart. The latter contrasts sharply with the exhibition in Paris, with respect to organization as well as to the exterior aspect.

Robert Bothner, Stuttgart- Blick vom Turm des Höhenrestaurants auf die Weißenhofsiedlung 1931

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Impressions of the exhibition. — When we, after visiting the Weißenhofsiedlung, come to the glass display in the Gewerbehalle, we find ourselves, without preparation, in the best and purest presentation of this exhibition in the field of interior architecture (if these words are not a misnomer!). This glass hall, also executed after a design of Mies van der Rohe, owes its creation to the unequivocal task of displaying fragile material (semi-transparent and opaque glass of different colors) in such a way that it would be shown to full advantage. This was realized best by raising glass plates of enormous dimensions straight in the free space as walls, unprotected from top of bottom, without base board, profile or ornament. These glass plates are mounted in narrow, flat frames of nickel-coated steel. The problem was a sober one, but the solution reached the highest point that blessed, inspired visual artists can attain, and that only in very special moments: conquering the material with all of its faults, such as weightiness, resistance and transience, with the maximum of the energy force of the material itself.

Every material has its own energy force, and the challenge is to enhance this energy force to its maximum by proper application. The opposite is: violation of the material by wrong application, whereby a relatively large percentage of the energy force is lost. Weighing one material against another in respect to their energy and character, and proportioning them well, most certainly belongs to the essence of the new architecture. Only in this way can modern architecture bring to realization what it has to offer in involuntary beauty.

Only when iron concrete was, for the first time, applied in the right way (I believe this was done by Wright), were the character of the tension and the energy of the iron concrete shown off to such an advantage that architecture attained a new beauty, involuntarily, without a preconceived aesthetic intention. The same is true for plate glass, seamless floors, and other unjointed surfaces of materials, which by their purity, simplicity and their Gespanntheit [surface tension] are in keeping with the modern mentality.

It is my utter conviction, formed in practice, that only the ultimate surface is decisive in architecture. “How so? and what about the construction, the mechanism?”

The answer to this question is: “The ultimate surface is in itself the result of the construction. The latter expresses itself in the ultimate surface. Bad construction leads to a bad surface. Good construction produces a sound surface with tension.” Indeed, the finishing touch of architecture is in the finish of the surface, interior as well as exterior. The development of the ultimate surface is essential, from the first stone to the last stroke of paint. Every architect having a visual sense for construction knows this, and with this glass display Mies van der Rohe proved to be on top of this new problem.

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Balázs and Eisenstein, an exchange on the future of cinema (1926)

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What follows is a translation of three articles. One is by the Hungarian critic, screenwriter, and film theorist Béla Balázs, while the other two were written by the legendary director and master of Soviet cinema, Sergei Eisenstein. Both men considered themselves Marxists. The former, Balázs, was of a slightly more heterodox cast, comparable perhaps to the position of the young Georg Lukács, his fellow countryman and longtime friend. Eisenstein, by contrast, drifted from the harsh engineering aesthetic associated with constructivism early in his career to the monumental Stalinist style toward the end of his life. At the time of his first exchange with Balázs, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was making waves in Western Europe and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927) was about to be released. He explained in 1928 to the visiting curator Alfred Barr, future founder of the MoMA, that

I am a civil Engineer and mathematician by training. I approach the making of a film in much the same way as I would the equipment of a poultry farm or the installation of a water system. My point of view is thoroughly materialist…

Despite their respectful disagreement in the proceeding debate, Balázs and Eisenstein would go on to collaborate quite closely in subsequent years. Balázs wrote the screenplay to The Old and the New, alternately titled The General Line. This film, which featured buildings and set designs by the constructivist architect Andrei Burov (in consultation with Le Corbusier), was shot mostly in 1928 but shelved until 1930 for ideological reasons. In the interim, much had changed: the avant-garde emphasis of the 1920s on collectivism, technology, and the masses had receded somewhat, making way for the pompous heroism of the 1930s. Not long thereafter, Balázs fled Vienna in 1933 to escape Austrofascist persecution — he was a communist, a foreigner, and a Jew — settling in Moscow, where he taught film aesthetics until the close of World War II. Just as Lukács had been harshly criticized by Party dogmatists in the 1920s, so too was Balázs in the 1930s. Such was the changed climate of Soviet discourse during this period.

Eisenstein died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1948; Balázs died the next year in Budapest. You can download a selection of their translated works below. If anyone has retail PDFs of the Richard Taylor translations, please e-mail them to me.

Béla Balázs

Sergei Eisenstein

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The future of film

Béla Balázs
Kinogazeta
July 6, 1926
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Film can become a work of art only when photography itself ceases to be mere reproduction and becomes the work itself. When the work, the decisive creative expression of the emotions and the spirit, is realized not in staging and acting but through the mediation of the photograph in actual shots.

When the cameraman who does in fact make the picture also becomes its author, the poet of the work, the real film artist for whom acting and staging are the mere “occasion” to which he relates, like a painter to a landscape (preferably the most beautiful one!), to a life only through his brush in a work of art, in the expression of his spirit. As long as the cameraman is last in line, cinema will remain the last of the arts. But the reverse is also true!

In insisting on the artistic integrity of the photograph itself I by no means have in mind the decorative beauty of the shot which, incidentally, you encounter very often and which is not infrequently accorded much greater significance than it deserves. The decorative charm of individual shots gives them something that is statically pictorial, immobile and wrapped up in itself: their “beauty,” as if petrified, is killed by a headlong rush of events in the form of a series of “living pictures” through which the film as a whole staggers staccato fashion from one pictorial shot to another. Whereas the whole essence of cinema lies in the scope of the general rhythm of the passing events of real life.

No! I have in mind the hidden symbolic expressiveness, the poetic significance of the shot that has nothing to do with “decorativeness” or “beauty,” that is not produced either by play or by the object (subject) of the photograph but is created exclusively by the methods and possibilities of photography.

I want to explain this through two recent examples, two wonderful shots from Battleship Potemkin.

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The enthusiasm of the population of Odessa is shown by the increasing rhythm of the groupings of the enthusiastic masses and you begin to wonder: where do we go now? How can they possibly show more enthusiasm, joy, or ecstasy?

Suddenly you see a sumptuous picture. Like a hymn of ecstasy that resoundingly interrupts what has gone before you see the skiffs sailing to meet the battleship. According to the plot they are carrying foodstuffs to the mutinous sailors. In the film it seems as if they are hurrying towards them with millions of hearts.

This delicate winged flight of hundreds of billowing sails evokes an image of the collective display of enthusiasm, joy, love, and hope that no single face, even that of the greatest artiste, could express. It is not the plot motif but the photograph, the photograph itself taken beyond the bounds of the greatest lyricism and of such powerful figurative and poetic force that you can scarcely compare poetry itself with it!

It is in this hidden figurative quality of the shot, that has nothing in common with “decorative” beauty, that the creative poetic opportunities for the cameraman lie concealed.

Then we see the sailing-vessels filmed from the deck. As if by some command they all lower their sails at once. The logical “content” is that the boats have stopped near the battleship. The action of the picture suggests that a hundred sails, a hundred banners have been lowered before the hero. It is this figurative quality of the pictures that contains their original poetry, something that can occur only in a film, only through photography.

For two photographs on the same subject would be deprived of any symbolic or poetic expressiveness if they were merely part of a vast landscape. Then they would not define the expression or physiognomy of the shot.

It is only through an undoubtedly conscious design that crams the whole shot full to its very edges with sails that these photographs acquire the unity of mimic expression and the significance of gesture that become the depth of experience and the sense of the film. There is not even any room for argument here: the poetic expressiveness of the scene is created not by the motif but by the photography.

But this is the only way that can help cinema to stop being a servant of art and become an independent art.

People say to me: both the camera positions in Potemkin that you have described were determined by the director and were not the original and independent ideas of the cameraman.

So be it. It does not matter in this context who is in charge of the photography. It makes no difference whether the director or the cameraman is the creator of such a work of art. The decisive factor is that cinema art of this kind emerges only through the lens; it can only be produced through photography.

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On the position of Béla Balázs

Sergei Eisenstein
Kinogazeta
July 20, 1926
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Balázs’ article will surprise some people. Without its concluding stipulation: “The cameraman is the alpha and omega of film.”

We have such respect for foreigners that we might consider this a “blessing.” The idiots on the Moscow evening paper who accorded recognition to the exercises by young Frenchmen that Ehrenburg brought from Paris have declared it to be a “revelation.” These are sheer enfantillages — “children’s playthings” — based on the photographic possibilities of the photographic apparatus. I am not exaggerating when I say that: if we have these “children’s playthings” today, tomorrow they will be used to refurbish the formal methods of a whole branch of art (for instance, the “absolute': the plotless film of Picabia, Léger, or Chomette).

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The (anti-)German ideology: Towards a critique of anti-German “communism”

Raph Schlembach
Interface journal
November 2010
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The specter of the anti-Germans has easily become the Feindbild for activists of the Anglophone Left; yet rarely does this translate into a fundamental or informed criticism of the anti-German premise. This article, then, offers an introductory description and a critical analysis of pro-Israeli, anti-German communism in its context within the post-war German Left and as a contemporary protest movement that sits oddly on the fringes of radical politics. Its origins and politics are examined to depict the radicalization of a broad anti-nationalist campaign against German re-unification, and its evolution into a small but coherent anti-German movement, controversial for its pro-Israel polemics and provocations. Current debates within the anti-fascist German Left are reviewed to explore anti-German positions on the Holocaust, Israel, Islam, anti-imperialism, and Germany’s foreign policy. Theoretical works that have heavily influenced anti-German communism are discussed to comprehend the movement’s intellectual inspirations. The purpose of the article is to introduce one of Germany’s most controversial protest movements to an English-speaking audience and to hint at the formulation of a critique that is more than a knee-jerk reaction to pro-Israeli agitation.

Introduction

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Anti-German communism is a political tendency that grew from within the German radical Left, and that has adopted a pro-Western/pro-Israel discourse and critiques of post-Nazi Germany and Islamic antisemitism as its defining ideological characteristics. Despite being intellectually inspired by the writings of Karl Marx and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, the subsequent reinterpretation and political contortion of these texts by the “anti-Germans” has fueled an antagonistic relationship with large parts of the German (and global) Left. The common left-wing premises of anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism are regarded by the anti-Germans as expressions of a continuation of the “logic of Auschwitz” that reflects totalitarian, fascistic thought in the national mindsets of most Germans, Europeans, and beyond.

Talking about the anti-Germans is a bit anachronistic, of course. Anti-German communism as a movement, in the sense of informing the practical and strategic politics of German anti-fascism, is connected to the decade or so immediately after German re-unification. In its more narrow sense, as a theoretically distinct but practically irrelevant contrarian position, anti-German communism has also seen its heyday. Anti-German ideas still persist nonetheless, in a number of periodicals and communist organizations, and continue to have some influence on the German anti-fascist movement and some unorthodox Marxist circles. It is also rather unhelpful to speak of “the anti-Germans” as if they represented a homogenous movement. This is even more so as the ideas and positions of anti-German authors, activists and groups have tended to undergo rapid development in an effort to gain “avant-garde” status in the radical Left. A first categorization is often used in German-language debates to distinguish between various “hardcore” and “softcore” trends. Hardcore anti-Germans, around the journal Bahamas and the Freiburg Initiative Sozialistisches Forum, have now mostly taken leave from left-wing political movements; yet it is they who often remain the object of controversy. Bahamas and their supporters in particular have made a point of declaring both left-wing and Islamist anti-imperialism as their enemy, often descending into vitriolic attacks against Muslims and Arabs in Europe — to such an extent that the tendency might now be best described as an “anti-Islam materialism.” The various softcore anti-German projects continue to exert some theoretical influence especially on anti-fascist politics. The journal Phase 2 for example has emerged from the German “Antifa” movement and now combines anti-German thought with elements from critical theory and post-structuralism to form a political perspective that is sometimes described as “post-Antifa.” Now defunct is the journal 17 Grad, which was based on Foucauldean theory and discourse analysis. The longstanding magazine Konkret has evolved from a more orthodox Marxist analysis but has also supported and developed anti-German positions in the past. The widely-read weekly newspaper Jungle World regularly publishes anti-German authors, but actually prints articles from a variety of radical political perspectives. However, it has been years since anti-German publications regularly sparked controversy and sometimes violent conflict amongst the German Left. Now, many writers, publishers and activists who had spearheaded the anti-German movement have retreated from left-wing circles and discussion. Nonetheless, in the English-speaking Left in particular, the anti-Germans are still subject to polemical controversy and outrage, often resulting from a fascination with the waving of American, British, and Israeli national flags by German anti-fascists. There are very few substantial English-language texts available however (Grigat 2005; Radke 2004 are amongst the more illuminating introductions), although whenever the topic is raised on left-wing online forums, blogs or in face-to-face conversation it is sure to generate long discussions. To date, there is only one academic publication about the anti-Germans in English language. The article in the Jewish Political Studies Review is largely descriptive and focuses on the pro-Israel stance of the movement. Keeping in mind the somewhat sketchy information so far available to the English-language reader, what I offer here is primarily a historical overview of the origins and political formation of the anti-Germans and, secondly, a suggestion towards a more fundamental critique of their politics.

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Events in the recent history of the extra-parliamentary Left in Germany are crucial to understanding why anti-German currents play a prominent role in it. I trace the development of anti-German communist thought in four steps. First, I look at some of the influences that can be found in the work of pre-unification writers, such as Jean Améry or Eike Geisel. Second, the movement against German political reunification will be discussed as the immediate “trigger” or springboard for the emergence of anti-German communism as protest movement. Third, the anti-German response to events such as the Kosovo war and 9/11 illustrate how parts of the movement have severed their ties with the politics of the Left. In a final section, I indicate how the anti-German ideology remains firmly stuck in nationalist and identity politics.

Post-Holocaust origins

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The anti-German self-understanding is one that combines criticism of German nationalism and political Islam with a more general critique of nation and state. It explicitly sees itself in contrast to the anti-imperialist and autonomous Left of the 1970s and 80s with its strong support for national liberation movements and vocal opposition to American and Israeli militarism. Put very simply, for the anti-Germans, anti-fascism in a world divided into states is synonymous with solidarity with Israel. The Israeli state is seen as the necessary reaction to the fascist barbarism of the Third Reich and that continues to rear its head in the Bundesrepublik. This inversion of the anti-imperialist premise is certainly at odds with left-wing politics in Anglo-Saxon countries and elsewhere outside this context. However, calls for solidarity with Israel and distrust of anti-Zionism are more commonplace in the German radical Left. Some of the most fervent critics of the anti-Germans would go to length to defend Zionism as the basis of the Israeli state (for example Robert Kurz 2003). Also many anti-fascist groups that do not belong to the anti-German spectrum practice and demonstrate solidarity with Israel and focus strongly on the continuing antisemitism in neo-Nazi movements.

The specificity of its National Socialist history has always been a central point of reference for the (West-)German Left. Concerned with “explaining the unexplainable,” the Left subscribed to a politics of remembrance. The “lessons” drawn from the terror of National Socialism and the Holocaust thereby remain fundamental to a radical theory and practice. Concepts and ideologies that had been paramount to the Third Reich, such as “the German people,” “nation,” or antisemitism are thus important points of reference. Radical left-wing criticism of anti-Zionism in Germany also emerged long before one could speak of an anti-German movement. Even texts from an armed anti-militarist group (Revolutionäre Zellen 1991) and an autonomist group (Autonome LUPUS-Gruppe 2001) criticized some aspects of anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism. The question of antisemitism had thus taken a prominent place in the internal discussion of the German Autonome movement already in the 1970s and 1980s. Critical voices were often the result of the failures of national liberation movements. A striking example was a failed attempt to liberate a number of Palestinian prisoners and members of the Red Army Faction, including Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. In 1976, a commando group of Palestinians and members of the Revolutionäre Zellen had hijacked a plane leaving Israel, demanding the release of political prisoners. The hijackers eventually let non-Jewish and non-Israeli hostages disembark from the grounded aircraft, while Israeli Jews were kept hostage until their liberation by anti-terror units. Nevertheless, accusations that anti-imperialist politics had slipped into overt antisemitism were voiced by only a few in the radical Left (see Hanloser 2004b).

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IsaacBabel en 1930©Lidia Babel

Isaak Babel, writer and revolutionary (1894–1940)

Isaak Babel

Jorge Luis Borges
El Hogar [Home]
December 1938
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He was born in the jumbled catacombs of the stair-stepped port of Odessa, late in 1894. Irreparably Semitic, Isaak was the son of a rag merchant from Kiev and a Moldavian Jewess. Catastrophe has been the normal climate of his life. In the uneasy intervals between pogroms he learned not only to read and write but to appreciate literature and enjoy the work of Maupassant, Flaubert, and Rabelais. In 1914, he was certified a lawyer by the Faculty of Law in Saratov; in 1916, he risked a journey to Petrograd. In that capital city “traitors, malcontents, whiners, and Jews” were banned: the category was somewhat arbitrary, but — implacably — it included Babel. He had to rely on the friendship of a waiter who took him home and hid him, on a Lithuanian accent acquired in Sevastopol, and on an apocryphal passport.

His first writings date from that period: two or three satires of the Czarist bureaucracy, published in Annals, [Maksim] Gorky’s famous newspaper. (What must he think, and not say, about Soviet Russia, that indecipherable labyrinth of state offices?). Those two or three satires attracted the dangerous attention of the government. He was accused of pornography and incitement of class hatred. From this catastrophe he was saved by another catastrophe: the Russian Revolution.

In early 1921, Babel joined a Cossack regiment. Those blustering and useless warriors (no one in the history of the universe has been defeated more often than the Cossacks) were, of course, anti-Semitic. The mere idea of a Jew on horseback struck them as laughable, and the fact that Babel was a good horseman only added to their disdain and spite. A couple of well-timed and flashy exploits enabled Babel to make them leave him in peace. By reputation, though not according to the bibliographies, Isaak Babel is still a homo unius libri.

His unmatched book is titled Red Cavalry.

The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes.

One of the stories — “Salt” — enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems, and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart.

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Isaak Babel was Leon Trotsky’s favorite Soviet author. He was purged by Stalin in the late 1930s. To  download a PDF of his complete works, click here.

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New York Trotskyism in the 1930s

The Trotskyists

Geoffrey Hellman
The New Yorker
December 16, 1939
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The political group familiarly known either as the Trotskyists of the Trotskyites is officially called the Socialist Workers Party. A lot of its members feel this name is confusing, since the Party has just about as little patience with the Socialists as it has with the Stalinists, the Lovestonites, President Roosevelt, and Father Coughlin, all of whom the Trotskyists would like to blow up. It regards itself as the orthodox Marxist Party and it looks upon the regular Communist Party as at best a rather contemptible reformist group. During the eleven years of its existence it has consistently maintained direct contact with Trotsky and an uncompromising policy of world revolution against all existing forms of government, every one of which it considers too far to the right. Despite the amount of noise which its members make and the frequency with which they come up in conversation, there are only some two thousand Trotskyists in the country, of whom around six hundred are in New York.

The Trotskyists, who prefer this term to “Trotskyites,” came into being on October 27, 1928, when three members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in New York — James P. Cannon, Martin Abern, and Max Shachtman — were expelled for spreading Trotsky’s doctrines instead of Stalin’s. Trotsky was advocating worldwide revolution while Stalin was insisting on confining the revolution to Russia for the time being. Trotsky had been banished to Turkestan the year before for holding the views he did and was subsequently expelled from the Party. In July, 1928, when the Sixth World Congress of the Communist Party was held in Moscow, Trotsky, still in Turkestan, prepared a detailed criticism of Stalin’s national political program. Translated into the various languages of the delegates attending the Congress, copies of this were distributed by the Party to the twenty-odd members of the Congress’s Program Commission, one of whom was Cannon. Although his copy was plainly marked “confidential” and was to be returned to the convention officials, Cannon was so impressed by it that he not only failed to give it back, a gross breach of Party etiquette, but smuggled it into this country and showed it to his friends, including Abern and Shachtman. These men also concluded that Trotsky’s plumping for universal revolution was a sounder idea than Stalin’s plan of concentrating on Russia itself, and they sought to bring other American Party members around to their point of view. Expelled, after a trial, by Jay Lovestone, then head of the Communist Party in America, the three rebels formed a Trotskyist group, known first as the Communist League of America. Lovestone himself was expelled from the Party six months later, for objecting to Russia’s domination of Communist policies in other countries, and founded the Independent Labor League of America, which opposes both Trotsky and Stalin. As the Cannon-Abern-Shachtman offshoot grew in size and began to win over many Stalinists, the hostility of the mother Communist Party toward it became increasingly bitter. In 1934, the League, by then an affair of several hundred members, changed its name to the Workers Party of the US. In 1936 and 1937 it enjoyed an extended flirtation with the left wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialists. It joined the Socialist Party, took over the left-wing Socialist magazine, the Appeal, and called itself the Appeal Group of the Socialist Party. At the end of 1937 the Socialists kicked out the group because they considered it too radical. With it went a good many regular Socialists. The group then adopted its present name, the Socialist Workers Party [SWP].

The Trotskyists and the Stalinists have been calling each other reptiles, jackals, and general no-goods for so many years in their papers, magazines, and speeches that when the Soviet-Nazi [Molotov-Ribbentrop] pact was signed a couple of months ago I supposed the Socialist Workers, pleased at the discomfiture of the American communists, would be going around with broad grins and a great I-told-you-so air. To check up on this and find out about the party in general, I got in touch with a college classmate of mine who is now a leading Socialist Worker intellectual and a regular contributor to the Socialist Appeal and the New International, respectively the Socialist Workers’ semi-weekly newspaper and monthly magazine. To help me gain the proper perspective, he took me to the party’s headquarters at Thirteenth Street and University Place, the street entrance to which is marked by a discreet sign reading, “Labor bookshop. Books of all publishers. Second floor.” We walked up a rickety flight of wooden stairs and entered a room containing a couple of bare wooden tables, two or three chairs, and seven or eight young men, one of them a Negro, who were arguing violently whether Russia should be regarded as a communist or a fascist country.

My companion disappeared into an adjoining office to arrange for me to meet Mr. Shachtman, and I studied various printed slogans hanging on the walls of the room, among them “The time to apply our action program is now!”, “Every class struggle fighter a two-a-week subscriber!”, “Open the doors to Nazi victims,” and “There is work to be done!” In one corner of the room hung an oil painting showing Trotsky, Lenin, and several other people, with the phrase “Workers of the world, unite!” lettered on the top. While I was looking around, the loud conversation in the room ceased and everyone began to stare at me. A clean-cut young man in a brown tweed suit came up and asked me whom I was looking for, but before I could reply, my guide came out with Shachtman, a shortish, snub-nosed man of thirty-five with a tiny mustache and an air of great jollity. I was struck by his resemblance to one of the figures in the painting, and he informed me that it did indeed represent him and that the picture was the work of Diego Rivera, who had given it to the Party in 1933, when he came here to do the Rockefeller Center mural that was subsequently destroyed. In addition to Trotsky, Lenin, and himself, Shachtman pointed out likenesses of Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, James P. Cannon, and two or three other people whose names I didn’t catch. I gathered that these persons hadn’t posed together and that the picture was a symbolic one.

We went into another room, which was decorated with a second sign saying “There is work to be done!” and a painting by Rivera, depicting Lenin, Trotsky, and six or seven other people. Shachtman pointed to one of them and said, “That’s the man who took the Winter Palace in 1917.” I found out later that Rivera had, in 1933, been considerably more generous to the Lovestonites than to the Trotskyists, having presented them with twenty-one large murals, most of which portray the history of the United States in a way that would never help anyone pass an examination at Groton. These are located at the Lovestonite headquarters on West Fourteenth Street. Rivera must have been above small Leftist differences, for one of his paintings there shows, among others, Stalin, Trotsky, Lovestone, Cannon, and William Z. Foster. Foster, with Earl Browder, assumed the leadership of the American Communist Party after Lovestone was expelled.

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