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Trotsky’s Italian connection: Gramsci or Bordiga?

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Since the rediscovery of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks after World War II, there have been a number of attempts to adapt their heavily-coded theoretical content to various political projects. Particularly during the period of the New Left, Gramsci was interpreted and reinterpreted ad nauseam. Gradualists of a social-democratic stripe tried to fit the (allegedly anti-Leninist) “war of position” to their own frameworks. Figures like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deploy the ubiquitous Gramscian buzzword of “hegemony” for their postmodernist, post-Marxist populism. Finally, theorists such as Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Peter D. Thomas have sought to reconcile Gramsci with a more classically Leninist program in light of critiques by Louis Althusser in France and Perry Anderson in England.

Gramsci = Trotsky?

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Trotskyists during the 1960s down to the present have followed suit. Even the Spartacist League, known for their strict orthodoxy, nodded approvingly toward a document by Cliff Slaughter from 1960 in which he relied heavily on Gramsci’s The Modern Prince. Just how compatible are Trotsky’s politics with those of Gramsci, though? Certainly during their political careers, they found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum within international communism. Not only did Gramsci support Trotsky’s expulsion from the Russian party in 1925 and 1926, but he continued to lambaste Bronshtein during the period of his imprisonment. Paolo Casciola, an Italian Trotskyist, explains the continued differences between Gramsci and Trotsky from 1926 up through the 1930s in his rebuttal to the “turncoat” Alfonso Leonetti:

Gramsci or Trotsky?

[I]t would be useful to pause for a while on the fable of the “identity of views” between Trotsky and Gramsci. Such a fable is based on the fact that Gramsci “broke” with Stalinism during his prison years, after the “turn of 1930″ — a turn which Leonetti had continuously championed. This is a question with which we shall deal in future. What we want to emphasize here is that Leonetti used such an ostensible “identity” as a voucher to justify politically his adherence to Gramscism and Togliattism. It was a rather dubious historico-political operation which was made easier by the cooperation of a series of “Trotskyist” intellectuals and unscrupulous “historians of the workers’ movement.” As a matter of fact, Gramsci’s “moral break” with Stalinism was only a temporary disagreement with the “Third Period” policy, and he was reabsorbed after the Popular Front counter-turn of 1935. If this be the case, then certain things said in the article which Tresso wrote after Gramsci’s death seem somewhat rash. But whereas Tresso could not know anything about Gramsci’s evolution during the 11 years of his imprisonment, Leonetti was able to read several testimonies on that period. But he used them in his own unfortunate way.

To Leonetti, the “identity of views” of Gramsci and Trotsky lies above all in their ostensibly identical assessment of the “period of transition” from Fascism to Communism, as well as in the fact that they both raised the slogan of a constituent assembly for Italy. But this is a superficial and utterly false equation. As a matter of fact, whereas Trotsky emphasized that the “democratic transition” was only one possible variant of the post-Fascist development — linked to and dependent upon the revolutionary awakening of the working class — Gramsci saw such an event as “the most likely one,” and, on this basis, put forward the slogan of a constituent assembly within the framework of a gradualist, Menshevik, Popular Front perspective. It is not by chance that, a few days before his death, Gramsci let the PCd’I know that “the Popular Front in Italy is the constituent assembly.” The Stalinist continuity between Gramsci and Togliatti was thus re-established, after the interlude of the “Third Period.” On the other hand, the lack of identity between the views of Trotsky and Gramsci is shown by several other bits of evidence. According to the testimony of Bruno Tosin, whilst opposing the “turn of 1930″ not only did Gramsci hold that the party had been right to expel the Trotskyist oppositionists, but in his Prison Notebooks he criticizes Trotsky every time he mentions him, ever inclined to legitimize the continuity from Lenin to Stalin.

I don’t irrationally hate Gramsci. For the most part I prefer his “liberal” Marxist phase from 1916-1920, when he was closer to Gobetti, and then his early Leninism in alliance with Bordiga. After 1923, Gramsci basically took his orders from Moscow, following all the zigzags coming out of the Kremlin. Had he not been imprisoned, I suspect he would have eventually become a more theoretically sophisticated version of Togliatti. Some of his historical and philosophical reflections are interesting, but politically he’s the pits.

Personally, it’s my opinion that the effort to sanitize Gramsci’s Dmitrovian popfrontism, in order to render them compatible with Trotsky’s views, owes to the intellectual celebrity of the former after World War II. And this celebrity is in turn largely a product of the PCI’s nonstop promotion of Gramsci since 1945. The definitive study of this historiographical shift is John Chiaradia’s “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci.” Chiaradia contends that many of the same tactics that were used to oust Trotsky from the Russian party were used to oust Bordiga from the Italian party.

This seems to be borne out by the documentary evidence. If you read anything written by communists about the Italian party before 1945, Gramsci’s name barely even appears. By contrast, Bordiga’s name appears repeatedly. In Franz Borkenau’s World Communism, Trotsky’s writings, Arthur Rosenberg’s books, Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Ignazio Silone’s section of The God that Failed, Bordiga is mentioned over and over. Like I said, after WWII he was mostly just known as Gramsci’s justly vanquished opponent.

Trotsky on Bordiga

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In all his published works and correspondence, the only reference Trotsky made to Gramsci came in Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight it, published in 1931. He explained that Italian comrades informed him that “with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party would not even allow for the possibility of the fascists’ seizing power.” Appreciative enough, I suppose. The source of this information, the “Italian comrades” to which Trotsky alluded, can be easily guessed, however. Leonetti, the erstwhile Left Oppositionist who later defected to Stalinism — dealt with above by Casciola — corresponded with Bronshtein about Italian fascism frequently during those years. He remained a loyal Gramscian throughout every phase of his career, and was one of the few prior to 1945 who recalled Gramsci’s name. Deeply resentful toward Bordiga, Leonetti even wrote an article trying to convince Trotsky that the source of Stalin’s Third Period doctrine of “social fascism” was the communist left. From the reply Trotsky sent to Souzo (pen name of Leonetti), it would seem the former was briefly swayed:

February 14, 1932

Dear Comrade Souzo:

I have received your article on the Bordigists, which I find very good and extremely useful, especially the paragraph that shows Bordiga to be the father of the theory of social fascism.

Apart from this, Trotsky was overwhelmingly positive regarding Bordiga’s role within the Italian party. In 1929, he wrote a letter to the editorial board of the journal Prometeo, in which he praised “the living, muscular, and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” He underscored his longstanding respect for and personal acquaintance with the man who had inspired their movement: “I have become acquainted with the pamphlet ‘Platform of the Left,’ which you issued back in 1926 but which has only just now reached me. Similarly, I have read the letter you addressed to me in issue number 20 of Prometeo and some of the leading articles in your paper, which enabled me to renew, after a long interruption, my fairly good knowledge of the Italian language. These documents, along with my acquaintance with the articles and speeches of Comrade Bordiga — not to mention my personal acquaintance with him — permit me to judge to a certain extent your basic views as well as the degree of agreement there is between us.” Continue reading

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The works of Leon Trotsky

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This post has been a long time coming. Not only because it’s taken time to track down and convert some of these massive files into manageable sizes, though that also. Rather, it is more that I’ve been busy reassessing my own relationship to Trotsky’s works. Some reflections on his career, in thought and in deed, follow the documents posted below. For now, here are all fourteen volumes of his Writings during his last exile, from 1929 to 1940, along with his three-volume History of the Russian Revolution, his biographical works (his autobiography, biography of Lenin, and incomplete biography of Stalin), along with some of his earlier works (Results and Prospects, Terrorism and CommunismAn Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed, Exhausted Peoples of Europe, The Permanent Revolution, Problems of Everyday Life, Literature and Revolution, and Lessons of October).

Assorted Writings
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  1. Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution (1920) and Results and Prospects (1906)
  2. Leon Trotsky, An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed, and Exhausted Peoples of Europe (1915)
  3. Leon Trotsky, Dictatorship vs. Democracy: A reply to Karl Kautsky on Terrorism and Communism (1919)
  4. Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life: Creating the Foundations for a New Society in Revolutionary Russia (1922)
  5. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1923)
  6. Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October (1924)
  7. Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (1928)
  8. Leon Trotsky, My Life (1928)
  9. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (1933)
  10. Leon Trotsky, Writings on Literature and Art (1905-1940)
  11. Leon Trotsky, Diary in Exile, 1935
  12. Leon Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence (1940)

History of the Russian Revolution
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  1. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 1: The Overthrow of Tsarism
  2. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 2: Attempt at Counterrevolution
  3. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3: The Triumph of the Soviets

Writings, 1929-1940
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  1. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1929
  2. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1930
  3. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1930-1931
  4. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1932
  5. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1932-1933
  6. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1933-1934
  7. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1934-1935
  8. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1935-1936
  9. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1936-1937
  10. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1937-1938
  11. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1938-1939
  12. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1939-1940
  13. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, Supplement (1929-1933)
  14. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, Supplement (1934-1940)

Enjoy. If you like this post and are looking for some other free downloads, check out my past entries dedicated to the works of Marx and Engels as well as those of Roland Barthes.

Leon Trotsky drawing

My reevaluation of the legacy of Leon Trotsky is largely due to my belated exposure to the left communist tradition. Or, more specifically, the writings of the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga. To be more specific still, Bordiga’s early writings — from 1919 to 1926 — have left a deep impression on me. As will become clear, I’d hardly endorse his entire corpus. Particularly his later stuff tends to be more hit or miss, though there’s still quite a bit to be learned from his undying (invariant) Bolshevism. His article “Against Activism” is an instant classic, and his longer essay on “The Factors of Race and Nation in Marxist Theory” is epic as well.

Council communism is a tradition I’m decidedly less keen upon. Early on, in the 1920s, when the Dutch councilists Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek hadn’t yet completely forsaken the role of the party, there was perhaps a little more substance to their arguments. Later, when Otto Rühle and Paul Mattick took up the mantle of council communism, their politics tended to devolve into empty moralizing and a quasi-religious faith in the spontaneity of the masses. Nevertheless, Mattick’s various articles on economic theory and his critique of nationalism are excellent. They almost cannot be recommended highly enough. Karl Korsch intersects with this milieu in his flight from Leninism, but only to his detriment.

One final factor has been decisive in this process of reevaluation: the critical and theoretical edifice left by Korsch, Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt School (Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm). Unlike Bordigism or council communism, I have been thoroughly acquainted with this body of literature for some time now. It has informed my own writings and opinions since college. Still, in reviewing Trotsky’s writings I have focused a bit more on the orientation of these figures vis-à-vis Trotsky and Trotskyism.

With respect to Trotskyism, the innumerable tendencies that lay claim to the theoretical and practical lineage of Bronshtein himself, I am much less enthusiastic. Like his famous biographer, Isaac Deutscher, I even find the founding of the Fourth International somewhat perplexing. Understandable, perhaps, in that his friends in the Left Opposition abroad were defecting, or else being tortured and shot, but perplexing nevertheless. It was a non-starter from the word “go.” Trotsky still put out some great essays and texts during this period, and some of his squabbles with Shachtman, Eastman, Burnham, and Rivera are entertaining, if not all that enlightening. Cannon was certainly a great organizer, but was a piss-poor theorist. Only orthodox Trotskyism has anything redeeming to say after the 1950s and 1960s, especially James Robertson and the Sparts. Today, I suppose I retain some respect for Alan Wood of the IMT, ignoring his Bolivarian boosterism, the Spart-lite star-brights in the IBT, and the polemical pricks in the League for the Revolutionary Party. But that’s it.

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The International Socialist Organization is a hodgepodge of brainless Cliffite heterodoxy, academic jargon (mostly in and through their publishing house, Haymarket Books), and the latest in trendy activism (intersectionality, “x lives matter” hashtags, and so on). I’d almost say they’re unworthy of the name. Anyone who is interested in Trot genealogies, check out this. The author is a social democrat, basically, but his sprglord game is tight and so he can be relied upon for encyclopedic information.

Robert Alexander, International Trotskyism, 1929-1985: A Documentary Analysis of the Movement (1990)

In a series of upcoming posts, I will try to briefly summarize my thoughts regarding each of these camps or schools. Spoiler alert: Trotsky belongs to a bygone era of revolutionary politics. A gulf divides his work from the present. Even within his own epoch, some of his positions seem to have been ill-advised. But perhaps this is the wisdom of retrospect, as the line he took on anti-imperialist “national liberation” was made in the context of approaching war (on the eve of each world war). The “united front” tactic is not as universally applicable as Trotskyists would like to believe; nor is it as universally inapplicable as Bordigists believes. Nevertheless, in every instance, Trotsky the man is far more salvageable than contemporary Trotskyism.

P.S. — I am of course fully aware that the headpiece used for this post is a malicious representation of Trotsky, taken from a Polish anti-bolshevik propaganda poster from 1919. Nevertheless, I have decided to keep it, because it is fucking metal.

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Walter Gropius, Monument to the March Dead (1922)

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Between 1920 and 1922 a monument in honor of the workers who lost their lives during the Kapp Putsch was erected in the Weimar central cemetery. It was commissioned by the Union Cartel of Weimar and built according to plans submitted to a competition by the architectural office of Walter Gropius. Although Gropius maintained that the Bauhaus should remain politically neutral, he ultimately agreed to participate in the competition staged among Weimar artists at the end of 1920. The monument was arranged around an inner space, in which visitors could stand, the repeatedly fractured and highly angular memorial rose up on three sides as if thrust up from or rammed into the earth.

In February 1936, the Nazis destroyed the monument due to its political overtones, and considered its design to fall under the category of degenerate art. Underneath the images posted immediately below, you can read an account of the event written by the German left communist Arthur Rosenberg.

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The Kapp Putsch

Arthur Rosenberg
History of the German
Republic (1936)
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On 14 June 1919, Wissell, then Reich Minister for Economy, said at the Socialist Party meeting in Weimar:

Despite the revolution, the nation feels that its hopes have been disappointed. Those things which the people expected of the government have not come to pass. We have further consolidated political democracy in a formal sense; true. But we have not yet done anything but carry on the program which had already been begun by the Imperial German government of Prince Max of Baden. The constitution has been prepared without any real and active participation on the part of the people. We have not been able to satisfy the dull resentment with which the masses are imbued because we have had no real program.

Essentially we have governed according to the old forms of our state life. We have only succeeded in breathing very little fresh life into these forms. We have not been able so to influence the revolution that Germany seemed filled with a new spirit. The inner structure of German civilization, of social life, appears little altered. And even so, not for the better. The nation believes that the achievements of the revolution are simply negative in character, that in place of one form of military and bureaucratic government by individuals another has been introduced, and that the principles of government do not differ essentially from those of the old regime… I believe that the verdict of history upon both the National Assembly and ourselves will be severe and bitter.

It must be admitted that Wissell saw very clearly the state of affairs in Germany at that time. In every way the minutes of this first party meeting held by the Majority Socialists after the revolution is a document as affecting as it is instructive. On the one side stood the opposition minority, among whom Wissell must actually be reckoned, which recognized the fatal nature of the path that the German Revolution was treading. On the other side was the majority, which was grouped about the party leaders and the government, and which strove convulsively after optimism. The motions put forward by the opposition organizations show the temper then prevailing among millions of workmen. The motions demanded over and over again that efforts should be made to restore peace with the USPD, even if discredited leaders had to be sacrificed. The Münster organization demanded: “The Reichswehr Minister Noske shall be expelled from the party.” Frankfurt-on-the-Main demanded:

The Social Democratic group in the Constituent National Assembly shall be ordered to do all in its power to ensure the rapid disbanding of the volunteer corps and the formation of a national defense upon democratic foundations.

Hamburg said:

The meeting of the delegates of the Social Democratic Party of Hamburg regards the volunteer army as constituting a serious danger to the achievements of the revolution. Its delegates to the party meeting are therefore under the obligation to demand the creation of a national army according to the provisions of the Erfurt Program.

Other motions advocated the councils, nationalization, the democratization of the administration, the abolition of the old bureaucracy. To these were added the wails of delegates from rural districts, who felt that they had been abandoned, and complained that since the lapse of the workers’ councils they had been delivered over to the old powers again. The majority at the party meeting undoubtedly felt equally strongly the grievances that were raised. But in view of the course hitherto taken by the revolution they saw no way out and voted down the opposition’s motions.

kapp-putsch-germany-march-1920-chaos-first-world-war-instablity Kapp-Putsch_Marine-Brigade_Erhardt Kapp-Putsch, Posten am Spittelmarkt, Berlin

The exodus of the workmen from the SPD to the USPD became increasingly rapid. And the embitterment of the radical masses was greatly increased by the sanguinary events that took place in Berlin on 13 January 1920. The Reichstag was at that time discussing a government measure for the establishment of industrial councils. Its purpose was to confine the activity of these councils essentially to the sphere of social welfare. The opposition among the working classes regarded the proposed law as inadequate. The USPD organized a mass demonstration in front of the Reichstag, against the government bill and in favor of wider powers for the councils. The Communists joined in the demonstration. The demonstrators were perfectly peaceful. Nobody had any idea of storming the Reichstag, or of attempting a coup. Various working-class leaders made speeches to the assembled masses in front of the Reichstag. The technical mistake was indeed made of keeping the masses assembled before the Reichstag for too long a time. Slight brushes occurred between the workmen and the police who had been called up in case of emergency. At length the police came to the conclusion that there was reason to fear an attack upon the Reichstag, and machine-guns were turned on the unarmed demonstrators. The crowd was dispersed. Forty-two workmen were killed. The political responsibility for the attitude of the police on 13 January was borne by the Prussian Minister for the Interior, Wolfgang Heine.

At the very time when the SPD was losing a large part of its adherents, the great majority of the middle classes openly turned against the republic. The urban and rural middle classes had been perfectly prepared after 9 November to accept the new order, and to cooperate in building up the republic on democratic lines. Out of consideration for the middle classes the government had believed it necessary to proceed with the utmost caution. Yet it was the hesitancy of the republican leaders that alienated the middle classes. If great and decisive action had been taken, such as, for example, the expropriation of great landowners and the nationalization of mines, and if the government had shown the people that a new era had really dawned, then the government would also have carried the middle classes along with it. Since, however, everything was obviously going to remain unchanged, enthusiasm for the revolution evaporated and the republic and democracy were blamed for all the trials of daily life. Continue reading

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Nikolai Bukharin on the criterion of practice in epistemology

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Below appears an excellent chapter from Nikolai Bukharin’s book, unpublished in his lifetime, Philosophical Arabesques (1937-1938). The whole collection is really quite good, but this portion on epistemology is particularly superlative. Lately I’ve been reading up on Marxism and the problem of truth: the way it involves the relation of subject to object, as well as theory to practice. I have to admit, Bukharin’s competence in treating difficult questions of philosophy surprised me a little. Not just because I’d read his short 1921 textbook on Historical Materialism — which, while insightful at times, is on the whole very mediocre — but because of Lenin’s low estimation of Bukharin as a philosopher. Shortly before his death, the Bolshevik leader recorded in his “Testament” that

Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party. His theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, however, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics and, I think, never fully understood it).

Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, whose studies of the philosophical legacy in Marx’s thought remain unparalleled, took Bukharin to task for this theoretical deficit. “For one faction (typified by Bukharin’s book The Theory of Historical Materialism),” wrote the former, “the whole of ‘philosophy’ has fundamentally already reached a point that in reality it was to reach only in the second phase of Communist society after the full victory of the pro­letarian revolution, viz. the transcended standpoint of an unenlightened past.” Lukács wrote that “Bukharin attributes to technology a far too determinant position, which completely misses the spirit of dialectical materialism.”

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At first, Bukharin sided with the “mechanist” faction of communist interpreters of Marx. Other notable adherents included Abram Deborin and László Rudas, bêtes noires of both Korsch and Lukács, who admonished them for their Hegelianism. This sensibility was rather in line with Bukharin’s training as an economist and his enthusiasm for the natural sciences. During the 1930s, though, he made a renewed study of German classical philosophy. Following his imprisonment in 1937 at the hand of his onetime ally Stalin, Bukharin finally got around to writing a treatise on philosophy. He was adamant that it be published, whatever his fate:

The most important thing is that the philosophical work not be lost. I worked on it for a long time and put a great deal into it; it is a very mature work in comparison to my earlier writings, and, in contrast to them, dialectical from beginning to end.

Unsurprisingly, his wishes were not honored. These manuscripts only surfaced after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. You can download the translation by clicking on the link above or read the chapter on practice below the photographs underneath. Additional works by Bukharin are available here as well:

Practice in general and the place of practice in the theory of knowledge

Nikolai Bukharin
Philosophical Arabesques
September 1937
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Earlier, we dealt with the naïve claim of the agnostics to be reasoning on the basis of their sense perceptions alone, and thus to be able to demonstrate the unreality or incognizability of the external world.

This claim proved to be baseless and comic. From this we may conclude that any philosophical reasoning, since it operates with concepts, which are a social product, the product of thousands of years of mental work, must because of this very fact operate on the broad basis of all the achievements of science, leaving behind all the fuss and bother of foolish subjectivists.

Science, however, tells us that in historical terms, the starting point was the active, practical relationship between humanity and nature. Not contemplation, and not theory, but practice; not passive perception, but action. In this sense Goethe’s dictum “In the beginning was the deed,” when counterposed to the evangelical-Platonic-Gnostic dictum “In the beginning was the word” — that is, logos, or reason — furnishes us with a precise expression of historical reality. Marx noted this repeatedly: in his notes on the book by Adolf Wagner, in which he heaps scorn on the closeted professorial view according to which objects are passively “given” to humanity; in his Holy Family; in his Theses on Feuerbach; throughout the whole text of Capital; and together with Engels, in the brilliant pages of The German Ideology.

Contrary to the ravings of idealist philosophy to the effect that thought makes worlds, and that even matter is the creation of spirit (for example, the world-positing “I” of Fichte), it is human practice that creates a new world, actually transforming the “substance of nature” in line with human wishes. Historically, it was social humanity, the social-historical human being, and not an abstraction of the intellectual side of humanity, personified by philosophers as the subject, that above all produced, ate, and drank. It was only later, through the division of labor, that theoretical activity became separated off and isolated as an independent (or relatively independent) function, becoming restricted to particular categories of people, “mental workers,” with the various social and class modifications of this category. Theoretical cognition arose out of practice as well. The active, practical relationship to the external world, the process of material production, which, as Marx put it, conditions the “exchange of substances” between humanity and nature, is the basis for the reproduction of the entire life of social humanity. The chattering of the high priests of the so-called philosophy of life [Lebensphilosophie], including Nietzsche and a series of present-day biological-mystical hysterics, bypasses this fundamental fact, just as numerous representatives of classical idealist philosophy also bypassed it. Of course! After all, from the point of view of Kant the simple acts of sawing wood, smelting iron, or making liquid oxygen constitute a breakthrough into the “transcendental,” that fearful transgression which is “impossible”! What a mess the “practical” bull creates in this china shop full of unknowably subtle statuettes!

In fairness to Hegel, that “colossal old fellow,” as Engels affectionately called him, it should be acknowledged that although Marx and Engels had to wage a desperate, impassioned, and ultimately victorious struggle against the “drunken speculation” of Hegelian idealism, Hegel did have an understanding of practice, of labor and its tools. Moreover, the embryo of historical materialism, in the form of brilliant conceptions, was present in his works. We shall have cause to be convinced of this subsequently… Continue reading

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Frankenpolitics: The Left defence of GMOs

Ross Wolfe:

A worthwhile post, as usual, from Leigh Phillips.

Originally posted on LEIGH PHILLIPS:

Some background: Last September, Red Pepper, a progressive UK magazine, published a brief article,  “Silenced GM scientist speaks out against biotech coercion“, on its website about Gilles-Eric Seralini, the French molecular biologist sharply criticised by the scientific community for his infamous and headline-grabbing GMO-rat-tumour study, and promoting his British speaking tour. I’ve written for the magazine for many years and was furious that this discredited quack was being taken seriously by my colleagues. An extended email to the editors explaining the problems of the left-anti-GM position evolved into an essay for an upcoming print edition, which then turned into a multi-page debate between me and my friend Emma Hughes, a campaigner with the (really great) London-based environmental group Platform and who is also an opponent of genetic modification. 

The print edition has finally come out, but due to understandable space constraints, the full essay had to be condensed.

View original 4,757 more words

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Cartoon commies

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For as long as there have been communists, so also have there been cartoonists. At times, cartoonists and communists have been one and the same. The young Friedrich Engels observed this in a letter written to his friend Karl Marx in October 1844:

I have been in Elberfeld, where I once again came across several communists I had never heard of before. Turn where you will, go where you may, you’ll stumble on a communist. A very impassioned communist, a cartoonist, and aspiring historical painter by the name of Seel will be going to Paris in two months’ time. I’ll direct him to you…[H]e may very well come in useful as a cartoonist.

Engels was something of a cartoonist himself. His caricatures of the Young Hegelians in »Die Berliner Freien« and of the anarchist Max Stirner have been reproduced down to the present. On the back of E. Voswinkel’s letter to Marx from January 1849, Engels drew a cartoon of Frederick William IV and the Prussian bourgeoisie apropos the elections to the Prussian Diet. Marx tried to get it published in the Brüsseler-Zeitung.

Engels' caricature of "The Free," the Berlin group of Young Hegelians (Words in the drawing, Ruge, Buhl, Nauwerck, Bauer, Wigand, Edgar [Bauer], Stirner, Meyen, stranger, Koppen the Lieutenant. The squirrel is the Prussian Minister Eichhorn

Lenin appreciated the odd cartoon here and there as well. Yelena Stasova sent him a cartoon in honor of his fiftieth birthday, which depicted the Marxists as children who came to congratulate the Narodnik Mikhailovsky on his fiftieth birthday in 1900. Stasova wrote that at the time of Mikhailovsky’s birthday the RSDLP had been in its childhood, whereas it had since matured. “This is the result of your work, your mind and talent,” she explained.

Upon receiving it, the Bolshevik leader decided to share it with his fellow celebrants and guests:

Comrades, I must naturally begin by thanking you for two things: firstly, for the congratulations addressed to me today, and secondly, even more for having spared me congratulatory speeches (Applause.) I think that perhaps in this way we may gradually, not all at once, of course, devise a more suitable method of celebrating anniversaries than the one hitherto in vogue, which has sometimes formed the subject of remarkably good cartoons. Here is one such cartoon drawn by a prominent artist in celebration of such a jubilee. I received it today with an extremely cordial letter. And as the comrades have been kind enough to spare me congratulatory speeches, I will hand this cartoon round for all to see, so as to save us in future from such jubilee celebrations altogether.

Nikolai Bukharin — the party’s favorite, and its leading economist — was also a quite talented caricaturist. Zinoviev, Lenin, and Dzerzhinsky all show up in his sketches. Bukharin made a few drawings of Stalin, the man who would later send him to be executed, during their brief alliance in the 1920s. Krzhizhanovsky and Mezhiauk contribute a few doodles as well. Have a look.

Cartoons are primarily illustrative. That is to say, they convey their meaning by means of pictures and not words. But text often accompanies cartoons and comic strips, either as a description of that which is depicted or as dialogue (the speech bubble between characters or the thought bubble for internal monologue). Continue reading

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Wages for masturbation? Burning questions of our movement

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Owen Jones, ageless boy wonder of the British Left, has apparently upset some of his more matronly fans. Seems he wasn’t sufficiently scandalized by revelations that Labour MP Simon Danczuk from Rochdale beats off at work. “Who cares?” asked Jones in The Guardian, as if shrugging his shoulders. “Danczuk is a human being with flaws. For me, it’s the political flaws that matter.”

Socialist Wanker

Not everyone is taking this matter so lightly, of course, as our preceding remarks suggest. EP from the matfem (maternal feminist, not materialist feminist) blog All Mothers Work scolds Jones for laughing this off:

Too many men, like Owen Jones, seem to think that men have a right to do whatever they want sexually, at any time, in any situation. His attitude throughout his piece is tiresomely familiar; a pathetically schoolboyish sneer at deluded prudes who clutch their pearls at the thought of a bit of wanking. Let’s cut the bullshit: anybody who thinks it is acceptable to masturbate at work is not fit to be in decent society and needs therapeutic help.

What might such sentiments mean for the international proletariat, however? Can the toiling masses not demand “the right to jerk”? Need we remind you that Marx’s Das Fapital is the Bible of the wanking class? Didn’t Lukács write something about the simultaneous autoerotic subject-object of History?

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Luckily, the good folks over at Left Unity in Britain were pondering these questions just the other day. Comrade Coates mentioned it in passing in a post entitled “Wanking while you work: Debate shakes Left Unity, but we have the whole unexpurgated version for you here to enjoy. It’s a bit long, so we’ll break it up and intersperse commentary throughout.

Left Unity right to masturbate at work thread, part 1

Ugh.

Bet you hadn’t considered the dilemma faced by “professional sperm donors.” Personally, I would have never thought of that. The commenter Colin Chambers is right to bring up the decision in Brazil, though. It’s very relevant.

According to the popular mental health magazine Uncovered, a Brazilian woman recently won a landmark case. Charlotte Fantanelli reports that the court found in favor of Ana Catarian Bezerra, a 36-year-old accountant suffering from a severe chemical imbalance. Her condition requires that she masturbate up to forty-seven times per day, though meds have brought that number down to as low as eighteen. Under the new ruling, Ms. Bezerra will be allowed to watch pornography and periodically pleasure herself while at work. It is unclear whether or not she will remain on the clock during such times.

Obviously, this could have major economic repercussions should other countries and their legal and judicial systems follow suit. Fantanelli spells out its radical implications: “The need to orgasm [is now] recognized by law.”

Who’s to say that masturbation is unproductive labor, either? It’s perfectly legitimate for wankers to demand wage compensation for their self-gratification. PornHub just released its new Wankband last month, which recharges your phone using repeated movement of the wrist. Half the world’s energy problems could be solved right there.

Enough idle speculation, though. Back to the sexperts in the public Left Unity thread. Continue reading

Roland Barthes 0001

The Marxism of Roland Barthes

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Here are a number of books I’ve found across the web by the French semiologist and literary critic Roland Barthes, all of them downloadable as PDFs:

  1. Writing Degree Zero (1953)
  2. Michelet (1954)
  3. Mythologies (1957)
  4. “Seven Photo Models of Mother Courage” (1958)
  5. Elements of Semiology (1964)
  6. Critical Essays (1964)
  7. Criticism and Truth (1966)
  8. “An Introduction to the Structuralist Analysis of Narrative” (1966)
  9. The Fashion System (1967)
  10. Semiology and Urbanism (1967)
  11. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews, 1962-1980 (1980)
  12. Empire of Signs (1970)
  13. Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971)
  14. S/Z (1973)
  15. Roland Barthes (1974)
  16. Image Music Text (1977)
  17. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977)
  18. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980)
  19. The Rustle of Language (posthumously published in 1984)
  20. The Language of Fashion (compiled posthumously from Œuvres complètes 1993, 1994, 1995)

Below I have composed a brief sketch of Barthes’ early political leanings, broken into three parts and interspersed with snippets from his biography and articles he wrote.

Part 1

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Roland Barthes’ Marxism tends to get downplayed, especially in light of his post-1968 “turn” toward deconstruction. When he was still a structuralist, however, this dimension of his thinking could scarcely be ignored. Barthes’ structuralism was of a different sort than that of Louis Althusser, or even Claude Lévi-Strauss, who declined to oversee his thesis in the 1950s. His version was sensitive to historical change, despite Saussure’s methodological synchrony. As he put it in “The Structuralist Activity”:

Structuralism does not withdraw history from the world: it seeks to link to history not only certain contents (this has been done a thousand times) but also certain forms, not only the material but also the intelligible, not only the ideological but also the aesthetic. And precisely because all thought about the historically intelligible is also a participation in that intelligibility, structural man is scarcely concerned to last; he knows that structuralism, too, is a certain form of the world, which will change with the world.

It is significant that Barthes’ entry into Marxist political discourse came through his contact with a young Trotskyist named Georges Fournié. French Marxism since the 1920s had been dominated by the Stalinist PCF, with all competing tendencies deemed “dissident.” All this occurred while the two roomed together at a Swiss sanatorium, recovering from tuberculosis.

Thus the literary theorist Martin McQuillan remarks: “Like Lenin, [Barthes] learned his future Marxism in the quiet cantons of Switzerland” (Roland Barthes, Or the Profession of Cultural Studies, pg. 24). McQuillan’s a bit inaccurate here, as Lenin was already a convinced Marxist before ever staying in Switzerland. But he certainly honed his Marxism there, and so the error is a slight one.

Louis-Jean Calvet, Barthes’ biographer, relates the story of Barthes and Fournié’s friendship below.

jacques_livet_1938

Switzerland and Marxism

Louis-Jean Calvet
Roland Barthes: A
Biography
(1990)
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[Georges Fournié] was three years younger than Barthes, and his social background and subsequent life had been completely different from his. An orphan, Fournié had to earn his own living from the age of twelve or thirteen. He had also taken evening classes and eventually become a proofreader. At the age of seventeen, with the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, he joined the republicans and had fought with the POUM on the Aragonese front, where he had been injured. He had then returned to Paris, where he met his future wife Jacqueline and worked with militant anti-fascist groups. Through such groups he had met David Rousset and Maurice Nadeau.

Fournié had been a Trotskyist, an anti-fascist, and a member of the Resistance. His code name in the Resistance had been “Philippe” and his friends continued to call him this after the war. On 19 December 1943 he had been arrested by the Gestapo along with Rousset and other comrades and imprisoned at Fresnes and Campiègne before being deported to Buchenwald. Finally, he had been transferred to Porta Westfalica, a concentration camp near Hanover. For a year and a half his wife had no news of him and it was only in the spring of 1945 that he returned, on a stretcher, exhausted and suffering from tuberculosis. At Bichat hospital he was given a pneumothorax and sent to Leysin. His wife tried to make arrangements to rejoin him there. In October he met Roland Barthes.

However different their backgrounds and temperaments, both men had in common their aloofness from the general atmosphere of the place. Roland, at thirty, was a somewhat distant intellectual, while Georges had survived both the Spanish civil war and deportation. Both men were more mature than the average patient at Leysin. Neither of them liked the adolescent antics and barrack-room humor, which were supposed to take one’s mind off the illness and constant threat of death. In the canteen, where the atmosphere was rather childish (glasses of water and spoonfuls of mashed potato were frequently thrown across the room), both men kept very much to themselves.

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After several attempts, Jacqueline Fournié had finally found work in a luxury sanatorium for rich tuberculosis patients, The Belvédère, which is now a Club Méditerranée hotel. She visited her husband every evening and ate with him in the canteen every Sunday. She remembers Barthes as being extremely reserved in the expression of his thoughts and feelings. The only indication of how he felt was the expression in his eyes or the movement of his lips, and his somewhat mocking sense of irony. He never really laughed out loud, totally uninhibitedly, as if it would be indecent to let himself go. He seemed to be someone without strong passions, always self-controlled, completely a creature of nuance. In this he was the complete opposite of Fournié, who was about to initiate him into the previously unknown universe of Marxist theory and the reality of class struggle.

The two would talk together for hours. Barthes discussed theater, literature, and of course Michelet. Fournié talked about Marx, Trotsky, and Spain. They had mutual admiration for each other, and each taught the other things which had previously been foreign to them. Barthes was extremely lucky that at a time when initiation into Marxism usually came through the Communist party — and more often than not required unconditional support for the political positions of the Soviet Union — Fournié’s Marxism was Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist, and non-dogmatic. [Roland Barthes: A Biography, pgs. 62-64]

Part 2

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Later, when Barthes moved to Paris and began engaging the intellectual scene there, he reaffirmed his Marxian convictions, this time with reference to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. “Barthes was bound to find such an atmosphere exciting, since he considered himself both a Sartrean and a Marxist. He decided then that his project was to combine these two philosophies in his approach to literature: to develop a ‘committed’ literature, and to justify Sartre in Marxist terms” (Roland Barthes: A Biography, pg. 74).

Apart from Sartre, the other major literary figure bridging the gap between Barthes’ object of critique and Marxism was Bertolt Brecht. “Near the end of May 1954, [Barthes and his friend Bernard Dort] saw the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage at the Paris international festival. It was a revelation to Barthes, who with astonishing speed came up with the following phrase to describe its impact: ‘Brecht is a Marxist who has thought about the sign,’ a phrase he was to use many times. As far as the two friends were concerned, Brecht provided Marxism with the aesthetics it lacked” (Roland Barthes: A Biography, pg. 111). Continue reading

Strike Breakers (Company Violence) - Morris Topchevsky. Oil on canvas. 1937a

No scabs

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In the history of modern class struggle, those who cross picket lines to fill jobs temporarily vacated by workers on strike are known as “scabs.” Scabs are thus low-cost replacement workers, whose willingness to work for less allows employers to starve out the more organized regular workforce. They are therefore looked down upon, understandably, and treated with disdain. Not all strikebreakers are scabs, however. Company muscle, whether made up of mafiosos or Pinkerton men, are typically deployed in order to clear pickets and escort scabs into work.

Many today on the Left, either unaccustomed to labor disputes or unschooled in their past, are confused by the term “scab.” For example, Sebastian Budgen — an editor for Verso, New Left Review, and Historical Materialism, formerly a member of the SWP in Britain — has written frothy diatribes against anyone who illegally downloads books published by his company (er, I mean “counterhegemonic apparatus”). He bravely denounced the “petit-bourgeois individualist swine” and “loudmouthed freeloading scum” who dared to download “pirate scab versions.”

Thank fuck his series co-editor Peter Thomas stepped in at this point, though apparently for the umpteenth time, to remind him that “scabs” refer exclusively to workers who cross picket lines during a strike. I thought it pretty sad that a publisher of leftist literature would be so terminologically ignorant. Anyway, a more detailed etymology from the Oxford English Dictionary can be read here. Jack London’s famous excoriation of scab workers, from 1915, follows below.

Ode to a scab

Jack London
Circa 1915
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After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab.

A scab is a two-legged animal with a cork-screw soul, a water-logged brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles.

When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out.

don__t_scab

No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with. Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared with a scab. For betraying his master, he had character enough to hang himself. A scab has not.

Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Judas Iscariot sold his Savior for thirty pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British Army. The modern strikebreaker sells his birthright, his country, his wife, his children and his fellow men for an unfulfilled promise from his employer, trust or corporation.

Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas Iscariot was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country; a strikebreaker is a traitor to his God, his country, his wife, his family and his class.

Vesnin-logo-VCHUTEMAS-1920 copy

VKhUTEMAS exhibition in Berlin: Rediscovery of a Russian revolutionary art school

Sibylle Fuchs
Verena Nees

April 5, 2015
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“Vkhutemas: A Russian Laboratory of Modernity — Architectural Designs 1920-1930,” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, December 5, 2014 to April 6, 2015.

A remarkable exhibition, featuring the art and architecture of the early Soviet Union’s VKhUTEMAS [acronym in Russian for Higher Art and Technical Studios] school, is currently at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau museum, until April 6. For the first time, some 250 works — drawings, sketches, paintings, photographs and models, mainly in the field of architecture — created by the students and teachers of the Moscow workshops, which existed from 1920 to 1930, are on display.

Exhibition of student’s work on “Evidence and expression of mass and weight” School year 1927-1928 © The Schusev State Museum of Architecture Moscowia802601.us.archive.org-grerussi00schi_0302 copy 2

The exhibition was organized by the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow, based on extensive research into numerous archives, as well as interviews with graduates of the school and the families of former teachers. Researchers were thus able to bring to light long-lost designs, construction plans and models. The exhibition provides a fascinating insight into a neglected school of art that revolutionized modern architecture.

The displayed works of the Vkhutemas students range from designs for residential buildings, theaters, kiosks, swimming pools, sports stadiums, workingmen’s clubs and entire cities to student research projects on theoretical questions such as “mass and weight,” “color and spatial composition,” and “geometric properties of a form.” The sketches of complex urban roofscapes, imaginatively conceived recreation centers in natural settings, seemingly weightless buildings with vibrantly curved features, aesthetic structuring and façades for industrial buildings—all testify to such a wealth of radicalism, experimentation and diversity of ideas that many Bauhaus [German art school, 1919-1933] creations fade in comparison.

All the designs, even the bold and less realistic ones like the floating skyscrapers attached to balloons, also evoke a sense of the seriousness with which architectural commissions assigned by the workers’ state were undertaken after the October Revolution.

M. Korshew- Abstrakte Aufgabe zur Ermittlung von Masse und Gewicht

On December 19, 1920, Lenin announced the Soviet government’s resolve to establish the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops — VKhUTEMAS. The aim was to use the visual arts in the training of technically, politically and scientifically educated architects and designers in all disciplines. In the ten years of its existence, VKhUTEMAS became a laboratory of modern architecture and art, in which diverse artistic ideas and methods, such as classicism, constructivism, psychoanalytic approaches and even futurism came together.

Time and again, the media refers to VKhUTEMAS as the Russian Bauhaus. Many scholars in the West have insisted on seeing the Bauhaus movement in Weimar and Dessau as a model for the Russian architectural avant-garde. However, the exhibition throws this conception into question. Although VKhUTEMAS had close ties to Bauhaus and the latter held some concepts and ideas in common with the Soviet workshops, the relationship is rather the reverse. In her contribution to the catalog, Barbara Kreis writes that the works of the students and teachers are “unmatched, and later often served architects as templates and sources of inspiration.”

The sheer scope of the training and the vast number of students and teachers make it clear that the Moscow workshops mark a unique stage in the development of modern architecture. Some 2,000 students enrolled in the first year alone, while Bauhaus trained only about 150 in the same time frame.

Many famed Russian artists and avant-garde architects were at least temporarily VKhUTEMAS teachers. These included Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir Krinsky, Alexander Vesnin and his brothers Viktor and Leonid, Lyubov Popova, Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, Nikolai Ladovsky, Konstantin Melnikov, Moisei Ginzburg, Alexei Shchusev, Wassily Kandinsky, Aleksandra Ekster, and Gustav Klutsis.

BookScanStation-2013-07-11-06-19-45-PM0001alq VKhUTEMAS faculty and professors

The VKhUTEMAS school’s reputation also spread internationally and reached New York, where the works of its students were exhibited. Alfred H. Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, traveled specifically to visit the VKhUTEMAS in Moscow in 1928. The Soviet pavilion designed by Melnikov and Rodchenko’s Workers Club were accorded great recognition at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris.

The designs and sketches now shown in Berlin form eloquent testimony to the tremendous spirit of optimism that the October Revolution unleashed in architecture and other art forms. A documentary film, made by the German WDR broadcaster in 1984 and shown at the exhibition, features the comments of contemporaries, enthusiastically recalling their years of study in the VKhUTEMAS. Describing the atmosphere, one said he “always climbed stairs two steps at a time and, going down, in leaps and bounds.”

Curator Irina Tschepkunowa also writes in the introduction to the catalog that one can scarcely any longer imagine in today’s “pragmatically oriented” Russia the enthusiasm that broke out after the revolution. “Hunger and destruction during war communism, the ongoing civil war in the country’s border areas and the impoverished everyday life provoked in young people — as strange as this may seem today — not dejection, but an unprecedented creative enthusiasm and willingness to work.”

Establishing the VKhUTEMAS

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Training in the VKhUTEMAS was focused on the mobilization of all talents for the building of a socialist society. Immediately after the revolution, the academies and art schools, reserved for the privileged social elites, were abolished and artistic training procedures reformed with the introduction of free state art workshops. All who wanted to study art could enroll at such schools. This also initially applied to the VKhUTEMAS, where participation in preparatory courses of the RabFak workers’ university was obligatory in 1921 for workers and young people without qualifications. In 1925, an examination assessing artistic talent was also introduced as an entry requirement.

A. Wesnin- Entwurf zur Gestaltung der Außenfassade der WChUTEMAS zum 10. Jahrestag der OktoberrevolutionLissitzky_Proun-Street_celebration_design_2786-08

The VKhUTEMAS were divided into eight faculties that included three art workshops: painting (panel, monumental and decorative painting), sculpture and architecture, as well as five production workshops: graphics, textiles, ceramics, metal and wood working. Lidia Komarova, an architect and a 1929 graduate of the VKhUTEMAS described the overall orientation of the workshops as follows: “The goal was to unite art with production, science with technology, and the new content of socialist life with the needs of the people.”(1) Continue reading