Karl Marx reading Louis Althusser reading Capital copy

Althusser’s reading of Marx in the eyes of three of his contemporaries: George Lichtheim, Alain Badiou, and Henri Lefebvre

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It has been fifty years since the publication of Louis Althusser’s influential collaboration with his students, Reading Capital. Verso has already announced that it will be publishing, for the first time, a complete English translation of the French original. For forty years, the abridged rendering by Ben Brewster has been available. But this version contains only the portions written by Althusser and Étienne Balibar, and omits the contributions of Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet, and Jacques Rancière (though Brewster did translate Rancière’s essay on value in another publication). The new edition of Reading Capital will compile all of these sections.

Commemorating this anniversary, the new Marxist theory journal Crisis & Critique has moreover dedicated an entire issue to providing a retrospective evaluation of the book. Many celebrated theorists of the past few decades are featured here: Adrian Johnston, Jacques Bidet, and Vittorio Morfino. Establet wrote a rare reflection on his former master, and the literary critic Macherey granted an interview to the editors, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza. Panagiotis Sotiris has an article on Althusserianism and value-form theory, a subject that interests me greatly despite my obvious preference for the New Marx Reading of Helmut Reichelt, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Werner Bonefeld, Michael Heinrich, and Ingo Elbe. You can download Crisis & Critique, 2.2: Reading Capital, 50 Years Later by clicking on the link.

When Reading Capital came out in 1965, it had an immediate incendiary effect. Numerous polemics were written against it, from practically every corner of the Marxist theoretical universe. Lucien Sève and Roger Garaudy, both prominent members of the PCF, attacked it from a more or less “orthodox” angle. Henri Lefebvre, Lucien Goldmann, and Jean-Paul Sartre approached it from a perspective more independent of the official party. Soon even Rancière would turn on his former master, in his vitriolic work Althusser’s Lesson (1974), which reflected his conversion to a more militant strain of Maoism. In Britain, where the abridged translation mentioned above appeared in the early 1970s, the book elicited some initial excitement, especially in the New Left Review crowd. E.P. Thompson eventually came out against it, however, throwing down the gauntlet in his The Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors.

Below you will find three more immediate reactions to the Althusserian reading of Marx. George Lichtheim’s generally unfavorable overview appeared in January 1969. Alain Badiou published his much longer, generally favorable review of Reading Capital in May 1967. Finally, an extract from Lefebvre’s 1971 book on structuralism, later condensed into a critique of The Ideology of Structuralism in 1975, is included as well. Of the three, I am most disposed to Lichtheim’s appraisal. It can be a bit dismissive and its tone is rancorous, but still it gives a good summary of the major weaknesses of Althusserianism. An incisive public intellectual and gifted scholar of the Frankfurt School, as well as of Marxism and socialism as a whole, Lichtheim in another essay on “Dialectical Methodology” heaped scorn upon “the quasi-Marxism of Louis Althusser, for whom a genuinely scientific theory of society remains to be worked out after the unfortunate Hegelian heritage has been shed.” He continued:

Anyone who imagines that [Althusser’s] standpoint is compatible with Marx’s own interpretation of historical materialism is advised to read Alfred Schmidt’s essay “Der strukturalistische Angriff auf die Geschichte” in Beiträge zur marxistischen Erkenntnistheorie (which ought to be translated for the benefit of British and American students of the subject who in their enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss may have missed Sartre’s and Lefebvre’s devastating attacks on Althusser and his school). What we have here is a discussion whose significance far transcends the silly dispute between Western empiricists and Soviet Marxists: a quarrel which has now gone on long enough and should be quietly terminated before the audience dies of fatigue.

Lefebvre, whose early rejoinders against Althusser are cited approvingly by Lichtheim, evidently agreed a few years later when he wrote that “the elimination of Marxism goes hand in hand with the elimination of the dialectic.” This is unsurprising considering Lefebvre had been, along with the translator Norbert Gutermann and the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among the first French Marxists to read the Hegelian Marxist texts of Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács. Nowadays Lefebvre is mostly known for his writings on space and everyday life, while his earlier work on mystification, false consciousness, Romanticism, and dialectic are not as familiar.

I’ve included Badiou’s review here in order to offer a more balanced range of interpretations. Badiou was broadly sympathetic to Althusser’s project, despite having been a student of Sartre in the early 1960s. He rejected the Hegelian Marxist notion of “totality” as metaphysical and confounding, and went even further than Althusser in rejecting terminology like “contradiction” as an unscientific, vestigial holdover of idealism. Evidently, Badiou welcomed Reading Capital as an opportunity for the renewal of Marxist theory, now disburdened of its embarrassing nineteenth-century inheritance.

Anyway, I hope this selection of pieces reacting to Althusser’s For Marx and Reading Capital will grant some sense of the early reception of this work. Lichtheim is especially worth checking out, in my view, as his fate is almost directly the reverse of someone like Badiou’s. Whereas Badiou made some slight waves in the 1960s and 1970s, fading into obscurity in the 1980s and 1990s before enjoying a massive renaissance during the 2000s, Lichtheim’s erudite historical and critical studies of the development of Marxism, socialism, European history, geopolitical conflicts, and philosophy were well known during his lifetime but have since faded into obscurity. Following his suicide in 1973, a series of conferences honored the memory of Lichtheim, the German-born son of Zionists who came to distance himself from liberalism, official Marxism, and Israeli nationalism. Yet today, very little remains of this legacy. Some of his books can be downloaded here:

  1. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study
  2. From Marx to Hegel
  3. Imperialism
  4. Europe in the Twentieth Century
  5. “The Concept of Ideology”

My own estimation of Althusser is not very high. Though it is a seductive method, reading for “symptomatic silences” and filling in the blanks, even applying Marx’s own approach in reading Smith to subsequent readings of Marx, Althusser resorted to this mostly for want of textual support for his claims. His attempt to read structuralist motifs back into Marx’s work was fundamentally misguided. Plus, he made far too much use of metaphors of production: “production of knowledge,” “production of discourse,” etc. Nevertheless, Althusser represents one of the most serious challenges to the Hegelian reading of Marx to date. I will readily defend this seriousness against what I think are unfair or reductive critiques, as in my response to Anne Boyer’s review of the most recent translation of unpublished notebooks by Althusser, “Biography is Destiny.”

Continue reading

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MEGA [Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe] on MEGA

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Back in the 1920s, the Russian revolutionary and Marxist scholar David Riazanov began to compile a new, more complete edition of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. He was, unfortunately, purged during the 1930s for supposed involvement in an anti-Soviet conspiracy. Riazanov was thus unable to see this project through to the end. Nevertheless, he set the wheels in motion for future Marxologists and exegetes like Maximilien Rubel, Roman Rosdolski, and Michael Heinrich. Work on the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [MEGA] continues today.

Anyway, I recently happened across a trove of full-text PDFs of the MEGA stored on the New Zealand cloud service known as MEGA, appropriately enough. You can download the files as a .zip file by clicking here. Quietly amused that this arrived to me indirectly via a certain oversharing Francophile lefty editor type. Makes me wonder what all his posturing over “pirate scab PDFs” was really about.

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Speaking of which, Budgen — Lars Ulrich of the online left — is apparently upset with me yet again. Class act that he is, Sebastian associated me with the disgusting rape advocate Roosh V. (an antisemitic conspiracy theorist and extreme misogynist) and the disgusting pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shrkeli (who jacked up the price of vital medicines once he’d secured exclusive rights over the drugs). If anyone resembles a douchebag who sells stuff he didn’t develop himself for obscenely inflated prices while monopolizing said product… you would think it was Budgen. Especially considering the company he keeps: people who make fun of others with physical deformities or who have a darker complexion on account of their ethnic background. Roosh V. and Simon Weston are reactionaries, to be sure, but that should hardly be seen as giving one license to make racist or ableist comments about them. Continue reading

Jacobin Robespierre Festival of the Supreme Being

Albert Mathiez on Robespierre and the cult of the Supreme Being

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Jacobin
recently published an article by Harrison Fluss about the Robespierrist Cult of the Supreme Being, instituted 1794. An okay article, overall, useful for sharing an obscure bit of revolutionary history (if for no other reason). The piece is marred by several historical inaccuracies and theoretical assumptions, which I address in a piece that is forthcoming on a couple of websites. Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, informed me that Fluss’ essay was a bit of a departure from the stuff they usually publish, so they weren’t planning on running a response.

In any case, one of the main historiographical controversies I touch on toward the end of my response is the dispute between François-Alphonse Aulard and his former pupil Albert Mathiez. Both men were partisans of the French Revolution, defenders of its legacy, but where the former was more of an historian of the popular movement (an historian “from below,” as they say) the latter was more an historian of the revolutionary government (an historian “from above”). Mathiez is a bit blinded, at times, by his unwavering devotion to Robespierre, but he is right that Aulard unfairly adopts some of the Thermidorian rhetoric regarding the Incorruptible’s private ambitions to dictatorship, etc. He never provides an adequate response to Aulard’s central contention, however, that Robespierre counterposed his own Cult of the Supreme Being to the Cult of Reason proposed by Hébert. Nevertheless Mathiez raises a number of pertinent points here, in his usual lively polemical style.

Evaluations, overviews, and synopses of this crucial conflict of interpretations between Mathiez and Aulard are almost ubiquitous in the literature on this subject. Ferenc Fehér, Arno Mayer, R.R. Palmer, and Albert Soboul all dedicate several pages to an assessment of the debate. So I was somewhat flabbergasted to see it wasn’t mentioned at all by Fluss in his article. It is not a minor omission, especially if it concerns Robespierre and the Hébertists. The scholars Fluss cites instead are Lewis Feuer and Nick Nesbitt. While Feuer’s book on Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism is an otherwise excellent text, he’s mistaken to see a Spinozist influence in Robespierre’s doctrine of the Supreme Being. Robespierre insisted on the immortality of the soul, something Spinoza explicitly denied. Feuer admits as much: “Spinoza…held to a view which was tantamount to a denial of personal immortality.” Indeed, this was ostensibly the reason he was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in 1656. Nesbitt, whose book Caribbean Critique I have read (despite Fluss’ allegations to the contrary) and whose name Fluss seems unable to spell (“Nisbett”), nowhere argues that Spinoza was a source of the civic religion proposed by Rousseau and actualized, albeit briefly, by Robespierre. Paul Vernière is the classical source of this line of inquiry. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy clearly would have been a more direct influence on Rousseau, who Robespierre took this idea from, particularly the chapters dealing with Roman religion. It surprises me that Fluss would be so enthusiastic about Robespierre’s Supreme Being, in any case, seeing as his philosophical master Hegel referred to it derisively in the Phenomenology (§586) as “the exhalation of a stale gas, of the vacuous l’Être Suprême.”

Anyway, Mathiez is an interesting character, a self-styled Jacobin and Robespierrist who, despite his chauvinist support of France during World War I, later sympathized with the Bolsheviks in Russia. There’s a lot of language praising the Jacobins’ patriotism, their love of Fatherland, etc. Below are some images of the Festival of the Supreme Being from the period, followed by the text. You can enlarge them and scroll through by clicking on them. Enjoy!

Robespierre and the cult
of the Supreme Being

Albert Mathiez
Annales révolutionnaires
April-June 1910
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The figure of Robespierre has been so misrepresented during the last twenty years, even by republican historians, that to talk of the Incorruptible’s religious ideas nowadays may seem a rash undertaking.

Robespierre, it is proclaimed, was a narrow intelligence, a man of the ancien régime, a coldly ambitious nature who desired to reign over France by imposing upon the country, through the Terror, a counterfeit Catholicism, a deism glorified into a religion of State.

I cannot hope to study here the whole religious policy of Robespierre backed up by the documents and proofs.

It must suffice to choose one example; to examine precisely what part was played by Robespierre in the establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being: especially since this is the usual butt of all his detractors.

What do the republican historians hostile to Robespierre say? They contrast the Cult of the Supreme Being with the Cult of Reason. The Cult of Reason, which they praise unreservedly, was, according to them, the Hébertist party’s own creation. It was, they say, a pantheistic or even atheistic cult, a means of intellectual emancipation. The Cult of the Supreme Being, on the contrary, they allege to have been invented by Robespierre, in all its details, for the satisfaction of his unbridled ambitions and mystical passions. It was, they say, an attempt at political enslavement and intellectual reaction.

Now, however generally accepted this contrast between the two revolutionary cults may be, it is nonetheless false. Far from having been the invention of a few men, Chaumette, Fouché, Hébert, and Cloots, or even of a party, the Cult of Reason was merely the culminating point in a series of civic festivals, the origin of which goes back to the great Feast of the Federation of July 14, 1790.1 The Festival of Reason resembled all the preceding ones. The same odes were sung, the same processions went through their evolutions, the same patriotic emotion stirred men’s hearts at the sight of the same republican symbols. The new feature of the 20th Brumaire, Year II, the day on which the Commune and the Convention glorified Reason in Notre-Dame de Paris, was not even the place chosen for the ceremony — a cathedral — for churches had already, witnessed similar scenes beneath their vaulted roofs. The new feature was this: that the fall of constitutional Catholicism, the secularization of the churches, and the abdication of the priests coincided with this festival.

But even the overthrow of the constitutional Church cannot be ascribed to the Hébertist party alone, for the Girondins themselves, such as Pierre Manuel, Guadet, and Vergniaud, had worked for it energetically since the days of the Legislative Assembly.

Nor was the solemn abdication of the Archbishop of Paris, Gobel, which gave an impulse to the dechristianizing movement, exclusively the work of the Hébertists; for it arose from the initiative of Pereira, Proli, and their friends, the party of the Enragés [extremists] which had its center in the people’s societies in the sections, and caused the Commune and Convention a moment’s alarm; and the initiative of the people’s societies was seconded by some notoriously moderate men, such as Thuriot, Basire, and Chabot,2 The truth is that the Hébertists, Chaumette, Cloots, and Hébert were merely falling into line with the obscure patriots of the sections, the nameless crowd of sans-culottes in the outlying parts of Paris. Continue reading

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Lenin and David Bowie

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David Bowie has died. In tribute, I’m posting some portions of the second chapter of Agata Pyzik’s excellent book Poor but Sexy, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Review of Books about a year ago. You should definitely pick it up if you haven’t already. To complement it, I’m including some photos of Bowie in Moscow and around the Eastern Bloc.

A word about Bowie’s flirtation with fascist symbolism during the 1970s: Quite clearly it was a deliberate aesthetic provocation meant to shock the public, part of his Thin White Duke persona. Same goes with that Playboy interview: he was coked out of his mind, responding to decades of British postwar malaise. Bowie also made use of communist, East European, and avant-garde symbolism around this time. Not trying to make excuses for the guy, just pointing out that this part of rock’n’roll’s broader obsession with totalitarianism during this period.

Either way, don’t expect sound politics from celebrities. Lemmy also liked to collect fascoid paraphernalia, as many have pointed out. He was a great musician and artist all the same. Regarding Bowie’s sexual improprieties, allegedly sleeping with Lori Maddox when she was seventeen and he was in his early twenties (as part of a ménage à trois with another man), again I am not interested in his private life. Picasso slept with younger women in Paris, but this hardly makes him less of a painter. Caravaggio murdered a couple people in cold blood, and he is similarly undiminished.

Surely no one will fault us for mourning Bowie’s death simply because he did not make great contributions to Marxist theory.

Ashes and brocade

Berlinism, Bowie, post punk,
new romantics and pop culture
during the second Cold War
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Had to get the train
from Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that I could do that
Just walking the dead
a man lost in time
Twenty thousand people cross Bösebrücke
fingers are crossed just in case
where are we now?

— David Bowie, “Where
Are We Now?” (2013)

I could make a transformation
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Is there concrete all around or is it in my head?

— David Bowie, “All
the Young Dudes”

The 1970s were the era of defeat. As the sixties were extremely intense in terms of political and social change, from the early seventies the flux went steady. David Bowie, who debuted in the late sixties, marked this change when he invented Ziggy Stardust in 1972: no more real heroes, from now on the most desirable thing was to be fabricated. What is genuine, authentic, is boring. The only hero that really matters, is pure artifice, cut out from the comic books, movies and dressed in everything that’s glamorous. Bowie more than anyone contributed to the cherishing of artifice in pop music, realizing the idea of a “hero for a day,” only following the course mass culture had been taking for decades. Was he conscious of that? Some of his lyrics of the era mark the mourning of the depoliticization of his generation: in the lyrics to the song “Star,” he mentions “Bevan (who) tried to change the nation,” and posing himself instead as someone who “could make a transformation as a rock & roll star.” Facing the “growing nihilism of his generation, he still believes that as a star of artifice, he can carry on their political task. “All the Young Dudes,” a song he wrote for Mott the Hoople in ’72, reeks of the youth’s disappointment and disillusionment, forming a kind of “solidarity of the losers” anthem. Bowie, always too erratic to make any firm political commitment, was rather in love with various dubious figures, “cracked actors,” (the inspiration for Ziggy was a forgotten singer who was believed to be a combination of god and an alien), necromantics like Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger’s satanism, Fascist dictators. He was, nevertheless, obsessed with certain elements of modernity. He was driven to German culture, especially the Weimar period, expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, theater, Brecht. His first break-through hit concerned a man lost in space, after all, and the space age gets a strongly melancholic treatment from Bowie, as his character Major Tom is rather terrified by the silence of space. Another obsession, as we will see, was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bowie’s fixation with “totalitarianism” applied to both sides. At one point he planned to stage an adaptation of the Soviet-Czech comic book Octobriana, about a socialist she-devil super-heroine — a samizdat publication, that was circulated between creators only through the post. Bowie could only have learned about it from its 1971 American edition. On the other side, his dalliance with the far right was something more than just the famous Sieg Heil he made to fans in 1976 at Victoria Station. It’s not an accident pop bands are very rarely left-wing, and Bowie’s reaction to the economic crisis of the seventies was to imagine becoming a right wing politician who’ll “sort things out.” “I believe strongly in Fascism,” Bowie said; “the only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air is to speed up the progress of a right wing tyranny. People have responded always more efficiently under a regimental leadership.” Bowie recognized, if only half-consciously, the appeal and meaning of the pop idol as a dictator. In Peter Watkins’ film from some years earlier, 1967’s Privilege, a young, cherubic, mega-popular singer is hired by the fascistic authorities, who use his popularity to ensure their control over the masses, in a truly Orwellesque, Big Brother-like take on the police state (which here has much more to do with Nazi Germany than communist states). Yet Watkins’ scared, weakened, traumatized singer, terrified of the masses, couldn’t have been further from Bowie, who relished in fame.

So Bowie’s fascination with Germany and Berlin was only partly expressionism – much of it was also quite simply, fascism. He became a chief Schwarzkarakter for Rock against Racism, whose magazine pictured him next to Enoch Powell and Hitler. The press deemed his Thin White Duke look “more Nazi than Futurist (sic)’. He also caught the attention and sympathy of the National Front, who in an article called “White European Dance Music,” said that “Perhaps the anticommunist backlash and the aspirations towards heroism by the futurist movement, has much to do with the imagery employed by the big daddy of futurism, David Bowie. After all, it was Bowie who horrified the establishment in mid seventies with his favorable comments on the NF, and Bowie who might have started an “anti-communist” music tradition which we now see flourishing amidst the New Wave of futurist bands. Who might the NF’s publicist have meant as the “futurist movement”? It was the growing synthpop and New Romanticism that was emerging from the post-punk bands. Punk by itself might have evoked a resistance towards the establishment, but by then it was dissolving. Although we are used to seeing industrial/synthpop/postpunk as ruthless modernists, the bands were actually rarely openly left wing. The political message, if any, was rather vague. Bands dwelling on the space age came often from dispossessed areas, which they then made topics for their music, but the result didn’t have to be politically sound. It was this later, new romantic period that brought Bowie to the left, with the stern words about “fascists” on Scary Monsters.

But even if we treat those remarks as just the drugged out delirium of a coked-up degenerate, which they were, it can’t be denied they had an influence on popular music. If you take the whole fascination with the Germanic in post punk bands, like Siouxsie and the Banshees or, omen omen, Joy Division, the twisted outpourings of their leaders weren’t just simply teasing their parents. They were flirting with the outrageous (Siouxsie), against the war generation, or they were openly right wing, like Ian Curtis. They had little to do with the struggles of Baader-Meinhof that ended tragically few years back. Curtis was confusing his obsession with Hitlerism with another obsession with a concentration camp prisoners (Stephen Morris has said in an interview that Joy Division were supposed to look like Nazi camp victims) or wider, the idea of the underdog, which tapped into their Bowieesque Eastern Bloc fantasies, like that of “Warszawa,” an eternally concrete, sinister city. Yet Bowie’s image of contemporary Berlin must’ve been seriously twisted, if he thought he could find shelter there with another drug addict, Iggy Pop, in a place that had already become one of the most narcotics-dependent places on earth. West Germany and West Berlin had for years been a territory of political dysphoria. The New Left’s legacy was melting. In a context of pseudo-denazification, militancy reached its peak around 1968 and the police shooting of Benno Ohnesorg. By 1976, when Bowie moved to Berlin, it had become the armed terrorism of RAF, the Red Army Faction. Continue reading

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Open-source Marxism 2016: Fresh batch of “pirate scab” PDFs

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Happy New Year from the Charnel-House.

2015 was a fairly shit year. Lemmy died, and yet another Star Wars movie came out, so right off the bat you know it’s awful. Add to that the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Colorado, California, throughout Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the list goes on and on. Plus rising xenophobia and outright racism in Europe and the United States, where cops seem to be shooting unarmed black kids on a weekly basis.

I guess Stephen Curry’s MVP season, culminating in a Finals victory over Lebron, mitigated things somewhat, made the year a little more worthwhile. Only somewhat, though.

We are insufficiently gripped by the terror of existence.

Regardless, start the year off right with some high-quality “pirate scab versions” of commie e-books and PDFs. First of all, more or less all of the books published in the Historical Materialism series. But also 365 different author folders, one for each day of 2016. It seems that butthurt from one of the prime movers at Verso and HM has already commenced, and so he’s issued a middle school “him or me” ultimatum.

Budgen butthurt

Of course, I don’t begrudge anyone who would defriend me or badmouth me for careerist reasons, because the sacred principles of #getpaid and #mansgottaeat override everything. You can’t be blamed the guy acts like a teenager, or that he can only tolerate suck-ups and sycophants. Just enjoy the free books. Anyway, most of these are in English, but the Hero of Labor who uploaded these tells me other languages could be provided as well. Also included are some worthwhile reactionaries like Michels, Pareto, and de Maistre, and some liberal thinkers from the era of bourgeois revolutions.

Note: If you’re not familiar with MEGA, the way downloads work can be kind of confusing. When you click on a given file, it goes to “transfers,” which then usually saves to your desktop. But there should be a gear in the lower left hand side which allows you to specify where everything is saved. Continue reading

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Dialectics and porn: Two parables

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Real dialectics is like porn: you know it when you see it. And talking about it too much just shows a profound sickness of the mind. It should seldom be brought up in polite conversation.

— Art V. Cabrera

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The distinction between “socialism from above” and “socialism from below” has always struck me as unhelpful. Anarcho-populist weasel words, in my opinion. Socialism does it every which way: on top, underneath, from the side, reverse cowgirl. Not to mention on the kitchen counter. (“Every cook should govern,” as Lenin said).

Councilists do it spontaneous. I guess 69ing would be mutualism, but dual power is difficult to sustain.

— Ross Wolfe

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Margaret Bourke-White in the USSR, 1931

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Margaret Bourke-White was one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, and certainly one of my personal favorites. Early in her career she was granted access to the rooftop of the Chrysler Building, where another photojournalist captured her image atop one of the metallic eagles jutting out the side. This iconic photographic can be seen below, along with some other early photos she took of various buildings.

Bourke-White On The Chrysler Building

Bourke-White was born in New York City in 1904. She became interested in photography while studying at Cornell University. After studying under Clarence White at Columbia University, she opened a studio in Cleveland where she specialized in architectural photography. In 1929 Bourke-White was recruited as staff photographer for Fortune, and made several trips to the Soviet Union. Eyes on Russia, a firsthand account of her experiences in the USSR, was published in 1931.

Her impressions of the USSR in the early 1930s were varied, but generally positive. “When Fortune was in its infancy during the thirties, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia,” Bourke-White later recalled. She dubbed the Soviet Union “the land of the day after tomorrow.” The title was ironic, apparently. For not only did this indicate the country’s futuristic bent; it also hinted at deeply-rooted confusion:

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Le Corbusier, the famous modern architect, likewise noted this experiment in reformatting the work week in his postscript “Moscow Atmosphere” in Precisions (1930). But the title also suggested communism’s headlong dive into the future. Making her way through the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Bourke-White also stumbled across Stalin’s closest relations. She photographed the communist leader’s mother, great-aunt, and several others. A few decades later, she recorded a few snippets about their meeting. Aside from Stalin’s family and relatives, Bourke-White also photographed a number of other eminent personages in the Soviet Union: Karl Radek, Sergei Eisenstein, Hugh Cooper, etc. Ten years later she would portray Stalin himself. In addition to these figures, however, she also took many portraits of ordinary people from everyday life in the USSR.

Deeply influenced by her experience of the Great Depression, she became increasingly interested in politics, joining Life in 1936.  Her photograph of the Fort Peck Dam appeared on its first front cover. In 1937 Bourke-White worked with the best-selling novelist Erskine Caldwell on the book You Have Seen Their Faces (1937). The book was later criticized for supposed “left-wing bias,” upsetting whites in the deep South with its passionate attack on Jim Crow. Bourke-White was a member of the American Artists’ Congress. The group supported state-funding of the arts, fought discrimination against African American artists, and supported artists fighting against fascism in Europe. She also subscribed to the Daily Worker and was a member of several Communist Party front organizations.

Margaret Bourke-White, 92 canvas

Bourke-White married Caldwell in 1939. They were the only foreign journalists in the Soviet Union when the German Army invaded in 1941. When Bourke-White and Caldwell returned to the United States in 1942, they collaborated to produce another attack on social inequality, Say Is This the USA? During the Second World War, Bourke-White served as a war correspondent, working for both Life and the US Air Force. Having survived a torpedo attack en route to North Africa, she was with United States troops when they reached the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war Bourke-White continued her interest in racial inequality by documenting Gandhi’s non-violent campaign in India and apartheid in South Africa. She also captured a grisly photo of a South Korean soldier smiling after decapitating of North Korean communist guerilla. During the Korean Civil War, the US backed the South Korean army and even directly supported it with marines.

The FBI had been collecting information on Bourke-White’s political activities since the 1930s and in the 1950s became a target for Joe McCarthy and the Unamerican Activities Committee. However, a statement reaffirming her belief in democracy and her opposition to dictatorship of the left or of the right, enabled her to avoid being cross-examined by the committee. In 1952 Bourke-White was discovered to be suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Unable to take photographs, she spent eight years writing her autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963). Margaret Bourke-White died at Darien, Connecticut, in 1971.

Below is posted an excerpt from her autobiography that goes over her first round of visits to Russia in the early 1930s.

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Land of the day after tomorrow

Margaret Bourke-White
Portrait of Myself
September 1963

 

In the early thirties, when Fortune was in its infancy, the land of tantalizing mystery was Russia. No foreign photographers had been allowed across Russian borders to take a direct look at what was going on under the Soviet Five-Year Plan. Foreign engineering consultants — mostly Americans — came and went with comparative freedom. But for the professional photographer from the outside world, it was a closed country. Nothing attracts me like a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have pried it open, and I wanted to be first.

With my enthusiasm for the machine as an object of beauty, I felt the story of a nation trying to industrialize almost overnight was just cut out for me. Peasants who had been taken from the plow and put on the punch press — how did they manage this jump of centuries? Although my approach was nontechnical, I had been in factories enough to appreciate that industry has a history-machines are developed and men grow along with them. Here was a unique opportunity to see a country in transition between a medieval past and an industrialized future.

No one could have known less about Russia politically than I knew — or cared less. To me, politics was colorless beside the drama of the machine. It was only much later that I discovered that politics could be an absorbing subject, with a profound effect on human destiny.

The person most helpful in giving me background on Russia was Cleveland’s live-wire city manager, Dan Morgan. From him I got some conception of the tremendous range of heavy industry being built with the technical assistance of American firms. There was virtually a little Cleveland within Soviet borders. Warner & Swasey and Foote-Burt were tooling up Stalingrad. Two of Cleveland’s leading construction companies, McKee and Austin, built some of the biggest installations in the Soviet Union — from steel mills in Siberia to oil refineries on the Black Sea. Detroit, too, was prominently represented by Ford; Schenectady by General Electric. Ford’s industrial architect, Albert Kahn, was laying out the entire group of factory buildings for Stalingrad, now Volgograd. The Newport News Shipbuilding Company was furnishing what were then the world’s largest hydroturbines for Dnieprostroi, and the huge Dnieper Dam was erected under the experienced direction of Col. Hugh L. Cooper, builder of America’s Muscle Shoals.

These great American builders and their staffs of engineers and planners were not, of course, dangerous Reds, or even fellow travelers. They were not working for ideological or propaganda purposes, but strictly for business reasons or — as the Marxists might have said — “the profit motive.” The role played by American industrialists in building up the Soviet giant cannot be overestimated.

Margaret Bourke-White, American engineer Col. Hugh Cooper, the chief conslultant for the construction of Russia's Dnieper Dam, holdling pipe as he poses before the dam's spillway (1931)

The idea of running photographs of the sprouting industries of the USSR intrigued Fortune’s editors, but they had grave doubts whether I could get anything done. They were sending me to Germany to take pictures of industry, and I decided to push on from there. I had applied for a Russian visa six months earlier at Intourist, the Soviet travel agency in New York. In Berlin, I was puzzled when I discovered my visa was not waiting for me, because the Intourist official had been so enthusiastic about my industrial photographs. “Your pictures will be your passport,” he kept repeating.

Not only was there no visa at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin, but the officials there had never heard of my grand plan to chronicle Soviet industry, or of me either. I opened up the ever-present portfolio of my industrial work and was told again my pictures would be my passport. The Embassy officials dismissed me courteously with instructions to return the day after tomorrow. I returned the day after tomorrow and continued to do so for five and a half weeks.

I woke up before dawn one morning and restlessly started walking from the Hotel Adlon past the Brandenburg Gate and up Unter den Linden. As I passed under the window of the Soviet Embassy, I heard a whistle over my head. I looked up, and there, at the window, stood the Soviet consul. He was waving a piece of paper. It was the telegram granting my visa. I bought a cheap trunk and filled it with canned food. I had been warned that if I traveled off the beaten path, I would find near famine conditions. That night I left for Moscow.

During my trips in the early thirties — and I made three brief ones — Russia was always the land of the Day After Tomorrow. I suppose the underlying cause for the many bureaucratic delays was fear of taking responsibility. The confusion was deepened by a novel experiment designed to get rid of bourgeois Sunday. People took their “day of rest” every five days, not on the same day but staggered. The purpose was to make work continuous. The result was highly discontinuous. It seemed a puzzle ingeniously designed so that the man you wanted to see on any particular day was away enjoying his day of rest. I have never known anything since to compare in sheer difficulty with my assignments in Russia: the baffling postponements, the mysterious absence of reasons. It was a valuable experience, and I am glad to have had it so early in my work. Russia was a lesson in patience.

Even getting to one of these evaporating appointments was a feat. Taxis were rare and apt to break down on the way. Next choice was a droshky, a carriage so worn it seemed a breath would blow it to pieces. You were at the mercy of the bearded driver who might dump you out halfway to your destination if he thought his horse was tired. The next possibility was to get on a streetcar if you could get the conductor to stop when it was literally dripping with human beings.

I remember a day when my interpreter and I squeezed into one of these bursting streetcars. The conductor held out her hand for our fare: “Ten kopecks.”
……“We do not have change,” said my interpreter. “But here’s a ruble.”
……“But I cannot take the ruble. I cannot take tips. It’s against the law.”
……“What shall we do? We have no kopecks.”
……“Get off the car.” The conductor stopped the car in the middle of the crowded street, and in true Russian fashion, the passengers discussed our dilemma.

While the debate raged, streetcars halted, traffic slowed to a standstill. Finally, the passengers rose unanimously to our support. We could stay on the car. We could keep our ruble. The car started and the blocked traffic rolled into motion again.

With all the absurdities, there was a quality about the people I can only call exasperating charm. On my visits to the various commissars, I was always received hospitably. Inevitably, I was told two things: one was to return the day after tomorrow; the other was that my pictures would be my passport. Yet I was fortunate in having something as tangible as my pictures of American steel mills, factories and refineries to show what I wanted to do photographically in the Soviet Union. I began getting very limited permission to take pictures in and around Moscow. On alternate days, I did what little work I could, and on the Days After Tomorrow, I visited the Commissariats of Heavy Industry and Railroads, pressing for a big tour with proper authority to travel and take pictures. During these visits, scores of admiring Russians crowded in to examine minutely my pictures of American factories, while I slipped in reminders that there were many beautiful pictures to be taken in Soviet factories. I had come for only a few weeks, and already half of my time had trickled uselessly away.

“Yes,” the officials would say. “The Amerikanka is right. The great Lenin said, ‘Time is our most precious possession’.” I don’t know whether it was the counsel of the deceased Lenin that took effect or my persistence, but finally the Day After Tomorrow really came, and I set out to tour the industrial centers with a highly competent young girl interpreter, my trunk of food, my bulky camera cases, a sheaf of permits and, most important, that portfolio of photographs that indeed was to be my passport. The pictures soon became dog-eared and battered, but they opened many doors.

Everywhere I traveled, I heard about the Amerikanskoe tempo. It was the watchword of the hour, the ultimate in praise. In Stalingrad, particularly where the factories were modeled after Ford in Detroit, the workers adored the conveyor belt as a symbol of the Amerikanskoe tempo. The workers who gathered in crowds made suggestions, smoked cigarettes, eulogized the conveyor, broke into oratory at the very sight of it, did everything but run it.

At Dnieprostroi, during the first month, half of the locomotive cranes were busy picking up the other half that had broken down on the job. The workmen were like children playing with new toys. In the power installations, they acted as though throwing on a new generator was like turning on an electric fan. The endless meetings to decide whether or not to use a new tool exasperated the American technicians; tools were hard to get. The tractor was the object of special reverence, but still the tractor operators ran them up and down the fields like racing cars until they broke down.

Machine worship was everywhere; it permeated even the classic Russian ballet. Little girls with gear wheels in gold or silver painted on their chests danced Machine Dances. The people were worshiping at new shrines with the fervor of religious zealots. It was as though they needed to replace their religion — which was being taken away from them step by step. They looked on the coming of the machine as their Savior; it was the instrument of their deliverance.

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Walter Benjamin’s writings in German and in English

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Besides studying Soviet history, reading Walter Benjamin was what got me hooked on all this commie crap. It was probably “On the Concept of History” that first did it. Enigmatic, baffling, simple yet sophisticated — these were my initial impressions of it. The rest is history, or a storm blowing in from the Absolute.

Of course, I was fortunate to be introduced to Benjamin the way I did. Following a few of his texts in Illuminations, I started in on Adorno and read Gershom Scholem’s Story of a Friendship. At least to some extent this immunized me to the different “readings” offered over the years by postmodernists, poststructuralists, hermeneuticists, and beyond. No one can pretend to be surprised that the secondary literature on Benjamin has become so voluminous, or all the uses to which his thought has been put. Because the Marxist component of his writing is muted, or methodologically opaque, theorists have been able to sidestep or otherwise evade critical engagement with Benjamin’s Marxism.

He was not a political writer. And many of his references are esoteric or willfully obscure. From this derives the denseness of so many of his texts. Jewish mysticism certainly figures into Benjamin’s conceptual and theoretical apparatus, largely nourished by his friendship with Scholem. Still, I despise nothing more than interpretations which seek to make Benjamin into some sort of communist rabbi, à la Moses Hess (Marx used to disparagingly refer to the proto-Zionist Hegelian in this manner, before Engels cuckolded the man’s wife). Reading his notes and correspondence it is clear that the allusions to Jewish mysticism in his writings are metaphorical or allegorical, and possess no religious content.

You can download all of Benjamin’s work in German and in English below, along with some biographies and introductions to his work. Beneath the picture gallery I’ve reposted an article Michael Löwy wrote for the Platypus Review ages ago. Enjoy.

German
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  1. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften I
  2. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften II
  3. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften III
  4. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften IV
  5. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften V
  6. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften VI
  7. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften VII
  8. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, 6 Bände

English
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  1. Walter Benjamin, Early Writings, 1910-1917
  2. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926
  3. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 1, 1927-1930
  4. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 2, 1931-1934
  5. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938
  6. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940
  7. Walter Benjamin, Correspondence, 1910-1940
  8. Walter Benjamin, Correspondence with Gershom Scholem, 1932-1940
  9. Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht
  10. Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire
  11. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media
  12. Walter Benjamin, Radio Benjamin
  13. Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary
  14. Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings
  15. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Secondary sources
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  1. Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin
  2. Howard Eiland, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
  3. Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism
  4. Uwe Steiner, Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work
  5. György Markus, “Walter Benjamin, or, The Commodity as Phantasmagoria”
  6. Fredric Jameson, “Walter Benjamin, or Nostalgia”
  7. Georg Lukács, “On Walter Benjamin”
  8. Eli Friedlander, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait
  9. Ferenc Feher, “Lukács and Benjamin: Parallels and Contrasts”
  10. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Color of Experience
  11. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

Walter Benjamin

Michael Löwy

Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

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Walter Benjamin occupies a unique place in the history of modern revolutionary thought: he is the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. His thinking has therefore a distinct critical quality, which sets him apart from the dominant and “official” forms of historical materialism, and gives him a formidable methodological superiority.

This peculiarity has to do with his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from the Romantic critique of civilization and from the Jewish messianic tradition. Both elements are present in his early writings, particularly in “The Life of the Students” (1915), where he already rejects “a conception of history, whose confidence in the infinity of time only distinguishes the speed by which men and epochs roll, quicker or slower, along the track of progress” — a conception characterized by the “inconsistency, the lack of precision and force of the demands it addresses at the present” — opposing it to utopian images such as the messianic kingdom or the French Revolution.

Benjamin’s first reference to communism appears in 1921, in his “Critique of Violence,” where he celebrates the “devastating and on the whole justified” critique of the Parliament by the Bolsheviks and the anarcho-syndicalists. This link between communism and anarchism will be an important aspect of his political evolution: his Marxism will to a large extent take a libertarian color.

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Federici versus Marx

Gilles Dauvé
Troploin
Fall 2015
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Note: Dauvé’s piece is not without its problems. Some lines are simply offensive — e.g., “Federici feminizes Marxism; that’s probably what has made her popular,” “the ‘reproductive labor’ theme is not a woman’s theory, only a housewife’s theory.” Others are beside the point, like the superfluous aside on Carla Lonzi, which I feel is grossly unfair to her body of work. But the point about the incompatibility of Federici’s account of primitive accumulation and Marx’s in Capital is extremely important, as is the point about the different priorities that these differing accounts reveal. He even lets her off somewhat light regarding the more outrageous claims of Caliban & the Witch. For example, the completely unsubstantiated figure of “five to six million” women killed during the witch-hunts in Europe during the period she covers. Anyway, many of the criticisms are perfectly valid and lay bare the practical poverty and theoretical misunderstandings that underwrite autonomist Marxism in general, as well as the “wages for housework” movement (which insisted on attaching a moral dimension to the purely economic category of “productive labor”).

One criticism I would raise that Dauvé does not regards the parallels between her presentation of the post-feudal transition and that of world “systems” theory. Federici’s account of primitive accumulation owes a lot to dependency theory, especially as articulated by Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, and Immanuel Wallerstein. These theorists analyzed the emerging economic world system in terms of core-periphery relations, whereby the overdeveloped core is sustains its development at the expense of the underdeveloped periphery in an ongoing process of “unequal exchange.” In Caliban & the Witch, Federici makes an analogous argument regarding the reproductive sphere and the productive sphere, with the latter profiting at the expense of the former. She openly admits to the ismorphism between her argument and that of the world systems theorists. As a moderate Brennerite, I find this interpretation of the historic transition to capitalism untenable. Her focus on extra-economic forms of compulsion not only during the formation of capitalism, but down through to the present, has a lot to do with this.Moreover, many of Federici’s political positions seem to approximate a kind of Third Worldist narrative, which falls into all the communitarian traps that theorists of “the commons” often do.
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…rough magic I here abjure…

William Shakespeare
The Tempest (1610)

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Caliban & the Witch
is of undeniable interest for our understanding of social movements at the critical juncture between medieval and modern times, of the advent of capitalism, its sexual dimension, the treatment of women and the conversion of female and male bodies into a work-machine, among other things. But the book also sets forth a vision of past and present which is as questionable as the political perspective that this vision entails.1

Primitive accumulation according to Silvia Federici

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Federici claims to be writing “against Marxist orthodoxy” (p. 6), and Caliban & the Witch is commonly read as a complement (or for some readers, as an alternative) to Marx’s Capital, especially Part VIII. Federici writes:

…my description of primitive accumulation includes a set of historical phenomena that are absent in Marx, and yet have been extremely important for capitalist accumulation. They include: 1) the development of a new sexual division of labor subjugating women’s labor and women’s reproductive function to the reproduction of the work-force; 2) the construction of a new patriarchal order, based upon the exclusion of women from waged-work and their subordination to men; 3) the mechanization of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers.” (p. 11)

So we expect to read what was missing in the accepted master narrative, especially as history suffers from a long tradition of writing women off. The question is, where does a counter-hegemonic history lead us? In Federici’s case, the author is not merely filling in gaps: her analysis of primitive accumulation amounts to nothing less than a conception of capitalism not just different from Marx’s but indeed opposed to it.

In order to understand the birth of capitalism, she emphasizes the specific oppression that social groups, women in particular, were subjected to. That is what she is targeting, and her approach prioritizes certain factors and downplays others.

The question is, what tipped the historical scales? Continue reading