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The mind and face of Bolshevism (1926)

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You can download an illustrated full-tex
t PDF of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism by clicking on the embedded link. What follows is an introduction to it and some thoughts on an all-too-familiar claim that Marxism is merely a form of secular religion.

René Fülöp-Miller’s 1926 book, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism: An Examination of Cultural Life in the Soviet Union, offers a unique window into the profound transformations underwent during the first decade of communism in the USSR. Fülöp-Miller sets out to capture the psychology and physiognomy of the October Revolution, and largely succeeds in this task. The picture he paints of the period is unforgettable, covering a great deal of ground without boring his readers. He accomplishes this by including some of the more bizarre phenomena associated with the Bolshevik regime, its most eccentric and utopian elements. Notably, Fülöp-Miller goes over Aleksei Gastev’s Institute for Labor in Moscow, Platon Kerzhentsev’s League of Time, the militant godless movement, God-building [богостроительство], and the Commissariat of Enlightenment. But he also manages to fit in some of his own analysis, which is admittedly hit-or-miss. Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 review from New Masses follows below, is right to say that Fülöp-Miller is better at reading the surface features of Bolshevism’s “face” than he is at discerning the deeper aspects of its “mind.”

It should be stated from the outset that Fülöp-Miller was not a Bolshevik. As Bertrand Russell put it: “Fülöp-Miller is himself a socialist, but of the Western kind.” However, he was not unsympathetic to the Soviet project. Despite serious reservations about the fervor and rapidity with which the Bolsheviks were looking to implement reforms, and revolutionize everyday life, Fülöp-Miller endorsed their efforts insofar as they represented an extension of Enlightenment to the masses. Some tendentiousness can nevertheless be detected in his ham-handed dismissal of Bolshevism as a form of surrogate religion. Many have leveled this criticism, or some version of it, against Marxism as a whole. On this, a few thoughts: An overview of the major proponents of Marxism after Marx’s death in 1883 reveals that they understood themselves in terms of their “faithfulness” to the tradition first established by Marx. The various stances adopted toward this tradition were often couched in explicitly religious language: in terms like heresy, orthodoxy, schism, sectarianism, and dogmatism. Could it be that Marxism’s critics are right to say that it merely secularizes spiritual impulses?

My former mentor, Chris Cutrone, handles this charge in a characteristic manner. Rather than challenge its validity, he seeks to divest the criticism of its power by “owning it” — i.e., consciously admitting that it is in fact true. Supposedly this softens the blow, since it’s true of everyone and at least Cutrone is transparent about it. I would like to resist this gesture, as I consider it empty. He states in his otherwise brilliant critique of Badiou, “The Marxist Hypothesis”:

It is significant that they themselves sought to justify their own political thought and action in such terms — and were regarded for this by their political opponents as sectarian dogmatists, disciples of Marxism as a religion. But how did they think that they were following Marx? What are we to make of the most significant and profound political movement of the last two centuries, calling itself “Marxist,” and led by people who, in debate, never ceased to quote Marx at each other? What has been puzzled over in such disputes, and what were — and are still, potentially — the political consequences of such disagreement over the meaning of Marx?

Certainly, Marxism has been disparaged as a religion, and Marx as a prophet…Marxism cannot help today (after its failure) but become something like a religion, involving exegesis of “sacred texts,” etc.

Of course, this runs directly counter to some of the statements in the “sacred texts” Cutrone seeks to excavate. For example, Lukács in his article on “Orthodox Marxism”: “Orthodox Marxism…does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book.” A quandary, it would seem, which cannot be done away with simply by pointing to changed historical conditions. Even avowed opponents of Marxism and psychoanalysis such as Michel Foucault will these discourses against charges of crypto-religiosity: “It goes without saying that it would be completely wrong to identify [forms of knowledge like Marxism or psychoanalysis] with religion. This is meaningless and contributes nothing.” Religious analogies only go so far, anyway. Marxists today are forced to reflect on classic texts, to be sure — if they are to educate themselves at all — because there is no living practice worthy of the name that would allow theorists today to build upon the insights of the past. Without such a practice, the best Marxists can do is look back upon works written at a time when communism as a “real movement” had not yet ground to a halt.

Beyond superficial similarities, however, this has nothing in common with patristics. This does not prevent the charge from being periodically recycled. Chris Taylor of the blog Of CLR James has had occasion to mock my “hot combo of flat-materialist anti-clericalism and religiously inflected hermeneutical/exegetical approach to Marxist-Leninist holy writ.” My only reply would be that it is quite all right to disagree with Marx, Lenin, or any other figure from the history of Marxism. In doing so, though, one should be quite clear how and why one is departing from Marx’s (or Lenin’s, or anyone else’s) conclusions. None of them were infallible figures, but as Marxists and followers of Lenin or whoever they ought to be taken seriously. Such was Walter Benjamin’s attitude toward the claim made by Fülöp-Miller in The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, as expressed in a 1927 letter written to Kracauer. He recommended the book but disagreed sharply with its portrayal of Bolshevism as a form of religious sectarianism. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge also rely heavily on the book in their own work on the Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (1972).

Upton Sinclair’s review appears below. His points about Bolshevism being a positive outcome of Western civilization and about collective freedom being the key to unlock individual freedom are as relevant today as ever. Enjoy.

Cover of New Masses, November 1927

Review of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller

Upton Sinclair
The New Masses
November 1927
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There comes in my mail a large and costly volume from England, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller. Inside I find a card, informing me that the book is sent with the author’s compliments, and giving me his address in Vienna — which I understand to mean that he wishes me to tell him what I think of his book. So I send him what as children we used to call “my private opinion publicly expressed.”

Mr. Fülöp-Miller has visited Soviet Russia for a long time, and collected a mass of information, and presented it accurately, with many illustrations, and not too much prejudice; so he gives us the face of Bolshevism very acceptably. But when he comes to interpret the mind of Bolshevism, his class prejudices inevitably get in the way, and he misses the point completely.

I, who have never been to Soviet Russia, but who have managed to free myself from class prejudices, venture to tell Mr. Fülöp-Miller a few things about the mind of Bolshevism, as follows:

  1. Bolshevism is neither incompatible with nor destructive of Western civilization. It is a product and evolution of Western civilization.
  2. Bolshevism’s setting up and glorifying of the masses is not a denial and destruction of individuality, but an effort to make individuality possible to those persons who have hitherto been denied it. Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s class prejudice is manifested in the fact that the beginnings of individuality in a hundred million peasants and workers mean so little to him, in comparison with the limitations of individuality in the case of a million or so aristocrats and intellectuals. Under Russian Tsarism all individuality was denied to the workers and peasants; and the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books were as a rule quite untroubled by this fact. The same condition prevails now to a great extent in Austria, where Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s book was written, and in England where it is published, and in America, where I am reviewing it; and for the most part the intellectual class remains quite untroubled.
  3. If the masses are to have individuality, they must first gain political and economic power; and to get that, and hold it, they must have solidarity and discipline. That means temporarily a certain amount of surrender of individuality — as when men enlist in an army to fight for a cause. In the late unhappy disagreement among the capitalist masters of the world, some twenty or thirty million men were forced to enter armies and risk agony and death; but this loss of individuality did not as a rule trouble the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books, whether in Russia, Austria, England, or America.
  4. It is quite true that Bolshevism represses its internal enemies. Mr. Fülöp-Miller tells us at some length how it does this, and he is much distressed thereby. But reading his book I found myself desiring to ask him this one simple question: what does he think would happen to Bolshevism if it let its internal enemies alone? What would happen to any state which suddenly declared complete freedom of conspiracy and assassination? Will Mr. Fülöp-Miller tell us in another volume what did happen to Bolshevism in Hungary, where it failed to be stern enough? Will he write a book telling us about the White Terror in Finland, and Poland, and Romania, and Hungary — yes, and Austria, and England, and Boston? Will he give us the best estimate he can make as to the number of lives taken by the “reds” in Finland, and then by the “whites” when they came back into power?
  5. In short, what I want Mr. Fülöp-Miller to do is to write me another volume, equally large and costly, entitled, The Mind and Face of Fascism. Now that I have been told about the “G.P.U.” in Russia, I surely ought to be told about Mannerheim and Petlura, and Denekin and Kolchak and Judenich and Horthy; yes, and about the Hakenkreutzler and their murders in Austria, and about the New Fascist organizations in England, and about the American Legion, and the Centralia massacre, and the “deportations of delirium” and the Sacco-Vanzetti case — If my Austrian confrere will prepare such a book, he won’t have to send it to me free — I will agree to pay the full retail price, and tell him of some other persons who will do the same. But I fear that, in spite of such inducements, the book will never be published by the patriotic Major Putnam!

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Toward a materialist approach to the question of race: A response to the Indigènes de la République

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The Charnel-House
introduction

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A few months ago, I wrote up a critique of the “decolonial dead end” arrived at by groups like the Indigènes de la République. Despite being welcomed in some quarters of the Left, wearied by the controversy stirred up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was not well received by others. Last month, however, a French comrade alerted me to the publication of a similar, but much more detailed and carefully argued, piece criticizing Bouteldja & co. in Vacarne. I even asked a friend to translate it for the new left communist publication Ritual. But before he could complete it, someone describing himself as “a long-time reader/appreciator of The Charnel-House” contacted me to let me know he’d just finished rendering it into English.

The authors of the original piece — Malika Amaouche, Yasmine Kateb, and Léa Nicolas-Teboul — all belong to the French ultraleft, militant feminists and communists active in different groups. I am grateful they brought up the PIR’s execrable position opposing intermarriage and submitted it to ruthless criticism, offering a Wertkritik-inspired analysis of some antisemitic tropes reproduced by the self-proclaimed Indigènes. Regarding the provenance of “philosemitism,” a concept employed by Bouteldja which the authors critique: the term was invented by antisemites during the nineteenth century, as a reproach to supposed “Jew-lovers.” Not a title that would be claimed by those who were themselves sympathetic to the plight of Jews in Europe and elsewhere.

Translator’s introduction

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The following text, a critique of the Parti des Indigènes de la République by three of its former members, originally appeared in the French journal Vacarme. A radical anti-colonial party, Parti des Indigènes came to wide attention among the English-speaking Left for their sharp critiques of secularism and racism on the French Left following the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015. While they seem to enjoy great respect in certain sectors of the Left, the translator of this document believes such respect is mistaken; that PIR’s identitarian politics seeks an alliance with the identitarian far right of Le Pen, Dieudonné, and Soral; and that such an approach to politics poses a great threat to the Left.

Secondly, this document provides a much-needed insight into the problem of antisemitism. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the media hysterically speculated that Europe was on the verge of a pogrom, to be carried out by its numerous Muslim immigrants; Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took up the hysteria, calling for French Jews to emigrate. The backlash among certain leftists, whom the present translator otherwise respects, was perhaps equally hysterical. Some questioned whether antisemitism was even extant in contemporary Europe; others seemed to blame antisemitic acts on crimes of the Israeli state, rather than the perpetrators. As this document’s analysis shows, antisemitism is not only a threat against Jews, but against any movement of the working class.

Rosa Luxemburg in Martinique

Toward a materialist approach to the racial question: A response to the Indigènes de la République

Malika Amaouche, Yasmine
Kateb, & Léa Nicolas-Teboul
Vacarme (June 25, 2015)
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Les Indigènes de la République have helped to shed light on racism within the Left, supported by the racism of French society at large. But are they also prisoners of racism? We propose a systematic analysis of the forces exercised upon the most precarious: a critique of the erasure of race and gender; while escaping the identitarian project of the extreme right; remaining anchored in critique of political economy.


From the dead refugees of the Mediterranean, to the Baltimore riots, to the events of everyday metropolitan life, we are constantly drawn back to the question of race. It seems necessary to propose an analysis of the foundations of racism, which will not be merely a shallow response to current events.

Today, we observe mounting Islamophobia and antisemitism. These two are a pair: in a context where social segregation is becoming stronger, and the logic of all-against-all becomes uncontrollable, we must work to think of these things in conjunction. That means to reject the logic of competition between different racial oppressions; but also to examine Islamophobia and antisemitism together in all their specificity. And in all this, the general context — growing social violence, a hardening of class segmentation, and effects of structural racism (in housing, work, and so on). It is harder and harder for the poor, and for those who are the most precarious (racial minorities and women).

With the [Charlie Hebdo] attacks in January, the left was hit with its own denial of the issue of racism. It made a specialty of denouncing the victimization, and of dismissing racism as a massive structural phenomenon. Institutional feminists’ obsession with the veil functioned as a spotlight on the racism of a Left clinging to an abstract, ahistorical, and highly aggressive universalism.

This was why we were enthusiasts of the great work of exposing the racism of the Republican left — a project in which the Parti des Indigènes de la République has participated since 2004. There are many of us who worked to undermine this “respectable” racism, under which the indigènes were never truly equal.1 If the Left was never explicitly against racialized people, its arguments were dismissive of the great values meant to emancipate them. An entire history of the condescension and paternalism of the French Left remains to be written. Such a history would note the way the discourse of class was used to stratify the hierarchies of the workers’ movement itself.

Nevertheless, it seems to us that PIR is slipping. Riding the gathering wave of identitarianism, it proposes a systematic cultural, almost ethnocentric, reading of social phenomena. This leads to the adoption of dangerous positions on antisemitism, gender, and homosexuality. It essentializes the famous “Indigènes sociaux,” the subaltern it aims to represent. It is as if the racialized working class, who face the most violent racism, are being instrumentalized in a political strategy which basically plays in the arena of the white left and à la mode radical intellectuals.

For us, descendants of Muslim and Jewish Algerians, to lead the critique of the PIR, just as we led the critique of the Left, is a matter of self-defense. We believe we have nothing to win from a political operation which subsumes all questions under those of race. For us, not only the question of race, but also those of political economy, and the social relations of sex, are the order of the day.

Political economy and Islamophobia

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Anyone who has taken the RER to Gare du Nord in the morning knows that those who look Arab, black, or Roma, face a constant pressure. “Face control,” police killings, housing in only the most distant banlieues — racial minorities face geographical, social, and symbolic segregation. This integral racism (to take up a phrase of Frantz Fanon), consubstantial with French society, begins with orientation in the fourth grade, or with the search for an internship, or the first job… and extends to all the dimensions of existence. In its multiple appearances, it extends from the streets of rich towns where ethnic men are turned away from nightclubs, to the edges of seas where they are let drown with all the indifference that attends to those who dare cross borders.

In France, Islamophobia — i.e., anti-Muslim racism — is to be understood not merely as a secular opposition to religion, but as a form of racism directed against all who are black or Arab. Its presence is seen in the public space, whether against veiled women, or young people loitering against a wall. The events of January only accentuated this process of stigmatization. From the attacks on mosques to the assaults on veiled women, to the police summons given to eight-year-olds who preferred not to say “Je suis Charlie,” it has become almost impossible for an Arab to speak politically without first prefacing that they are not an Islamist.

But it does not only operate through discriminations or prejudices. Islamophobia returns to a more central issue, the issue of race. This issue functions by assigning a place in the division of labor to certain sections of the population based on their origin or skin color. One need only observe a construction site to note that the heavy labor is performed by blacks, the technical work by Arabs, and that the overseers are white.2 Racism is the regime of material exploitation which has organized the development of European capitalism.

In effect, capitalism promotes market competition not only between capitalists, but between workers as well. This competition takes the form of a process of “naturalization,” which allows a specific devaluation of labor power. Certain sociohistoric traits of the immigrant workforce (for example, qualification, disposition, specialization) are “essentialized”: they are stretched, “typecast.” And this permits employers to bring down cost of labor.

But this process cannot be simply reduced to a “racial premium” of exploitation. It is a total social phenomenon. One may therefore submit that racialization is an essential dynamic under capitalism, which always needs greater labor power, and produces, at the same time, a “surplus” of labor power, always too much.3

Insufficiency of the “colonial” framework

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This racism marks, materially and symbolically, the European metropolitan space. Nevertheless, the strict decolonial framework proposed by PIR prevents us from comprehending the actual dynamics of racism, which exist only in conjunction with the development of global capitalism.

The history of colonialism as such is behind us, but it has left traces. The West — that is, the historical center of accumulation now threatened by crisis — perpetuates, through its “War on Terror,” the continuation of structural exploitation on the world scale. Take, for example, the wars over access to natural resources (oil or “strategic” minerals). But equally at play is the intensification of exploitation in all class segments, beginning with the most fragile. This process of immiseration and marginalization ends by engulfing those subjects who are not black, Arab, or the descendants of the colonized. Continue reading

Robert Byron, the planetarium in Moscow, Architects - Barshch, Mikhail (Osipovich)  Sinyavski, M.I.  1929c

Under artificial skies: Planetaria and modernism

Mikhail-Osipovich-Barshch-Planetario-de-Moscú

A couple years ago or so, I posted a number of photos of the Moscow planetarium designed by Mikhail Siniavskii and Mikhail Barshch. The planetarium was built in 1929, and still stands today — albeit in an awful state of disrepair. I included the wonderful fragment “To the Planetarium” by Walter Benjamin, from his 1928 work One-Way Street. You can read more about the planetarium and its preservation here.

Recently I’ve found a bunch of new images to post, however, from the same cache as the Dom Narkomfin photos I posted the other day. So I thought I’d put them up for everyone to see, along with another fragment by the theorist of modernity Hans Blumenberg. Not too familiar with Blumenberg’s work, admittedly, but from what I can tell he’s less hostile to Weber than his rejection of the “secularization thesis” (what Weber called “the disenchantment of the world”) would suggest. Anyway, this bit from The Genesis of the Copernican World is quite nice. Enjoy.

The ambiguous meaning of the heavens

Hans Blumenberg
The genesis of the
Copernican world
West Berlin, 1975

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The planetarium is the mausoleum of the starry heavens as the ideal of pure intuition. As a technical phenomenon it is deeply rooted in the nineteenth century’s longings for a popular knowledge of the starry heavens, longings that expressed themselves in “people’s astronomers” and “people’s observatories.” They retrieved the reserved property of science as a relic for a “natural” mass religion of the solved “riddles of the universe” and of ersatz emotions. To that extent the planetarium too is an end, an end of what Ernst Haeckel wrote in his Welträtsel [Riddles of the Universe] (a book that was distributed in many hundreds of thousands of copies): “The astonishment with which we gaze upon the starry heavens and the microscopic life in a drop of water, the awe with which we trace the marvelous working of energy in the motion of matter, the reverence with which we grasp the universal dominance of the law of substance throughout the universe-all these are part of our emotional life, falling under the heading of ‘natural religion.'” Modern man, Haeckel went on, does not need the narrow enclosed space of a special church in order to live in this religion; he finds his church “through the length and breadth of free nature, wherever he turns his gaze, to the whole universe or to any single part of it…” It is harsh, but indispensable in order to display the arc of this theme’s development, to quote immediately after the enthusiasms of this certainly important zoologist and theoretician of “family trees,” from 1899, what Hitler said on the subject in conversation during the noon meal in his headquarters on 5 June 1942: He had “directed that every town of any importance shall have an observatory, for astronomy has been shown by experience to be one of the best means at man’s disposal for expanding his view of the world and thus saving him from any tendency towards mental aberration.”

Under the artificial skies of the planetariums, the upright carriage of the observer of the heavens can be practiced sitting down, with the gentlest constraint to adopting the attitude of the onlooker in repose. Here, if anywhere, one should inevitably expect the demonization of the technical surrogate for the most sublime object — of the projected heavens as the false heavens. If one disregards the context of the [particular] concept of reality, into which this simulation fits as one of its logically most consistent elements, it is easy to make sarcastic fun of the false starlight and the false salvations that are sought under it. Nevertheless, this marvel has seldom been so little marveled at as in the work of Joseph Roth, who had his “first encounter with Antichrist” under this technical backdrop.

Roth writes a book of unmaskings. He follows the old pattern of the Platonic discovery that the realities with which we deal are only shadows and imitations; but he goes a step further beyond this schema when he establishes that everything that is even capable of being imitated is thereby lowered in its rank in reality. It is an attempt to oppose even the concept of reality that allows imitations to be real [wirklich] because they are efficacious [wirksam], without prejudice to what they may be derived from. Not only the shadows of the Platonic cave are convicted of their existential weakness, but the Ideas themselves are too, because it is still possible for those shadows to be their final derivative and the extreme indicator of their origin. What we have before us is a mirror-image reversal of Platonism: If in it the null grade of reality, in the shadows, was only possible because as images they were subordinate to the essentially imageable Ideas, now the unreality of the projections is only possible because their “originals” already suffer from unreality, so that “the reality that they imitate so deceivingly was not at all difficult to imitate, because it is not real.” This description of the cinema could in its turn be an imitation of the classic of this sort of cultural criticism, Max Picard’s Das Menschengesicht [The Human Face] of 1929: “Indeed, the real human beings, the living ones, had already become so shadowlike that the shadows on the screen had to seem real.” The unreality of reality is responsible for the artificial reality of unreality.

What Joseph Roth calls “the Antichrist” is the sum of the false realities. The boy encountered them for the first time at the beginning of his paideia [ education], in his Platonic cave: Not only the shadows but the cave itself was, so as to make the shadows possible, an artifact.

In those days a great wagon came along, drawn by invisible powers, and remained standing on an open space before the city. To begin with it sent a great machine forward, which was covered with a little tent made of linen, and on this a great tent, also made of linen, was spread out and set up like a dome, and if one went inside, the inside of the dome was a blue sky with many gold and silver stars…The dome was blue, and the stars were just as inaccessible and just as close as real stars are. For since a human being is not even tall enough to reach the roof of a circus tent erected by others of his kind, it did not matter to the person who sat beneath the dome whether it was the genuine sky or a copy of it. He could grasp neither the one nor the other with his hands. Consequently he was glad to believe that the one was the other, or vice versa. And since it became quite dark beneath and inside this dome made of tent linen, he was convinced that he sat in the midst of a clear, starry summer night…

Of course, under false heavens one can encounter false salvations. But they come from false expectations of an “authentic” and ultimate reality, of the genuine substance of nature that, because it is genuine, is at the same time not ready to hand. The demand for an authentic reality presupposes that one could tell by looking at the real that it is not the unreal-as long as one does not have to deal exclusively with the latter. But the production of this exclusiveness is what the Platonic cave and its technical successors imply.

The modern age added to this premise a further one. In Descartes’s consideration of doubt, the possibility is accepted that all the characteristics of the real could be imitated without the production of these characteristics having to generate, at the same time, the objective equivalent of reality. Leibniz was the first to urge, against Descartes, that the complete simulation of reality would in the end no longer be deception, because a deception requires both the implication of an assertion of what does not exist and that the person affected could suffer from being disillusioned, neither of which is the case here. The Baroque idea that life could be a dream has no terrors for Leibniz because expectation is determined by a new concept of reality in which the internal consistency of everything that is given is identical with all the ‘reliability’ of reality that is still possible.

There is something questionable and productive of misgivings in the demand for ultimate authenticity in all experiences, for an unmediated relation to the original, in a world that is characterized by overcrowding and can no longer keep open all paths to everything. This is no longer and not only a matter of the sincerity of one’s desire, not least of all because simulation surpasses artificially unaided [naturwüchsig] intuition. The starry heavens of intuition in the life-world are motionless for their viewer; if one also assumes that the everyday opportunity to view the heavens occurs at about the same time of day, there remain only the gradual seasonal displacement of the constellations, the Moon’s changes of phase, and the (even more difficult to perceive) motion of the planets. It is just not true that the natural heavens rotate soundlessly around the viewer; only the herdsmen of Chaldea were credited with having this experience without having any professional interest in having it. In contrast to this, the planetarium is a short of temporal telescope, which puts the static heavens in motion and by means of technical projection makes visible things that were never seen, that were really only disclosed by comparison of observations. Here it is a question not of duplicating experience that, with some effort, would also be possible ‘in the original’ for anyone at any time, but rather of augmenting what can be seen at all.

Narkonfin Apartments  Moscow, Russia  Architects Ginsburg, M.  Milinis, I.  1928-1929  Photograph Photographer- Robert Byron3

Moisei Ginzburg’s constructivist masterpiece: Narkomfin during the 1930s

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Recently I happened across a cache of extremely rare photos of Moisei Ginzburg’s constructivist masterpiece, Dom Narkomfin, in Moscow. They are reproduced here along with a brief popular exposition of the building’s history and current status by Athlyn Cathcart-Keays, which I thought quite good (despite an overly personalized narrative). Most of the photos were taken by three different individuals:

  1. Charles Dedoyard, a Frenchman and contributor to the avant-garde journal L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui;
  2. Vladimir Gruntal, a noted constructivist photographer and member of Rodchenko’s October Association; and
  3. Robert Byron, a British travel writer and Byzantine historian known for his deep appreciation of architecture.

It’s difficult for me to say whose photographs of Narkomfin I like best, as each capture very different “moods” of the building. Byron’s are dark, brooding, and ominous, while those of Gruntal and Dedoyard are comparatively sunny, vivacious, and light. Someone who knows more about photography, especially architectural photography, might say more about them. Ginzburg’s revolutionary communal housing structure is as photogenic as ever, though the real complexity of the building tends to get lost in single snapshots (whether taken indoors or from the outside). Hopefully I’ll be writing a longer article on Narkomfin soon. Please contact me if you’d like to publish it.

Lately, apart from work, I’ve been wasting far too much time antagonizing tankies on Twitter — defending friends and Slavoj Žižek along the way — instead of spending it on more productive ventures. They’re young, and I’m bored, but it’s not like my trolling and ceaseless mockery will persuade them of anything. So I apologize to anyone I’ve offended these past several weeks. From now on, I’ll try to redirect my energies to more fruitful ends. Besides a few pieces I’ve already written and have stowed on the backburners, I think I’m going to finally finish that book for Zer0. Enjoy these for now.

Charles Dedoyard
Dedoyard, C. Exterior view of the People's Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow September 1932 Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the Narkomfin (People's Commissariat for Finance) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932b Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the Narkomfin (People's Commissariat for Finance) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932a Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the Narkomfin (People's Commissariat for Finance) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932 Dedoyard, C.  Exterior view of the People's Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) Apartment Building, 25 Novinskii Boulevard, Moscow, September 1932

Vladimir Gruntal

Robert Byron

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Unknown  Interior views of the House-commune of transitional type communal centre, some showing Solomon Lisagor, Rostokino, Moscow, 1928-1930 [www.imagesplitter.net]-1-1 Unknown  Interior views of the House-commune of transitional type communal centre, some showing Solomon Lisagor, Rostokino, Moscow, 1928-1930 [www.imagesplitter.net]-1-0 Unknown  Interior views of the House-commune of transitional type communal centre, some showing Solomon Lisagor, Rostokino, Moscow, 1928-1930 [www.imagesplitter.net]-0-1 Unknown  Interior views of the House-commune of transitional type communal centre, some showing Solomon Lisagor, Rostokino, Moscow, 1928-1930 [www.imagesplitter.net]-0-0

Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin building in Moscow: A Soviet blueprint for collective living

Athlyn Cathcart
The Guardian
May 5, 2015

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In the shadow of one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers in Moscow’s Presnenskii District, an unkempt park gives way to a trio of yellowing buildings in varying states of decay. The crumbling concrete and overgrown wall-garden don’t give much away, but this is the product of the utopian dreams of a young Soviet state — a six-storey blueprint for communal living, known as the Narkomfin building.

Designed by architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis in 1928, the building represents an important chapter in Moscow’s development — as both a physical city and an ideological state. Built to house the employees of the Narodnyo Kommissariat Finansov (Commissariat of Finance), Narkomfin was a laboratory for social and architectural experimentation to transform the byt (everyday life) of the ideal socialist citizen. Continue reading

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Cognord: The Syriza trilogy

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COGNORD
is unfortunate enough to have been born in Greece, and fortunate enough to have participated in the social movements which attempted to put a halt to the capitalist devaluation of that country. Shortly after the farewell party of the movement (the magnificent general strike and intense riots of February 12th, 2012) he left Greece and settled in a cold place. Occasionally, he writes articles about his native land. He is also a member of the Communists in Situ collective, whose blog everyone should check out.

In my opinion, Cognord’s articles provide far and away the best Marxist analysis of Syriza and Greece.

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Is it possible to win the war after losing all the battles?

Cognord
Brooklyn Rail
February 2015

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Prehistory of a success

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The announcement of national elections in Greece, roughly two years before the coalition government of New Democracy and Pasok completed their term, immediately sparked a renewed interest in this southern and economically peripheral European country. The relative silence that preceded this novel attention for the last two years was, at least in media terms, understandable. If Greece enjoyed an earlier moment of fame, it was primarily due to the unprecedented austerity measures imposed by the troika — the European Commission, European Central Bank (ECB), and International Monetary Fund (IMF) — in exchange for new loans, designed to “assist” the Greek state after it officially announced, in April 2010, that it was unable to repay its existing, “non-viable” sovereign debt (120 percent of GDP at the time). The reactions to the implementation of the austerity program were also pivotal in bringing Greece into the spotlight: general strikes, violent demonstrations, and the movement of the squares ensured, between 2010 and 2012, that the future of Greece’s “fiscal consolidation program” (to borrow the official economic jargon) was seriously threatened. Along with the memorandum imposed by the troika, what came under attack was the legitimacy of the political system,1 generating wild speculation about the future of Greece’s membership in the Eurozone, as well as the unpredictable consequences this could have for the EU, not to mention the global economy.

However, the movement which tried to halt the austerity program failed. The reasons are varied, and it is not within the scope of this article to explain them in detail. Suffice it to say that, as in every other social movement, this failure should be traced to both the violent determination of the government(s) to proceed with austerity at all costs (for which the ruling factions have paid a price) and the inability of the movement to transform itself from a defensive mobilization to protect existing conditions into an offensive attack on the conditions that created the crisis.

Nonetheless, the attention that Greece received was justifiable. Without exaggeration, one could argue that many of the political strategies of resistance which the international left has only read about in books were tried and tested in Greece in the years after the crisis: general strikes with massive participation, bringing economic activities to a halt; militant and violent demonstrations with constantly growing numbers of participation; neighborhood assemblies that sought to act as minuscule formations of self-organization, attempting to deal with immediate issues caused by the crisis; one of the most militant squares movements, which managed to call for two successful general strikes; a climate of continuous antagonism that gradually but steadily involved more and more people.

It is, however, no exaggeration to say that none of these inspiring moments managed to counteract the effects of the crisis and its management by the state. However exhilarating, promising, and tense these outbreaks were for those of us who participated in them, it has become imperative to understand their failure to achieve even a small (however reformist) victory.

In official terms, the crisis has only become worse in the last years. Overall unemployment has risen to 27 percent (from 12.5 percent in 2010), primarily hitting young people (60.6 percent for those aged 17-25); wage cuts across the public sector are between 30 and 40 percent, while in the private sector the number is only slightly lower (25 percent on average).2 Small businesses (the backbone of the Greek economy, constituting around 95 percent of all business activity) have been devastated by the crisis and the austerity measures (more than 250,000 have been closed), while cuts in the Health and Education budgets amount to more than 25 percent. Total GDP losses amount to 24 percent, while despite these cuts (or, as some would say, as a result of them), state debt in Greece has dramatically risen from 120 percent in 2010 to 176 percent of GDP today.

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The death of Marat and the death of art

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Jean-Paul Marat, the famous French revolutionary and member of the Club des Cordeliers, was assassinated by the Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday two hundred twenty-two years ago today. David’s rendering of Marat lying dead and bloodied in his bathtub, Corday’s concocted note still held in his left hand, is perhaps the most iconic political image of all time. On numerous occasions it has been parodied, satirized, and otherwise détourned (most notably in 1860, under Louis Bonaparte’s reactionary Second Empire, by the “patriotic” painter Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry).

An account of Marat’s death and subsequent canonization as a martyr of the Revolution appears below, taken from Arno Mayer’s The Furies (2000). This is then followed by several hilarious, more recent parodies of David’s painting. I’ve already stated on numerous occasions that art is, for all intents and purposes, dead. So it should come as no surprise that The Death of Marat itself would itself fall victim to the death of art. Enjoy.

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The death of Marat
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Had it not been for the rising storm [of Terror], the assassination of Marat, on July 13, 1793, the eve of the fourth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, most likely would have been an isolated and harmless bolt of political lightning. But with the turbulent weather, Marie-Anne-Charlotte de Corday d’Armont’s fatal deed touched off a political firestorm. In death even more than in life, Marat lent himself to being at once apotheosized and demonized — as the incarnation of good or evil, light or darkness, virtue or vice, purity or impurity.

Disenchanted with the Revolution, Charlotte Corday claimed that by killing Marat she meant to “avenge untold innocent victims” as well as “save thousands of lives…and prevent many other disasters.” When the judges, before sentencing her to death, asked whether she “thought she had slain all the Marats,” she replied that with “this one dead, all the others will be put in fear.”

Almost instantly Corday was both excoriated and extolled as the arch-avenger. One of the revolutionary papers reported that on hearing of Marat’s assassination, several women exclaimed that death by guillotine would be “too mild for such a heinous crime” and vowed to “cut up and devour the scoundrel who had deprived the people of their best friend.” After noting in Père Duchesne that to curse Corday was to “fire the people’s vengeance,” Hébert likewise insisted that to “fit the crime” the punishment would have to be “more terrible and degrading than death by guillotine.” As for Charlotte Corday, on being turned over to the Abbaye prison, she apparently feared “that the people would tear her limb from limb.” She did not breathe easier until she thought she stood fair to be “beheaded by the guillotine, which would be a gentle death.”

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There was, indeed, considerable apprehension that an overwrought crowd would once again invest the Abbaye prison, this time to touch off an uncontrollable massacre with the vindictive slaying of Marat’s assassin. At the Convention several deputies, worried that a popular “clamor for vengeance” would set off “a terrible explosion,” urged citizens to remain both calm and vigilant at the same time that they reassured them that they “would be avenged.” Likewise François Hanriot, the hardline commander of the capital’s national guard, simultaneously approved the cry for vengeance and stressed that “the best way to keep in check the aristocracy was to trust and support our courts of law.” Presently even the firebrand Hébert sought to calm the atmosphere, insisting that “the day of vengeance was not yet at hand” partly because Paris still needed to persuade the provinces that the capital was not “a city of cannibals.”

In the meantime, at the main Jacobin club there was a move to enshrine Marat, the martyr of liberty, in the Pantheon. But Robespierre objected, contending that by giving people a false sense of “redress,” such a spectacular homage would assuage their “thirst for vengeance.” On July 15 a delegation of the Society of the Men of August 10 came to the Convention to “demand that Marat be avenged” rather than given “the honors of the Pantheon,” not least because he was, in any case, assured of a “permanent Pantheon in everyone’s heart.”

By this time several bards of the Revolution were entrusted with planning a solemn funeral rite for Marat. It stands to reason that the iconoclastic intelligentsia, including the unbound artists of the new order, should have turned to celebrating and commemorating the Revolution’s major events and heroic leaders or martyrs. In this way they hoped to challenge and replace the resplendent public ceremonials of the ancien régime. Jacques-Louis David is emblematic of these self-conscious activist illuminati who came forward to assist in laying the foundations for a future full of promise. An early partisan of reform, he was radicalized by the force of circumstance. With time he became a fervent champion of the nascent republic and Jacobin patriotism. David was elected one of the capital’s deputies in the National Convention and eventually served on its Committee of General Security. He had a sympathetic understanding for Robespierre and Marat, with whom he consorted off and on.

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David emerged, of course, as not only the peerless painter-artist of the Revolution but also its master metteur en scène. Characteristically he idealized and ideologized one of the Revolution’s grand founding events in The Oath of the Tennis Court, his first and arguably one of his most compelling historical paintings, started in mid-1790. No less exemplary, David was the guiding spirit of the ceremonial transfer of Voltaire’s ashes to the Pantheon in June 1791. This sober and grandiose funeral procession, partly mimetic of yesterday’s religious prototype and featuring Greco-Roman imagery, was staged to symbolize and herald “the victory of reason over superstition, philosophy over theology, justice over tyranny, tolerance over fanaticism.” David was responsible for the overall “organization” and “decoration” of this and several later public rites, while François Gossec and Marie-Joseph Chénier provided, respectively, the music and lyrics.

David does not seem to have had a hand in conceiving and staging the cavalry of Louis XVI — procession, execution, burial — on January 21, 1793, which was designed to consummate the king’s profanation as a symbol of monarchy while diligently precluding his living on as a martyr. Indeed, David’s calling and vision was to construct, represent, and memorialize heroes, not anti-heroes; martyrs, not demons. Nowhere was his revolutionary commitment more intensely tested and expressed than in his orchestration of the funeral of Jean-Paul Marat and his martyr painting of this uncommon revolutionary. A few months earlier David had experimented with new techniques of funeral pageantry and iconography in rendering honor to Michel Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau. As deputy from Yonne, this aristocrat had voted the death penalty for Louis XVI. In revenge for this apostasy, Lepeletier was mortally stabbed by a former royal bodyguard. David arranged for his semi-nude corpse, with its fatal wound unhidden, to lie in state on the Place Vendôme preceding a memorial service on the floor of the Convention. Shortly thereafter David captured the atmosphere and message of the ceremony in his painted exaltation of Lepeletier. In every respect, Lepeletier’s apotheosis prefigured Marat’s. Continue reading

Nearing completion. Photographer- Robert Byron, © Courtauld Institute of Art

Gosprom: The State Industry building in Kharkov, 1925-1928

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The most breathtaking of all constructivist projects has to be the Gosprom complex (or “Palace of Industry”) in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. There can’t have been anything else of this scale and ambition anywhere else in Europe at the time: indeed, it resembles more some particularly ambitious work of the late 1960s than the mid-twenties, an unacknowledged prototype of that sixties motif, the elevated walkway, the street in the sky. Constructed between 1926 and 1928, apparently by volunteers from the local Komsomol, this is Metropolis — or Aelita — actualized. Concrete and glass blocks from 7 to 13 storeys connected by skyways, curving round a huge public square, this resembles a small city in its own right. Its designers, Serafimov, Kravets, and Felger, appear to have been as obscure at the time as they have been since, yet only an El Lissitsky, a Gropius, or a Corbusier were designing anything as ambitious in 1926. Eisenstein and Vertov both used it on film (The General Line and Three Songs of Lenin, respectively), aptly, as the contrasts, angles and multiple levels had spatial affinities to their montage techniques: more literally, Friedrich Ermler used it in Fragment of Empire, a communist Rip van Winkle tale, as exemplar of the incomprehensible new world that the sleeper awakes to.

(From Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism)

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Nothing new to see here: Towards a critique of communization

Donald Parkinson
Communist League
June 30, 2015

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Originally posted at Communist League Tampa

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Awaiting the release of Endnotes 4, I decided to write a critique of the broad tendency of communization, focusing specifically on Dauvé and Theorie Communiste. Quite a few have asked me for a critique of Endnotes and communization theory more broadly, seeing as I mentioned these things briefly in my earlier piece Towards a Communist Left. So I decided to elaborate on my critique of these currents as well as provide a critical introduction to communization in general.

Communization must be placed within the context of the overall defeat of proletarian struggles in the 20th century. This defeat in many ways led to a crisis in Marxism, where increasingly isolated theorists looked to innovate and break from orthodoxy in order to “save” Marxist theory and politics. Sometimes breaks with orthodoxy are necessary. Yet there is also a danger of needlessly breaking with orthodoxy in the name of theoretical innovation, when instead the result is just a repetition of past bad politics. While communization theory does make the occasional interesting insight and serve as a useful theoretical foil, it is largely the case that what it offers is not a fresh new perspective for Marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication.

Communization refers to relatively broad tendency of writers and journals that don’t all agree on everything. When referring to communization one has to be careful what they say, as there is as much divergence amongst “communizers” as there is ideological unity. Overall what unites this tendency is a belief that revolution will have to immediately establish communist relations of production from day one, that an immediate break from waged labor, commodity production and the value-form is to be favored as opposed to an approach where the working class holds political power and dismantles capitalism in a transition period that may temporarily maintain aspects of capitalism. Added to this is a general hostility to organized politics and anything resembling “old forms” like parties, councils, and unions.

Overall communization can fall into two camps: Gilles Dauvé’s “normative” communization and Theorie Communiste’s “structuralist” theory of communization. The key differences between these tendencies can be found in Volume 1 of Endnotes, essentially a debate between Dauvé and Theorie Communiste. In his pamphlet When Insurrections Die, Dauvé puts forward the thesis that the proletariat failed in past revolutions because it didn’t make a sufficient break with waged labor, opting for self-management and collectivization instead where labor vouchers replaced money. Using Spain as his example, Dauvé argues that these revolutions failed because they aimed to manage the proletarian condition rather than abolish it, therefore reproducing capitalism in a different form. Therefore the idea of a transition period where the proletariat raises itself to the ruling class within a decaying capitalism is to be rejected in favor of the immediate “self-abolition” of the proletariat.

Dauvé’s work is in many ways an attempt to square the insights of older left communists like Anton Pannekoek and Amadeo Bordiga with the ideas of the Situationist International. Dauvé is just as critical of workers councils managing production as he is critical of the party-form, opting for an approach that focuses on the content of revolution, this content being an immediate break with waged labor and money aka communization. For Dauvé the abolition of value is key to revolution, something that can not be achieved gradually or “by half steps” but in the process of insurrection itself. This means rejecting any kind of scheme involving “labor vouchers” or “labor notes” where labor-time is directly measured to determine the worker’s access to the social product, even if these measures are merely temporary transitional steps towards communism.

Dauvé makes many important points, many of which are reiterations of classic left communist politics (for example, rejecting the anti-fascist popular front). Bringing value and its abolition back into the picture is certainly important, reminding us that communism is not simply a better way of managing capitalist forms but a radical break from wage labor and the commodity-form itself. His critiques of councilist formalism and workers self-management also are welcome as antidotes to many ideas among the anti-Stalinist left that act as if Stalinism would work if more self-management existed (PARECON comes to mind). It’s also a move away from traditional leftist workerism, that valorizes workers as workers rather than a class which abolishes itself and all other classes. Putting the transformation of social relations at the heart of communist revolution is certainly a step forward. Yet Dauvé has little to suggest how this can be achieved, only stating that Kautksy and Lenin’s formula of merging socialism with the workers movement is to be avoided because communism is imminent to the struggle of labor against capital.

Theorie Communiste responds to Dauvé by accusing his argument of essentially being tautological: the communist movement failed because it failed to produce communism. For Theorie Communiste, Dauvé sees communism as a normative essence within the proletariat itself, and that past revolutions failed because the proletariat failed to live up to this essence or are betrayed by managers and chose to manage capitalism instead of create communism. Dauvé fails to answer the question of why the workers didn’t create communism, and instead simply states the obvious. Rather than being some essence to the proletariat, Theorie Communiste see communism as a product of the historical periodization of capitalism, which is itself a series of cycles of contradictions between the proletariat and capital.

For Theorie Communiste the “why” question of why workers didn’t create communism is answered by the concept of programmatism. Programmatism basically means the “old workers’ movement” which was all about affirming the proletarian condition rather than abolishing it. This is meant to describe the entire workers movement of the past, not just its more reformist elements, describing all politics where “revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalized self-management, or a “society of associated producers.” Programmatism in this theory is not a means towards communism, but a product of capitalism in the phase of “formal subsumption” transitioning into the more advanced phase of “real subsumption.” This phase decomposed in the period of the 1920s to the 1970s, leading to today’s modern phase of “real subsumption” where capitalism has fully dominated the proletariat. Programmatism created a “worker identity” that allowed for an affirmation of the proletariat that is now no longer possible, and therefore there can only be the complete negation of the proletarian condition through its immediate self-abolition.

This argument, while more sophisticated than Dauvé’s, essentially reduces the entire workers movement to a means of capitalist development and claims that all along communism was impossible until (conveniently) now. Yet why this era will produce communism when all class struggle in the past simply affirmed capital is never explained. Without the millenarian expectations of apocalyptic revolution Theorie Communiste’s theory simply would argue that communism is impossible. It also completely writes off the actual possibility of organizing politically and developing a real strategy to defeat capitalism, since any attempt to organize the proletariat to abolish itself would mean organizing it as a class within capitalism and therefore affirming it. As a result the only way forward will be spontaneous outbursts that develop to the point of some kind of “rupture with the wage relation.” Theorie Communiste and Dauvé have very similar positions when it comes to their actual political conclusions, which is that revolution will not have a transition based on a dictatorship of the proletariat organized in parties and councils but see an immediate move towards communism, where value is abolished and free access to all goods is established. They just come to these conclusions from different theoretical reckonings. Theorie Communiste are ultra-determinist, almost to the point of being fatalist, while Dauvé seems to suggest communism was possible all along if the workers made the right choices.

In this sense they theorize the conclusions of the anarchist Kropotkin, who imagined a revolution taking the form of local communities spontaneously establishing common access to all property and federating with each other as needed without any kind of transition where the proletariat would hold state power. Kropotkin came from a time where self-sufficient peasants were far more prominent as well as their spontaneous outbursts, making his politics a bit more believable and easier to sell. While Dauvé and Theorie Communiste don’t spell out the localist implications of their theory, the idea that there must be immediate communization does strongly suggest that in a revolutionary situation isolated regions would attempt essentially autarkic communism rather than making any kind of compromises with the old order. Other adherents of communization, like Jasper Bernes in his essay Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Project do essentially spell this out. Bernes argues the complexity of the global division of labor means revolutionary zones would have to trade with other nations to operate capitalist means of production. Bernes writes off the idea of trade since this would entail temporarily holding onto aspects of capitalism, instead suggesting that revolutionaries won’t be able to operate most capitalist forces of production. How this strategy will be capable of feeding people in a crisis situation never seems to cross his mind. At least communization theorist Bruno Astarian in his article Communization as a Way Out of the Crisis openly admits that people may have to starve for his schemes to work out:

Finally, there is always the chance that the supply of flour for our bakers will be sporadic, at least at first, if the proletarians at the mill prefer to discuss the meaning of love or life instead of grinding wheat. Would this lead to chaos? We shall be told that today there will be no bread. You just have to accept it. Another alternative is that someone conceives a plan, quantified and taking time scales into account, and someone else complies with its terms. In such a case not only is value reestablished. In fact, a proletarian experience of this kind has no future: if it works the proletarians will rapidly lose their rights (restoration of wage labor in one form or another); if it does not work they will return to the old framework of unemployment and unpaid wages. It is likely, in any event, that the communizing solution will not be considered until various chess matches of this kind have tried and found wanting.

What all of this ignores is that communism isn’t possible on a local scale, and that “true” communism where value has been completely abolished will require the co-operation of all of humanity utilizing the the worlds collective productive forces. This reason alone explains why immediate communization is not possible, with transition being a necessity imposed by objective circumstances rather than the will of revolutionaries. It also misses the basic Marxist insight that it is capitalism that creates the conditions for communism in the sense of creating a globalized society (with a global class, the proletariat) with forces of production that are developed enough to allow humanity to pursue a life beyond endless toil and starvation.

Immediate communization is also impossible because of the realities of specialization under capitalism, where a large and essentially petty-bourgeois strata of professionals with skill-sets necessary for the reproduction of society (surgeons for example) are able to use their monopolies on skills and information to assert a privileged position above proletarians in society. This strata would have much reason to resist communism and withhold their skills at the expense of society to assert material privileges. As a result concessions would have to given to this strata until their skill monopolies can be broken through the collective reorganization of production and education in a way to challenge the very basis of the mental/manual division of labor. Such a process would not happen overnight, problematizing the notion that a immediate transcendence of capitalism is possible. In other words transition isn’t something revolutionaries choose but something imposed by objective conditions. Communism must be created from the raw material produced by capitalism, raw materials that aren’t as malleable as the “revolutionary will” of communists would like them to be. Continue reading

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No, Žižek did not attribute a Goebbels quote to Gramsci

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After I debunked Molly Klein’s baseless claim that Žižek was the editor of the Ljubljana student zine Tribuna when it printed a translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a few of her dimwitted supporters kept saying that I was focusing too much on this one claim and ignoring the mountain of other “evidence” she’d compiled regarding the Slovenian philosopher. So I figured I’d have a crack at another of her outrageous claims.

By the way, I swear to god this is the last one of these things I’m going to write. Klein’s modus operandi seems to go something like this:

  1. Make as many ridiculous and poorly researched, half-literate claims as possible.
  2. If anyone disputes one of your claims or clearly demonstrates that it’s incorrect, either ignore him/her or
    1. accuse them of ignoring all the other “legitimate” criticisms she’s advanced.
    2. simply continue making same ridiculous claims despite direct evidence disproving them.
  3. Repeat.

For bonus points, call everyone a “fascist” or suggest that they’re a “psyop.” Žižek doesn’t really need my help. Still, it’s fun to beat up on feeble-minded frauds like Klein. Enjoy the carnage below.

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Another spurious claim Molly has repeatedly made is that Žižek deliberately conflated a pair of quotes by two quite distinct individuals. Namely, the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, and the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. It so happens that the quote in question is one of Žižek’s favorites. He likes to use it a lot. So it appears in several of his texts, not just the article he wrote for New Left Review. At any rate, the quote Žižek attributes to Gramsci runs as follows: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Recent photo of myself alongside fellow Twitter proles doing battle with Molly Klein the foul monster pictured at the top

Recent photo of myself alongside other nameless Twitter proles doing battle with Molly Klein the grotesque monster pictured at the top

Klein is convinced for some unknown reason that Žižek is in fact quoting Goebbels, with slight modifications added to throw readers off the scent. She laid it all out in a blog post a few years back. “Needless to say,” remarked Klein, “Gramsci said no such thing.” Following this there is a long quotation from the original Italian, though only one line from it was relevant: La crisi consiste appunto nel fatto che il vecchio muore e il nuovo non può nascere: in questo interregno si verificano i fenomeni morbosi piú svariati. Rendered more literally into English, as the 1971 International Publishers edition does, it reads: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born, in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Indeed, from this it would seem that Žižek either translated Gramsci very loosely, or is substituting a different quote for Gramsci’s entirely. Where could Žižek have gotten it from? Naturally, Klein’s first instinct is to look for some source in the annals of Nazism that resembles the one Žižek supposedly put in the mouth of Gramsci. A few keyword searches on Google and there you have it — gold, jackpot, Goebbels! “We know today that the old world is dying and that we are seeing the struggle for a new world,” the propaganda minister wrote in 1939, a few months before his country plunged Europe into war. Somewhat similar, sure. “Old world” and “new world” vs. “the old” and “the new.” Klein concludes: “that is Goebbels via Žižek passed off as Gramsci.” Continue reading

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Fauxcahontas: On Andrea Smith, colonialism, and “authenticity”

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The Andrea Smith debacle likely won’t get as much play as the Rachel Doležal incident from a few weeks back. In my opinion, though, Smith is way worse than Doležal. Not only has she been lying about her heritage for more than two decades, she’s positioned herself as a major theorist within “decolonial” studies and discourse. Her papers are still widely cited across the field, author of the hugely influential Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide and an editor for Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society, as well as the collection Theorizing Native Studies. Smith is much more prominent intellectually and institutionally in indigenous politics than Doležal ever was in black politics.

Most of the reactions I came across on social media regarding Smith were of shocked disbelief, especially those that showed some prior familiarity with her work and awareness of her standing as a leading theoretician of decoloniality. “Wow — Andrea Smith has been a force,” remarks one. “All built on a lie about identity.” Clearly surprised, another recalls: “Just found out Andrea Smith was faking her indigenous ancestry. It went on so long. Her work was big when I was in uni in 2005.” Zehra Husain exclaims, incredulous: “What? What? Andrea Smith?”

Those who’d studied her texts closely were hit even harder by the news. “This is really surprising and troubling as someone who has studied her work,” one student writes. Ayanna Dozier reacts similarly: “Well, damn. This is very upsetting. I have to rethink my relationship to Andrea Smith’s work.” Matt Jaber Stiffler candidly admits: “Andrea Smith was on my dissertation committee. Feeling torn today.”

Others are more apologetic. “Andrea Smith enhanced the debate, the conversation, the thinking, the thought,” Rinaldo Walcott maintains. “Regardless of Andrea Smith’s identity, the power and clarity of her seminal work Conquest cannot be denied. It still informs my thinking,” expresses another.  “Opportunistic white people should keep their mouths on the Andrea Smith case,” opined Karen Macrae, herself white.

Joanne Barker of the Delaware Tribe published a fairly scathing critique of Smith, though. Entitled “Rachel Doležal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity,” it anticipated the charges against Smith would be met with defensive and dismissive responses, “including criticisms of those who did the circulating [of information] as witch-hunters, mean-spirited, lacking logic, not knowing what they were talking about, and the like.” Klee Benally, another well known indigenous activist, immediately leapt to Smith’s defense, confirming this prediction. She publicly decried what she called

a witch hunt against fierce feminist author and friend, Andy Smith. While I’m not privy to all that’s been published, so far I’ve read Barker’s response and a couple others. Her statements eerily evoke COINTELPRO bad-jacketing rather than Indigenous feminism. Reading it I couldn’t help ask myself what interests are served via this pillory?

When Ward Churchill’s identity was called into question it clearly served a conservative agenda. My position then was that his identity is between him and the creator and an issue for his family and Nation to address internally through their own cultural process. After all, the primary issues regard accountability, colonialism, and white supremacy. I still maintain that his political contributions shouldn’t be uncritically thrown out when challenged with the colonial institution of “blood-quantum.”

And here we Marxists thought colonialism meant the dispossession and oppression of the native population in order to create a racially-structured, low-cost workforce. Turns out colonialism is actually just being mean to self-proclaimed representatives of “the indigenous.” What a silly and inconsequential thing colonialism would be, in that case.

Such suspicions are not entirely unjustified. Churchill, the scholar who Benally mentioned above, has detailed a long history of infiltration and counterintelligence pursued by the federal government against the Amerindian movement (before serious inconsistencies were noticed in several statements he made concerning his own ancestry). The Trotskyist International Socialist Organization, or ISO, has raised similar doubts about those making accusations within their milieu.

However, all of the documents compiled regarding Smith’s heritage seem to be vetted and verified. If the allegations are true — and Smith is not only not Cherokee, but is not of native descent at all — then there is no more damning critic of her actions than Smith herself. As she wrote in her 1994 article, “For All Those Who Were Indian In A Former Life”:

When white “feminists” see how white people have historically oppressed others and how they are coming very close to destroying the earth, they often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness. They do this by opting to “become Indian.” In this way, they can escape responsibility and accountability for white racism. Of course, white “feminists” want to become only partly Indian. They do not want to be part of our struggles for survival against genocide, and they do not want to fight for treaty rights or an end to substance abuse or sterilization abuse. They do not want to do anything that would tarnish their romanticized notions of what it means to be an Indian.

Moreover, they want to become Indian without holding themselves accountable to Indian communities. If they did they would have to listen to Indians telling them to stop carrying around sacred pipes, stop doing their own sweat lodges and stop appropriating our spiritual practices. Rather, these New Agers see Indians as romanticized gurus who exist only to meet their consumerist needs. Consequently, they do not understand our struggles for survival and thus they can have no genuine understanding of Indian spiritual practices.

“The work of Andrea Smith does not excuse her blatant disrespect toward and appropriation of the experiences of Native American women,” writes one commentator, stating the obvious. Less egregious than the scandal surrounding The Education of Little Tree (1976), a children’s book about a wee lad growing up between two worlds: the alienating world of “white” modernity on the one hand, and the mystical organic Volksgemeinschaft of his Cherokee grandfather on the other. Everyone ate it up like pigs at a trough, including prominent Native Americans who affirmed that the author clearly must be a genuine native. It won awards, was taught in schools. Some diligent indigenous scholars later found out toward the end of the 1970s that the author was in fact white. And not just any white man, either, but Asa Earl Carter (using the pseudonym “Forrest”). Carter was a notorious white supremacist and a speechwriter for George Wallace. He’d written the infamous “segregation now, segregation forever!” speech a decade or so earlier.

One has to love this category, “authenticity.” It seizes on a real shortcoming within bourgeois society, the persistence of injustice and inequality, and then redirects this recognition to reactionary ends, embracing the perceived irrationalism of that which escapes civilizational norms. “The bourgeois form of rationality has always needed irrational supplements in order to maintain itself as what it is, continuing injustice through justice,” wrote Theodor Adorno in The Jargon of Authenticity. “Such irrationality in the midst of the rational is the working atmosphere of authenticity. The latter can support itself on the fact that over a long period of time literal as well as figurative mobility, a main element in bourgeois equality, always turned into injustice for those who could not entirely keep up.” Affirming irrationality or mysticism, that seemingly genuine immediacy that escapes so-called “Western” modes of rationality or enlightenment, is no better than what it opposes or denies. In no way does it transcend the abstract totality of modern society, or remove the layers of mediation that exist therein. Quite the opposite: it sustains it.

Smith’s fakery is more along the lines of Ward Churchill than Rachel Doležal or Binjamin Wilkomirski, let alone Forrest Carter. Outrageous nevertheless. Probably the sickest burn I came across online, however, caustically observed that “[t]here are plenty of members of the Wanabi tribe.” Inverting the title of Glen S. Coulthard’s recent book, Red Skin, White Masks, we might say that Andrea Smith is a case of someone with white skin who wears a red mask. Fauxcahontas, then?