Birthday > Earth Day: Happy 144th, Vladimir Il’ich!

Never thought of it before, but Maiakovskii’s tripled refrain

Ленин ⎯ жил,
Ленин ⎯ жив,
Ленин ⎯ будет жить!

…in his poem Lenin, seems to echo Rosa Luxemburg‘s final written words in “Order Reigns in Berlin”:

Ich war,
Ich bin,
Ich werde sein!

Vladimir Lenin, born 144 years ago today. Some rare and not-so-rare posters of Lenin appear below. Click to enlarge.

Nikolai Akimov - Lenin. For every 10,000 enemies we will raise millions of new fighters, 1925  Continue reading

Real abstraction: On the use and abuse of an idea

The Marxian notion of “real abstraction” has garnered a great deal of attention in leftist theoretical circles of late, with somewhat mixed results. It was first formulated and treated systematically by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, an economist associated with the Frankfurt School of social theory. Helmut Reichelt has pointed out, however, that the term was used prior in a couple instances by the German sociologist Georg Simmel (Reichelt, “Marx’s Critique of Economic Categories,” pg. 4). Notably, Simmel’s usage occurs in connection with the “abstract value” represented and measured by money, as that which converts qualitatively incommensurable items into quantitatively commensurable commodities. He writes that “not only the study of the economy [economics] but the economy itself is constituted by a real abstraction from the comprehensive reality of valuations” (Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, pg. 78).

With Sohn-Rethel, the exposition of the concept is much more thoroughgoing. According to the definition he provides in Intellectual and Manual Labor (1970), “real abstraction” refers solely to the social relationship of commodity exchange, or rather to their exchangeability as such. The exchange of commodities, and the abstract equivalence on which it is based, does not simply take place within the minds of those exchanging them. It occurs at the level of reality. Sohn-Rethel asserts that “real abstraction arises in exchange from the reciprocal relationship between two commodity-owners and it applies only to this interrelationship” (Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor, pg. 69).

Reichelt and others have noted the importance of the way this was framed by the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, one of Sohn-Rethel’s close friends and correspondents. He responded to charges of an overly “abstract” conceptualization of society by maintaining that this abstractness was not invented by sociologists, but rather belongs to the very constitution of social reality. Adorno explained:

The abstraction we are concerned with is not one that first came into being in the head of a sociological theoretician who then offered the somewhat flimsy definition of society which states that everything relates to everything else. The abstraction in question here is really the specific form of the exchange process itself, the underlying social fact through which socialization first comes about. If you want to exchange two objects and — as is implied by the concept of exchange — if you want to exchange them in terms of equivalents, and if neither party is to receive more than the other, then the parties must leave aside a certain aspect of the commodities…In developed societies…exchange takes place…through money as the equivalent form. Classical [bourgeois] political economy demonstrated, as did Marx in his turn, that the true unit which stands behind money as the equivalent form is the average necessary amount of social labor time, which is modified, of course, in keeping with the specific social relationships governing the exchange. In this exchange in terms of average social labor time the specific forms of the objects to be exchanged are necessarily disregarded instead, they are reduced to a universal unit. The abstraction, therefore, lies not in the thought of the sociologist, but in society itself. (Introduction to Sociology, pgs. 31-32)

Real abstraction does not refer to ideologies that arise on the basis of material exchange of goods, or the labor process that allows such exchange in the first place. Of course, Sohn-Rethel is interested in accounting for “the conversion of the real abstraction of exchange into the ideal abstraction of conceptual thought” (Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor, pg. 68). But this “conceptual abstraction” or “ideal abstraction” is clearly derivative, a mirroring of  the abstraction at work in reality itself at the level of ideas. Continue reading

The metropolis, money, and abstraction

What follows is an extract, some preliminary research, from an essay I’m working on with Sammy Medina. It’s in very rough form, and over-footnoted. Much of it will have to be cut. But I still felt like I had to go through everything step by step to make sure that each stage of the argument holds up. Once that’s done I’m hoping I’ll find shortcuts for how to say it with greater brevity.

The modern metropolis, both in its historical origins and present-day existence, is the site of capitalist accumulation par excellence. As the German sociologist Georg Simmel put it in his celebrated 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” “[t]he metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy.”[1] Money played a vital role, after all, in shifting the political center of gravity away from the countryside toward the city. Despite the numerous titles and privileges enjoyed by clergymen and noblemen, the townsmen had one mighty weapon in their struggle against feudalism: money.[2] By removing the primacy of land tenure (i.e., the manorial system of fiefs and hereditary estates), it eroded the basis of traditional bonds of dependence. “Long before the ramparts of the old baronial castles were breached by the new artillery, they had already been undermined by money,” wrote Friedrich Engels in 1884. “In fact, gunpowder could be described as an executor of the judgment rendered by money.”[3]

With the increased availability of minted coins in Europe — starting in the twelfth century with the discovery of silver deposits in Thuringia,[4] but especially following the influx of precious metals from the New World after 1493[5] — commodity circulation took place on an expanded scale.[6] For merchants and moneylenders living in the cities, the pervasiveness of pecuniary transactions allowed them to leverage their position at the crucible of exchange  against the landed aristocracy in the surrounding territories.[7] The feudal lords relied on the towns both for their finished wares as well as the occasional loan, and thus fell prey to price gouging and crippling debt. Hard currency thereby helped bring about the decline of feudalism alongside the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.

Cities today invariably reflect this influence. Not simply owing to their past function as the breeding-ground of modern capitalism, but because of their ongoing inundation by the money form of capital as well. Practically every facet of urban life is organized according to synchronized rhythms of exchange.[8] Here money acts as a sort of perpetuum mobile, facilitating the circulation of commodities throughout the city and its environs.[9] At the same time, however, it accelerates the tempo of daily interactions, since “a change in monetary circumstances brings about a change in the pace of life,” as Simmel observed.[10] Whether a town was from the outset a center of trade or a seedbed of industry,[11] money eventually permeates its entire infrastructure. Replacing medieval relations rooted in so-called “natural economy,”[12] it soon becomes integral to the comings and goings of the whole populace.[13]

The move away from economies based on barter and the gift, where precise equivalence of exchange is either impossible or besides the point, toward economies based on money and credit acquires an almost world-historical significance in this light.[14] Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the unique character of a money economy. Continue reading

Mikhail Barshch’s housing-communes in Moscow 1928-1930

Karel Teige
The Minimum

Currently, the functions and dimensions of the jačejka as a new housing type are widely discussed in the USSR under the heading of the obshchezhitie [collective living] versus the dom-komuna. The collective house is seen as a kind of interim solution, designed to accomplish the transition from the rental barracks type to a higher mode of dwelling. These collective houses are intended to provide accommodations for more than one person, and sometimes even families share a single room. The apartments have no kitchens, which are provided separately and shared by a number of living units. In some cases public dining halls are provided instead. The dom-komuna represents a more authentic solution for collective living: it is a house designed for a large number of inhabitants — a big structure, without kitchens, but containing common children’s homes, clubs, and so on. An all-out collectivization of dwelling services implies that it is possible to develop two types of houses: the dwelling beehive or the dwelling combine.

One of the foremost advocates of the dom-komuna [i.e., dwelling combine] idea is [Leonid] Sabsovich, the author of the book The USSR in Fifteen Years [1929], where he proposes a much more developed version than that exemplified by early Moscow dwelling communes. His mature dom-komuna envisions complexes for two to ten thousand inhabitants. Each commune is conceived as a distinct community, a city, and includes meeting halls, a club, study rooms, a theater, movies, health care facilities, emergency rooms, exercise rooms, and so on. Other spaces are provided for the offices of the administration and the local soviet. Several of these dom-komuna can be combined to make up a residential city for adults. Children would be raised and educated outside of the city, in special school districts.

Barshch Vladimirov axonometric dom kommuna1bird's eye view housing commune Barshch Vladimirov

Sabsovich’s theories have been implemented to some degree in the well-known architectural project of a large dom-komuna by Mikhail Barshch and Vladimir Vladimirov, members of the Construction Committee of the Economic Soviet (Stroikom), with the difference that in this project the children’s home and the schools are included as an integral part of the complex, in order to prevent the segregation of children’s life away from adult life in special districts. It is a self-contained community, an independent dwelling complex and a new urban type, designed as a unified architectural structure serving both individual and collective life. Its design and built form reflect the organization of collective life. It succeeds in fusing into a unified whole a whole series of heterogeneous elements. According to Sabsovich, the fundamental question facing the new type of socialist housing is to define the center of gravity of the dwelling combine: is it represented by the common spaces or by the complex of individual rooms? In his opinion, there is no doubt that the center of gravity of any socialist dwelling should be the collective, social spaces. And, since it is imperative to build at the lowest possible cost and save space, he defends the position that unavoidably the individual dwelling cells must be kept as modest as possible, rather than skimping on collective spaces, where it is essential to nurture the new lifestyle. For the collective spaces, he establishes a minimum of three square meters per inhabitant (but never less than one square meter). Sabsovich assumes that the majority of the inhabitants will spend most of their free time in the collective spaces for recreation, lectures, study, physical culture, and similar activities, while they will use their individual cells only for sleep and possibly individual rest — in short, when biological needs make isolation from the collective necessary. On these assumptions, it should be possible to reduce the individual cell to a mere sleeping cubicle of minimal dimensions, with an approximate floor area of four to five square meters. The opponents of Sabsovich’s theory claim that such housing communes change communism into communalism and that it is neither advisable nor possible to bring together all private as well as collective living functions in a single building complex, even if loosely arranged. They argue that it would therefore be better to decentralize these functions and accommodate them in special buildings, which means that the ideal collective house should be conceived as a separate beehive, consisting solely of individual living cells. Continue reading

Avant-garde journal design: Building Moscow [Строительство Москвы], 1927-1931

Below are some pretty stellar avant-garde journal designs by Gustav Klutsis, Vasilii Elkin, and El Lissitzky for the monthly architecture journal Building Moscow. It ran through the 1930s, but progressively became less and less modernist in terms of both form (layout, formatting) and content (projects, proposals) as time went on. Number eleven from the year 1928 shows Le Corbusier’s influential proposal for the Tsentrosoiuz, or central union administration building, in Moscow. Here he incorporated a number of elements from his League of Nations proposal, which had been rejected the previous year.

There’s also a note here that I’ve included from the fourth issue of  1929. Enjoy!

Журнал Строительство Москвы, несомненно, становится все более содержательным. Им интересуются уже не только специалисты-строители и архитектора, но и широкие круги рабочей общественности. В свете строительных задач Москвы — ответственность органа Моссовета все более увеличивается. Continue reading

Bauhaus master Walter Gropius’ submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition, 1931

Just a few brief notes, since I’m presently occupied with other tasks and because I’ve dealt with this topic (however cursorily) elsewhere. Recently I stumbled upon a cache of outstanding images of Walter Gropius’ 1931 submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition in Moscow. The majority of these images are floor plans, numerous because of the complex multilevel structure Gropius envisioned. Many, however, are sketches — perspective and axonometric drawings — depicting the view of the Palace from the river as well as approaches to its various entrances. A few more show the building’s situation vis-à-vis the rest of the city, site plans and the like.

Some have noted the similarities between Gropius’ proposal for the Palace of the Soviets and his earlier experiments with the idea of “total theater” for Erwin Piscator. James Marston Fitch, for example, pointed out the continuities that exist between the designs Gropius made for Piscator up through a 1930 proposal for a theater in Kharkhiv, Ukraine, leading ultimately to his conception of the Palace of the Soviets (Fitch, Walter Gropius, pg. 22). Gropius had already designed a theater for Oskar Schlemmer at his Bauhaus building in Dessau.

Total theater.

Important differences may be mentioned as well, however. Certainly Gropius’ Palace of the Soviets project was conceived on a much grander scale, given the specifications and requirements outlined by the Bolshevik government. Predictably, this entailed shifting qualitative dynamics that couldn’t be solved merely by quantitative increase or multiplication. Acoustical studies thus form an integral part of Gropius’ argument for the viability of his building.

Obviously, as everyone knows, things didn’t turn out the way the modernists had expected in the USSR. Neoclassicism won out, much to the chagrin of Le Corbusier, Moisei Ginzburg, Hans Poelzig, Erich Mendelsohn, Hannes MeyerSigfried Giedion, and the rest. Many felt it was a repeat of the whole League of Nations debacle. Giedion even sent Stalin an angry collage in protest — a futile but rather entertaining gesture. Would’ve loved to have seen the befuddled look on Dzugashvilii’s face when he opened that letter.

You can enlarge any of these images by clicking on them and scrolling through the gallery I’ve compiled.


Continue reading

Erich Mendelsohn, Red Banner Textile Factory in Leningrad (1926)

Charlottenburg, Germany
July 11th, 1926

We have completed the early project for Stuttgart. The enclosed sheet shows its directness as a spatial organism. To alter it, i.e., to eliminate or add anything, will call for new work and a new design.

So it will be better to push it through as it is and thus bring it to life.

This evening I am traveling to Stuttgart via Nuremberg. We are doing without pictures — which are only attempts to deceive untrained eyes — but are having a colored model prepared straight away. K. is bringing it on Wednesday morning. Until then I will…put my iron in the fire. On Wednesday I am lunching with Bonatz and dining with him at Hildebrandt’s. The omens are favorable, though I cannot believe we shall triumph without a struggle.

But I have a good conscience with regard to this project, which is half the battle.

Still no final decision from Leningrad. My telegram in reply to the renewed Russian invitation is so far unanswered. In this I see neither a good nor a bad omen, but am simply remaining completely indifferent to the way things are developing, which is hard enough to control from close to and quite impossible at a distance.

The endless space of Russia makes dream and aspiration — idea and action — impenetrable in the negative sense, infinite in the positive. [my emphasis — RW]

Even having to reckon with the reality of the few months when building can be done in Leningrad upsets numerical calculations and shifts their emphasis. The constants remain, but the indices explode, because the Russians are not sufficiently knowledgeable about their inner value, and their necessary correlation.

Meanwhile speculation continues about our possible handling of the whole project development. My studio is today a complete forum for statical computations, not, as it is generally, a trapeze of intuition or a firm springboard of organized planning.

At the same time H. telephoned in order to hold out a 90 per cent certain prospect of the Mosse block being realized. All three blocks are to be built at once and my negotiations with the building authorities must be taken up “at once.” People coax me into making compromises, without permitting themselves to notice that they are prepared to sell me down the river at the appropriate moment. So it is necessary to be doubly watchful and unyielding.

If all this comes together, holidays and mountain lakes become unthinkable.

Leningrad, USSR
August 1st, 1926

The presentation of the project in Moscow has caused the Textile Trust the greatest difficulties and disagreeable cuts, additions, and mixtures — in short a fine flower of compromise…

They want to create a prototype on the basis of the latest international experience, but they entrust the incomplete picture to the hand of a bad copyist.

They make a basic revolution but they are bogged down by even more basic administration. They look to America but they are stuck fast in the suburbs of Königsberg. And all the possibilities are here, as you know.

But this new structure needs a broad base on which to rest, from which to summon up its strength. Everywhere there are those knowledgeable and active people who have always given the hungry mass a new understanding of their freedom, of the goal of all freedom and of man himself.

Continue reading

Noah’s arkhitektura: Ship-like constructivist buildings in former Leningrad (1930-1937)

Some photos of three ship-like buildings in former Leningrad designed by Noi [Russian version of "Noah"] Trotskii between 1930 and 1937. This resemblance has been pointed out by such scholars as Boris Kirikov in his book on the Leningrad avant-garde. Right now I’m finishing up a longer reflection on these buildings for Calvert Journal. For now, enjoy the pics.

Noi Trotskii (1895-1940).

Kirovskii District Council (1930-1935).

Kirov Palace of Culture (1931-1937).

Kirov meat-packing plant (1931-1933).

Reform and revolution in the age of online “social justice” campaigns

I’ve been trying to lay off pop culture political commentary these past few weeks, fearing that writing yet another article about the poverty of intersectionality theory or Flavia Dzodan and the narcissism of “identity” might distract me from more worthy ventures. But sometimes History itself intervenes and moves one to respond — that is,  if History can still be said to be happening (which it isn’t). Twitter activist Suey Park’s half-baked reflections on “reform and revolution” were bound to strike a chord with me. As an admirer of Rosa Luxemburg and her contribution to Marxist discourse on this subject, I couldn’t help but feel dismayed at the way these terms were being thoughtlessly bandied about, emptied both of content and relevant context. (Parks insists that “context” isn’t important, but that’s really besides the point).

Maybe I should be more forgiving, and regard Park’s political and historical illiteracy as the result of mere ignorance rather than deliberate effrontery, a cynical ploy to raise her profile as a leading voice for the oppressed. She did manage to land an interview conducted by the mainstream leftish media outlet Salon, after all. Enough equivocation, though. Here are her thoughts on the perennial dichotomy of reform versus revolution, from the viral marketing genius who brought us #notyourasiansidekick:

SALON: What is the best way to work with white people, to get them on our side?

SUEY PARK: I don’t want them on our side.

SALON: You don’t?

SUEY PARK: This is not reform, this is revolution.

SALON: So what do you want to see happen in your revolution?

SUEY PARK: I mean it’s already happening I think. The revolution will not be an apocalypse, it’s gonna be a series of shifts in consciousness that result in actions that come about, and I think that like, at this point is really like, ride or die, in terms who’s in and who is out. I don’t play by appeasement politics, it is not about getting my oppressors to humanize me. And in that sense I reject the respectability politics, I reject being tone-policed, I think we need to do away with this idea that these structures are…that the prisons can undergo reform and somehow do less violence as a structure.

Without claiming to be an authority on the matter, this is something I’ve actually written a lot about. So I hope the reader will excuse me if I share my perspective, fully aware that my arguments might fall short or fail to convince.

One doesn’t need to insist upon rigid designation or fixed points of reference to demonstrate that Park’s interpretation of “revolution” evacuates the word of any meaning it might have once possessed. This isn’t about positing some changeless synchronic language where words always just mean one thing and nothing else irrespective of shifting usage and convention. It’s about a specific (conservative) adaptation to changed political circumstances, a rationalization of defeat. For Park’s redefinition of revolution as “a series of shifts in consciousness resulting in actions that come about” is not simply an attempt to bring the concept up to date, to show what “revolution” might mean in the 21st century. Rather, it expresses deeper misgivings about the pervasive helplessness felt throughout contemporary politics, but in a way which occludes the possibility of its overcoming. Because radical social transformation no longer seems imaginable, Park’s rebrands revolution as something that’s already happening anyway. Much like Chávez’s “21st century socialism,” this basks in fresh air of postmodern ahistoricity, reassuring everyone that they’re remaining faithful to the good old cause while abdicating any real responsibility to the immense practical tasks set by that revolutionary socialism in the past. Continue reading