Jean Jaurès, one hundred years after his assassination

Jean Jaurès

Leon Trotsky
Kievskaya Mysl
July 17, 1915

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A
 year has passed since the death of the greatest man of the Third Republic. Events the like of which history has not previously known have welled up almost as if to wash away Jaurès’ blood with new blood and to divert attention away from him and to swallow up even his memory. But even the very greatest events have only partially succeeded in this. In France’s political life a great void has been left behind. New leaders of the proletariat answering the revolutionary character of the new era have not yet arisen. The old leaders only make us remember the more clearly that there is now no Jaurès.

HUMA

The war has thrown on one side not only individual figures but a whole era with them: the era during which the present leading generation in all spheres of life had been educated and brought up. Today this departed era on the one hand attracts our thoughts by the obstinacy of its cultural heritage, the uninterrupted growth of its technology, science and workers’ organizations; and on the other seems petty and characterless in the conservatism of its political life and in the reformist methods of its class struggle.

After the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune (1870-1871) a period of armed peace and political reaction set in. Europe, if one excluded Russia, knew neither war nor revolution. Capital developed on a mighty scale outgrowing the framework of nation-states and overflowing into the remaining countries and subjugating colonies. The working class built its trade unions and its socialist parties. However the whole of the proletarian struggle of this period was impregnated with the spirit of reformism, of adaptation to the existing order and to the nation’s industry and the nation’s state power. After the experience of the Paris Commune the European proletariat did not once pose the question of the conquest of political power in a practical, that is, a revolutionary way. This peaceful, “organic” character of the era reared a whole generation of proletarian leaders thoroughly steeped in distrust for the direct revolutionary mass struggle.

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When the war broke out and the nation-state embarked on its campaign with all its forces armed to the teeth, this generation could without difficulty place the majority of the “socialist” leaders down on their knees. The epoch of the Second International has thus ended with the violent wrecking of the official socialist parties. True they are still standing as monuments to a past age and supported both indirectly and forcibly by the governments. But the spirit of proletarian socialism has fled them and they are doomed to collapse. The working masses who have in the past accepted the ideas of socialism are only now, amid the terrible experience of the war, receiving their revolutionary baptism of fire. We are entering upon a period of unprecedented revolutionary earthquakes. New organizations will be brought to the fore by the masses and new leaders will stand at their head. Continue reading

Does identity politics have a rape problem?

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The following article was submitted for publication on the condition that the author’s identity not be divulged. Obviously, I will respect this person’s request to remain anonymous, as I have with the individuals who leaked internal ISO bulletins about allegations of sexual misconduct allegations against one of its members. “Who I am is not important,” the author wrote to me, “since I could be anyone who has been paying close enough attention to Twitter.”

While Twitter social justice activists do not necessarily belong to the organized Left, at least as traditionally defined, I’ve posted articles in the past about intersectionality and identity politics and some of its most visible proponents (Flavia Dzodan and Suey Park). In that vein, I publish this here fully aware that it does not necessarily invalidate any of these approaches to politics. At the very least, it calls for critical reflection and theoretical digestion.

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Twitter, social justice, and hypocrisy

Case of a cover-up

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Model View Culture
(MVC) describes itself as an “independent media platform,” a euphemism for silicon valley tech blog and print magazine. Arguably, MVC is the most popular publisher out there among the so-called Twitter “social justice” crowd. Under the banner of “Technology, Culture, and Diversity Media,” it feature writers like Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk), l’Nasah Crockett (@so_treu), Sydette Harry (@Blackamazon), and of course, Suey Park (@suey_park) — all big stars in the world of Twitter Social Justice.

Part of MVC’s appeal is that it’s still small enough to be niche, but big enough to garner donations from wealthy individuals like Anil Dash.

The website is tireless in its defense of the legitimacy and viability of internet discourse as an agent of social change, while also (paradoxically) decrying the sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. that pervades it with equal fervor. In the past, MVC has run articles such as “In Defense of Twitter Feminism,” “The #TwitterEthics Manifesto,” and “Hashtags as Decolonial Projects with Radical Origins,” all of which received a fair amount of attention on social media. Currently “‘Raving Amazons’: Antiblackness and Misogynoir in Social Media” is getting a lot of traction.

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Shanley Kane, MVC CEO

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But MVC saves space for more concrete shop-talk, as well. For instance, there are industry updates like “Five Good Things Happening in Venture Capital,” a neat little listicle composed by company CEO and frequent contributor Shanley Kane.

Kane’s résumé is too mired in corporate techie jargon for me to decipher, but here she can be seen giving a “TED talk”-style presentation entitled “Scaling Product ‘Management’: Keeping Roadmaps, Estimation, and Self-Delusion from Destroying Your Company.”

Back in June, she was profiled by Elizabeth Spiers on Medium. Though she’d originally consented to the story, Kane decided at some point that it was actually a covert exposé and hit piece designed to damage her reputation. She therefore preemptively accused Medium of stalking and harassment. Unsurprisingly, piece they did end up going with revealed Kane’s erratic behavior and overwhelming animosity towards the press. Nothing further than this was “exposed,” however.

This might give the reader the false impression there is nothing to expose.
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shanley Kane

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Dana McCallum, celebrity SJW

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A brief detour is necessary before continuing with this narrative.

On April 11th, multiple outlets — including Valleywag and San Francisco Examiner — reported that charges had been brought against Senior Twitter Engineer Dana McCallum. She was released on $350,000 bail for a total of five felonies: three counts of spousal rape (the alleged victim is her ex-wife), one count of false imprisonment, and one count of domestic violence. Her lawyer insists the claims are baseless, of course, accusing McCallum’s ex-wife of crying rape in the hope that she can get a cash settlement. “Dana’s an employee [at Twitter] and is about to come into a large amount of money,” he explained, charmingly adding that “[t]his whole thing is about money.”

Poor, persecuted rich people. As for social cachet, McCallum is a trans woman, LGBTQ advocate, and a much sought-after voice on women in tech. She also has the uncommon distinction of having “served as a delegate on women’s issues in India.”

McCallum was also until recently a writer at Model View Culture. Prior to her arrest, she authored a widely-circulated piece on intersectionality as exclusive content for MVC. It was later featured in the first printed issue of the magazine. You wouldn’t know any of this by looking through their website, of course, because Model View Culture swept McCallum under the rug as soon as allegations were made public. Her profile and original articles were deleted without comment or controversy. The issue was never addressed; she was simply scrubbed from existence.

Advocates for “social justice” on Twitter are well known for their demands of accountability. MVC even devoted an entire issue to the subject of abuse. But when it came to holding someone from its own milieu accountable, the brand proved more important than anything else. Continue reading

Tony Cliff’s legacy today

James Heartfield
Platypus Review
July 24th, 2014
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Tony Cliff’s recognition in his own moment of a certain kind of impasse within Trotskyism and his attempt to overcome it require full consideration and appreciation both in terms of the merits of its potential and a consciousness of its limits.

A panel on the legacy of Tony Cliff opened the panel discussion at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention held in Chicago on April 4th, 2014. What follows are the opening remarks by English journalist and author James Heartfield.
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International Socialism and the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky
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I became a Trotskyist in 1933. The theory of state capitalism is a development of Trotsky’s position…But at the end of the Second World War, the perspectives that Trotsky had put forward were not realized. Trotsky wrote that one thing was certain: the Stalinist bureaucracy would not survive the war. It would either be overthrown by revolution or by counterrevolution…The assumption was that the collapse of the Stalinist bureaucracy would be a fantastic opening for the Trotskyist movement, for the Fourth International. The Stalinist bureaucracy not only didn’t collapse but it expanded…Therefore, at that time, Stalinism had a fantastic strength. And we had to come to terms with it.

— Tony Cliff, interview with
Ahmed Shawki (1997)

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Let me start by saying how grateful I am to be invited here today. I’ve been a keen watcher and reader of Platypus. It is really useful that we look critically at the thinking and reasoning of the Left because if the Left doesn’t become self-reflective, it won’t have any importance whatsoever. In my comments on the International Socialist Group, which was founded by Tony Cliff and a few others, I want to say roughly this: the best way to understand the intellectual development of Tony Cliff and of the International Socialist Group is to see it in context.

Tony Cliff was very interested in an argument about socialist organization derived from something Lenin said in the early 20th century. In the pamphlet What is to Be Done? Lenin “bent the stick,” as Tony Cliff used to say, and very forcefully made the point that the spontaneous consciousness of the working class would not go beyond trade-union consciousness and that political, theoretical reflection upon that would necessarily be, as Lenin wrote in the pamphlet, “introduced from the outside.” That argument of Lenin’s was anathema to Tony Cliff and a point he criticized; he criticized it in a 1959 book he wrote about Rosa Luxemburg and in a 1960 pamphlet on Trotsky called Party and Class.

Now this is the core of the argument. What Lenin is doing is very old-fashioned in philosophical terms in that his argument is derived from an Enlightenment view. He’s saying that in essence there is a distinction to be made between higher thought and opinion, between rational or reflective thought and immediate or natural thinking. That distinction would be commonplace amongst Enlightenment thinkers like Hegel or Locke; it would be easily understood by them.

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Did it have the sectarian implication that Cliff saw in it? I suggest not.

Lenin, like Hegel, understood that when he talked about higher thought or reflective thought or theoretical reflection, and distinguished it from the merely spontaneous reflections of people in their activity, he understood that essentially they were the same — they were the same stuff, the same substance. That reflection, that theoretical thinking, was not separate and apart wholly — it was not an absolute distinction — but it was of the same material. It was a distillation of experience, but that distillation was not something that could happen unbidden. That was the very point: it could only come about through organization; it would have to be reflected through organization. Continue reading

El Lissitzky, About Two Squares (1922)

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This short book, intended for children of all ages, is perhaps the best-known work of El Lissitzky (1890-1941). Lissitzky was a Russian artist, architect, designer, typographer, and photographer who was active in the avant-garde movement that flourished in Soviet Russia and in Germany, until the dominance of Socialist Realism by 1930 put a stop to its revolutionary activity. He directly influenced the typographical and display advertising innovations of the Bauhaus and De Stijl. This book entirely integrates modern typographical effects, as Lissitzky intended, with his illustrations in the Suprematist style.

The original book About Two Squares was printed by letterpress, even the slanted text and illustrations. It was first produced (“constructed”) in 1920 at the Soviet art institute UNOVIS in Vitebsk, and around April 1922 printed by Sycthian Press, Berlin, by Haberland Printers, Leipzig, in paperback, with 50 hardbound copies autographed and numbered, as the copyright page states.

A Dutch edition, published as Suprematisch worden van twee kwadraten in 6 konstrukties, edited by Theo van Doesburg, was published in The Hague by De Stijl, 1922. In October/November of that year, it appeared as a regular edition of De Stijl, vol 5 no 10/11. Also, 50 hardbound copies of the Dutch edition were numbered and signed by the author.

  1. About 2 Squares
    El Lissitzky
  2. To all, to all children
  3. El Lissitzky
    A suprematist story — about two squares.
    In 6 constructions: Berlin, Skythen, 1922.
  4. Don’t read this book Take —
    paper…fold
    rods…color
    blocks of wood…build
  5. Here are two squares
  6. From far away, flying towards the Earth
  7. see black Chaos
  8. crash — all scattered
  9. and on the Black was established Red Clearly
  10. Thus it ends — further
  11. UNOVIS
    constructed 1920, vitebsk

CRI_227458 pro02 pro03pro04 pro05 pro07 pro09 pro11 pro13 pro15 pro17 pro18 Continue reading

Mossel’prom [Моссельпром], 1923-1925

Mosselprom

Mossel’prom [The Moscow Association of Enterprises Processing Agro-Industrial Products] was built by the architect David Kogan between 1923 and 1924.  A ten-storey commercial building, it was one of the tallest structures in Moscow built during this period.

It became notorious through Vladimir Mayakovsky’s advertising slogan: “Everything for everyone — at Mosselprom.” 1924 saw the release of the film The Cigarette Girl of Mossel’prom by Iurii Zhelyabuzhskii, which featured the building.

The façade was renovated in 1997.

alexander-rodchenko-mosselprom-building-webmosselprom 1923Мы думаем, что снимок сделан между 1925−1928 годами

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Political efficacy and the “right to resist”

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Jacobin
 published an article today by Tariq Dana titled “The Palestinian Resistance and Its Enemies.” It presents a rather sympathetic portrait of the origins of the group Hamas amidst the failed Oslo Accords and pervasive violence of the Second Intifada, mentioning some of the criticisms made of the Islamist group along the way. Dana doesn’t so much argue that Hamas deserves the support of the Left as he does resistance more broadly deserves its support. He alleges that Israel’s overt rhetoric against Hamas covertly attempts to delegitimate resistance as such. As Dana pithily puts it:

[Israel's] propaganda war against Hamas targets the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance itself.

Of course, this argument could be easily inverted by apologists for Israel’s assault on Gaza. Just as specific denunciation of resistance by Hamas supposedly undermines resistance in general, so support for resistance in general can by extension be considered specific support for resistance by Hamas. Needless to say, this is a bit shortsighted, and precludes a more nuanced or qualified approach to the matter.

My skepticism toward contemporary natlib (national liberation) politics notwithstanding, the focus of Dana’s article seems a little off to me. Its mistake is twofold:

  1. First, in terms of the ideological composition of the forces resisting Israeli aggression. The issue is not, or should not be, whether “the right to resist” — a Lockean concept — is legitimate. Rather, it’s a question of what the political content of such a resistance amounts to. No doubt many in Gaza will feel that such resistance is justified so long as Israel continues to push a stateless population into increasingly cramped and unlivable conditions. But this does nothing to change the fact that the ideology of Hamas is fundamentally incompatible with Marxist politics.
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  2. Second, in terms of the practical efficacy of certain tactics of resistance and “resistance” as such. What is the actual effect of firing rockets into Israel, in response to airstrikes in civilian zones? Or, taking into account some of Hamas’ past tactics, suicide bombings? Considered simply as attrition, i.e. an attempt to “bleed” the enemy dry or break its will, this does not seem an effective or advisable strategy. If the significance of such actions is merely the gesture of defiance, symbolic but ultimately futile, then I’m unsure what their political payoff might be.

Broadly speaking, there is a confusion between means and ends in leftist politics today.

TOPSHOTS-ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN-GAZA-CONFLICT  MK2481

Here the goal should be an immediate halt to Israel’s military campaign and its broader interference in the economic and political life of the occupied territories, to be followed by land concessions and the normalization of relations between Palestine and Israel. Whether a one-state or two-state solution is tenable can only be determined on this more stable basis.

To summarize the main questions raised above: Should the Left lend “critical support” to Hamas, despite its avowedly right-wing (even explicitly antisemitic) politics? Moreover, is the line of “resistance” it’s been pursuing likely to achieve the desired political outcome?

In a future post, I intend to assess the viability of international solidarity movements such as Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions as well as occasional declarations by Trotskyist groups of “unconditional but critical support” for organizations such as Hamas or the Irish Republican Army.

Annenkov’s Potraits (1922) and Lunacharskii’s Silhouettes (1923)

Representations of the
Russian Revolution

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SothebysImage


portrait-of-zinoviev-1926 (1) Анненков Каменев


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Revolutionary silhouettes

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The present book is made up of a series of articles written on various occasions about some of our comrades in the RCP.

I should begin with a warning that these are not biographies, not testimonials, not portraits, but merely profiles: it is their virtue and at the same time their limitation that they are entirely based on personal recollections.

In 1919 the publisher Grzhebin, whom I already knew and who had been recommended to me by Maxim Gorky, asked me to start writing my memoirs of the great revolution. I was soon able to deliver him the first — or more precisely the preliminary — volume, in which I attempted to acquaint the readers both with myself, as a point of reference in judging the rather more subjective aspects of my ‘chronicle’, and with the main dramatis personae of the revolution in so far as I knew them and in so far as a knowledge of their characters and the events of their pre-revolutionary lives seemed to me to merit further exposition.

That book, however, was overtaken by a strange fate. At a moment when circumstances precluded me from working on it and when I had become convinced that to write memoirs at a time when not a single event of the revolution had cooled down — we were still living in its very crucible — was simply impossible (Sukhanov’s multi-volume work on the revolution, among others, had already convinced me of this); at a time, as it seemed to me, when any premature description of those events without an adequate study of the documents would be too subjective and little more than essay-writing — it was then that Grzhebin, unknown to me, published the first volume of my proposed memoirs. He is apparently continuing to publish them abroad, entirely without my permission.

I think it essential to state these facts here, in order to avoid any misunderstanding about the nature of that book. Continue reading

Something better than the nation?

Blair Taylor
Platypus Review
July 14th, 2014
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Book Review:

Rob Ogman, Against the Nation:
Anti-National Politics in Germany
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(Porsgrunn, Norway: NCP, 2013).
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In the wake of the fall of the Wall and reunification the German left confronted a resurgent nationalism. One section of the Left’s response was an “anti-national” tendency whose answer to questions posed by historical developments challenged received political categories by rejecting not only nationalism but, ultimately, traditional left attitudes towards both the nation-state and “the people.” In Against the Nation, Rob Ogman charts the emergence of this “anti-national” tendency by examining two activist campaigns of the 1990s, “Never Again Germany” and “Something Better than the Nation,” to show how “the encounter with nationalism resulted in a fundamental reorientation of a broad set of political assumptions, and produced a deep restructuring in the content and contours of left politics and practice” (11). However, more than an interesting window into radical movements in Germany, the book’s real strength is that it uses these cases to reflect upon left discourse on nationalism and nation-states everywhere, but with particular emphasis on the post-9/11 United States.

The book’s opening chapter, “The Left and the Nation,” begins by tracing the evolution of left positions on nation-states and nationalism in the U.S. since the 1990s, examining discursive continuities and breaks between the alter-globalization movement, the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the Bush years, up to Occupy Wall Street in the recent past. This overview describes how a “binary worldview” in the alter-globalization movement often pitted presumably benign nation-states and cultures against the ravages of global capital, which later during the War on Terror morphed easily into a similarly uncritical understanding of “oppressed nations” dominated by imperialist states, the latter primarily represented by the United States and Israel. The result was a simplistic and flawed conceptualization of both global capitalism and state power which demonized foreign capital and imperialist states while ignoring or downplaying domestic forms of exploitation and oppression. Valorizing the people, nation, or “culture” as sources of resistance, the discourse of anti-imperialism turned a blind eye to local state and capitalist elites, as well as popular forms of domination in traditional societies. It also made for strange political bedfellows, translating into tolerance and support for reactionary movements and parties, especially Islamist ones like Hamas and Hezbollah, in some cases even defending oppressive theocratic regimes like Iran. Ogman describes how this political frame obscured a more complicated political reality shaped by the deeper structural logic of state and capitalist power relations, one that undermines simple inside/outside distinctions. It also reinforced the nation-state and “the people” as the logical alternatives and unproblematic bases of resistance to the ills of capitalism and empire. By tracing “the failure of the Left to develop an emancipatory perspective opposed to nationalism, the nation, and the nation-state” (33) within the U.S. Left, Ogman provides a political context for understanding the German case that follows.

The following chapter, “German Nationalism after Reunification,” lays out the specific historical context the anti-national left emerged from. Primarily, this meant German reunification, a process that saw an immediate spike in nationalist sentiment as postwar Germany’s discourse of postnational citizenship was eroded by a revived ethno-nationalist one, accompanied by a wave of right-wing extremism that often received tacit popular and governmental support. The Left was not immune to this nationalist turn. Even the main East German opposition group subtly shifted their previously democratic slogan, “we are the people,” into the nationalist articulation, “we are one people” (40). German identity was increasingly being defined in opposition to outsiders. At precisely the moment the German state was reconstituting itself, “foreigners” became the number one stated concern in opinion polls. As Ogman notes, “as soon as the division separating East and West Germany came down, new boundaries were drawn” (44). Reunification exposed the brutal underbelly of nation-state formation, with chilling historical continuities. It was followed by an explosive rise in violent racist attacks, culminating in what the anti-nationalists did not shrink from terming “pogroms” in Rostock and Hoyerswerda in 1991 and 1992. In what became watershed events for the anti-national left, neo-Nazis in these East German towns violently evicted local guest workers and asylum seekers, setting fire to their residence house and running them out of town. The neo-Nazis had been unhindered by police and local officials, and were cheered on by crowds of locals.

Contesting nationalism:
“Never again Deutschland!” and
“something better than the nation”

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These developments prompted the formation of an oppositional coalition called The Radical Left, which organized the “Never again Germany!” mobilization to protest reunification and draw attention to its negative effects, such as the “Aliens Act” that restricted immigration and asylum. Aware that political reunification was basically inescapable, they mounted a principled symbolic opposition that sought to problematize and disrupt tendencies toward consensus and integration through “the power of negation.” This included militant protests and interventions into both public and left debates, developing and pushing an anti-national position. After reunification, the “Never again Germany” coalition was superseded by the campaign “Something better than the nation.” This network of musicians, artists, and intellectuals organized concerts, public fora, and blockades aimed at hindering the spread of both right-wing and centrist forms of nationalism. Their major campaign was a traveling caravan through the country, especially the East where neo-Nazism had taken root most virulently. The campaign aimed at fighting extreme right and nationalist sentiment by articulating an anti-racist and anti-national alternative culture embedded in music and youth subculture.

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Ogman devotes a chapter to each of these early anti-national campaigns, drawing extensively on movement documents and media coverage to capture the aims and motivations of the mobilizations. In his narrative, their importance was less their direct impact on political events, which was marginal, but rather their articulation of a novel left approach to nationalism. Drawing on Frankfurt School critical theory, this milieu understood nationalism as structural rather than simply ideological. It was not an aberration derived from outmoded or irrational notions of communal identification, but was instead a radical expression of basic features of the dominant society: a competitive and hierarchical social order with clear winners and losers. Therefore solely attacking the extreme nationalism and explicit racism of neo-Nazis was insufficient: One had to address racism’s much deeper social roots. Indeed, the anti-national turn was in part a realization that traditional anti-fascist and anti-racist politics were too limited, and that nationalism must be fought on a broader scale. In particular, nationalism was another expression of the competitive logic of capitalism, wherein the winners and losers of class struggle within states are in turn reproduced between them in the international arena. The result of this recognition was a specifically anti-national critique that addressed an expanded range of concerns including Germany’s geopolitical normalization and return to the global stage; the complex relationship between capitalism, nationalism, and nation states; as well as racist and essentialist notions of identity and citizenship.

While also deploying more familiar concepts like “negative patriotism” that describe how “national unity” ideologically conceals underlying class cleavages and obscured the self-interest of workers, anti-national politics also understood nationalism as simultaneously an elite and a popular phenomenon. Unlike traditional left theories which primarily understand nationalism as an ideological ruse by elites to preserve their power by obscuring class interest, anti-national discourse viewed it as a populist impulse wherein the working class also appealed to “the nation” to gain material and symbolic benefits by excluding those at the bottom of national and international hierarchies. Thus nationalism was not simply a top-down project, but also an endeavor from below, part and parcel of an interlocking social totality. The result was a form of leftism deeply skeptical of its traditional target audience: “the people.”

By looking at the early historical emergence of a broad anti-national left in Germany, Against the Nation is a useful corrective to caricatures that reduce this milieu to its most visible and controversial tendency, the “anti-Germans” who only later emerge as a distinct and differentiated political tendency. Clustered around journals like Bahamas and Konkret, the anti-Germans are communists who espouse steadfast support of Israel and, in some cases, support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is often the only form of anti-national critique known outside Germany, often causing bewildered leftists abroad to over-generalize and dismiss it as a case of extreme national guilt. Yet this pop-psychologization misses the concrete historical conditions that fostered the initial emergence of the anti-national left in Germany. Rather than a guilt-induced obsession with National Socialism, anti-Semitism, and Israel, Ogman shows how German anti-nationalism developed out of specific anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles against racial violence and its tacit popular support. Although later in the specifically anti-German milieu, fear of the potentially fascist nature of populism translated into distrust of social movements generally, the early anti-national movement was a strongly activist as well as theoretical endeavor addressing concrete political problems confronting the German left. As a rather small tendency, this manifested primarily in provocative texts and symbolic demonstrations. Yet rather than an abdication of politics, this intervention was, at least initially, an attempt to force a certain conversation within the Left and build an alternative political base. Continue reading

Lenin’s tomb

Мавзолей.Строительство-2 Мавзолей.Строительство-3 Мавзолей.Строительство-4

The cult of Lenin

Boris Groys
The Total Artwork
of Stalinism
(1986)

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The Lenin cult was very significant both in the political legitimization of Stalin and in the evolution of socialist realism, since even before Stalin came to power Lenin had been proclaimed the model of the “new man,” “the most human of all human beings.” Maiakovskii’s slogan “Lenin is more alive than the living” adorning the streets of Soviet cities does not contradict the cult of Lenin’s mummy in the mausoleum (perhaps one of the most mysterious in the history of world religion). Although I shall not attempt an exhaustive description of the cult here, it does deserve a few words. It has undeniably exerted a hidden formative influence on all subsequent Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet culture, if for no other reason than the central position it occupies in the invisible Soviet sacred hierarchy. Twice a year, “the entire Soviet land” submits its “report” in parades and demonstrations that pass by the mausoleum, and the leaders who accept this report stand on the roof of the structure, symbolically basing their power on the mummy of Lenin concealed within.

The construction of the mausoleum on Red Square and the founding of the Lenin cult were vigorously opposed by traditional Marxists and the representatives of left art [LEF]. The former spoke of “Asiatic barbarism” and “savage customs unworthy of Marxists. ” LEF also reacted to the first temporary variant of the mausoleum, which was later slightly simplified, describing it as “a verbatim translation from the ancient Persian” that resembled the grave of King Cyrus near Mugraba. Such criticism today, of course, is no longer possible — not only because the mausoleum was long ago pronounced “sacred to all Soviet citizens, ” but also because everyone got used to it long ago.

Мавзолей.Строительство-5Мавзолей.Строительство-6 Мавзолей.Строительство-7 Мавзолей.Строительство-8 Мавзолей.Строительство-10 Мавзолей.Строительство-11

The LEF critics, who perceived in Lenin’s mausoleum only an analogy with ancient Asian tombs, were as usual blind to the originality of the new Stalinist culture taking shape before their very eyes. The mummies of the pharaohs and other ancient rulers were walled up in pyramids and concealed from mortals — opening such graves was considered sacrilege. Lenin, in contrast, is on public display as a work of art, and his mausoleum, as is evident from the long lines that have formed before it every day for decades, is without a doubt the most frequented museum in the Soviet Union. If the “militant atheists” of the time exhumed the relics of saints and exhibited them in museum-like displays as antireligious propaganda, Lenin was from the outset simultaneously buried and displayed. The Lenin mausoleum is a synthesis between a pyramid and a museum that exhibits Lenin’s body, the mortal husk he shed to become the personification of the building of socialism, “inspiring the Soviet people to heroic deeds.” Continue reading

There is no criticism, only history

Manfredo Tafuri
Design Book Review
No. 9: Spring 1986

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Manfredo Tafuri is a prolific author on a wide variety of subjects ranging from 16th-century Venice (L’armonia e I conflitti, coauthored with Antonio Foscari) to more alien topics such as The American City (coauthored with Giorgio Ciucci and Francesco Dal Co). Each of his works serves as a platform for questioning the methods of architectural history, which, as he so emphatically states below, is not to be distinguished from criticism. In Theories and History of Architecture, he identified a major problem of “operative criticism,” endemic to architects who write about architecture. His suggestion to counteract this tendency to impose contemporary standards on the past was to shift the discourse away from the protagonists and individual monuments and consider architecture as an institution. His most widely read book in America, Architecture and Utopia, advanced this position, proposing an ideological analysis of architecture. His disconcerting message for those who had hopes of a “progressive” architecture was that there can be no class architecture which can revolutionize society, but only a class analysis of architecture. In his most recent theoretical work, La sfera e il labirinto, he has outlined a method of history called the progetto storico. This historical project, which is deeply indebted to Michel Foucault’s “archeologies of knowledge” and Carlo Ginzburg’s “micro-histories,” seeks to study the “totality” of a work, disassembling it in terms of iconology, political economy, philosophy, science, and folklore. His goal is to penetrate the language of architecture through non-linguistic means. At the core he still finds the problem of “the historic role of ideology.” The job of the Tafurian critic-historian is to “reconstruct lucidly the course followed by intellectual labor through modern history and in so doing to recognize the contingent tasks that call for a new organization of labor.” In November, 1985, we interviewed Professor Tafuri on the subject of criticism.

— Richard Ingersoll

%22On Theory%22 conference with Manfredo Tafuri, as part of the %22Practice, Theory and Politics in Architecture%22 lecture series organized by Diana Agrest, Spring 1974. Courtesy of Princeton School of Architecture Archives Round table at ETSAB with Manfredo Tafuri, José Muntañola, Pep Bonet and Josep Quetglas, February 1983. Manfredo Tafuri lecturing at ETSAB, February 1983

There is no such thing as criticism; there is only history. What usually is passed off as criticism, the things you find in architecture magazines, is produced by architects, who frankly are bad historians. As for your concern for what should be the subject of criticism, let me propose that history is not about objects, but instead is about men, about human civilization. What should interest the historian are the cycles of architectural activity and the problem of how a work of architecture fits in its own time. To do otherwise is to impose one’s own way of seeing on architectural history.

What is essential to understanding architecture is the mentality, the mental structure of any given period. The historian’s task is to recreate the cultural context of a work. Take for example a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Madonna, built sometimes in the Renaissance. What amazes us is how consistently these buildings have a central plan and an octagonal shape. The form cannot be explained without a knowledge of the religious attitudes of the period and a familiarity with the inheritance from antiquity — a reproposal of the temple form devoted to female divinities. Or take the case of Pope Alexander VII, whose interest in Gothic architecture at the cathedral of Siena [mid-17th century] compared to his patronage of Bernini in Rome can only be explained through a knowledge of the Sienese environment and traditions. The historian must evaluate all the elements that surround a work, all of its margins of involvement; only then can he start to discover the margins of freedom, or creativity, that were possible for either the architect or the sponsor.

The problem is the same for comprehending current work. You ask how the historian might gain the distance from a new work to apply historical methods. Distance is fundamental to history: the historian examining current work must create artificial  distance. This cannot be done without a profound knowledge of the times — through the differences we can better understand the present. I’ll give you a simple example: you can tell me with precision the day and year of your birth, and probably the hour. A man of the 16th century would only be able to tell you that he was born about 53 years ago. There is a fundamental difference in the conception of time in our own era: we have the products of mass media that give us instantaneous access to all the information surrounding our lives. Four centuries ago it took a month to learn of the outcome of a battle. An artist in the 15th century had a completely different reference to space-time; every time he moved to a new city (which was very rarely) he would make out his will. In earlier centuries, time was not calculated but was considered to be a gift from God. Knowledge was also considered to be God-given and thus teachers in the Middle Ages could not be paid; only later was their payment justified as a compensation for time. These factors belong to the mental web of another era. The way for us to gain distance from our own times, and thus perspective, is to confront its differences from the past.

One of the greatest problems of our day is dealing with the uncontrollable acceleration of time, a process that began with 19th-century industrializations; it keeps continually disposing of things in expectation of the future, of the next thing. All avant-garde movements were in fact based on the continual destruction of preceding works in order to go on to something new. Implicit in this is the murder of the future. The program of the “modern” artist was always to anticipate the next thing. It’s just like when you see a “coming attraction” ad for a film, essentially you have already consumed the film and the event of going to see the film is predictably disappointing and makes you anxious for something new. Continue reading