Natan Altman’s proletarian futurism

Pages from Bolshevik Festivals, 1917-1920 Natan Altman, monument for the anniversary of the October Revolution 1918a

“Futurism” and proletarian art

Natan Al’tman
Iskusstvo kommuny
October 1918

Certain art circles and private individuals who not so long ago abused us in various “cultural publications” for working with the Soviet government and who knew no other name for us than “bureaucrats” and “perfunctory artists” would now rather like to take our place.

And so a campaign has begun against futurism, which, they say, is a millstone around the worker’s neck and whose claims to “being the art of the proletariat” are “ridiculous,” etc.…

But are they so ridiculous?

Why did it need a whole year of proletarian government and a revolution that encompassed half the world for the “silent to speak up”?

Why did only revolutionary futurism march in step with the October Revolution?

Is it just a question of outward revolutionary fervor, just a mutual aversion to the old forms, that joins futurism with the proletariat?

Not even they deny that futurism is a revolutionary art that is breaking all the old bonds and in this sense is bringing art closer to the proletariat.


We maintain that there is a deeper link between futurism and proletarian creation.

People naïve in matters of art are inclined to regard any sketch done by a worker, any poster on which a worker is depicted, as a work of proletarian art.

A worker’s figure in heroic pose with a red flag and an appropriate slogan — how temptingly intelligible that is to a person unversed in art and how terribly we need to fight against this pernicious intelligibility.

Art that depicts the proletariat is as much proletarian art as the Chernosotenets who has gotten into the Party and can show his membership card is a Communist.

Just like anything the proletariat creates, proletarian art will be collective:

The principle that distinguishes the proletariat as a class from all other classes.

We understand this, not in the sense that one work of art will be made by many artists, but in the sense that while executed by one creator, the work itself will be constructed on collectivist bases.

the-arch-of-the-general-staff-1920 131933911QL40-1F54

Take any work of revolutionary, futurist art. People who are used to seeing a depiction of individual objects or phenomena in a picture are bewildered.

You cannot make anything out. And indeed, if you take out any one part from a futurist picture, it then represents an absurdity. Because each part of a futurist picture acquires meaning only through the interaction of all the other parts; only in conjunction with them does it acquire the meaning with which the artist imbued it.

A futurist picture lives a collective life:

By the same principle on which the proletariat’s whole creation is constructed.

Try to distinguish an individual face in a proletarian procession.

Try to understand it as individual persons — absurd.

Only in conjunction do they acquire all their strength, all their meaning.

How is a work of the old art constructed — the art depicting reality around us?

Natan Altman, The Alexander Column Lit Up at Night, Crayons and chalk on paper, The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Uritzky-square-general-view-design-sketch-for-the-celebration-of-the-first-anniversary-of-1918

Does every object exist in its own right? They are united only by extrinsic literary content or some other such content. And so cut out any part of an old picture, and it won’t change at all as a result. A cup remains the same cup, a figure will be dancing or sitting pensively, just as it was doing before it was cut out.

The link between the individual parts of a work of the old art is the same as between people on Nevsky Prospekt. They have come together by chance, prompted by an external cause, only to go their own ways as soon as possible. Each one for himself, each one wants to be distinguished.

Like the old world, the capitalist world, works of the old art live an individualistic life.

Only futurist art is constructed on collective bases.

Only futurist art is right now the art of the proletariat.

russian-revolution-34 natan-altman1 Nathan-Altman

Manfredo Tafuri

The historical project

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the

There comes a moment (though not always) in research when all the pieces begin to fall into place, as in a jigsaw puzzle. But unlike the jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces are near at hand and only one figure can be assembled (and thus the correctness of each move be determined immediately), in research only some of the pieces are available, and theoretically more than one figure can be made from them. In fact, there is always the risk of using, more or less consciously, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle as blocks in a construction game. For this reason, the fact that everything falls into place is an ambiguous sign: either one is completely right or completely wrong. When wrong, we mistake for objective verification the selection and solicitation (more or less deliberate) of the evidence, which is forced to confirm the presuppositions (more or less explicit) of the research itself. The dog thinks it is biting the bone and is instead biting its own tail.[1]

In this way Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi synthesize the labyrinthine path of historical analysis and the dangers with which it is fraught, in one of the few recent volumes that have had the courage to describe, not the Olympian and definitive results of research, but rather its tortuous and complex iter. But why should we propose, at the beginning of a volume dedicated to the adventures of architectural language, the problem of the “jigsaw puzzles” characteristic of historical research? In the first place, we could answer that our intention is to follow an indirect path. Contrary to those who pose the theme of architectural writing — the term “language” should, it seems to us, be adopted only as a metaphor[2] — we shall present the theme of critical writing: is it not the function of criticism to constitute the historical (and thus the real) specificity of artistic writings? Does not historical work possess a language that, entering perpetually into conflict with the multiple techniques of environmental formation, can function like litmus paper to verify the correctness of discourses on architecture?

Only in appearance, then, will we speak of something else. For how often, when probing what is on the fringes of a given problem, do we discover the most useful keys for dealing with the problem itself — particularly if it is as equivocal as the one that we are about to examine.

Let us further define our theme. Architecture, language, techniques, institutions, historical space: are we simply lining up on a wire stretched over a void a series of problems, each with its own intrinsic characteristics, or can we legitimately contest the “terms” used here to trace these problems back to an underlying or hidden structure, in which these words can find a common meaning on which to rest? It is no accident that we have reduced to “words” the density of historically stratified disciplines. Every time, in fact, that the critic’s zeal causes his guilty conscience to erupt, constructing linear routes that force architecture to migrate into language, language into institutions, and institutions into the all-encompassing universality of history, one feels the need to ask how such a totally illegitimate simplification could gain currency.

After the persuasive demonstrations of the untranslatability of architecture into linguistic terms, after Saussure’s discovery that language itself is a “system of differences,” after the calling into question of the conspicuous features of institutions, historical space appears to dissolve, to disintegrate, to become a justification for disordered and elusive multiplicity, a space of domination. Is this not the final outcome reached by a good part of the “Lacanian left” or by an epistemology of pure registration? And after all, is not architectural writing (this phantasm that we now recognize as divided and multiplied into techniques incommunicable among one another) itself an institution, a signifying practice — an ensemble of signifying practices — a multiplicity of projects of domination?

Is it possible to make a history from such “projects” without breaking away from them, without abandoning the multiple perspectives of history itself, and without inquiring into that which permits the very existence of history? Is it still necessary to remember that the totality of the capitalist means of production is a condition for both the cohesion and the diffraction of techniques, that the “mystical character of the commodity” breaks up and multiplies the relationships that are at the base of its own reproduction?

A series of questions confronts the historian who discovers the dishomogeneity of the materials of his work. These questions go to the very roots of historiographical work, uniting indissolubly the question of languages, of techniques, of sciences, of architecture, with that of the languages of history. But which history? Toward what productive ends? With what long-term objectives?

The questions that we are posing arise from a precise assumption. History is viewed as a “production,” in all senses of the term: the production of meanings, beginning with the “signifying traces” of events; an analytical construction that is never definite and always provisional; an instrument of deconstruction of ascertainable realities. As such, history is both determined and determining: it is determined by its own traditions, by the objects that it analyzes, by the methods that it adopts; it determines its own transformations and those of the reality that it deconstructs. The language of history therefore implies and assumes the languages and the techniques that act and produce the real: it “contaminates” those languages and those techniques and, in turn, is “contaminated” by them. With the fading away of the dream of knowledge as a means to power, the constant struggle between the analysis and its objects — their irreducible tension — remains. Precisely this tension is “productive”: the historical “project” is always the “project of a crisis.”[3] Franco Rella writes:

Interpretive knowledge has a conventional character and is a production, a positing of a meaning-in-relation and not an uncovering of the meaning. But what is the limit of this operari, of this activity? What is the locus of this relationship? What lies behind the Fiktion of the subject, of the thing, of the cause, of the being? What, then, can bear this “awful plurality”? The body. “The phenomenon of the body is the richest, the most significant [deutlichere], the most tangible phenomenon: to be discussed first [voranzustellen] methodologically, without coming to any decision about its ultimate meaning.”[4] This, then, is the limit of interpretation, that is to say the locus of the description… In fact, through criticism and the “plurality of interpretation” we have acquired the strength “not to want to contest the world’s restless and enigmatic character,” and in this way genealogy has proved itself to be a critique of values, for it has discovered the material origin of them, the body.[5]

Thus emerges the problem of the “construction” of the object — disciplines, techniques, analytical instruments, long-term structures — to be put in crisis. Immediately the historian is confronted with the problem of the “origins” of the cycles and phenomena that are the objects of his study. But is it not precisely in the study of long-term phenomena that the theme of the origin seems mythological? However much Weber’s “ideal types” or Panofsky’s conceptual structures appear to be instrumental abstractions, is it not precisely in them that the fundamental difference between beginning and origin is posed? And why a beginning? Is it not more “productive” to multiply the “beginnings,” recognizing that where everything conspires to make one recognize the transparency of a unitary cycle there lies hidden an intertwining of phenomena that demands to be recognized as such?

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Against religious fanaticism, against the state

Mouvement Communiste and
Kolektivně proti kapitálu on
irrationalism and the caliphate


Neither God nor master! [Ni dieu ni maître!]

— Auguste Blanqui

Communism begins from the outset with atheism; but atheism is at first far from being communism; indeed, that atheism is still mostly an abstraction.

— Karl Marx

Whatever were the aims of those responsible for the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the consequence was to terrorize the whole population. To terrorize so as to prevent understanding, so as to set up even higher artificial barriers between people on the basis of religious belief. Religion has become a veritable arm of political Islam everywhere in the world. In France this is opposed by the religion of state, said to be secular and republican. In presenting itself as the guardian of civil peace, the state calls for national unity around itself. It demands that the population delegates to it the defense of freedom and democracy. It’s a defense which comes at the price of the preventive restriction of individual and collective liberties and an increased repression of all anti-state dissent. For the defenders of “white identity” like the Front Nationale the attack confirmed that “civil war has already started” against an already identified enemy — the Muslims. All Muslims: whether they share the views of the fanatics, whether they fight them, or whether they simply silently submit to them. The foreigner, “the other” from here or wherever, is the target for the fanatics on all sides. The despicable attack on Charlie Hebdo plays the game of the state and weakens the only class, the working class, which can concretely fight religious fanaticism where it is rooted, where it seeks searches for its potential soldiers, in working class neighborhoods and in workplaces. This fight is indispensable if we are not to give up the asserting the need for the exploited and oppressed to organize themselves independently against the state, against all states. As for violent political Islam, its objective is to force Muslims to isolate themselves and to serve as cattle to be sacrificed in Syria, or even right here. What matters is to understand this phenomenon so as to be able to fight it without mercy, and without becoming bound hand and foot to the state.

Irrationalism and the caliphate

Political Islam has become a global subject of debate and of polarization of civil society into illusory opposed communities. Each one of these illusory communities claims to fight in the name of a certain idea of civilization, only being able to fully express itself in the complete defeat of the other, identified as the enemy because of the faith it professes, including the faith in secularism and the state. In the name of such and such a belief in the supernatural, almost anything can be ignored: the question of the millennia-old oppression of women; the family; international migration; jobs; housing; food, etc.

The deforming and mystifying prism of religion becomes the supposed justification for irrationality, rejection of the reality-principle, and more generally the denial of the humanity to enemies of the faith. This specific mystification of social relations penetrates deeply into the heads of numerous proletarians here, in the advanced capitalist countries, as well as into those of their brothers and sisters on the periphery of the most developed capitalist world.

Because of their incontestable success, these reactionary fideist ideas become a powerful material force adding to those that already shape the surface of the capitalist globe. The extension of fideism in all its forms overturns priorities and redefines capitalist camps in all regions of the planet. But, like every ideology, this long wave of obscurantism is not able to hold back the determinism of matter and the social relations which the ideology claims to replace. Capitalism is not threatened by faith any more than the class societies which preceded it. Fideism is nothing other than a particular ideological expression of class submission.

Fideism is a Catholic theological term, linked to traditionalism. According to it the truth can only be known by tradition, not by reason. All knowledge is founded on a primitive revelation that prolongs and enriches Christian revelation. Only faith, the illuminating intelligence (itself intuitive, thus distinct from reason, which is analytical), makes us know the basis of things, that is to say, spiritual realities. More precisely, fideism excludes the possibility that the truths of faith can consist of rational preambles, resting on proof, including a kernel of rationality which could be absorbed into an autonomous philosophy. In another sense, also theological, fideism makes faith consist of trust in God, not in adhesion to dogmas. In all cases, the term fideism implies a defiance of reason; that’s why it had a pejorative flavor to it. In the same way that rationalism tends to overestimate reason to the point of professing that science is the only source of truth (so rejecting in advance any belief), fideism tends to overestimate faith to the point of professing that revelation is the only guarantee of truth (so discrediting the efforts of all rational activity).[1]

The revolutionary proletariat must first of all fight fideism in itself and treat it as what it is: an instrument of class division which reinforces the dictatorship of capital and states and which is used to recruit the exploited and oppressed into new wars which benefit the dominant classes. In particular, the fideism of the Book (Bible) — but also that of Hinduism along with the vast majority of religious beliefs — is dedicated to God, patriarchy and family. The caliphate, the reactionary fideist ideology which seems to be achieving the greatest success right now, is worthy of our attention particularly as it drapes itself in the colors of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism and, above all, constitutes a central element of the aggravation of the geostrategic crisis of the Middle East. This is why we’re devoting a specific text to it, composed of four points.

First point

The partisans of the caliphate try to establish an order which will be favorable to them in regions where capitalism rules but where it has not (or very little) dissolved the social relations inherited from the class societies which preceded it. Some 10,000 Sunni tribes in Iraq are the clearest example of it. The archaic tribal social structure has survived on the margins of modern capital, feeding itself from oil rent and petty commodity trading, often illegal. The Iraqi Sunni tribe has been transformed by the extension of the domination of capital but the ancestral patriarchal ties have not been broken. The tribe administers its territory. It is a little world closed towards the exterior and the interior, except when it has to accumulate means of survival by clientelism and haggling. Today, a large number of Sunni tribes in Iraq pledge allegiance to the IS.[2] This bloody group guarantees the permanence of the tribal structure. More than that, the self-proclaimed caliphate sanctifies them.

The other face of the present caliphate is represented by people like Mokhtar Belmokthar, known as “one eye,” a Salafist from the beginning who became celebrated from 2013 because of his attack on the refinery at Amenas in Algeria. Also known as “Mister Marlboro,” this sinister character is also at the head of a vast traffic in cigarettes amounting to around a billion US dollars per year in the whole of Saharan Africa. It’s a traffic which has been able to develop thanks to the blood ties with the Tuareg tribes. Smugglers, day-to-day chicken thieves, traders in human beings (prostitution, trafficking of migrants), drug dealers, all these participants in illegal business find in the caliphate a means of consolidating their lucrative activities and a way to develop others, “whitewashed” by adherence to the faith.

IS itself is an important commercial enterprise in Syria and Iraq which trades in oil, women and consumer goods. Its program can be summarized as “who has weapons has bread and women.” This gang presents no danger for capitalism, which can perfectly well accommodate rentiers and traffickers, and, what’s more, creates them. Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Cameroons and Niger, Al-Shabab in Somalia, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Sahel, Al-Qaida in the Arab peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the Talibans in Afghanistan and Pakistan along with Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia — and those are just the best known ones — replicate the same social relations expressed by IS.

These considerations don’t apply to Shi’a Islam, whose centralized internal organization, similar to fascism, has allowed it to adapt to modern capitalism, just like the Catholic Church.

Second point

IS was born from the rubble of an Arab nationalism founded on the model of previous popular democracies based on an alliance between a single party (Ba’athist in the cases of Iraq and Syria), the army and a single union. This model aimed at creating modern postcolonial economies, equipped with strong industry, a unified internal market and an effective secular state. This project was smashed from the outside by the progressive collapse of the Russian bloc, and internally by the emergence from the ruins of national liberation of a parasitic ruling caste, corrupt, despotic, and inefficient.

On this basis, the caliphate of IS is in perfect continuity with the Arab regimes which it claims to oppose. Its sources of survival are trade and plunder; its organization is clientelist and stuffed with incompetents. The IS diverges from the Sunni regimes only in terms of geostrategic positioning. And this is from the simple fact that its regime tries to impose itself on the other states of the region, including those for which Sunni fideism is the official religion.

The US has benefited from the fall of the Russian empire and extended its influence over the Arab regimes whose vague desires for capitalist development have been seriously revised over the last few decades. An important new stage was reached by Washington with the active support for the Taliban in the war against Russia in Afghanistan and then with the first Iraq war. These two episodes marked the adoption by the US administration of an aggressive diplomacy in this area, so as to make the US once again into a power to be reckoned with in the Middle East. The Arab Spring gave Washington the opportunity to also occupy a leading role in the whole of North Africa. The attempt has still not produced a conclusive result.

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If Charlie Hebdo is racist, then so am I — Zineb el-Rhazoui responds to Olivier Cyran

Once more on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Since it happened more than a week ago, various commentators have explored the issue of the magazine’s alleged Islamophobia. A quality that, if I might say so myself, is quite often in evidence. Nevertheless, the matter is more complex and opaque than a few unambiguously racist images lifted from their original context would suggest.

For starters, I’d recommend checking out the Olivier Cyran article from 2013, translated by Daphne Lawless, to get a sense of some of the internal dissent that existed within their editorial team since 2001. But I’ve done some looking around and learned that even this article probably isn’t definitive, since it’s pretty clear Cyran had a messy falling out with some of the staff at Charlie Hebdo. Still, I don’t think Cyran can be entirely discredited even if he did have an axe to grind with some of the staff.

And there’s also this, a riposte written by a Muslim woman who worked for Charlie Hebdo when Cyran’s article appeared. She points out that he omitted her name in discussing the various cartoonists at the magazine. Which she says is an understandable mistake, pouring salt on the wound, since her name is “difficult to remember,” signing it in full at the end: Zaynab bint Mohammad ibn al-Mâatî al-Rhazwî al-Harîzî. Either way, however, it seems beyond question that Philippe Val — the editor who took over after 2001 — is an ardent Zionist and neocon creep. His promotion to this position would seem in line with the magazine’s overall rightward drift, post-9/11.

Regardless, I’m reposting a slightly modified translation of the Zineb el-Rhazoui reply by Seth Ackerman below. It appears in a link toward the end of his most recent Jacobin piece, but since many may not have read it I thought I’d give it a broader platform. Like Kenan Malik, el-Rhazoui is a thorn in the side of “white knight” do-gooders from the Marxist camp, like Richard Seymour, who’d like to simplify matters and speak out on behalf of all the Muslim immigrants living in Europe. Maybe she’ll be tarred as just another Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a liberal interventionist and outspoken critic of Islam. Or maybe, just maybe, she’ll be read on her own terms.

[I will only add that the translation of Gruppe Soziale Kämpfe’s statement on the persecution of Muslims throughout the West is worth reading, and that it can be found on Comrade Seymour’s blog.]


If Charlie is racist, then so am I

Zineb el-Rhazoui
Cercle des volontaires
December 22, 2013

On December 5th [2013], I learned in the press that I have a terrible disease. The diagnosis, by Olivier Cyran on the website Article 11, is definitive: I am a racist. Being of French citizenship, I was anxious to identify which races were likely to activate my white-woman antibodies before the malady could advance any further. My suspicions naturally gravitated to the descendants of those exotic hordes who are said to be invading Old France to steal our bread, my bread. The Chinese? I’ve received no Asian complaint on this score. The blacks of Africa and elsewhere? That happens to be the color of the man I love. The drinkers of vodka? I just came back from a year’s exile in Slovenia and don’t especially remember being allergic to Slavic charms. Who then? “Whites”? I wouldn’t venture to think Olivier Cyran could adhere to the theory of “anti-white racism.” No. I didn’t have to make it far into the piece to be reassured that his diagnosis was more precise: my racism, thank God (that idiot), is only aimed at Muslims, and I  contracted this dangerous syndrome from the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo. An occupational illness, then. Because Olivier Cyran is himself a veteran of the shop, though I never had the pleasure of meeting him — since he had the luck, and the balls, according to him, to get out before the infection could spread  through the paper — I’ve decided to address him as tu, since we use tu among colleagues at Charlie.

Olivier, you start from the premise that the Muslims of Azerbaijan, of Bosnia, of Malaysia, Egypt or Burkina Faso, represent a single whole that can be designated as a “race.” Well, it so happens that that’s the one I belong to. The fact that I’m an atheist, and proud of it? It makes no difference, since you don’t ask us what we think; you talk about racism, and therefore race. I won’t keep beating around the bush, since I don’t doubt for a second that, like me, you perfectly understand the distinction between a religion and a race. If you make this lamentable conflation, it’s because you engage in a sociological fallacy whose origins lie in the demography of France: our Muslims are most often those we call “Arabs.” I’m sort of starting to understand why you speak of racism. But let’s try to be precise: we’re not talking about the Arabs of Lebanon, who are rarely encountered in the French projects, nor the persecuted Arab Ahwazi minority of Iran, whom nobody in France talks about, and certainly not the Arabs of Qatar who keep Louis Vuitton in business.  No, you’re talking about the “Arabs” of North Africa. (And here again, it so happens to be the “race” from whence I sprang). Moreover, for your information, those “Arabs” aren’t always Arabs. The best-informed people in France know that they are Berbers, a word of Greek origin, “Bearded,” which refers to us Amazighes, Imazighen — Free Men, as we like to call ourselves. I am thus triply qualified to dispel the obvious confusion you manifest when you identify those you claim to be defending: the Muslim race.

A Muslim you will stay

Among the individuals that you assign to this racial category, there are militant atheists like me, obviously secularist [laïque]. There are atheists who have other fish to fry, they are secularists too. There are atheists who love Charlie Hebdo and support it; others less so or not at all. There are agnostics, skeptics, free-thinkers, deists; they are secularists as well. There are believers who are non-practicing but politically Islamist, practicing but secularist, or even those with “no opinion,” whose daily lives do not suffer because of Charlie Hebdo. There are converts to Christianity — and oh, are they secularist, for they’ve endured the terrors of theocracy in their countries of origin. And finally there are the fundamentalists [intégristes], the militant Islamists, the adherents of an identity defined above all by religion, and those are the ones you have chosen to defend. Those are the ones who, given the reality of  French laïcité, have no other choice than to cry racism, a tear in their eye and a hand on their heart, on the pretext that their “religious feelings” have been mocked by a drawing in Charlie. Among them you will find many who stand for laïcité in France but vote Ennahda in Tunisia, who do their shopping at a Parisian halal butcher but would cry scandal if an eccentric decided to open a charcuterie in Jeddah. Who are outraged when a day care center fires a veiled employee but say nothing when someone they know forces his daughter to wear the veil. They are a minority. But they are the standard to which you have chosen to align the identity of all of us.

Enough generalities, which I didn’t think a man of the pen needed to be reminded of. If I’ve taken up mine to answer you, it is not solely to defend myself from racism, but above all because in my journalist’s memory I have rarely resented an opinion column as much as I did yours. If you will allow an Arab to address her own complaint, let me tell you that your rhetoric and arguments are the most sophisticated variety of racism that exists in France. Rare are those today who would risk shouting from the rooftops, “Ragheads Out!” The extremists who would do so would immediately be jeered by you, by me, and by a majority of the French people. First of all, you quote Bernard Maris, Catherine, Charb, Caroline Fourest. What about me, what about me! You preferred to omit my name, when it was my articles that you pointed to as dangerously “Islamophobic,” thus, according to you, necessarily racist. Frankly, I wondered why, and I see only two options:


  1. you didn’t want to let Charlie Hebdo’s detractors (who can only subscribe to your thinking if they never read the paper) know that the author of these racist ravings belongs precisely to the Muslim “race,” or
  2. you simply didn’t think that, as a person, I was worth naming, since in a fascist rag like Charlie I couldn’t be anything but the house Arab.

I must have been hired as an alibi, so that Charlie could hit its diversity quota, but you could never imagine that I could be brought on staff for the same reasons that you were. An Olivier, of course, is hired for his professional qualities; a Zineb is only hired by affirmative action. Or maybe you spared me because in my case you have no personal scores to settle, as you do with a fair number of your former colleagues. In that case, I would have readers seek the motives behind your article somewhere other than the realm of ideas.

Racism by omission

A Zineb who spits on Islam, that’s beyond you, isn’t it? It disconcerts you so much that you preferred not to name me, so as not to introduce any doubt as to the veracity of your accusations of racism against us, the journalists of Charlie. If the expression “spit on Islam” shocks you, let me answer you on that too. Why the hell is a “white person” who spits on Christianity an anticlerical, but an Arab who spits on Islam is alienated, an alibi, a house Arab, an incoherence that one would prefer not even to name? Why? Do you think that people of my race, and myself, are congenitally sealed off from the ubiquitous ideas of atheism and anticlericalism? Or is it that you think that unlike other peoples, our identity is solely structured by religion? What is left of an Arab when he no longer has Islam? To listen to you, a person like me must be some kind of harki of the Koran, we are traitors so profoundly stricken by a racial complex that we harbor a single regret, that of not being white. As for me, my interactions with Muslims and Arabs did not begin with the [1983] Marche des beurs. I’m what is called a blédarde, born in Morocco to an indigenous father and French mother. It’s there that I was educated and began my career as a journalist in a weekly paper that was shut down by the regime in 2010. My colleagues from the old country can explain to you how, in 2006, the Moroccan police state, which had other scores to settle with us, organized a fake demonstration of Islamists in front of the office of the Journal Hebdo, which was accused of having published Charlie′s caricatures. In reality, it was a photo of a random person seated at a café terrace holding a copy of Charlie Hebdo. I can also tell you that your piece in Article11 was posted on Moroccan websites, the same kind of sites that would never dare to poke their noses into a corruption scandal involving the King, for example. I won’t hide from you that on this one you managed to make not only the Islamists happy but also the Moroccan dictatorship that forced me and several of my colleagues into exile, and which continues to harass us as traitors to the nation, henchmen of foreign powers hostile to Morocco, even to Islam. A piece like yours is worth its weight in gold to the royalist police agents, who sponsored a “dossier” against Charlie published in a gutter newspaper in Casablanca. It informs readers that, among other things, the Molotov cocktail attack on Charlie′s offices in November 2011 was an insurance fraud, and that Charb drives a Ferrari thanks to all the dough we make. I don’t know if you’ve heard from Charb since you left the paper, but he still hasn’t passed his driving test. In another Morroccan article on Charlie, I learned I’d been hired because I had slept with Caroline Fourest and that my reporting was financed by the Algerian, Spanish, Israeli secret services. Clearly a raghead can’t really be hired for the same reasons as an Olivier.

My friend, I know you have nothing to do with the whole journalistic sewer that serves the Mohammed VI dictatorship. I simply want to show you who you’re making happy, if my pieces on Islam might occasionally please a few members of the Front Nationale.

You see, Olivier, as a blédarde born in the Maghreb, assigned against my will to a religious pigeonhole, not only by you, but above all by a theocratic state that does not allow me to choose my faith and which governs my personal status by religious laws, I have always wondered why guys like you lie down before Islamist propaganda. The laws of my country do not grant me a quarter of the rights you acquired at birth, and if I were to be attacked or raped in the streets of Casablanca by a barbu, as has been promised in hundreds of emails — never taken seriously by the Morroccan police — the websites that posted your article will definitely say I was asking for it because I don’t respect Islam. And you here in France, in a secularist state, you rehash, without grasping its implications, this whole moralizing discourse about how one must “respect Islam,” as demanded by the Islamists, who do not ask whether Islam respects other religions, or other people. Why the hell should I respect Islam? Does it respect me?  The day Islam shows the slightest bit of consideration to women, first of all, and secondly toward free-thinkers, I promise you I will rethink my positions.

The Front Nationale? Don’t know them

It is not in order to please the Front Nationale that I fight alongside all the atheists of Morrocco, Tunisia, Egypt, or Palestine. Because believe me, a lot of virulent atheists in the Arab world — so virulent they regularly spend time in jail for blasphemy — have never heard of Marine Le Pen, and couldn’t possibly care if what they say pleases the French far right, because they’re too busy fighting their own far right: Islamism. If you will permit us, we “Islamophobes” of the Muslim race think the liberation of our societies will necessarily come through emancipation from the yoke of state religion. Since that is what Islam is more or less everywhere in the so-called Arab countries, you’ll also find there a strong opposition to theocracy, which is fed not only by the universal idea of separation of church and state but also by the skepticism and historicization of Islamic texts. We permit ourselves just about anything, such as, for example, thinking that Mohammed, and even Allah, are not unrepresentable. Caricatures, parodies of Koranic verses or hadiths, you just have to look around on our internet forums to see that Charlie was not the original source here.

Continue reading


Je suis Bezbozhnik

Just over a week ago, I published a series of antireligious images from the early Bolshevik journal Bezbozhnik u stanka along with an article by Leon Trotsky from 1925 on the subject of atheistic propaganda. In it, he praised “the satirical journal Godless, where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists…Issue after issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehovah, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist [Dmitrii] Moor and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely.” Many of the images are every bit as offensive as the ones printed by the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, the offices of which were recently the target of a brutal assault by reactionary Islamists. Eleven were killed that day, executioner-style. Several hostages at a printing house and a kosher market in Paris were murdered along with the gunmen in the standoff a few days later.

There was obviously no way of knowing this tragedy would take place when I uploaded the aforementioned post. Like everyone else, I followed the drama that unfolded and watched with dismay the flailing attempts by various leftists to spin the story to fit their own preexisting narratives. Richard Seymour’s article over at Jacobin, which largely framed subsequent debate, was exemplary in this respect. While he condemned violence against civilians, he nevertheless felt it necessary to add that “there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that [they] are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.” Appended to this was the condescending suggestion: “If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with Edward Said’s Orientalism as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia.”

Der Stürmer, Sonderausgabe 1934

Islamophobia has been Seymour’s main concern for some time now. Other issues occasionally show up, such as austerity and intersectionality, but these are few and far between. Wasn’t always so: back in 2004 you could still find him defending revolutionary universalism against the idiocy of left-liberal multiculturalism. Take this entry, “Jihad Chic,” from 2004 (back when Seymour was just a poor man’s Christopher Hitchens). Anyway, going from his description of Charlie Hebdo above — i.e., “frankly a racist publication” — one could easily get the mistaken impression that it’s some latter-day Der Stürmer. Surprisingly, Seymour seems totally oblivious to the context in which this imagery appears. His old buddy Sebastian Budgen, on whom he relies for most of his gossip about the French Left, came much closer to getting this right:

There is a silly debate about whether Charlie Hebdo is a “racist” publication or not. Clearly not, in the sense of its origins lying in a left-wing, post-′68, highly transgressive vulgarity and its opposition to the far Right. It is part of the mental furniture of much of the French Left, radical included (think of a mash-up between Private Eye, Viz, Oz, Ben Elton, and The Young Ones), and most people will have affectionate memories of it prior to the 2000s. Charb himself illustrated Daniel Bensaïd’s Marx for Beginners books not so long ago.

Not just that, either. Cabu, one of the staff cartoonists, got his start as a kind of avant la lettre Oliver North. He’d served as a colonial soldier in Algeria, but later publicly lampooned French militarism in numerous comic strips. Virtually everyone involved in the magazine had campaigned on behalf of immigrants and mocked right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen. (There is cruel irony in the fact that she’s now cynically using their memory for political gain). Regardless, Seymour’s brief characterization is highly misleading. Perhaps certain cartoons in the magazine could be construed as racist or antisemitic, and several clearly are, but to smear the entire project and those involved in it as virulent racists is grossly unfair. One comrade even went so far as to compare the victims of the attack to “Nazbols.”

Bob from Brockley posted a response to Seymour written by Contested Terrain on his blog. The rest of Seymour’s argument is boilerplate; Contested Terrain parries its thrusts with relative ease. Seymour, he contends, “portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors.” This weakness is compounded by an overall reticence to entertain that it might have origins in Islamist ideology. “In [Seymour’s] account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.” He’s since posted a rejoinder to the criticisms he’s received, which more or less states that he thought some things went without saying. Continue reading


Marx on the history of “the Eastern question” (1853)

MECW, vol. 13
Pgs. 102-104

In order to understand…all the actual complications in the East, it is necessary to cast a retrospective glance at its past history and development.

The Koran and the Mussulman legislation emanating from it reduce the geography and ethnography of the various people to the simple and convenient distinction of two nations and of two countries; those of the Faithful and of the Infidels. The Infidel is “harby,” i.e. the enemy. Islamism proscribes the nation of the Infidels, constituting a state of permanent hostility between the Mussulman and the unbeliever. In that sense the corsair-ships of the Berber States were the holy fleet of Islam. How, then, is the existence of Christian subjects of the Porte to be reconciled with the Koran?

According to the Mussulman legislation,

If a town surrenders by capitulation, and its habitants consent to become rayahs, that is, subjects of a Mussulman prince without abandoning their creed, they have to pay the kharatch (capitation tax), when they obtain a truce with the faithful, and it is not permitted any more to confiscate their estates than to take away their houses…In this case their old churches form part of their property, with permission to worship therein. But they are not allowed to erect new ones. They have only authority for repairing them, and to reconstruct their decayed portions. At certain epochs commissaries delegated by the provincial governors are to visit the churches and sanctuaries of the Christians, in order to ascertain that no new buildings have been added under pretext of repairs. If a town is conquered by force, the inhabitants retain their churches, but only as places of abode or refuge, without permission to worship.

Constantinople having surrendered by capitulation, as in like manner has the greater portion of European Turkey, the Christians there enjoy the privilege of living as rayahs, under the Turkish Government. This privilege they have exclusively by virtue of their agreeing to accept the Mussulman protection. It is, therefore, owing to this circumstance alone, that the Christians submit to be governed by the Mussulmans according to Mussulman man law, that the patriarch of Constantinople their spiritual chief, is at the same time their political representative and their Chief Justice. Wherever, in the Ottoman Empire, we find an agglomeration of Greek rayahs, the Archbishops and Bishops are by law members of the Municipal Councils, and, under the direction of the patriarch, [watch] over the repartition of the taxes imposed upon the Greeks. The patriarch is responsible to the Porte as to the conduct of his co-religionists: Invested with the right of judging the rayahs of his Church, he delegates this right to the metropolitans and bishops, in the limits of their dioceses, their sentences being obligatory for the executive officers, kadis, etc., of the Porte to carry out. The punishments which they have the right to pronounce are fines, imprisonment, the bastinade, and exile. Besides, their own church gives them the power of excommunication. Independent of the produce of the fines, they receive variable taxes on the civil and commercial lawsuits. Every hierarchic scale among the clergy has its moneyed price. The patriarch pays to the Divan a heavy tribute in order to obtain his investiture, but he sells, in his turn, the archbishoprics and bishoprics to the clergy of his worship. The latter indemnify themselves by the sale of subaltern dignities and the tribute exacted from the popes. These, again, sell by retail the power they have bought from their superiors, and traffic in all acts of their ministry, such as baptisms, marriages, divorces, and testaments.

It is evident from this exposé that this fabric of theocracy over the Greek Christians of Turkey, and the whole structure of their society, has its keystone in the subjection of the rayah under the Koran, which, in its turn, by treating them as infidels — i.e., as a nation only in a religious sense — sanctioned the combined spiritual and temporal power of their priests. Then, if you abolish their subjection under the Koran by a civil emancipation, you cancel at the same time their subjection to the clergy, and provoke a revolution in their social, political, and religious relations, which, in the first instance, must inevitably hand them over to Russia. If you supplant the Koran by a code civil, you must occidentalize the entire structure of Byzantine society.

Having described the relations between the Mussulman and his Christian subject, the question arises: What are the relations between the Mussulman and the unbelieving foreigner?

As the Koran treats all foreigners as foes, nobody will dare to present himself in a Mussulman country without having taken his precautions. The first European merchants, therefore, who risked the chances of commerce with such a people, contrived to secure themselves an exceptional treatment and privileges originally personal, but afterward extended to their whole nation. Hence the origin of capitulations. Capitulations are imperial diplomas, letters of privilege, octroyed by the Porte to different European nations, and authorizing their subjects to freely enter Mohammedan countries, and there to pursue in tranquillity their affairs, and to practice their worship. They differ from treaties in this essential point that they are not reciprocal acts contradictorily debated between the contracting parties, and accepted by them on the condition of mutual advantages and concessions. On the contrary, the capitulations are one-sided concessions on the part of the government granting them, in consequence of which they may be revoked at its pleasure. The Porte has, indeed, at several times nullified the privileges granted to one nation, by extending them to others; or repealed them altogether by refusing to continue their application. This precarious character of the capitulations made them an eternal source of disputes, of complaints on the part of ambassadors, and of a prodigious exchange of contradictory notes and firmans revived at the commencement of every new reign.

The real point at issue is always Turkey in Europe: the great peninsula to the south of the Save and Danube. This splendid territory has the misfortune to be inhabited by a conglomerate of different races and nationalities, of which it is hard to say which is the least fit for progress and civilization. Slavonians, Greeks, Wallachians, Arnauts — twelve million men — are all held in submission by one million of Turks, and up to a recent period it appeared doubtful whether, of all these different races, the Turks were not the most competent to hold the supremacy which, in such a mixed population, could not but accrue to one of these nationalities. But when we see how lamentably have failed all the attempts at civilization by Turkish authority — how the fanaticism of Islam, supported principally by the Turkish mob in a few great cities, has availed itself of the assistance of Austria and Russia invariably to regain power and to overturn any progress that might have been made; when we see the central, i.e. Turkish authority weakened year after year by insurrections in the Christian provinces, none of which, thanks to the weakness of the Porte and to the intervention of neighboring States, is ever completely fruitless; when we see Greece acquire her independence, parts of Armenia conquered by Russia (Moldavia, Wallachia, Serbia, successively placed under the protectorate of the latter power) — we shall be obliged to admit that the presence of the Turks in Europe is a real obstacle to the development of the resources of the Thraco-Illyrian Peninsula.

Das neue Frankfurt - Deutsche Bauen in der UdSSR (September 1930)_Page_01

German builders in the USSR, 1930-1937

Adventures of the avant-garde

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the

The attention with which figures such as [Siegfried] Kracauer, [Martin] Wagner, and [Bruno] Taut follow the realization of the Soviet First Five-Year Plan and May’s work in the USSR must, however, be considered in another light with respect to the observations made so far.[1] In the Tagebuch of 25 July 1931, Wagner writes:

The irony of destiny: the same day in which more than a thousand city planners, after having witnessed for five days an autopsy of the cadaver of the European urban organism, agreed, in their final meeting, on their inability to do something, the municipal assessor of city planning, Ernst May, gave his report on Russian city planning before a circle of enthusiastic young architects and interested builders…The young instinctively feel that a new vitality is springing forth from Russia, that there new possibilities are maturing and will bear fruit, that there the creative joy of city planning, freed from all the obstacles of property and of private profit, can fully expand.[2]

And Wagner concludes his hymn to realized socialism with an indicative expression, which puts in the forefront the “ethical” value of global planning: in the Soviet city, “there must be contained the greatest and noblest moments of a socialist Zeitgeist…as the Cathedral of the people.” The mythical “cathedral of socialism” makes its last appearance here. Wagner, like May, Hannes Meyer, Mart Stam, and Hans Schmidt, sees in the USSR of the Five-Year Plans the only possible checkpoint for the hypotheses of city planning put forward in Germany from 1924 on. In the experiment of global planning, the intellectuals of the Weimar Republic believe that they can recognize the “exact” arrangement of technical-operative work, denied them by a capitalist system in regression. But behind this widespread hymn to the oneness of the decision-making.

The dissolution of the “social pacts” on which the “contract democracy” of the Weimar Republic was based becomes evident in the course of the Brüning’s government by presidential degree and in particular after the breaking up of the Parliament of July 1930. In the face of this collapse of the compromises that had held together fragilely the heap of contradictions in which the Weimar culture had found its own spaces, the USSR of the First Five-Year Plan can be considered in a new light: no longer a place of collective catharsis, but rather the place where the State seems to assume the role assigned by [Rudolf] Hilferding and by the Congress of Kiel to the connection “political form/social organization of capital.” This role, note well, is still claimed in 1932 by the ADGB and the Afa-Bund, in the pamphlet Umbau der Wirtschaft, the last significant document of Weimar syndicalism.[3]

Das neue Frankfurt - Neue Stadte im Russland (July 1931)_Page_01 Continue reading


Bolshevik antireligious propaganda, part II: Trotsky and the Red Army prepare to storm Heaven

Almost two years ago, I posted a fairly extensive collection of early Soviet antireligious propaganda from the 1920s and 1930s, along with some excerpts from Engels and Lenin on the necessity of atheist agitprop. Recently a comrade, Amber Frost (who is always brilliant), reblogged it for Dangerous Minds. This post today will serve to expand on the subject. It features some more rare images, part of a 1923 essay by Trotsky, as well as a few more of my own thoughts.

Obviously, there is very little original to say. So we begin, as ever, with the classics. Marx’s essential views on religion can be summed up in the following famous lines from the introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843):

Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man — state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

As Marx began to turn his studies away from the critique of German classical philosophy toward the critique of British political economy, he no longer concerned himself with lengthy diatribes against religion. This is not at all because he changed his mind about it; rather, he considered the issue more or less settled. In an 1879 interview he granted to the Chicago Tribune, Marx once again affirmed: “We know that violent measures against religion are nonsense. But this is an opinion: as socialism grows, religion will disappear. Its disappearance must be achieved by social development, in which education must play a part.” (Socialists today evidently do not share Marx’s conviction. With respect to the lengthier passage cited above, Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin has stated in an interview: “Everyone completely misinterprets that Marx quote. It’s the conditions that, in Marx’s formulation, force people to turn to religion for solace in the first place that need to be combated. But even that is patronizing! I believe religion will always exist in some form. People are drawn to it for existential reasons.”)

For the leaders and theoreticians of the Second International, religious faith was rightly considered a private matter to be left up to personal conscience. One’s political conduct must of course be thoroughly atheistic, however, as this occurs within the broader realm of public affairs, where men are answerable to each other (and cannot be seen taking orders from on high). Sometimes socialists grant membership in the party to believers, sometimes for tactical reasons, but as a rule they preferred devout unbelievers. Countering the philistine notion that Marxism was in any way “compatible” with religion, Trotsky wrote in June 1923: “We will admit into our ranks those comrades who have yet to break with religion not in order to reconcile Marxism with Islam, but rather tactfully but persistently to free the backward members’ consciousnesses of superstition, which in its very essence is the mortal enemy of communism.”

Generally, however, Marxists prefer devout unbelievers. The goal is not always to “meet them where they’re at,” as the vulgar expression goes. Pannekoek explained in a 1907 text on “Socialism and Religion”: “In declaring that religion is a private matter, we do not mean to say that it is immaterial to us, what general conceptions our members hold. We prefer a thorough scientific understanding to an unscientific religious faith, but are convinced that the new conditions will of themselves alter the religious conceptions, and that religious or anti-religious propaganda by itself is unable to accomplish or prevent this.”

Rationalism does indeed tend to fall flat in the face of the objective irrationality of society. Science and education can pierce the enchanted circle of religious mysticism and superstition only to a point. Deeper desiderata remain undispelled because reality itself lies fractured. God is dead, as Nietzsche said, but something of Its shadow survives, much as the shadow of the Buddha livcd on, cast in a cave for centuries after the Siddhartha died. While Lenin would later call for a program of “militant atheism” in 1922, as part of a broader materialist initiative, he understood by this both direct propaganda against religious teachings and institutions as well as the indirect alleviation (or, better yet, annihilation) of those miserable social and economic conditions which give rise to religious ideology in the first place.

Trotsky’s piece, reproduced below, highlights precisely this “dialectical” character of Marxism’s struggle against religion. Enjoy!

Soviet antireligious poster

Antireligious propaganda

Leon Trotsky
Pravda [Truth]
July 22, 1924

Let us pause once again on the question of antireligious propaganda, as one of the most important tasks in the sphere of everyday life. Here too I quote from the thirteenth congress resolution. It is brief: “Considerable attention should be paid to propaganda promoting the natural sciences (antireligious propaganda).” I don’t remember whether this kind of formulation has been used before, putting antireligious propaganda in parenthesis after “propaganda promoting the natural sciences.” Even if it was, it has now been authoritatively confirmed. This constitutes a demand for a new and different approach to an old problem.

Under the beneficial influence of the impetus generated by your congress, by the very fact of its being called, I have been forced to look through a great deal of published material which ordinarily I would not have had time to review, in particular the satirical journal Bezbozhnik [Godless], where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists, a magazine which surely has its positive role to play within certain, primarily urban, circles, but which nevertheless is hardly following the right track in the struggle against religious superstitions. Issue after issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehovah, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist [Dmitrii] Moor[11] and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely. But if this was all we were doing, or if this was our main work, then I am afraid the duel would end up as a draw…

At any rate, it is perfectly evident and beyond dispute at the present time that we cannot place our antireligious propaganda on the level of a straightforward fight against God. That would not be sufficient for us. We supplant mysticism by materialism, broadening first of all the collective experience of the masses, heightening their active influence on society, widening the horizon of their positive knowledge, and  with this as our basis, we also deal blows at religious prejudice (wherever necessary).

The problem of religion has colossal significance and is most closely bound up with cultural work and with socialist construction. In his youth, Marx said: ” The criticism of religion is the basis of all other criticism. ” In what sense? In the sense that religion is a kind of fictitious knowledge of the universe. This fiction has two sources: the weakness of man before nature, and the incoherence of social relations. Fearing nature or ignoring it, being able to analyze social relations or ignoring them, man in society endeavored to meet his needs by creating fantastic images, endowing them with imaginary reality, and kneeling before his own creations. The basis of this creation lies in the practical need of man to orient himself, which in turn springs from the conditions of the struggle for existence.

Religion is an attempted adaptation to the surrounding environment in order successfully to meet the struggle for existence. In this adaptation there are practical and appropriate rules. But all this is bound up with myths, fantasies, superstitions, unreal knowledge.


Just as all development of culture is the accumulation of knowledge and skill, so is the criticism of religion the foundation for all other criticism. In order to pave the way for correct and real knowledge, it is necessary to remove fictitious knowledge. This is true, however, only when one considers the question as a whole. Historically, not only in individual cases, but also in the development of whole classes, real knowledge is bound up, in different forms and proportions, with religious prejudices. The struggle against a given religion or against religion in general, and against all forms of mythology and superstition, is usually successful only when the religious ideology conflicts with the needs of a given class in a new social environment. In other words, when the accumulation of knowledge and the need for knowledge do not fit into the frame of the unreal truths of religion, then one blow with a critical knife sometimes suffices, and the shell of religion drops off. Continue reading

Bernstein and Kautsky together in 1910a

Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

The latest round in the ongoing saga between Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS) stems from the latter’s review of the former’s book, Revolutionary Strategy, and contains a number of points that might interest readers of this blog. Among other things, they debate the role of the party in Marxist politics, its relation to the state, and the troublesome figure of “democracy” as it exists under capitalism. In his critique of Macnair’s overemphasis on the democratic republic as the form by which proletariat must govern, Cutrone writes:

Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor — but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits, in crisis.

Unfortunately, the response by Macnair in the pages of the Weekly Worker is one of his weaker ones. He accuses Cutrone of “vacuous circularity,” mistaking the materialist dialectic for some sort of mystical abracadabra. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explain why I think Cutrone’s argument is basically right, even if Macnair’s motivations are understandable given the abuse of Leninist organizational principles on the sectarian left.

Anyway, I’m posting this 1924 article by the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and critic Georg Lukács because I think it addresses some of the issues at the center of this debate. Furthermore, it’s useful insofar as it pits the respective avatars of CC and MM against each other in a fairly neat fashion: Kautsky for Macnair, and Lukács for Cutrone. Macnair tends to dismiss Lukács as a “philosopher-king,” and his writings as “theoretical overkill.” Obviously, in this I side with Lenin and Lukács against Bernstein and Kautsky. But you can be the judge.


Bernstein’s triumph: Notes on the essays written in honor of Karl Kautsky’s seventieth birthday

Georg Lukacs
Die Internationale
VII, № 22 (1924)

The main thing, however — as I’ve already said to you — is to do something like this, but not to say so.

— Ignaz Auer, Letter to Bernstein

The man who did it without saying so, the man who did not preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, the transformation of revolutionary dialectics. into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky. It was, therefore, only fitting and logical that the reformists of every country should come together to celebrate his seventieth birthday. The Vorwärts report on the celebration in London was equally true to form in its — correct — emphasis on the real climax of the proceedings.[1] “It was only when the aging Eduard Bernstein finally rose from his place to the right of Kautsky, the man who, like Kautsky, has faithfully preserved and administered the enormous intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels throughout his life, that the celebration acquired its peculiar, deeper significance…The words that Bernstein uttered were words of friendship. Adler once quoted, in a different context, the saying that what divides people is insignificant beside the multitude of factors which unite them. For Kautsky and Bernstein, this saying took on a new and special meaning. When Bernstein had finished speaking and the two veterans, already legendary figures in the eyes of a young third generation — embraced and held each other for several seconds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved. Indeed, who would have wished it otherwise?”

Kautsky himself does not dispute such harmony with Bernstein. On his attitude to the World War he writes : “I was very close to Bernstein at that time. It was in the war that we rediscovered each other. Both of us maintained our theoretical individuality, but in our practice we were now almost invariably at one with each other. And so we have remained ever since” (Self-Portraits, pg. 26). These words indicate the spirit in which the Kautsky jubilee took place. While the struggles concerning Marxist “orthodoxy” which occupied Kautsky’s early period and culminated in the Bernstein debate are fading increasingly into the past as an insignificant episode, those disputes which he waged after the first Russian revolution — initially with Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, and others, later with Lenin and Trotsky — are developing into the central concerns of his life’s work.

rosa-luxemburg-and-other-international-socialist-leaders-including-karl-kautsky-german-victor-adler-austria-georgii-plekhanov-russia-edouard-vaillant-france-and-sen-katayama amsterdam-1904-hall-paint

Hence it is no coincidence that appreciation of Kautsky should be based chiefly on his latest sizable work, The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, a book in which all his reformist tendencies manifest themselves clearly in the guise of a new “theory of revolution.” Karl Kautsky is acclaimed by all reformists as the great theoretician of revolution. And rightly so. For their sabotaging of revolution, their fear of revolution, their frantic efforts to prevent revolution — all this has found its clearest theoretical expression in the life’s work of Karl Kautsky.

Precisely therein lies Bernstein’s triumph. The isolated “differences of opinion” have in any case long since been forgotten. The really crucial question even then was whether, in the period leading up to the decisive power struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat, social democracy would become the leader of the revolutionary class, or whether it would hurry to help the bourgeoisie to survive this, the severest crisis in its history. Bernstein expressed his preference for the latter course in a premature, overly frank and tactically clumsy fashion. Had his arguments been really discussed and their consequences properly and thoroughly analyzed, the Social Democrats would inevitably have been split. This would have left the bourgeoisie facing a party which, though numerically weakened, took a clear and determined revolutionary line. It was Karl Kautsky’s historic mission in that situation to thwart the clarification of such problems, to prevent the development of any such tension, and to preserve at any price the unity of the SPD (and with it that of the Second International). He has fulfilled this mission faithfully. Instead of calling openly for the liquidation of the revolutionary theory of Marxism, as Bernstein did, Kautsky argued for a “development,” a “concretization” of the Marxist theory of revolution. This new approach, while apparently rejecting Bernsteinian reformism, in fact provided the theoretical underpinning for precisely what is central to Bernstein’s conception of history, namely the notion of peaceful evolutionary progression towards socialism.

L. Boudin has summarized this vocation of Kautsky’s quite clearly: “Not until the smoke of battle [the allusion is to the Bernstein debate. G.L.] had cleared somewhat and this battle had been practically won could Marx’s great successor — Karl Kautsky — write the series of masterpieces which for the first time explained Marxist theory as an evolutionary conception of the coming social revolution” (Die Gesellschaft, pg. 44). ZRonais puts it in similar terms: “In Kautsky’s struggle with reformism, where the theoretician proved to be better at Realpolitik than the shortsighted, merely practical, day-to-day politicians, history has decided in Kautsky’s favor” (Der Kampf, pg. 423). In The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, which his admirers have consequently and quite rightly hailed as his greatest achievement, Kautsky expresses this equivocal and ambiguous theory with the utmost possible clarity. He claims that he is not intent on liquidating the revolution. Quite the reverse, in fact: he attempts to grasp its essence, the essence of the proletarian revolution, quite clearly, and to protect the proletarian revolution from any possibility of being confused with the bourgeois revolution. But it is precisely this “pure” proletarian revolution which, in Kautsky’s exposition, acquires a form which objectively is such as to make it essentially equivalent to Bernstein’s notion of peaceful progression towards socialism.

For this revolution takes place within democracy. And the significance of democracy is precisely “that it brings the greatness of this power [of the proletariat, G.L.] clearly to light while obviating the need for a confrontation of armed forces” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, p. 82). The advantage of this kind of revolution over the bourgeois variety is precisely that a counter-blow, a counter-revolution does not usually follow it (ibid., p. 96) — provided, of course, that the principle of “pushing the revolution forward” (ibid., pgs. 85-94) which Rosa Luxemburg erroneously took over from the bourgeois revolution is not applied. Under such circumstances, clearly, to talk of democracy as being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is to employ “one of the most ludicrous slogans produced in modern times” (ibid., pg. 112). And so on. Continue reading


Creepy Christmas Lenin [Ленин на ёлке]

Just in time for the holidays.

Needless to say, these creepy Christmas portraits were not Lenin’s idea. One can only guess how horrified he would have been if he had lived to see them. Christmas was abolished as an official holiday by the Bolsheviks starting 1918, roughly a year after the October Revolution. By 1935, however, Stalin’s government decided to reintroduce Santa to the children of the USSR. Poskrebyshev, a member of the Central Committee, enacted the reform.


Well, to expand a bit, it wasn’t Santa quite as we’d think of him. It was based on the old Russian version — Ded Moroz [дед Мороз], that is — different from Western Santas in several ways: 1. he isn’t jolly/fat; 2. rather, he’s tall and somewhat menacing. Some important modifications were made for (anti)ideological reasons: 1. ded Moroz no longer wore blue, as he had been turned red by communism; 2. now he wore a more festive hat instead of a boyar’s cap, as this would have harkened back to the feudal past.

Anyway, sometimes Santa was entirely superfluous. Lenin was all you needed. “I don’t know how to break it to you, little Vadim. God’s not real, and was never born, but I brought you some gifts anyway.”

Thanks to Anatolii Krasnopivtsev for the original post in Russian, which I just happened across today. Enjoy!

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