150126_r26047-1200

New York Trotskyism in the 1930s

The Trotskyists

Geoffrey Hellman
The New Yorker
December 16, 1939
.

The political group familiarly known either as the Trotskyists of the Trotskyites is officially called the Socialist Workers Party. A lot of its members feel this name is confusing, since the Party has just about as little patience with the Socialists as it has with the Stalinists, the Lovestonites, President Roosevelt, and Father Coughlin, all of whom the Trotskyists would like to blow up. It regards itself as the orthodox Marxist Party and it looks upon the regular Communist Party as at best a rather contemptible reformist group. During the eleven years of its existence it has consistently maintained direct contact with Trotsky and an uncompromising policy of world revolution against all existing forms of government, every one of which it considers too far to the right. Despite the amount of noise which its members make and the frequency with which they come up in conversation, there are only some two thousand Trotskyists in the country, of whom around six hundred are in New York.

The Trotskyists, who prefer this term to “Trotskyites,” came into being on October 27, 1928, when three members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in New York — James P. Cannon, Martin Abern, and Max Shachtman — were expelled for spreading Trotsky’s doctrines instead of Stalin’s. Trotsky was advocating worldwide revolution while Stalin was insisting on confining the revolution to Russia for the time being. Trotsky had been banished to Turkestan the year before for holding the views he did and was subsequently expelled from the Party. In July, 1928, when the Sixth World Congress of the Communist Party was held in Moscow, Trotsky, still in Turkestan, prepared a detailed criticism of Stalin’s national political program. Translated into the various languages of the delegates attending the Congress, copies of this were distributed by the Party to the twenty-odd members of the Congress’s Program Commission, one of whom was Cannon. Although his copy was plainly marked “confidential” and was to be returned to the convention officials, Cannon was so impressed by it that he not only failed to give it back, a gross breach of Party etiquette, but smuggled it into this country and showed it to his friends, including Abern and Shachtman. These men also concluded that Trotsky’s plumping for universal revolution was a sounder idea than Stalin’s plan of concentrating on Russia itself, and they sought to bring other American Party members around to their point of view. Expelled, after a trial, by Jay Lovestone, then head of the Communist Party in America, the three rebels formed a Trotskyist group, known first as the Communist League of America. Lovestone himself was expelled from the Party six months later, for objecting to Russia’s domination of Communist policies in other countries, and founded the Independent Labor League of America, which opposes both Trotsky and Stalin. As the Cannon-Abern-Shachtman offshoot grew in size and began to win over many Stalinists, the hostility of the mother Communist Party toward it became increasingly bitter. In 1934, the League, by then an affair of several hundred members, changed its name to the Workers Party of the US. In 1936 and 1937 it enjoyed an extended flirtation with the left wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialists. It joined the Socialist Party, took over the left-wing Socialist magazine, the Appeal, and called itself the Appeal Group of the Socialist Party. At the end of 1937 the Socialists kicked out the group because they considered it too radical. With it went a good many regular Socialists. The group then adopted its present name, the Socialist Workers Party [SWP].

The Trotskyists and the Stalinists have been calling each other reptiles, jackals, and general no-goods for so many years in their papers, magazines, and speeches that when the Soviet-Nazi [Molotov-Ribbentrop] pact was signed a couple of months ago I supposed the Socialist Workers, pleased at the discomfiture of the American communists, would be going around with broad grins and a great I-told-you-so air. To check up on this and find out about the party in general, I got in touch with a college classmate of mine who is now a leading Socialist Worker intellectual and a regular contributor to the Socialist Appeal and the New International, respectively the Socialist Workers’ semi-weekly newspaper and monthly magazine. T o help me gain the proper perspective, he took me to the party’s headquarters at Thirteenth Street and University Place, the street entrance to which is marked by a discreet sign reading, “Labor bookshop. Books of all publishers. Second floor.” We walked up a rickety flight of wooden stairs and entered a room containing a couple of bare wooden tables, two or three chairs, and seven or eight young men, one of them a Negro, who were arguing violently whether Russia should be regarded as a communist or a fascist country.

My companion disappeared into an adjoining office to arrange for me to meet Mr. Shachtman, and I studied various printed slogans hanging on the walls of the room, among them “The time to apply our action program is now!”, “Every class struggle fighter a two-a-week subscriber!”, “Open the doors to Nazi victims,” and “There is work to be done!” In one corner of the room hung an oil painting showing Trotsky, Lenin, and several other people, with the phrase “Workers of the world, unite!” lettered on the top. While I was looking around, the loud conversation in the room ceased and everyone began to stare at me. A clean-cut young man in a brown tweed suit came up and asked me whom I was looking for, but before I could reply, my guide came out with Shachtman, a shortish, snub-nosed man of thirty-five with a tiny mustache and an air of great jollity. I was struck by his resemblance to one of the figures in the painting, and he informed me that it did indeed represent him and that the picture was the work of Diego Rivera, who had given it to the Party in 1933, when he came here to do the Rockefeller Center mural that was subsequently destroyed. In addition to Trotsky, Lenin, and himself, Shachtman pointed out likenesses of Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, James P. Cannon, and two or three other people whose names I didn’t catch. I gathered that these persons hadn’t posed together and that the picture was a symbolic one.

We went into another room, which was decorated with a second sign saying “There is work to be done!” and a painting by Rivera, depicting Lenin, Trotsky, and six or seven other people. Shachtman pointed to one of them and said, “That’s the man who took the Winter Palace in 1917.” I found out later that Rivera had, in 1933, been considerably more generous to the Lovestonites than to the Trotskyists, having presented them with twenty-one large murals, most of which portray the history of the United States in a way that would never help anyone pass an examination at Groton. These are located at the Lovestonite headquarters on West Fourteenth Street. Rivera must have been above small Leftist differences, for one of his paintings there shows, among others, Stalin, Trotsky, Lovestone, Cannon, and William Z. Foster. Foster, with Earl Browder, assumed the leadership of the American Communist Party after Lovestone was expelled.

Continue reading

Investigative personnel work at the scene of a cafe shooting in Oesterbro, in Copenhagen

New normal: The Left and the growth of religious reaction

Paul Demarty
Weekly Worker 1046
February 19, 2015

.
There are many stories that can be told about last weekend’s shootings in Copenhagen, of which the most plainly obvious is that it was a copycat attack, inspired by killing sprees in Paris last month.

Though the motives of the suspect, Omar El-Hussein, are still the subject of fevered speculation, it would be a quite remarkable coincidence if he had dreamed up the scheme entirely independently of Amedy Coulibaly and Said and Chérif Kouachi. Like the admittedly much more efficient Paris gunmen, El-Hussein selected as his targets blasphemous artists and Jews, carried out his assaults with automatic weapons, and chose a martyr’s death by forcing a shootout with police.

El-Hussein began his rampage at a café hosting a symposium on free speech and blasphemy, to mark 25 years since the Iranian clerisy’s death sentence against Salman Rushdie. The event saw many militantly irreligious types discussing, in part, the atmosphere in the wake of the Kouachi brothers’ massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. A Femen activist was speaking when the gunfire began. Film director Finn Nørgaard had stepped outside, and was killed immediately.

The most attractive target was probably Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who attracted controversy some years ago for his portraits of Mohammed as a human head on a dog’s body. He has been the object of bungled assassination plots originating as far afield as Ireland and the United States, and lives under the protection of the Danish security services, promoting his and others’ freedom to blaspheme. (A foundation in his name awarded Stéphane Charbonnier, the late Charlie Hebdo editor, a “freedom prize” last year.) Al Qa’eda offered a bounty of $100,000 for his murder; Islamic State recently upped the bidding to $150,000. Apparently the noble cause alone is not reward enough.

El-Hussein fled, and traveled by stolen car and taxi to his home neighborhood (two men were later arrested for abetting his attempts to dispose of weapons and evidence), before showing up at an east Copenhagen synagogue after midnight, still open for a young woman’s bat mitzvah. Another shootout ensued, with several injuries and the death of a volunteer security guard. Eventually, cornered in his flat the next day, he opened fire on police and was shot dead.

150217-omar-abdel-hamid-el-hussein-denmark-527a_bcd360804959b250ae38c89fc10d12e2

Tensions

.
If the inspiration for El-Hussein’s rampage is pretty plain, the broader consonances between his case and that of the French gunmen are more significant. While he was a young man, with no apparent history of Islamist activism (as opposed to the hardened jihadis who conducted the Paris attacks with military precision — he appears like them to have become radicalized in prison, and the wider social background is similar.

El-Hussein lived on a deprived estate in the north-west of the city, described by one anonymous resident as a place where “foreign-origin families have all been lumped together…by politicians” (The Guardian, February 16). His biography sounds like that of many dislocated migrant youths across Europe: failure to complete school, apparent activity with hash-dealing gangs, and prison sentences.

Tensions over immigration are running high in Denmark, and anti-Islamic sentiment along with it. The third largest parliamentary fraction belongs to the far-right People’s Party. With such tension, unsurprisingly, comes the attraction of radical Islam. At least 100 Danes have made their way to the Middle East to fight for Islamist insurgent groups, one of the highest per capita figures in Europe. Denmark is also, naturally, in the sights of Islamist militants for the publication of cartoons of Mohammed in the right-wing daily Jyllands Posten in 2006.

Continue reading

ia600606.us.archive.org-naumgabo00muse_0007

Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner

Gabo-Red-Kinetic-Painting-97-largeThe realistic manifesto (1920)

.

Above the tempests of our weekdays,
Across the ashes and cindered homes of the past,
Before the gates of the vacant future,

We proclaim today to you artists, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, poets…to you people to whom Art is no mere ground for conversation but the source of real exaltation, our word and deed.

The impasse into which Art has come to in the last twenty years must be broken.

The growth of human knowledge with its powerful penetration into the mysterious laws of the world which started at the dawn of this century,

The blossoming of a new culture and a new civilization with their unprecedented-in-history surge of the masses towards the possession of the riches
of Nature, a surge which binds the people into one union, and last, not least, the war and the revolution (those purifying torrents of the coming epoch), have made us face the fact of new forms of life, already born and active.

Naum Gabo in his studio, 1935 Antoine Pevsner in his Paris studio

What does Art carry into this unfolding epoch of human history?

Does it possess the means necessary for the construction of the new Great Style?

Or does it suppose that the new epoch may not have a new style?

Or does it suppose that the new life can accept a new creation which is constructed on the foundations of the old?

Naum Gabo

Naum Gabo

In spite of the demand of the renascent spirit of our time, Art is still nourished by impression, external appearance, and wanders helplessly back and forth from Naturalism to Symbolism, from Romanticism to Mysticism.

The attempts of the Cubists and the Futurists to lift the visual arts from the bogs of the past have led only to new delusions.

Cubism, having started with simplification of the representative technique ended with its analysis and stuck there.

The distracted world of the Cubists, broken in shreds by their logical anarchy, cannot satisfy us who have already accomplished the Revolution or who are already constructing and building up anew.

One could heed with interest the experiments of the Cubists, but one cannot follow them, being convinced that their experiments are being made on the surface of Art and do not touch on the bases of it seeing plainly that the end result amounts to the same old graphic, to the same old volume and to the same decorative surface as of old.

Antoine Pevsner

Antoine Pevsner

One could have hailed Futurism in its time for the refreshing sweep of its announced Revolution in Art, for its devastating criticism of the past, as in no other way could have assailed those artistic barricades of “good taste”…powder was needed for that and a lot of it…but one cannot construct a system of art on one revolutionary phrase alone.

Continue reading

autre_monde7

The theory of “reification”

A response to Georg Lukács
.

Originally published in Platypus Review 73

.
.
Izrail’ Vainshtein

Under the Banner of
Marxism
10-11 (1924)
.

The philosophical explanations present among people claiming to be Marxists manifest a haphazardness of speculative philosophizing that must meet their nemesis in the philosophy of dialectical materialism.

The history of human thought, from the dialectical standpoint, is least of all a ground for constructing hypotheses, concocting dubious concepts that bear on their face the imprint of traditional philosophical strivings. True and deep thought, thought that opens a new epoch in history, often becomes a pole of attraction for philosophizing persons whose conceptual fancy seizes upon such thought only to cover it over with their own questionable designs. Such a questionable design is the theory of reification of Georg Lukács.1

Marx, as is known, disclosed the fetish character of the commodity. He showed that value is not a fetish invisibly residing in the commodity, but a production relation in a society based on individual exchange between commodity producers. The structure of commodity society in general, and capitalist society in particular, is such that a thing becomes a point of intersection in a nexus of interlinking labors. The commodity establishes links in such a society, where there is no planned regulatory control over production and where a thing, disconnected from the producer that made it, descends on to the market as a commodity unit, obedient to the specific laws of circulation: “The labor of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labor of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers.”2 A thing is disconnected from the producers because they themselves are disconnected from each other. The overcoming of this separation is carried out in commodity circulation, through which things establish social ties. To understand the consciousness of such a society and its constitutive classes (a means in the struggle) it is necessary to go beyond the limits of thinghood and to address the living concrete actors in struggle. Things do not struggle amongst themselves. If the social consciousness is a critical factor in this mutual historical rivalry, then, of course, it is necessary to understand it in terms of social class interest, which only finds expression in living agents of the historical process. The genius of Marx’s disclosure consisted in revealing behind relations of things the relations of people and, conversely, in establishing the necessity of the reification of production relations in a commodity society. Lukács, proceeding from the fact of commodity fetishism — which Marx so brilliantly dissected having seen behind this occult idol human relations — attempts to construct an entire “monistic” theory of reification in whose image and likeness all phenomena of this society are formulated, including consciousness. However, Lukács’s construction stands in sharp contradiction to the sense of dialectical materialism.

podZnamMarks 6a014e5fb9e8aa970c01a3fc9f8310970b

First of all, when Marx speaks about capital “as automatic generation”3 in which all traces of its origin disappear, he in this case does not at all describe, as Lukács thinks, “the inclination of conciousness toward reification.”4 Rather, Marx is speaking about the refraction of determinate forms of social relations, operating as relations of things in the consciousness of bourgeois theory and representation. Political economy is the science of relations between people represented as relations between things. The capitalist economy is a commodity economy, the single cell of which — the private business enterprise — is managed by formally independent commodity producers, between whom an indirect link is established in the process of exchange. Speaking about commodity fetishism and all its modifications in capitalist society, Marx least of all psychologizes. He is describing an inclination of consciousness, but he specifies it in relation to the productive relations of people characteristic of capitalist society. Rubin is completely right to say that the theory of commodity fetishism could be better called “a general theory of the production relations of capitalist society.”5

In Lukács we read that, “just as the economic theory of capitalism remains stuck fast in its self-created immediacy, the same thing happens to bourgeois attempts to comprehend the ideological phenomenon of reification.”6 Continue reading

Gustav Klutsis RED

Marxism and biography

.
Here I have assembled some biographies of preeminent Marxists, radicals, and intellectuals that have been written in the last hundred or so years. You can download them here:

Many have noted that the biography is an undertheorized literary genre: Mikhail Bakhtin, Lewis Mumford, and Leo Löwenthal, to name a few. Below is an abridged version of an essay by Löwenthal, a literary theorist associated with the Frankfurt School. Obviously, his view of the biography — focusing on the popular biography, a form perfected by authors like Emil Ludwig and Stefan Zweig — is fairly bleak. This was only fitting, however, given the quality that life itself had acquired under capitalism grown overripe. As Adorno wrote appreciatively to Löwenthal,

Ultimately, the very concept of life as a self-developing and meaningful unity has as little reality today as the concept of the individual, and it is the ideological function of the biographies to conjure up the fiction on arbitrarily selected models that there is still such a thing as life…Life itself in its completely abstract appearance has become mere ideology.

If anyone could scan and upload the Monthly Review biography of Lenin by Tamás Krausz, it’d be greatly appreciated. Quite good. Enjoy.

red-lenin-1987-screenprint-on-arches-paper-estimated-sale-price-40000-to-60000

Theory of biography

Leo Löwenthal
Essays in honor of
Marcuse
(1973)
.

.

I

.
The biography (we are here excluding scholarly works of history) reminds us of the interior in large department stores. There in the rambling basements, heaps of merchandise have been gathered from all sections of the establishment. These goods have become outdated and now whether they were originally offered for sale on the overcrowded notion counters or in the lofty silence of the luxury-furniture halls, are being indiscriminately remaindered for relatively little money. In these basements we find everything; the only common principle is the necessity for fast sales. The biography is the bargain basement of all fashionable cultural goods; they are all a bit shop-worn, they no longer quite fulfill their original purpose, and it is no longer particularly important whether there is relatively much or little of one or the other item.

With almost statistical accuracy, the same material has been collected and displayed in about the same package. To be sure, from the outside it looks quite different. The biographies are presented as if in the intellectual realm they represent that which the exclusive and specialty stores represent in the realm of consumer goods. This comparison designates the social atmosphere in which the popular biography belongs: one of apparent wealth. It lays claim to the philosopher’s stone, as it were, for all contingencies of history of life situations, but it turns out that the motley mixture of generalizations and recipes is actually an expression of utter bewilderment.

An analysis of the popular biography is first of all an analysis of its reading public, and as such it comprises a critique of late European liberalism. Arbitrariness and contradiction have destroyed any claim to theory; ultimately this literature is a caricature of theory. During the ascendancy of the middle classes, when the educational novel characterizes narrative literature, the individual vacillated between his own potentials and the demands of his environment. The author drew material, which represented the substance of each individual destiny, from imagination; in only rare exceptions were data used for surface decoration and coloration. But, while imaginative, the educational novel was at the same time exact, because, as a product of poetic imagination, social and psychological reality were mirrored as they were observed within the social stratum of the author and his public. Wilhelm Meister, Illusions Perdues, David Copperfield, Éducation Sentimentale, Der Gruene Heinrich, Anna Karenina — these novels not only evoked the readers’ experience of déjà vu, but confirmed the salvation of the individual by demonstrating the burdens and good fortunes of an invented individual existence in such a way as to permit the reader to experience them for himself. In these works, specific individuals, consistent within themselves and living within a concrete world, are represented as a complex of subjects closely connected with the fate of living and reading contemporaries. This is “reality” conceived as historians have conceived it since the Enlightenment, and in this sense there exists a direct relation between scientific and literary realism and the theory of society: one formulates the concern about the individual, the other tries to sketch the conditions for his happiness.

The biography is both a continuation and an inversion of the novel. Documentation in the middle-class novel had the function of background — raw material as it were. Quite otherwise in the popular biography: there documentation, the pompous display of fixed dates, events, names, letters, etc., serves in lieu of social conditions. The individual who is fettered by these paraphernalia is reduced to a typographical element which winds itself through the narrative as a convenient device for arranging material. Whatever the biographies proclaim about their heroes, they are heroes no longer. They have no fate, they are merely variables of the historic process.

II

.
History and time have become reified in biography — as in a kind of petrified anthropology.

Consider, e.g., “The stronger will of history is indifferent to the innermost will of individuals, often involving persons and powers, despite themselves, in her murderous game,” or else: “the sublime breaths of history sometimes determine the rhythm of a period at times even contrary to the will of the genius that animates it,” or history, “the sternest of the goddesses, unmoved and with an incorruptible glance” looks over “the depths of the times and …with an iron hand, without a smile or compassion” brings “events into being,” or history, “possibly the most terrible and most depriving sea journey, …the eternal chronicle of human sufferings,” “almost always justifies the victor and not the vanquished,” when she “in the ultimate sense is based on force; or, history acts “neither morally nor immorally”; “0ne comes to term with her,” so decrees the biographer personifying world-reason which, however, does not deter him from occasionally calling history also “the supreme judge of human actions.” At times history even permits herself to choose “from the million-masses of humanity a single person in order to demonstrate plastically with him a dispute of Weltanschauungen.” Continue reading

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 2.08.24 PM

Mondoweiss, Haymarket, the ISO, and BDS hypocrisy: Caterpillar’s dollars hard at work

.
No, it’s not the hypocrisy you’re thinking. It’s not the typical refrain: “Why target Israel when there are so many other brutal, colonialist states out there?” That would be far too simplistic. Activist campaigns always have to pick and choose which causes they rally behind, so it’s hardly a valid criticism to ask: “Why A, B, or C and not X, Y, or Z?” Some well-meaning individuals have raised objections along these lines, but frankly I think they’re missing the point.

Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions proceeds from the premise that Israel’s relation to Palestine is roughly analogous to the white Afrikaaner regime’s relation to the black population of South Africa. Moshe Machover, once a member of the now-disbanded Israeli socialist group Matzpen, has shown fairly definitively that this analogy does not hold. Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, longtime critics of Israel, largely agree with Machover’s assessment, and question the BDS strategy for more or less the same reason. Besides, Western liberals like to flatter themselves with the idea that a similar campaign helped bring down apartheid back in the 1980s, but they exaggerate its effect. Sustained class struggle by major black unions in solidarity with poor white workers from the south ended this form of racial oppression, not “Sun City” by Steven Van Zandt.

As for myself, while I’d like to see Zionism smashed as much as the next guy, I’m skeptical whether BDS has anything more than symbolic value. The only part of it that has any traction right now is the boycotts part of it, by far the least effective component of the three-pronged program. Getting your local co-op to drop kibbutz-farmed organic couscous is not going to bring down the Israeli state. Considering IBM just invested close to a billion dollars buying the cybersecurity company Trusteer, and Israeli weapons sales last year topped $7,000,000,000.00, it’s not even a drop in the bucket. You can’t organize a civilian boycott of military surplus.

Technically, BDSers shouldn’t be using Facebook, either, given that the company acquired the Israeli startup Onavo back in 2013. It now runs a research and development department out of the Holy Land. Don’t despair, though: Myspace and Ello are still kosher. But how am I going to carbonate the blood of Christian children without a Sodastream ZOG-machine? Supporters will cite the hysteria of hasbara peddlers, apologists for the Israeli state, or maybe instead insist that the point is to raise awareness more than actually weaken “the Zionist entity.” Pretty weak tea, in my opinion.

caterpillar

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, however, that BDS is in fact an effective strategy and that it eventually will bring about the liberation of Palestine. A number of organizations on the Left profess that it will, and have pledged their support in solidarity with “Palestinian civil society” — an indeterminate hodgepodge of expat groups speaking on behalf of those still living in the Occupied Territories. For example, the progressive Jewish website Mondoweiss has made the case for a broad-based BDS coalition. One of its authors, Max Ajl, scolded Finkelstein for refusing to sign on to the campaign. Similarly, the blogger Richard Seymour has wagged his finger disapprovingly at Finkelstein for undermining BDS. One of the publications he contributes to on a fairly regular basis, the International Socialist Organization’s main organ Socialist Worker, has likewise condemned institutions that failed to withdraw their financial support for construction firms like Caterpillar. CAT is famous for selling its equipment to Israeli settlers, who then use it to bulldoze Palestinian homes (sometimes with residents still inside).

Readers of these publications, Socialist Worker and Mondoweiss, will be surprised to find out that nonprofit that supplies the bulk of their funding, the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (or CERSC for short), has bought and sold Caterpillar stock itself. Despite their professed adherence to the strictures of BDS, these outlets have themselves profited from CAT’s business. No small sum, either: the CERSC bought 86 shares worth of Caterpillar for $4,906 and sold it for $7,655 ten months later. All in all, they cleared $2,749 in gains, an increase upwards of fifty percent. Pham Binh, an ex-member of the ISO, brought this to readers’ attention two years ago, but no statement or explanation has been forthcoming from any of the organizations tied to the nonprofit. Why not?

In any case, it’s nice to be reminded now and then of this hypocrisy when writers and supporters of these sites — Max Ajl, Andrew Ryder, Paul Heideman, and Aaron Hess, to name a few — heap scorn on me for daring to leak documents or publish accounts which show the ISO tried to cover up allegations of sexual misconduct by one of its senior members on the West Coast, or point out that Marxists don’t form trans-class alliances with homophobic religious groups that tolerate antisemites. Platypus, the group I used to belong to, may have had some ridiculous opinions expressed by its leaders on their private listserve, but at least it didn’t try to cover up rape or sexual abuse. Which is more than can be said for the ISO-US (see Comrade Daniel), the SWP-UK (see Comrade Delta), or Solidarity (according to some conversations with one of its former members, KDGD). My heart goes out to all my detractors: I’m just glad to see Caterpillar’s dollars hard at work.

Nadezhda Udaltsova, Three figures 1914

Women of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde

Popova's Moscow studio, 1924 photographed by Alexander Rodchenko showing her maquette for The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) Painterly Architectonics (1917)

On organizing anew

Liubov Popova
circa 1921
.

We have no need to conceal our pride that we are living in this new Great Epoch of great organizations.

Not a single historical moment will be repeated.

The past is for history. The present and the future are for organizing life, for organizing what is both creative will and creative exigency.

We are breaking with the past, because we cannot accept its hypotheses. We ourselves are creating our own hypotheses anew and only upon them, as in our inventions, can we build our new life and new worldview.

More than anyone else, the artist knows this intuitively and believes in it absolutely. That is exactly why artists, above all, undertook a revolution and have created — are still creating — a new worldview. Revolution in art has always predicted the breaking of the old public consciousness and the appearance of a new order in life.

A real revolution, unprecedented in all the enormity of its significance for the future, is sweeping away all the old conceptions, customs, concepts, qualities, and attachments and is replacing them with new and very different ones, as if borrowed from another planet or from alien creatures. But wasn’t art the forerunner of this revolution — art that replaced the old world view with the need to organize — and to such an extent that even the end of “art” was declared? In fact, this [new] form has declared the end not only of the old art, but perhaps of art in general or, if not the end, then an artistic transformation so great that it cannot be accommodated within the old conception of art.

Varvara Stepanova and Liubov Popova. photographed by Alexander Rodchenko, Moscow 1924ia700602.us.archive.org-amazonsofavantga00exte_0064

An analysis of the conception of the subject as distinguished from its representational significance lies at the basis of our approach toward reality: at first there was the deformation of the subject, and this was followed by the exposition of its essence, which is the concretization of a given consciousness within given forms. It also marks the beginning of the organization of the artistic media.

As a purpose, this is not new. for there has been no significant era in art when the subject was not deformed in accordance with the external energy of expression or reconstructed from a need to concretize a particular worldview.

To the extent that a given confluence of historical conditions for the formation of a certain consciousness is unique, that condition of consciousness in relation to its own past, present, and future will also be singular and unique.

That’s the first point.

The second point is still more important — above all, the moment of creation: a new organization of elements is created out of the constant, traditional ones, which are so only because, ultimately, we know only one and the same concrete material.

Through a transformed, [more] abstract reality, the artist will be liberated from all the conventional worldviews that existed hitherto. In the absolute freedom of non-objectivity and under the precise dictation of its consciousness (which helps the expediency and necessity of the new artistic organization to manifest themselves), [the artist] is now constructing [his/her] own art, with total conviction.

Our fanaticism is conscious and assured, for the scope of our experiences has taught us to assume our positive place in history.

The more organized, the more essential the new forms in art, the more apparent it will become that our era is a great one and indispensable to humanity.

(Form + color + texture + rhythm + material + etc.) × ideology (the need to organize) = our art.

Alexandra Exter in front of Udaltsova's paintings at the exhibition The Store, Moscow, 1916Aleksandra Ekster

Liubov Popova in her studio, Moscow, 1919Liubov Popova


Continue reading

1888752_729766663774714_8118896858626978217_n

Rassenkampf or Klassenkampf?

.
I hate to say it, but what strikes me more than anything in rereading Houria Bouteldja’s article is just how painfully French her entire mode of thought is. Far from being fundamentally “alien” and indecipherable to white leftists in the West, her arguments are Western through and through. She recycles the worst of Frog poststructuralist brainrot, precisely when she insists upon her «altérité radicale».

The really astounding thing about this is the way that so many self-declared Marxists, predominantly white Anglophone males, are rallying to the side of a thinker who can only talk about “class struggle” in scare quotes. Perhaps Marx and Engels were wrong, after all: the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of Rassenkampf, not Klassenkampf.

Bouteldja’s polemics against Enlightenment universalism actually has some precedent in (reactionary) French political thought, moreover. Marx has a bit on this in his 1863 Theories of Surplus Value, hardly a piece of a juvenilia. Sub out “Linguet” for “Bouteldja” and switch around the pronouns, maybe get rid of specifics like “contemporaries” and “that was then beginning,” the statement might well stand today:

Linguet…is not a socialist. His polemics against the bourgeois-liberal ideals of the Enlighteners, his contemporaries, against the dominion of the bourgeoisie that was then beginning, are given — half-seriously, half-ironically — a reactionary appearance. He defends Asiatic despotism against the civilized European forms of despotism; thus he defends slavery against wage-labor.

Of course, most of the romantic anti-capitalist motifs Bouteldja relies upon can be traced back to some reactionary European precursor. Her rants against “gay universalism” are clearly underwritten by notions of Kultur and Gemeinschaft as somehow organic and distinct that go at least as far back as Herder. You can almost smell the Spengler, however, in the accounts of decline and cultural pollution by the homosexual bacillus.

At the end of the day, though, it is the “white left” that uncritically embraces this anti-Marxist nonsense that bears most of the blame for its opportunistic pandering.

Oath_of_confirmation_of_Constitution_of_the_3rd_May_1791

“Decolonial” dead-end: Houria Bouteldja and the new indigenism beyond Left and Right

.
Remember back when Jacobin was promoting Vivek Chibber? Interviewing Walter Benn Michaels? Publishing articles by Adolph Reed? When Bhaskar Sunkara first introduced the journal in 2011, he explained that while “Jacobin is not an organ of a political organization nor captive to a single ideology,” its contributors could all generally be considered “proponents of modernity and the unfulfilled project of the Enlightenment.”

How distant those days seem now. Lately, the semi-quarterly periodical has taken more particularist turn. Today, it published a piece by the “decolonial” critics Houria Bouteldja and Malik Tahar Chaouch, representatives the Party of the Republic’s Natives [le Parti des Indigènes de la république] in France. Bouteldja and Chaouch condemned the “vague humanism, paradoxical universalisms, and the old slogans of those who ‘keep the Marxist faith’,” saying that these fail to grasp the new material reality of race’s intertwinement with religion in the West. Essentializing indigenous difference, and blasting the establishment politics of the so-called “white left,” the authors resuscitated the worst of 1960s Maoist rhetoric regarding not only the Third World — this relic of Cold War geopolitics — but also marginalized peoples of Third World descent living in First World nations. (A hyperlink embedded in the article refers readers to a collection of essays by all the usual suspects: liberals and ex-Maoists such as Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Georges Didi-Huberman, and Jacques Rancière).

Calls for “national unity,” especially of the sort called for by the French state following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are no doubt reactionary to the core. It is important not to lose sight of this fact when raising criticisms of Bouteldja and Chaouch’s argument. This is not what is at issue. What is at issue here is rather the compatibility or incompatibility of revolutionary Marxism with their decolonial worldview. Framing their activism in terms of a rupture with the status quo, the authors wrote:

Despite its marginalization and relative weakness, political anti-racism has succeeded in giving rise to a significant Palestine solidarity movement, putting Islamophobia at the heart of public debate and building various mobilizations of the descendants of postcolonial immigration. This marked a break with the ruling parties and in particular the white left.

Adolph Reed has already convincingly demonstrated the poverty of anti-racist politics, so I won’t reprise his argument here. More pertinent, at present, is the way Bouteldja and Chaouch characterize their relation to the “white left,” and to the radical Left more broadly. Jacobin, which once saw its mission as bringing about “the next left” (echoing Michael Harrington), presumably provides a platform for leftist discourse and debate — everyone from Marxists to anarchists to left-liberals and market socialists. Do Bouteldja and Chaouch really fall along this end of the political spectrum, however?

Not if you ask them. To her credit, Bouteldja at least harbors no illusions when it comes to her convictions. (One cannot say the same of Jacobin’s editors, who chose to publish her coauthored piece). She rejects the Left-Right distinction, an inheritance of the French Revolution, as a colonial imposition. “My discourse is not Leftist,” Bouteldja declared in an address last year. “It is not Rightist either. However, it is not from outer space. It is decolonial.”

Politics proposing a “third way” — a supposed alternative to the venerable categories of Left and Right — is nothing new, of course. Third Positionism has flourished for over a century now, from fascism to Peronism and beyond. Nevertheless, there is a certain novelty to Bouteldja’s claim that Left and Right are inapplicable to indigenous politics, as a foreign set of values foisted upon them from outside. Indeed, this is a rhetorical gesture several times, with respect to a number of different political and intellectual traditions.

Marxism? Enlightenment? Universalism? Rationality? All inventions of the decadent bourgeois West, apparently. Continue reading

bauhausphotograp00bauh_0001

Bauhaus photography

On the present state of photography

Walter Peterhans
Red 5, special issue on
the Bauhaus
(1930)

.
The transformation that is taking place before our eyes in photographic methods and their effects is critical. What does it consist of?

It is striking in the seeming unity and forcefulness of working methods and results. But really it does not exist. The illusion of similarity is based only on a rejection of traditional techniques and pictorial methods and on a turn away from the facile, and thus convincingly boring and accurate likeness of Mr. X. It is based too on a shared avoidance of manual procedures that, after the fact, deny photography’s technical principle — detailed, precise reduction of the image in the film — and in its place substitute mechanical coloring. We fail to recognize the magic of its precision and detailing, thus allowing what we already possessed to disappear — all in an attempt to make it the equal of the graphic arts, which rightly display other qualities arising from their different technical means. Hence we have not even noticed that photography is capable of giving us its own new vision of things and people, a vision of upsetting forcefulness, and that it gives this through its own characteristic selection from among the abundance of existing facts, a selection made possible by the decided individuality of its technique.

Consider a ball on a smooth plane. It presents us with various views according to the illumination and the play of shadows. It is a combination of individual properties that we join out of habit. The combination changes. It is always the ball on the given plane, though our eye does not experience the intense harmony to which it gives rise. This occurs, rather, through understanding, through the concept of the ball; in other words, the combination, for the eye, is fortuitous. With manual procedures it is possible to stress the rudiments of a picture and to allow what is not appropriate to disappear. Through exaggeration, deformation, suppression, and simplification manual procedures effect the selection, the transition from object to picture. This is the process of combination from memories, from fixated portions of various views. The transplantation of this method into photography is called chromolithography and bromoil print. But, whereas there the exploitation of the brush is the technique itself, in the pigment process it interrupts the work of the quantities of light that are active at every point and obliterates the activities appropriate to each of these two different technical methods. Continue reading