Abbildung zu Objekt Inv.Nr. III-14785 von Frankfurter Goethe-Haus / Freies Deutsches Hochstift

Capitalism and bourgeoisie: The sorcerer’s apprentice

The magic and necromancy
of commodity production

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Goethe’s famous 1797 ballad Der Zauberlehrling [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice] provides probably the best allegory for Marx’s own conception of capitalism, which he memorably described as partaking of a kind of sorcery — “the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities.”

Under the capitalist mode of production, the producer is ruled by the products of his labor rather than the other way around. Living labor in the present serves the accumulated dead labor of the past. “We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! [The dead holds the living in its grasp!]

An illustration of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found on nucius.org

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels implicitly allude to Goethe’s poem, comparing society’s relation to capital to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Marshall Berman, the late Marxist critic, reflected on this line at some length in his 1982 masterpiece All that is Solid: The Experience of Modernity:

This image evokes the spirits of that dark medieval past that our modern bourgeoisie is supposed to have buried. Its members present themselves as matter-of-fact and rational, not magical; as children of the Enlightenment, not of darkness. When Marx depicts the bourgeois as sorcerers — remember, too, their enterprise has “conjured whole populations out of the ground,” not to mention “the specter of communism” — he is pointing to depths they deny. Marx’s imagery projects, here as ever, a sense of wonder over the modern world: its vital powers are dazzling, overwhelming, beyond anything the bourgeoisie could have imagined, let alone calculated or planned. But Marx’s images also express what must accompany any genuine sense of wonder: a sense of dread. For this miraculous and magical world is also demonic and terrifying, swinging wildly out of control, menacing and destroying blindly as it moves. The members of the bourgeoisie repress both wonder and dread at what they have made: these possessors don’t want to know how deeply they are possessed.

All this ought to be perfectly familiar to attentive readers of Marx. Remarking on this peculiar double aspect, by which all things seem to engender their own negation, Marx observed: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, as if by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.”

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To illustrate this, here is Walt Disney’s animated epic Fantasia, starring Mickey Mouse. (Walter Benjamin and Sergei Eisenstein already recognized Mickey as a revolutionary in the early 1930s). Capital appears here as a spell to alleviate necessary labor, the bewitched broomsticks as automata. But it works too well. It overwhelms its putative master, resulting in serial overproduction, overflowing basins of water, etc.

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Stuttgart-Weißenhof, 1927: Modern architecture comes into its own

The significance of the Werkbund exhibition on “Die Wohnung” at Stuttgart-Weißenhof in 1927 is universally attested. Organized by Mies van der Rohe two years prior, it aimed to unite the various strands of modern architecture that had been developed earlier in the decade. Despite its commitment to internationalism, its international character was nevertheless somewhat limited by sheer geographical proximity and the haste with which it was thrown together. As Reyner Banham pointed out, it was a largely Berlin affair:

[I]n spite of these international overtones, Weißenhof was primarily a manifestation of Ring architecture, and apart from…four non-German designers…the remaining eleven were mostly Berliners by professional domicile, birth, or attachment — Mies himself, Gropius, Hilberseimer, the Tauts, Scharoun, Döcker, Behrens, etc. The style to which the foreign designs conformed was the style of Berlin by sheer pressure of numbers. No other city at the time could have mustered, as Berlin could by this date, over a dozen convinced modernists of recognizable talent.

Van Doesburg noted at the time that Corbusier, whose distinctive style was already well known, was strongly influenced by the Neues Bauen architects at the Weißenhof estate. Functionalism was out in full force, and van Doesburg had no illusions about its origin: “Principally this trend came from Russia, and therefore it concurs with the communist philosophy of life.” His intuition wasn’t too far off, and indeed the Nazis would denounce the settlement ten years later for its “Bolshevik depravity.” Wolfram von Eckardt, the architectural historian, recalls that the fascists installed pitched roofs onto the flat terraces in order to render them more palatable. Bombs dropped by Allied planes during World War II destroyed several of the buildings. Restoration since has only been partial.

Schulze strikes a slightly different note in his Critical Biography of Mies. In his view, the functionalism on display at the Stuttgart exhibition was more apparent than it was ever actual, largely an aesthetic effect. “To the extent that functionality was one of the New Architecture’s objectives at Stuttgart,” avers Schulze, “it is hard to defend the rapid deterioration of most of the houses — stunningly, within as little as a year or two. In short, Weißenhof was never a triumph of Sachlichkeit and functionalism, but of the image of modernism.”

Below you can read a selection of articles in translation about the exhibit at the time.

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Stuttgart-Weißenhof, 1927: The famous Werkbund exhibition on “the dwelling”

Theo van Doesburg
Het Bouwbedrijf
November 1927

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Some remarks about the prehistory. The demonstrative architectural exhibition, being held in Stuttgart from July 23 on, means the realization of an idea which has existed for years in the minds of the younger generation grouped around the periodical G (Gestaltung). This notion can be worded thus: since all exhibitions, whether of art objects or of architecture or technology, only show separate portions of an entity, Einzelstücke, and because on the other hand in our modern time the Gesamtarbeit, the unity of a collective stylistic purpose, is the only thing that counts, it must be clear to everyone that the exhibition of separate works of art, architectural models and designs lacking an inner coherence is pointless and passé. On the contrary, the requirement should be the following: demonstration of an entity in which all parts (meaning: color, furniture, utensils etc.) are organically combined. With the regular manner of exhibiting: the placing and hanging of loose objects next to, or on top of, each other, this was of course impossible, because that would be too much of a strain on the imaginative powers of the masses. They wanted to place the visitor within, instead of opposite, the new environment and make him “experience” it, instead of “looking at” it. This new requirement to demonstrate instead of exhibit was put into words for the first time in 1922, at the international artists’ congress in Dusseldorf, by the constructivists: “Stop holding exhibitions. Instead: space for demonstrations of collective work.” And under point 4: “Stop separating art from life. Art becomes life.”[1]

In fact, as everybody will remember, the aim to achieve a Gesamtarbeit formed the basis of the modern art movement in Holland, which around 1916 propagated its ideas in the modest periodical De Stijl and took up the defense for a collective rendering as opposed to an individualistic one. Then, in the midst of the war, no trace of this zeal was to be discerned in other countries, and this is understandable when we realize that this new tendency postulated an international orientation.

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The periodical G, in which the functionalists started publishing their views on architecture in 1923, was primarily based on the ideas of the Dutch and Russian artists, the former of which were becoming more and more the aorta of the new direction in Europe. It is because of the initiative of the architect Mies van der Rohe, by far the strongest personality of the group of German constructivists, the core of the circle around G (only five issues of this periodical were ever published), that the common ideal of a demonstrative architecture exhibition was almost completely realized. Not only is the Siedlung Weißenhof Mies van der Rohe’s work with respect to grouping etc., but the stands of construction materials and ingredients in the Gewerbehalle [Trade Hall] and the Plan- und Modellausstellung [exhibit of plans and models] — all of which are of great importance for the entire planning of the exhibition — can be considered his mental property as well. Neither should we forget the Versuchsgelände [testing area], located next to the Weißenhofsiedlung, where the visitor can get acquainted with the construction and building method and the materials used here. Various kinds of solutions for roof covering of flat roofs, sound proof walls etc. are displayed here. Certainly nobody will be surprised that the realization of this wide-ranging demonstration required enormous energy, all the more because unexpected difficulties, prejudices and even political complications had to be overcome; not to speak even of the financial difficulties, resulting from the tight budget with which the organizers had to work. We have to credit the architect Mies van der Rohe, vice president of the Werkbund for having tackled the majority of these problems, assisted by the 15 collaborating architects as well as by his faithful supporters Werner Gräff, Willi Baumeister, Hilberseimer, Döcker etc.; the latter undertook the supervision of the execution of the work.

It is not premature to state that — leaving the quality of the architectural products themselves aside for the moment — this undertaking of a demonstrative exhibition is the product of a modern necessity, not only putting the traditional way of exhibiting in the shadow, but surpassing it, and rendering it obsolete for future use. Those who have visited the exhibition held in Paris in 1925 and compare it to this exhibition, will have to acknowledge that the former sinks into insignificance compared to the construction manifest in Stuttgart. The latter contrasts sharply with the exhibition in Paris, with respect to organization as well as to the exterior aspect.

Robert Bothner, Stuttgart- Blick vom Turm des Höhenrestaurants auf die Weißenhofsiedlung 1931

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Impressions of the exhibition. — When we, after visiting the Weißenhofsiedlung, come to the glass display in the Gewerbehalle, we find ourselves, without preparation, in the best and purest presentation of this exhibition in the field of interior architecture (if these words are not a misnomer!). This glass hall, also executed after a design of Mies van der Rohe, owes its creation to the unequivocal task of displaying fragile material (semi-transparent and opaque glass of different colors) in such a way that it would be shown to full advantage. This was realized best by raising glass plates of enormous dimensions straight in the free space as walls, unprotected from top of bottom, without base board, profile or ornament. These glass plates are mounted in narrow, flat frames of nickel-coated steel. The problem was a sober one, but the solution reached the highest point that blessed, inspired visual artists can attain, and that only in very special moments: conquering the material with all of its faults, such as weightiness, resistance and transience, with the maximum of the energy force of the material itself.

Every material has its own energy force, and the challenge is to enhance this energy force to its maximum by proper application. The opposite is: violation of the material by wrong application, whereby a relatively large percentage of the energy force is lost. Weighing one material against another in respect to their energy and character, and proportioning them well, most certainly belongs to the essence of the new architecture. Only in this way can modern architecture bring to realization what it has to offer in involuntary beauty.

Only when iron concrete was, for the first time, applied in the right way (I believe this was done by Wright), were the character of the tension and the energy of the iron concrete shown off to such an advantage that architecture attained a new beauty, involuntarily, without a preconceived aesthetic intention. The same is true for plate glass, seamless floors, and other unjointed surfaces of materials, which by their purity, simplicity and their Gespanntheit [surface tension] are in keeping with the modern mentality.

It is my utter conviction, formed in practice, that only the ultimate surface is decisive in architecture. “How so? and what about the construction, the mechanism?”

The answer to this question is: “The ultimate surface is in itself the result of the construction. The latter expresses itself in the ultimate surface. Bad construction leads to a bad surface. Good construction produces a sound surface with tension.” Indeed, the finishing touch of architecture is in the finish of the surface, interior as well as exterior. The development of the ultimate surface is essential, from the first stone to the last stroke of paint. Every architect having a visual sense for construction knows this, and with this glass display Mies van der Rohe proved to be on top of this new problem.

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Balázs and Eisenstein, an exchange on the future of cinema (1926)

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What follows is a translation of three articles. One is by the Hungarian critic, screenwriter, and film theorist Béla Balázs, while the other two were written by the legendary director and master of Soviet cinema, Sergei Eisenstein. Both men considered themselves Marxists. The former, Balázs, was of a slightly more heterodox cast, comparable perhaps to the position of the young Georg Lukács, his fellow countryman and longtime friend. Eisenstein, by contrast, drifted from the harsh engineering aesthetic associated with constructivism early in his career to the monumental Stalinist style toward the end of his life. At the time of his first exchange with Balázs, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was making waves in Western Europe and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927) was about to be released. He explained in 1928 to the visiting curator Alfred Barr, future founder of the MoMA, that

I am a civil Engineer and mathematician by training. I approach the making of a film in much the same way as I would the equipment of a poultry farm or the installation of a water system. My point of view is thoroughly materialist…

Despite their respectful disagreement in the proceeding debate, Balázs and Eisenstein would go on to collaborate quite closely in subsequent years. Balázs wrote the screenplay to The Old and the New, alternately titled The General Line. This film, which featured buildings and set designs by the constructivist architect Andrei Burov (in consultation with Le Corbusier), was shot mostly in 1928 but shelved until 1930 for ideological reasons. In the interim, much had changed: the avant-garde emphasis of the 1920s on collectivism, technology, and the masses had receded somewhat, making way for the pompous heroism of the 1930s. Not long thereafter, Balázs fled Vienna in 1933 to escape Austrofascist persecution — he was a communist, a foreigner, and a Jew — settling in Moscow, where he taught film aesthetics until the close of World War II. Just as Lukács had been harshly criticized by Party dogmatists in the 1920s, so too was Balázs in the 1930s. Such was the changed climate of Soviet discourse during this period.

Eisenstein died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1948; Balázs died the next year in Budapest. You can download a selection of their translated works below. If anyone has retail PDFs of the Richard Taylor translations, please e-mail them to me.

Béla Balázs

Sergei Eisenstein

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The future of film

Béla Balázs
Kinogazeta
July 6, 1926
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Film can become a work of art only when photography itself ceases to be mere reproduction and becomes the work itself. When the work, the decisive creative expression of the emotions and the spirit, is realized not in staging and acting but through the mediation of the photograph in actual shots.

When the cameraman who does in fact make the picture also becomes its author, the poet of the work, the real film artist for whom acting and staging are the mere “occasion” to which he relates, like a painter to a landscape (preferably the most beautiful one!), to a life only through his brush in a work of art, in the expression of his spirit. As long as the cameraman is last in line, cinema will remain the last of the arts. But the reverse is also true!

In insisting on the artistic integrity of the photograph itself I by no means have in mind the decorative beauty of the shot which, incidentally, you encounter very often and which is not infrequently accorded much greater significance than it deserves. The decorative charm of individual shots gives them something that is statically pictorial, immobile and wrapped up in itself: their “beauty,” as if petrified, is killed by a headlong rush of events in the form of a series of “living pictures” through which the film as a whole staggers staccato fashion from one pictorial shot to another. Whereas the whole essence of cinema lies in the scope of the general rhythm of the passing events of real life.

No! I have in mind the hidden symbolic expressiveness, the poetic significance of the shot that has nothing to do with “decorativeness” or “beauty,” that is not produced either by play or by the object (subject) of the photograph but is created exclusively by the methods and possibilities of photography.

I want to explain this through two recent examples, two wonderful shots from Battleship Potemkin.

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The enthusiasm of the population of Odessa is shown by the increasing rhythm of the groupings of the enthusiastic masses and you begin to wonder: where do we go now? How can they possibly show more enthusiasm, joy, or ecstasy?

Suddenly you see a sumptuous picture. Like a hymn of ecstasy that resoundingly interrupts what has gone before you see the skiffs sailing to meet the battleship. According to the plot they are carrying foodstuffs to the mutinous sailors. In the film it seems as if they are hurrying towards them with millions of hearts.

This delicate winged flight of hundreds of billowing sails evokes an image of the collective display of enthusiasm, joy, love, and hope that no single face, even that of the greatest artiste, could express. It is not the plot motif but the photograph, the photograph itself taken beyond the bounds of the greatest lyricism and of such powerful figurative and poetic force that you can scarcely compare poetry itself with it!

It is in this hidden figurative quality of the shot, that has nothing in common with “decorative” beauty, that the creative poetic opportunities for the cameraman lie concealed.

Then we see the sailing-vessels filmed from the deck. As if by some command they all lower their sails at once. The logical “content” is that the boats have stopped near the battleship. The action of the picture suggests that a hundred sails, a hundred banners have been lowered before the hero. It is this figurative quality of the pictures that contains their original poetry, something that can occur only in a film, only through photography.

For two photographs on the same subject would be deprived of any symbolic or poetic expressiveness if they were merely part of a vast landscape. Then they would not define the expression or physiognomy of the shot.

It is only through an undoubtedly conscious design that crams the whole shot full to its very edges with sails that these photographs acquire the unity of mimic expression and the significance of gesture that become the depth of experience and the sense of the film. There is not even any room for argument here: the poetic expressiveness of the scene is created not by the motif but by the photography.

But this is the only way that can help cinema to stop being a servant of art and become an independent art.

People say to me: both the camera positions in Potemkin that you have described were determined by the director and were not the original and independent ideas of the cameraman.

So be it. It does not matter in this context who is in charge of the photography. It makes no difference whether the director or the cameraman is the creator of such a work of art. The decisive factor is that cinema art of this kind emerges only through the lens; it can only be produced through photography.

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On the position of Béla Balázs

Sergei Eisenstein
Kinogazeta
July 20, 1926
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Balázs’ article will surprise some people. Without its concluding stipulation: “The cameraman is the alpha and omega of film.”

We have such respect for foreigners that we might consider this a “blessing.” The idiots on the Moscow evening paper who accorded recognition to the exercises by young Frenchmen that Ehrenburg brought from Paris have declared it to be a “revelation.” These are sheer enfantillages — “children’s playthings” — based on the photographic possibilities of the photographic apparatus. I am not exaggerating when I say that: if we have these “children’s playthings” today, tomorrow they will be used to refurbish the formal methods of a whole branch of art (for instance, the “absolute': the plotless film of Picabia, Léger, or Chomette).

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The (anti-)German ideology: Towards a critique of anti-German “communism”

Raph Schlembach
Interface journal
November 2010
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The specter of the anti-Germans has easily become the Feindbild for activists of the Anglophone Left; yet rarely does this translate into a fundamental or informed criticism of the anti-German premise. This article, then, offers an introductory description and a critical analysis of pro-Israeli, anti-German communism in its context within the post-war German Left and as a contemporary protest movement that sits oddly on the fringes of radical politics. Its origins and politics are examined to depict the radicalization of a broad anti-nationalist campaign against German re-unification, and its evolution into a small but coherent anti-German movement, controversial for its pro-Israel polemics and provocations. Current debates within the anti-fascist German Left are reviewed to explore anti-German positions on the Holocaust, Israel, Islam, anti-imperialism, and Germany’s foreign policy. Theoretical works that have heavily influenced anti-German communism are discussed to comprehend the movement’s intellectual inspirations. The purpose of the article is to introduce one of Germany’s most controversial protest movements to an English-speaking audience and to hint at the formulation of a critique that is more than a knee-jerk reaction to pro-Israeli agitation.

Introduction

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Anti-German communism is a political tendency that grew from within the German radical Left, and that has adopted a pro-Western/pro-Israel discourse and critiques of post-Nazi Germany and Islamic antisemitism as its defining ideological characteristics. Despite being intellectually inspired by the writings of Karl Marx and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, the subsequent reinterpretation and political contortion of these texts by the “anti-Germans” has fueled an antagonistic relationship with large parts of the German (and global) Left. The common left-wing premises of anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism are regarded by the anti-Germans as expressions of a continuation of the “logic of Auschwitz” that reflects totalitarian, fascistic thought in the national mindsets of most Germans, Europeans, and beyond.

Talking about the anti-Germans is a bit anachronistic, of course. Anti-German communism as a movement, in the sense of informing the practical and strategic politics of German anti-fascism, is connected to the decade or so immediately after German re-unification. In its more narrow sense, as a theoretically distinct but practically irrelevant contrarian position, anti-German communism has also seen its heyday. Anti-German ideas still persist nonetheless, in a number of periodicals and communist organizations, and continue to have some influence on the German anti-fascist movement and some unorthodox Marxist circles. It is also rather unhelpful to speak of “the anti-Germans” as if they represented a homogenous movement. This is even more so as the ideas and positions of anti-German authors, activists and groups have tended to undergo rapid development in an effort to gain “avant-garde” status in the radical Left. A first categorization is often used in German-language debates to distinguish between various “hardcore” and “softcore” trends. Hardcore anti-Germans, around the journal Bahamas and the Freiburg Initiative Sozialistisches Forum, have now mostly taken leave from left-wing political movements; yet it is they who often remain the object of controversy. Bahamas and their supporters in particular have made a point of declaring both left-wing and Islamist anti-imperialism as their enemy, often descending into vitriolic attacks against Muslims and Arabs in Europe — to such an extent that the tendency might now be best described as an “anti-Islam materialism.” The various softcore anti-German projects continue to exert some theoretical influence especially on anti-fascist politics. The journal Phase 2 for example has emerged from the German “Antifa” movement and now combines anti-German thought with elements from critical theory and post-structuralism to form a political perspective that is sometimes described as “post-Antifa.” Now defunct is the journal 17 Grad, which was based on Foucauldean theory and discourse analysis. The longstanding magazine Konkret has evolved from a more orthodox Marxist analysis but has also supported and developed anti-German positions in the past. The widely-read weekly newspaper Jungle World regularly publishes anti-German authors, but actually prints articles from a variety of radical political perspectives. However, it has been years since anti-German publications regularly sparked controversy and sometimes violent conflict amongst the German Left. Now, many writers, publishers and activists who had spearheaded the anti-German movement have retreated from left-wing circles and discussion. Nonetheless, in the English-speaking Left in particular, the anti-Germans are still subject to polemical controversy and outrage, often resulting from a fascination with the waving of American, British, and Israeli national flags by German anti-fascists. There are very few substantial English-language texts available however (Grigat 2005; Radke 2004 are amongst the more illuminating introductions), although whenever the topic is raised on left-wing online forums, blogs or in face-to-face conversation it is sure to generate long discussions. To date, there is only one academic publication about the anti-Germans in English language. The article in the Jewish Political Studies Review is largely descriptive and focuses on the pro-Israel stance of the movement. Keeping in mind the somewhat sketchy information so far available to the English-language reader, what I offer here is primarily a historical overview of the origins and political formation of the anti-Germans and, secondly, a suggestion towards a more fundamental critique of their politics.

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Events in the recent history of the extra-parliamentary Left in Germany are crucial to understanding why anti-German currents play a prominent role in it. I trace the development of anti-German communist thought in four steps. First, I look at some of the influences that can be found in the work of pre-unification writers, such as Jean Améry or Eike Geisel. Second, the movement against German political reunification will be discussed as the immediate “trigger” or springboard for the emergence of anti-German communism as protest movement. Third, the anti-German response to events such as the Kosovo war and 9/11 illustrate how parts of the movement have severed their ties with the politics of the Left. In a final section, I indicate how the anti-German ideology remains firmly stuck in nationalist and identity politics.

Post-Holocaust origins

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The anti-German self-understanding is one that combines criticism of German nationalism and political Islam with a more general critique of nation and state. It explicitly sees itself in contrast to the anti-imperialist and autonomous Left of the 1970s and 80s with its strong support for national liberation movements and vocal opposition to American and Israeli militarism. Put very simply, for the anti-Germans, anti-fascism in a world divided into states is synonymous with solidarity with Israel. The Israeli state is seen as the necessary reaction to the fascist barbarism of the Third Reich and that continues to rear its head in the Bundesrepublik. This inversion of the anti-imperialist premise is certainly at odds with left-wing politics in Anglo-Saxon countries and elsewhere outside this context. However, calls for solidarity with Israel and distrust of anti-Zionism are more commonplace in the German radical Left. Some of the most fervent critics of the anti-Germans would go to length to defend Zionism as the basis of the Israeli state (for example Robert Kurz 2003). Also many anti-fascist groups that do not belong to the anti-German spectrum practice and demonstrate solidarity with Israel and focus strongly on the continuing antisemitism in neo-Nazi movements.

The specificity of its National Socialist history has always been a central point of reference for the (West-)German Left. Concerned with “explaining the unexplainable,” the Left subscribed to a politics of remembrance. The “lessons” drawn from the terror of National Socialism and the Holocaust thereby remain fundamental to a radical theory and practice. Concepts and ideologies that had been paramount to the Third Reich, such as “the German people,” “nation,” or antisemitism are thus important points of reference. Radical left-wing criticism of anti-Zionism in Germany also emerged long before one could speak of an anti-German movement. Even texts from an armed anti-militarist group (Revolutionäre Zellen 1991) and an autonomist group (Autonome LUPUS-Gruppe 2001) criticized some aspects of anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism. The question of antisemitism had thus taken a prominent place in the internal discussion of the German Autonome movement already in the 1970s and 1980s. Critical voices were often the result of the failures of national liberation movements. A striking example was a failed attempt to liberate a number of Palestinian prisoners and members of the Red Army Faction, including Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. In 1976, a commando group of Palestinians and members of the Revolutionäre Zellen had hijacked a plane leaving Israel, demanding the release of political prisoners. The hijackers eventually let non-Jewish and non-Israeli hostages disembark from the grounded aircraft, while Israeli Jews were kept hostage until their liberation by anti-terror units. Nevertheless, accusations that anti-imperialist politics had slipped into overt antisemitism were voiced by only a few in the radical Left (see Hanloser 2004b).

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Isaak Babel, writer and revolutionary (1894–1940)

Isaak Babel

Jorge Luis Borges
El Hogar [Home]
December 1938
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He was born in the jumbled catacombs of the stair-stepped port of Odessa, late in 1894. Irreparably Semitic, Isaak was the son of a rag merchant from Kiev and a Moldavian Jewess. Catastrophe has been the normal climate of his life. In the uneasy intervals between pogroms he learned not only to read and write but to appreciate literature and enjoy the work of Maupassant, Flaubert, and Rabelais. In 1914, he was certified a lawyer by the Faculty of Law in Saratov; in 1916, he risked a journey to Petrograd. In that capital city “traitors, malcontents, whiners, and Jews” were banned: the category was somewhat arbitrary, but — implacably — it included Babel. He had to rely on the friendship of a waiter who took him home and hid him, on a Lithuanian accent acquired in Sevastopol, and on an apocryphal passport.

His first writings date from that period: two or three satires of the Czarist bureaucracy, published in Annals, [Maksim] Gorky’s famous newspaper. (What must he think, and not say, about Soviet Russia, that indecipherable labyrinth of state offices?). Those two or three satires attracted the dangerous attention of the government. He was accused of pornography and incitement of class hatred. From this catastrophe he was saved by another catastrophe: the Russian Revolution.

In early 1921, Babel joined a Cossack regiment. Those blustering and useless warriors (no one in the history of the universe has been defeated more often than the Cossacks) were, of course, anti-Semitic. The mere idea of a Jew on horseback struck them as laughable, and the fact that Babel was a good horseman only added to their disdain and spite. A couple of well-timed and flashy exploits enabled Babel to make them leave him in peace. By reputation, though not according to the bibliographies, Isaak Babel is still a homo unius libri.

His unmatched book is titled Red Cavalry.

The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes.

One of the stories — “Salt” — enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems, and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart.

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Isaak Babel was Leon Trotsky’s favorite Soviet author. He was purged by Stalin in the late 1930s. To  download a PDF of his complete works, click here.

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New York Trotskyism in the 1930s

The Trotskyists

Geoffrey Hellman
The New Yorker
December 16, 1939
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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. To 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.

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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

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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.

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Tensions

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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.

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Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner

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

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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.

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The theory of “reification”

A response to Georg Lukács
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Originally published in Platypus Review 73

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Izrail’ Vainshtein

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

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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

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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.

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Theory of biography

Leo Löwenthal
Essays in honor of
Marcuse
(1973)
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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

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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