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.


Theory of biography

Leo Löwenthal
Essays in honor of



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 These goods have become outdated and now whether they were originally offered for sale on the overcrowded notion counters or in the lofty silence of the luxury-furniture halls, are being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.


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

Wir sehen von links, Max Horkheimer, Maidon Horkheimer, Felix Weil, eine schöne Unbekannte (Lucille?), Friedrich Pollock1d

On the work of Friedrich Pollock

Jake Bellone, a comrade currently living in Canadian exile, has scanned the early Frankfurt School economist Friedrich Pollock’s 1956 work
 Automation: A Study of Its Social and Economic Consequences. I’ve digitized and uploaded it here for anyone who’s interested. You can download it by clicking on the link in the title above.

As far as I know, this book has been virtually forgotten in terms of the history of economic literature. It’s not the most thrilling read, but it’s a workmanlike survey of a number of studies and publications on the subject of automation. Counter to the prevailing optimism of the period, riding the long postwar boom, Pollock foresaw increasing technological unemployment ahead in the field of industry as automation became further generalized. Here he distinguished full-scale automation from the earlier phenomenon of mechanization, a process well known to political economists since Ricardo.

Pollock’s book has perhaps had a subterranean influence that has generally gone unnoticed. Ernest Mandel, the Belgian Trotskyist economist, cites it repeatedly in his celebrated book on Late Capitalism. An online acquaintance of mine, Elliot Eisenberg, who is close friends with Moishe Postone and studied with the brilliant Soviet Marxist economist Karl H. Niebyl back in 1961, went so far as to claim that “one cannot understand Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization without Pollock’s Automation.” This would seem to accord with Postone’s own estimation of Pollock’s significance:

Pollock’s work in the 1930s provided the implicit political-economic presuppositions of the pessimistic turn in Horkheimer’s theory and the changes in his conception of social critique. More generally, on the basis of an examination of Pollock’s investigations, I shall discuss the intrinsic relation of the political-economic dimension of Critical Theory to its social, political, and epistemological dimensions.

Here Postone mostly has in mind Pollock’s seminal 1941 essay on “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” as well as his consideration of the question “Is National Socialism a New Order?” later that same year. But I see no reason not to extend this observation to the Institute’s work during the 1950s.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno dedicated their jointly-written Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Pollock. Now that I think of it, this work was translated and made available just a year after it was first published in German, in 1956, when Horkheimer and Adorno were still virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. (Outside of the few works they wrote in English, that is). Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Pollock is rather coy when it comes to openly expressing his Marxism. He never mentions Marx by name, but talks about “relative surplus population,” fixed vs. circulating capital, and other concepts clearly derived from the critique of classical political economy. Similarly, early members of the Frankfurt School used “critical theory” as a kind of codeword for Marxist theory, both in order to disguise their communist sympathies and to emphasize a critical dimension that had been lost in the dogmatization of DiaMat in Moscow during the 1930s.

What follows is Rolf Wiggerhaus’ brief biographical sketch of Pollock, taken from his monumental study of The Frankfurt School. My only comment is that Wiggerhaus misleadingly suggests that Pollock and Horkheimer came to agree with SDP’s position on organized “state capitalism,” as if Hilferding had anything original to say on the matter. The Bolsheviks would have readily agreed with Hilferding’s remarks — at least prior to 1928, when Stalin combined Preobrazhenskii’s position on collectivization from the Left with Bukharin’s theory of “socialism in one country” from the Right.

Friedrich Pollock

Friedrich Pollock

Rolf Wiggerhaus
The Frankfurt School
Munich, 1986 (1995)

The frank, limitless enthusiasm which the thirty-two-year-old Friedrich Pollock had for Karl Marx was somewhat artless, although it did have its own appeal. Marx, when he was thirty, had `worked out his philosophical, sociological and political views so clearly that, right to the end of his life, there was never anything he had to retract’, according to Pollock. Marx had “struggled untiringly right up to his death for the proletariat, regardless of obstacles.” This homage to Marx was published in 1926 in a discussion of a pamphlet on Proletarian Socialism [Der proletarische Sozialismus] by Werner Sombart, a former supporter of Marxism and correspondent of Engels. During the 1920s, Sombart had begun to support a “German” form of socialism, and had become an anti-Semite with intellectual links to Oswald Spengler, Johann Plenge, and Othmar Spann. Pollock objected to Sombart’s reference to the phenomenological “intuiting of general essences [Wesensschau],” demanding empirical research instead. He rejected Sombart’s claim that Marx and Engels subscribed to “plebeianism” as a “basic value,” asserting that scientific socialism had the character of a natural science. And he rejected the accusation that materialist dialectics was part of an exclusively proletarian metaphysics of history, mainly by appealing to references in Engels’s Anti-Dühring showing that Marx and Engels had been convinced that dialectics had universal validity.

All of this was characteristic of Pollock. He was born in Freiburg in 1894, and it had originally been intended that he should take over his father’s business, as in Horkheimer’s case. With his indifference towards Judaism and certain conventions — qualities instilled by his upbringing and reinforced by his simple, phlegmatic manner — Pollock made a lasting impression on the sixteen-year-old Horkheimer, and they began a peculiar, but lifelong, friendship. Pollock was less horrified by social injustices than Horkheimer was, but he was also less apprehensive than Horkheimer about committing himself openly to Marxism and communism: when the Munich Soviet Republic was crushed in May 1919, he gave his passport to a Russian who was hoping to escape abroad; the refugee was caught, and Pollock got into trouble with the police. Although Pollock, like the others, studied philosophy, it was only a minor subject alongside his principal interest, economics, in which he took his doctorate in 1923 with a thesis on Marx’s monetary theory. In an article “On Marx’s Monetary Theory” published in 1928 in [Carl] Grünberg’s Archiv, he complained about the “unhappy division between the economic and philosophical elements in Marx’s system.”  But he had a lifelong, philistine contempt for philosophical theory, and held to a pre-Leninist form of Marxist orthodoxy.

At the invitation of David Riazanov, Pollock travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927 to take part in the celebrations on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. One of the results of the visit was his book on Experiments in the Planned Economy in the Soviet Union, 1917-1927, with which he took his Habilitation in 1928. The book was published as the second volume in the Institute’s publications series, the Schriften des Instituts für Sozialforschung, and was written in a style similar to that of Carl Grünberg, the “master of historical realism in the investigation of social existence,” as Max Adler described him in 1932 in the Festschrift published on Grünberg’s seventieth birthday. In the preface to his book, Pollock acknowledged his debt to his “friend, teacher, and father-figure, Professor Carl Grünberg.” The reader was informed in the first sentence of the preface that “a theoretical analysis of the material will follow in a later work,” but this was never published. Pollock described the particularly unfavorable conditions which the Russian revolutionaries had faced at the outset, their tremendous, continuing difficulties, the often glaring mistakes they had made, and their constant changes of direction and frequent reorganizations. In the penultimate and longest chapter of the book, `The State Planning Commission [Gosplan] and its Work,” he used all of this to show how plans had been formulated in an absurdly inadequate way from the start, and had only gradually become more realistic. The book’s style was soberly informative, but it nevertheless clearly indicated the sympathy, patience, fascination, and even admiration which Pollock had for the “heroes and martyrs of the planned economy” and their tireless efforts to construct “a complete whole” out of various different plans, one which would, “at its fullest stage of development, consciously and totally incorporate the entire economic process” and gradually guarantee “the conscious structuring of the entire economic process and all of its parts.”

Continue reading


Art, a modern phenomenon: An interview with Larry Shiner

Chris Mansour
Platypus Review 67
June 1, 2014

On March 18, 2014, Chris Mansour, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, interviewed Larry Shiner, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, History, and Visual Arts at The University of Illinois, Springfield and author of The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2001), in which he argues that the category of art is a modern invention. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

To be clear, I’m not in Platypus anymore. Nevertheless, this is a good interview. It covers a number of topics relevant to this blog. Also, for anyone who’s interested, the above painting is Henri Fantin-Latour’s Studio at Les Batignolles.

Chris Mansour:
 You first wrote The Invention of Art in 2001, nearly 15 years ago. Why did you feel the need to write a book about the historical development of the category of “art” at this time?

Larry Shiner: In the field of philosophical aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, the focus of attention in the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s was on the issue of how to define art. A famous essay by Morris Weitz argued that art cannot be defined, and that the most we can do to understand art is to resort to what Wittgenstein called “family resemblances.” This position was challenged in another influential essay by Maurice Mandelbaum, who said that we might not be able to define art in terms of any visual or perceptual properties, but we might be able to define it in terms of its relational properties, in terms of art’s social context. This set up a new pursuit for the definition of art, and it was considered a very important question during this time.

Among these attempts to generate a definition of the essence of art, one of the most influential writers was Arthur Danto, who said that the historical development of the concept of art needs to be taken into consideration if we are to define it at all. He believed that art’s essence has been revealed progressively, culminating in the twentieth century. I was skeptical of finding the essence of (fine) art as such. From my perspective, art does not have an ahistorical essence but is a multivalent term referring to a set of ideas and practices that function differently in society throughout time. Thus, The Invention of Art was an attempt to construct a sort of genealogy of art and to flesh out what it means when we consider art as an historically developing concept.

The historical transformations during the long eighteenth century, from roughly 1680 to 1830, culminated in the emergence of the cultural complex that we now call “art” today, that is, a semi-autonomous sphere of practices within society. This was a shared but unevenly developed trajectory of several art forms. Yet, despite the differences in the pace of the transformations of the various disciplines and mediums, these transformations were part of a total social process. Philosophy students as well as art history students need to know this history of the concept of art and recognize that (fine) art, as we now understand it, is the product of modern society and is barely 200 years old. Many art history books never bother to define what they mean by art, although there is a definition implied in what they exclude and what they cover. I consider my book to be somewhat of a companion volume for students and artists, helping them to situate art historically and to understand this historical process philosophically.

CM: You say art is barely 200 years old and is specifically a modern phenomenon. The early 1800s was a rapidly maturing period for global bourgeois society and culminated in the Industrial Revolution. What makes the practice of art in bourgeois society different from prior, art-like practices? Also, why is this historical distinction so significant in understanding art qua art?

LS: There is great importance, for me, in the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity in history. Confusion arises from the fact that, since the late nineteenth century, the historically specific phrase “fine art” — as distinct from art practices before this time — has dropped the “fine” out of the phrase and we now simply term it “art.” However, the meaning of the term “art” is incredibly ambiguous.

One meaning descends from what I call the “older, broader” meaning of art, from ars in Latin and techne (τέχνη) in Greek. This use suggests any human craft or performance that is done with some skill or grace; in one sense, everything humans do is an art. Here, there is a complete continuity from the caves of Lascaux to the present. It is not only the bison depicted on the cave walls that are art, but also the stone tools used to create them. Art as techne or ars lacks the precision of what we define as art today, which is roughly a semi-autonomous set of social practices, often geared toward aesthetic contemplation.


The big change in art’s definition came when all those human arts got split up into various kinds: the first split was the opposition between the liberal arts and what the ancients called the “servile arts” (which was later replaced by the “mechanical arts”). That polarity was very different from the modern one contrasting the “fine arts” to the “applied arts,” “commercial arts,” or “craft arts.” The old schema of the liberal arts included what we call sciences and mathematics as well as the humanities. Part of what distinguishes the “fine arts” as a category of classification is that things like painting, poetry, architecture, music, and theater were pulled out of the old liberal arts and made into a separate category. In fact, things like painting and sculpture, because they involved physical labor, were not even considered part of the liberal arts until Renaissance painters, sculptors, and critics argued that these disciplines should be included among them. Up until the eighteenth century, for example, the producers of paintings and sculptures and the composers of symphonies were what I call “artisan-artists,” since these two terms, “artisan” and “artist,” were used interchangeably in English and many other languages. The old notion of the artisan combined genius and rule, inspiration and skill, creation and imitation, freedom and service. What began to happen in the eighteenth century is that these two notions were pulled apart and, by the end of the century, each term was defined as the opposite of the other term. It took decades for the new ideas of “Fine Art” and for the new ideals of the “Artist,” in contrast to the mere “artisan,” to become generally accepted.

By the time they did become generally accepted, the famous seventeenth-century “rise of science” had already split apart the liberal arts. At this time, the humanities, sciences, and fine arts began to emerge as distinct fields. A key point of my book is to show how the emergence of the category of fine arts, and its accompanying ideals of the artist and the aesthetic, occurred in conjunction with a new set of practices, institutions, and behaviors.

Paul Oskar Kristeller’s essays on the development of the classification systems of art were very influential for my book; I share his vision that the category of (fine) arts fully emerged only in the eighteenth century. Kristeller ended his essays with Kant and Schiller’s writings on the nature of the aesthetic. It seemed to me that the way we use the term art in the singular, as a kind of semi-autonomous subdivision of culture in the modern world, is still deeply influenced by the Romantics and the German Idealist philosophers. When I reread the literature, it struck me that the real culmination of the long process of constructing the social system of the fine arts occurred around 1830. This is why I speak of the long eighteenth century: You can see the beginnings of the fine art category and its institutions as early as the 1680s. My long eighteenth century encompasses the epoch spanning from the 1680s to the 1830s. By the 1830s, the fine arts system as we know it today was almost fully developed.

CM: How did the broader socio-political, institutional, and practical changes that happened in bourgeois society in the eighteenth century transform the liberal arts and fine arts system? What is the specialized fine arts system’s relationship to large societal transformations, and how was this relationship expressed?

LS: In very broad strokes, the historical transformation entailed the shift from an aristocratically organized society toward a society dominated by the bourgeoisie. The development of the market economy played an important role in the emergence of the categories of fine art and the artist. On the production side, the old order was dominated by the patronage-commission system. As an artist, you were typically either employed full-time by a lord or bishop, as were many of the great figures of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, or you received commissions as an owner or member of an independent workshop with apprentices. Continue reading


By analogy with capitalism itself

Spencer Leonard
Marx & Philosophy
January 1, 2013


Jairus Banaji Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2011. 408pp., $28 / £20 pb ISBN 9781608461431


Prosecuting a sustained critique of Stalinism as conceptual “formalism” or “metaphysics,” Jairus Banaji’s writings merit a place among the more substantial works to issue out of the terminal phase of the left’s decline in the 1970s. However, as the recently published Theory as History testifies, resisting the intellectual disintegration of our post-leftist moment proves well-nigh impossible even when the attempt maintains a high level of conceptual rigor. Indeed, that rigor itself can serve as a means of fending off recognition of present circumstances. Whereas others have retreated into academic Marxology, activist tailism, or sectarian sub-culturalism, Banaji’s refuge is the retooling of Marxism as a historical sociology. Historical materialism is presented in Theory as an approach to the study of history that promises greater explanatory power than do the existing alternatives. As Banaji writes in his Introduction,

The essays published in this collection span a period of just over thirty years and set out first to map a general conception of modes of production as historical characterizations of whole epochs, in other words, to restore a sense of historical complexity to them, and then to illustrate/explore some of that complexity in detailed studies based as far as possible on primary source material. (1)

For Banaji Marxism makes for a more rigorous, more systematic approach to the past, including the remote, precapitalist past. But if this is true it is not because Marxism has a specific method or superior sociological insight, but simply that Marxism was the last form of bourgeois thought. But as a work chiefly preoccupied with reconceiving pre-capitalist modes of production, the book rejects its own true interest as a record of a decades-long and partial attempt to resist Marxism’s demise. Consequently, Banaji threatens to diminish his own most interesting essays from the 1970s, whether by exclusion or by shoehorning them into the largely alien preoccupations of more recent work.

When Banaji began to write, he and his generation faced the collapse of both the Old Left and of the ’60s New Left’s initial response to it. An echo of his early ambitions as a Trotskyist in the 1970s remains faintly audible in the hopes he expresses for the project of the book. As he writes,

The renewal of historical materialism and of theory more generally will…require a transformation of attitudes in the first instance, a vigorous iconoclasm that can prise Marxists away from their obsessions with orthodoxy, so that a left that was never attached to Stalinism…can finally break with the residues of…conservatism. (xiii)

Banaji sought in the 1970s to renew the New Left project, the attempt was explicitly to bring the legacies of Marx and Lenin (and also of Trotsky) to bear upon a palpably inadequate left politics. Though emerging largely out of Naxalite tendencies with which Banaji has little sympathy, the Subalternists share with him a similar moment and a similar orientation toward a New Left canon — Althusser, Colletti, Gramsci, Sartre, etc. But it was Banaji’s Trostkyism that prompted him to try to develop tools to gauge the scale of the historical defeats and political regression that his generation inherited. His concerns were, therefore, deeply historical even when he was not writing as a historian. In this sense the historical aspect of Banaji’s critique of the semi-feudal thesis was of greater significance than its immediate programmatic implications (implying as it did, for instance, a critique of both the Naxalites and the CPI(M) on both the general “revolutionary situation” and the strategy that flowed from that estimation). It is unsurprising, then, that what one reviewer terms Banaji’s “breakthrough … for Marxist theory” in the Mode of Production Debate was conceived both more and less modestly at the time by Banaji himself. He thought he was recovering the original positions of Marx and Lenin. This is what falls away in the more recent essays with which the 1970s essays are here combined. Continue reading


Democracy and the Left

Alan AkrivosDick Howard 
Alan MilchmanJoseph Schwartz

On February 5, 2014, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation titled ‘Democracy and the Left’ at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The participants were Alan Akrivos (Socialist Alternative), Dick Howard (Stony Brook University), Alan Milchman (Internationalist Perspective), and Joseph Schwartz (Democratic Socialists of America). The description of the event reads as follows:

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little — the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again. The elections in the U.S. and Germany seem, by comparison, to be non-events, despite having potentially far-reaching consequences. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections but was instead split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary. Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both emancipatory social demands as well as their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte.” What history informs demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote — or not — the cause of popular empowerment? What are the potential futures for “democratic” revolution as understood by the Left?

What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full recording can be found online. Once again, I’m not in Platypus. Indeed, I’m apparently not even welcome at their events, despite it having been over a year since I quit. Still, I think this is a worthwhile exchange and am reposting it here in the hope that someone might actually read it.

Opening remarks

Dick Howard:
 There is a fundamental difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution, which leads to a vision of democracy that is radically different in the two contexts.

The American Revolution was an anti-colonial revolution against the state that wanted to get the British off of the backs of Americans and leave society to go on in its own way. There’s an anti-statist tradition in the United States. The American Revolution went through three distinct phases: declaring independence, winning the war, and then the problem that Ukrainians are going have to face, namely, how do you give society a political framework such that it can hold together? That’s the period of the failure of that kind of direct democracy found in the Articles of Confederation. Finally, a nation-state was created.

America became a nation-state and a democratic state insofar as you had the “Revolution of 1803.” That was not only when the Jeffersonians (the opposition) won the presidency, but also when the decision in Marbury v. Madison recognized that the society was one, held together by its constitution despite the diversity of the society that was framed by the constitution. That gave America a republican democracy: the constitution which frames the republic holds priority and gives the unity within which a diversity can flourish.

During the French Revolution, insofar as the society was based on status rather than equality of opportunity, the power of the state was used in order to transform society. That process of using the state power to transform society went through phases, and you can list the canonical dates: the high point of the Jacobin period in 1793, the reaction against it, the empire, the return of the monarchy, then 1830, 1848, 1870, and finally — even Platypus puts it into its name — 1917, which, apparently, is the realization of that dream that begins with the French Revolution. That dream is that the gap between society and the state be overcome, but it is overcome by the action of the state. Instead of a republican democracy in the American sense, you had a democratic republic — the idea is that democracy and the state come together, and this is the elimination of the state.

I came to realize the importance of this distinction in 1990 or 1991 when I was giving a lecture in Greifswald, in the former German Democratic Republic, about the American Revolution and how the Americans created a “democratic republic.” The audience was not particularly happy because they had just gotten out of a democratic republic! What is that democratic republic? What is that republican democracy? There was awareness of this distinction well before a left-wing critique of totalitarianism developed.

Continue reading

Aleksandr Deneika, workers' demonstration (1928)

May Day

Once there was an international, revolutionary workers’ movement. May Day was one of its central and most important holidays. Unfortunately, this movement is no more. Luxemburg rather sunnily surmised that “when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance, then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.” Today, however, these better days seem far more distant than they did when she first spoke of them in 1894.

Yesterday I linked to volumes 1-49 of Marx and Engels’ Collected Works. Below are two speeches, one by Rosa Luxemburg and the other by Vladimir Lenin, which at present must be regarded more as historical documents than anything that addresses a living reality.

Мая 1

Rosa Luxemburg

What are the origins
of May Day? (1894)

The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organize a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favor of the eight-hour day. The day of this celebration was to be April 21. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.

In fact, what could give the workers greater courage and faith in their own strength than a mass work stoppage which they had decided themselves? What could give more courage to the eternal slaves of the factories and the workshops than the mustering of their own troops? Thus, the idea of a proletarian celebration was quickly accepted and, from Australia, began to spread to other countries until finally it had conquered the whole proletarian world.

The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight-hour day. Later, police and legal harassment prevented the workers for many years from repeating this [size of] demonstration. However in 1888 they renewed their decision and decided that the next celebration would be May 1, 1890. Continue reading

Annie Lapin - Phase Pre-Portrait No. 3 (2011)

Ideas instigator

“Intersectionality” as
a marketing strategy

Picking up where I left off:

Even the faintest hint that someone thinks Flavia Dzodan looks white is intolerable to the image she’s cultivated on the internet, both to herself as well as to others. Flavia is, after all, the self-appointed spokeswoman of “women of color” (often abbreviated “WoC”) everywhere. WoC are apparently just one homogeneous, undifferentiated bloc, as it turns out. I bet you didn’t know that. Hence Dzodan’s constant use of the first-person plural in all her articles, the so-called “imperial we.” Personally, this title always struck me as a misnomer, since it implies that one’s “color” is decisive. At least in Flavia’s case, the color is pretty run-of-the-mill whitebread — if not lily-white, as these particular photos suggest. Maybe they’re misleading, not truly representative. It doesn’t really matter, except insofar as it bears upon her brand. Though these things seem to be separable at first glance, closer inspection reveals that “the person behind the brand” is part of the brand itself.

Indeed, the concept of “branding” is a useful way to understand her whole persona. Since rising to prominence back in 2011 with her mini-manifesto, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,” Flavia has built a following of likeminded supporters promoting “intersectionality” while demoting “white feminism.” Yeah, it’s a one-trick pony. But it’s become so routine by this point that even novices can learn it with relative ease. Dzodan’s slogan proved so contagious that even certified squares such as Richard Seymour started using it. Much of her success over the last few years has owed to this ability to make herself all but ubiquitous, with many of her memes regarding “white feminist tears,” “silencing voices,” and “erasure” going viral within no time. This is Flavia’s great hidden talent, the secret behind her pseudo-celebrity. And it would be disingenuous to deny her that. Without it, she would be nothing. No one would have even heard of her.

Flavia describes herself unironically on her professional website as an “ideas instigator.” Besides politics and media analysis, of course, Dzodan is primarily interested in business development. As most know by now, I am skeptical of the “radical” claims of multiculturalism and intersectionality. Despite frequent appeals to some vague idea of communism, I consider the politics that result from these thought-figures to be little more than social justice liberalism. Several weeks ago, then, I made the offhand remark that most of the “radical” proponents of intersectionality today will probably end up as marketing specialists — cultural diversity consultants for ad agencies — within a few more years. Here, as with most things when it comes to this crowd, Flavia is way ahead of the curve. Long before anyone else got around to it, she began incorporating intersectionality into her schemes for messaging in media. Quite far from being incompatible with the interests of capitalism, however, she rightly points out that this is just smart business practice:

  • I believe that social principles of inclusion, diversity, fairness, equality, and respect are the foundation upon which we should build both our for and non profit organizations.
  • I believe that inclusion and awareness matter in communications because, a message that is sent out without taking all parties into consideration is an ineffective one.

This is in keeping with the argument I made several posts back regarding the new gender options on Facebook. Users might well feel liberated by the increased array of possible choices, but the real payoff as far as companies buying adspace are concerned is the finer gradience of information that’s available. All of which is to say that diversity and inclusiveness is entirely compatible with bourgeois society. Maybe Coca-Cola got in touch with Flavia for their Superbowl ad? Continue reading


Anti-fascism: Its problematic history and meaning

       Manuel Kellner | Henning Mächerle
Wolf Wetzel | Jan Gerber

Platypus Review 63
February 1, 2014
Image: Antifascist
conference (1922)

Since the Nazi seizure of power eighty years ago anti-fascism has been integral to left-wing politics. The struggle against fascists and Nazis is morally self-evident, so that political anti-fascism seems to be similarly self-evident. Yet in past periods of history, the politics of anti-fascism was completely different, as was the understanding of what it contributed to leftist politics more generally. Still certain continuity can be discerned in anti-fascism’s retention of anti-capitalist claims. Where does this come from? What was anti-fascism and how has it changed? How do the category and concept of anti-fascism help us to understand both historical and contemporary political realities? What does anti-fascism mean today in the absence of fascism as a mass movement?

What follows is an edited transcript of an event organized by The Platypus Affiliated Society in Frankfurt on April 30, 2013. The discussion addressed the different historical and political implications of anti-fascist politics in order to throw into relief the underlying questions and problems of left-wing politics in the present.

Opening remarks

Wolf Wetzel:
This discussion is itself an historical event. The Left is at present so fractured, that it is impossible, even forbidden, to have discussions with each other.  We would normally never see a group like this on a platform together. Yet the problem of the Left is also one of anti-fascism.  Many people from the “Antifa” [anti-fascist movement] here in Frankfurt have refused to attend this discussion, since on the evening before an anti-Nazi march, they can only meet to discuss plans of action. They cannot allow themselves to discuss anti-fascism itself because for them to do so on the day before an action would be demobilizing.  This is remarkable given that formerly such discussions of political substance were commonplace.

The other issue is the intense mutual criticism of the different positions represented on this platform. Who can speak with whom? When is it a betrayal? When is it bourgeois, even counterrevolutionary? The assemblage here — representing anti-German, Trotskyist, German Communist Party (DKP), and Autonomist positions — could meet nowhere else in the Federal Republic. Even though I oppose many of the views represented here, these meetings are valuable because they show where these political differences come from and what lessons can be drawn from them.

I want to raise the question of the role Nazism plays today and how to understand the Nazis. This is a big question, one that is too often avoided by anti-fascists themselves. But one must ask: How threatening are they? Are they dangerous materially, politically, or ideologically? Also the historical question must be raised: Who in the ruling apparatus and state institutions of the 1930s when the Nazi Party was on the rise had an interest in their program? If the system itself is in crisis and the political elite hit rock bottom, what prevents the Left from coming to power (something much more likely in the 1930s than it is today)? At that time, it was an existential crisis for the political and business class: Would the conflict arising in the capitalist crisis be answered in a rightwing, fascistic way, or in a socialist way? Might not the crisis conclude with the bursting apart and transcendence of the capitalist system itself?

When we demonstrate against the Nazis we should ask what significance they have, not how many of them there are — 200 or 500. Such figures anyway sometimes get exaggerated in order to inflate the sense of the threat the Nazis pose.

We must discuss what role neo-fascist organizations, their parties, and their armed groups play. My view is that conditions today are massively different from the 1930s. The fascist movement then and today cannot be equated. The political class and the political system have become something quite different. It is absolutely necessary to ask where the true menace lies. I do not believe that the neo-Nazis are the driving protagonists of German racism and nationalism. Racism and nationalism are mainstream and have the support of the majority.  These arrived a long time ago at the center of society. They are represented by political power. The National Democratic Party (NPD) and the other, less organized neo-Nazi groups only express consistently what is already established as mainstream.

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Henning Mächerle: What we are discussing here today depends on the fact that the German workers’ movement of the 1920s and 1930s failed. The Communist Party of Germany was defeated. At the time, it was the biggest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and it failed without organizing any significant armed resistance or, indeed, interfering with the functioning of the Nazi Party on a large scale. The dilemma of the German Left is that we drag this historical burden along with us. That we are mortgaged to history in this way is the occasion for this debate on anti-fascism. To advance our discussion first we need to understand fascism. That is only possible when we describe society as a class society and understand that it is one in which the owners of the means of production — the ruling class — have a compelling interest in the maximization of profit for which a large number of people must sell their labor power. Because of this, the workers’ movement formed and, through its decisive battle with the capitalist class, shaped the last 150 years. For Eric Hobsbawm, the October Revolution was the decisive point of the “short 20th century” that first showed the possibility of establishing a non-capitalist, perhaps socialist society of free and equal people.  The Left was then — unlike today — a truly serious social movement. It was comprised of people who were not primarily ensconced in universities, but had normal wage work and social interests. The big problem of the Communist Party was it only represented a specific milieu within the workers’ movement. Continue reading

Hands in the funerary art, a photo from Genoa3

Le mort saisit le vif!

Karl Marx, “Preface” to
Capital, Vol. 1 (1867)

The physicist either observes physical phenomena where they occur in their most typical form and most free from disturbing influence, or, wherever possible, he makes experiments under conditions that assure the occurrence of the phenomenon in its normality. In this work I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode. Up to the present time, their classic ground is England. That is the reason why England is used as the chief illustration in the development of my theoretical ideas. If, however, the German reader shrugs his shoulders at the condition of the English industrial and agricultural laborers, or in optimist fashion comforts himself with the thought that in Germany things are not nearly so bad; I must plainly tell him, “De te fabula narratur!” [“It is of you that the story is told.” — Horace]

Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.

But apart from this. Where capitalist production is fully naturalized among the Germans (for instance, in the factories proper) the condition of things is much worse than in England, because the counterpoise of the Factory Acts is wanting. In all other spheres, we, like all the rest of Continental Western Europe, suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! [“The dead hold the living in their grasp.” — formula of French common law]


What’s wrong with identity politics and intersectionality theory?

A response to Mark Fisher’s “Exiting
the Vampire Castle” (and its critics)
Michael Rectenwald
The North Star

Marxist and other “left” critics and opponents of identity politics are often mistaken for opponents of the identity groups that such politics aim to support and promote. Such critics can be easily mistaken as opponents of gay rights, LGBT rights, black and Latino equality, or the like. In their retorts to “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” several of Mark Fisher’s respondents voiced this conclusion about Fisher himself. Such a mistake is often due, in no small part, to the ill stated, incomplete and ad hominem character of the critiques themselves. Unfortunately, Fisher’s article is no exception in this regard.

Rather than carefully explaining the problems with identity politics from a Marxist (or other) perspective, Fisher snidely and blithely dismisses such politics and their proponents as hopelessly “petit bourgeois.” As such, not only does he open himself up to the tu quoque retort (you too are resorting to a politics of identity), he also falls victim to the counter argument that his attack on identity politics is explicable strictly in terms of his identity — as a privileged white Marxist male. I will discuss the circularity of such defenses of identity politics below. My point here is that such epithets as Fisher’s do little or nothing to analyze identity politics and clarify its shortcomings. Rather, Fisher tells us that identity politics pretends to deal with collectivities but instead works to individualize and condemn. We are told that identity politics operates through guilt and serves to incapacitate. We are told that identity politics is petit bourgeois. But we are never told why or how any of this is the case. I’m not referring, as so many critics of Fisher’s article have, to the article’s lack of examples. Instead, I’m pointing to the paucity of analysis.

Much better in this regard is a longer article by the feminist Marxist blogging at Unity and Struggle: “I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist-Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory.” Here, while some unfortunate lapses into a humanist essentialism are apparent, the author otherwise argues rather convincingly that identity groups, such as “straight white man,” “gay black man,” “lesbian black woman,” “trans* person,” etc., are not natural categories into which people are born and sorted. Rather, they are relatively recent formations possible only under capitalism, equivalent to occupations with their own forms of alienation attendant upon the division of labor. As Marx wrote in The German Ideology, “as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” Similarly, identity, like an occupation, is a trap, because it curtails human potential and bars workers from participation in the social totality as fully developing individuals. Identities are reified social categories from which we should emerge, not within which we should be compelled to remain.

The problem with identity politics, then, is that it is one-sided and undialectical. It treats identities as static entities, and its methods only serve to further reify those categories. It aims to liberate identity groups (or members thereof) qua identity groups (or individuals), rather than aiming to liberate them from identity itself. Identity politics fails not because it begins with various subaltern groups and aims at their liberation, but because it ends with them and thus cannot deliver their liberation. It makes identities and their equality with other “privileged” groups the basis of political activity, rather than making the overcoming of the alienated identity, for themselves and all identity groups, the goal. The abolition of the one-sidedness of identity — as worker, woman, man, or what have you — represents real human emancipation. Always failing this, identity politics settles for mere linguistic emancipation, which is offered (and policed so assiduously, as Fisher notes) by the defenders of the sanctuary of identity.

As I suggested above, the most common response to Fisher’s article has been that his position is explicable strictly in terms of his identity. No sooner does one make a critique of identity politics, than is one’s identity deemed the cause of said critique. It is as if identity explains the argument itself, and causes it. Once identity is deemed the actual causal factor of a statement, nothing that is said means what it says. Everything is explicable only in terms of identity, and the content of the statement becomes identity itself. Once set, identity is a trap from which no one escapes. Of course, such defenses are circular, reverting to that which is being critiqued to explain those doing the critiquing.

The problem with intersectionality theory

Fisher never explicitly refers to intersectionality theory, but it lurks just beneath surface of his contempt in “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” Developed in the 1970s and ‘80s within feminism, intersectionality seeks to understand how power intersects identities along various axes, including those of race, gender, sexuality, or sexual preference, etc. It aims to locate the articulations of power as it traverses various subordinated peoples in different, multiple ways. Suggestive of a radical critique of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy and other forms of domination, it complicates any sense of gender, sex, class, or race as homogenous wholes. And it problematizes any hierarchy of one categorical determination over others. As such, it appears to serve as a method of analysis for opposing oppressions of all kinds. Intersectionality should, it seems, work to deepen our understanding of the composition of class society, and to add to the means for overcoming it. Continue reading