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Nikolai Bukharin on the criterion of practice in epistemology

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Below appears an excellent chapter from Nikolai Bukharin’s book, unpublished in his lifetime, Philosophical Arabesques (1937-1938). The whole collection is really quite good, but this portion on epistemology is particularly superlative. Lately I’ve been reading up on Marxism and the problem of truth: the way it involves the relation of subject to object, as well as theory to practice. I have to admit, Bukharin’s competence in treating difficult questions of philosophy surprised me a little. Not just because I’d read his short 1921 textbook on Historical Materialism — which, while insightful at times, is on the whole very mediocre — but because of Lenin’s low estimation of Bukharin as a philosopher. Shortly before his death, the Bolshevik leader recorded in his “Testament” that

Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party. His theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, however, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics and, I think, never fully understood it).

Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, whose studies of the philosophical legacy in Marx’s thought remain unparalleled, took Bukharin to task for this theoretical deficit. “For one faction (typified by Bukharin’s book The Theory of Historical Materialism),” wrote the former, “the whole of ‘philosophy’ has fundamentally already reached a point that in reality it was to reach only in the second phase of Communist society after the full victory of the pro­letarian revolution, viz. the transcended standpoint of an unenlightened past.” Lukács wrote that “Bukharin attributes to technology a far too determinant position, which completely misses the spirit of dialectical materialism.”

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At first, Bukharin sided with the “mechanist” faction of communist interpreters of Marx. Other notable adherents included Abram Deborin and László Rudas, bêtes noires of both Korsch and Lukács, who admonished them for their Hegelianism. This sensibility was rather in line with Bukharin’s training as an economist and his enthusiasm for the natural sciences. During the 1930s, though, he made a renewed study of German classical philosophy. Following his imprisonment in 1937 at the hand of his onetime ally Stalin, Bukharin finally got around to writing a treatise on philosophy. He was adamant that it be published, whatever his fate:

The most important thing is that the philosophical work not be lost. I worked on it for a long time and put a great deal into it; it is a very mature work in comparison to my earlier writings, and, in contrast to them, dialectical from beginning to end.

Unsurprisingly, his wishes were not honored. These manuscripts only surfaced after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. You can download the translation by clicking on the link above or read the chapter on practice below the photographs underneath. Additional works by Bukharin are available here as well:

Practice in general and the place of practice in the theory of knowledge

Nikolai Bukharin
Philosophical Arabesques
September 1937
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Earlier, we dealt with the naïve claim of the agnostics to be reasoning on the basis of their sense perceptions alone, and thus to be able to demonstrate the unreality or incognizability of the external world.

This claim proved to be baseless and comic. From this we may conclude that any philosophical reasoning, since it operates with concepts, which are a social product, the product of thousands of years of mental work, must because of this very fact operate on the broad basis of all the achievements of science, leaving behind all the fuss and bother of foolish subjectivists.

Science, however, tells us that in historical terms, the starting point was the active, practical relationship between humanity and nature. Not contemplation, and not theory, but practice; not passive perception, but action. In this sense Goethe’s dictum “In the beginning was the deed,” when counterposed to the evangelical-Platonic-Gnostic dictum “In the beginning was the word” — that is, logos, or reason — furnishes us with a precise expression of historical reality. Marx noted this repeatedly: in his notes on the book by Adolf Wagner, in which he heaps scorn on the closeted professorial view according to which objects are passively “given” to humanity; in his Holy Family; in his Theses on Feuerbach; throughout the whole text of Capital; and together with Engels, in the brilliant pages of The German Ideology.

Contrary to the ravings of idealist philosophy to the effect that thought makes worlds, and that even matter is the creation of spirit (for example, the world-positing “I” of Fichte), it is human practice that creates a new world, actually transforming the “substance of nature” in line with human wishes. Historically, it was social humanity, the social-historical human being, and not an abstraction of the intellectual side of humanity, personified by philosophers as the subject, that above all produced, ate, and drank. It was only later, through the division of labor, that theoretical activity became separated off and isolated as an independent (or relatively independent) function, becoming restricted to particular categories of people, “mental workers,” with the various social and class modifications of this category. Theoretical cognition arose out of practice as well. The active, practical relationship to the external world, the process of material production, which, as Marx put it, conditions the “exchange of substances” between humanity and nature, is the basis for the reproduction of the entire life of social humanity. The chattering of the high priests of the so-called philosophy of life [Lebensphilosophie], including Nietzsche and a series of present-day biological-mystical hysterics, bypasses this fundamental fact, just as numerous representatives of classical idealist philosophy also bypassed it. Of course! After all, from the point of view of Kant the simple acts of sawing wood, smelting iron, or making liquid oxygen constitute a breakthrough into the “transcendental,” that fearful transgression which is “impossible”! What a mess the “practical” bull creates in this china shop full of unknowably subtle statuettes!

In fairness to Hegel, that “colossal old fellow,” as Engels affectionately called him, it should be acknowledged that although Marx and Engels had to wage a desperate, impassioned, and ultimately victorious struggle against the “drunken speculation” of Hegelian idealism, Hegel did have an understanding of practice, of labor and its tools. Moreover, the embryo of historical materialism, in the form of brilliant conceptions, was present in his works. We shall have cause to be convinced of this subsequently… Continue reading

Vesnin-logo-VCHUTEMAS-1920 copy

VKhUTEMAS exhibition in Berlin: Rediscovery of a Russian revolutionary art school

Sibylle Fuchs
Verena Nees

April 5, 2015
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“Vkhutemas: A Russian Laboratory of Modernity — Architectural Designs 1920-1930,” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, December 5, 2014 to April 6, 2015.

A remarkable exhibition, featuring the art and architecture of the early Soviet Union’s VKhUTEMAS [acronym in Russian for Higher Art and Technical Studios] school, is currently at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau museum, until April 6. For the first time, some 250 works — drawings, sketches, paintings, photographs and models, mainly in the field of architecture — created by the students and teachers of the Moscow workshops, which existed from 1920 to 1930, are on display.

Exhibition of student’s work on “Evidence and expression of mass and weight” School year 1927-1928 © The Schusev State Museum of Architecture Moscowia802601.us.archive.org-grerussi00schi_0302 copy 2

The exhibition was organized by the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow, based on extensive research into numerous archives, as well as interviews with graduates of the school and the families of former teachers. Researchers were thus able to bring to light long-lost designs, construction plans and models. The exhibition provides a fascinating insight into a neglected school of art that revolutionized modern architecture.

The displayed works of the Vkhutemas students range from designs for residential buildings, theaters, kiosks, swimming pools, sports stadiums, workingmen’s clubs and entire cities to student research projects on theoretical questions such as “mass and weight,” “color and spatial composition,” and “geometric properties of a form.” The sketches of complex urban roofscapes, imaginatively conceived recreation centers in natural settings, seemingly weightless buildings with vibrantly curved features, aesthetic structuring and façades for industrial buildings—all testify to such a wealth of radicalism, experimentation and diversity of ideas that many Bauhaus [German art school, 1919-1933] creations fade in comparison.

All the designs, even the bold and less realistic ones like the floating skyscrapers attached to balloons, also evoke a sense of the seriousness with which architectural commissions assigned by the workers’ state were undertaken after the October Revolution.

M. Korshew- Abstrakte Aufgabe zur Ermittlung von Masse und Gewicht

On December 19, 1920, Lenin announced the Soviet government’s resolve to establish the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops — VKhUTEMAS. The aim was to use the visual arts in the training of technically, politically and scientifically educated architects and designers in all disciplines. In the ten years of its existence, VKhUTEMAS became a laboratory of modern architecture and art, in which diverse artistic ideas and methods, such as classicism, constructivism, psychoanalytic approaches and even futurism came together.

Time and again, the media refers to VKhUTEMAS as the Russian Bauhaus. Many scholars in the West have insisted on seeing the Bauhaus movement in Weimar and Dessau as a model for the Russian architectural avant-garde. However, the exhibition throws this conception into question. Although VKhUTEMAS had close ties to Bauhaus and the latter held some concepts and ideas in common with the Soviet workshops, the relationship is rather the reverse. In her contribution to the catalog, Barbara Kreis writes that the works of the students and teachers are “unmatched, and later often served architects as templates and sources of inspiration.”

The sheer scope of the training and the vast number of students and teachers make it clear that the Moscow workshops mark a unique stage in the development of modern architecture. Some 2,000 students enrolled in the first year alone, while Bauhaus trained only about 150 in the same time frame.

Many famed Russian artists and avant-garde architects were at least temporarily VKhUTEMAS teachers. These included Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir Krinsky, Alexander Vesnin and his brothers Viktor and Leonid, Lyubov Popova, Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, Nikolai Ladovsky, Konstantin Melnikov, Moisei Ginzburg, Alexei Shchusev, Wassily Kandinsky, Aleksandra Ekster, and Gustav Klutsis.

BookScanStation-2013-07-11-06-19-45-PM0001alq VKhUTEMAS faculty and professors

The VKhUTEMAS school’s reputation also spread internationally and reached New York, where the works of its students were exhibited. Alfred H. Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, traveled specifically to visit the VKhUTEMAS in Moscow in 1928. The Soviet pavilion designed by Melnikov and Rodchenko’s Workers Club were accorded great recognition at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris.

The designs and sketches now shown in Berlin form eloquent testimony to the tremendous spirit of optimism that the October Revolution unleashed in architecture and other art forms. A documentary film, made by the German WDR broadcaster in 1984 and shown at the exhibition, features the comments of contemporaries, enthusiastically recalling their years of study in the VKhUTEMAS. Describing the atmosphere, one said he “always climbed stairs two steps at a time and, going down, in leaps and bounds.”

Curator Irina Tschepkunowa also writes in the introduction to the catalog that one can scarcely any longer imagine in today’s “pragmatically oriented” Russia the enthusiasm that broke out after the revolution. “Hunger and destruction during war communism, the ongoing civil war in the country’s border areas and the impoverished everyday life provoked in young people — as strange as this may seem today — not dejection, but an unprecedented creative enthusiasm and willingness to work.”

Establishing the VKhUTEMAS

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Training in the VKhUTEMAS was focused on the mobilization of all talents for the building of a socialist society. Immediately after the revolution, the academies and art schools, reserved for the privileged social elites, were abolished and artistic training procedures reformed with the introduction of free state art workshops. All who wanted to study art could enroll at such schools. This also initially applied to the VKhUTEMAS, where participation in preparatory courses of the RabFak workers’ university was obligatory in 1921 for workers and young people without qualifications. In 1925, an examination assessing artistic talent was also introduced as an entry requirement.

A. Wesnin- Entwurf zur Gestaltung der Außenfassade der WChUTEMAS zum 10. Jahrestag der OktoberrevolutionLissitzky_Proun-Street_celebration_design_2786-08

The VKhUTEMAS were divided into eight faculties that included three art workshops: painting (panel, monumental and decorative painting), sculpture and architecture, as well as five production workshops: graphics, textiles, ceramics, metal and wood working. Lidia Komarova, an architect and a 1929 graduate of the VKhUTEMAS described the overall orientation of the workshops as follows: “The goal was to unite art with production, science with technology, and the new content of socialist life with the needs of the people.”(1) Continue reading

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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.

Continue reading

Radek 2aa

Karl Radek, Bolshevik revolutionary

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Karl Bernardovich Radek (thirty-five years old) could, as we used to say, only speak his own language — the accent he used to express himself in all the others was so incredibly bad. A Galician Jew, he had grown up in the Socialist movements of Galicia, Poland, Germany, and Russia, all at the same time. He was a sparkling writer, with an equal flair for synthesis and for sarcasm. Thin, rather small, nervous, full of anecdotes that often had a savage side to them, realistic to the point of cruelty, he had a beard growing in a fringe around his clean-shaven face, just like an old-time pirate. His features were irregular, and thick tortoiseshell spectacles ringed his myopic eyes. His walk, staccato gestures, prominent lips, and screwed-up face, every part of which was continually expressive, all had something monkey-like and comical about them.

— Victor Serge, Memoirs of a
Revolutionary (1947). Pg. 159.

Radek was of a different mould. He was a pupil not of Lenin but of Rosa Luxemburg, which meant that he was not used to submission and — that he was used to close contact with the Western labour movement. It was his profound knowledge of the latter, especially of German socialism, which gave him prestige. Altogether Radek was a man of political qualities. Together with his wit, which has won him international fame, he had immense powers of application and a real thirst for detail. He was not the sort of man to be satisfied either with theoretical generalizations such as Bukharin loved, or with rhetoric in the vein of Zinoviev. He was clever and thoroughly undogmatic. Already in 1919 he had attempted to establish contacts between the Soviet Union and big German industrialists, a task which, at that time, almost every other member of the party would have regarded as a defilement. He was a cynic. The one thing this brilliant man lacked was character, that deep-rooted moral balance which draws an undefinable line between what is right and what is wrong. Radek was too clever to be either heroic or even consistent.

— Franz Borkenau, World
Communism
(1939). Pg. 164.

Karl Radek: The confusion of styles?

Pierre Broué [John Archer] 
The German Revolution,
1917-1923 (1971/2005)
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Karl Radek was a unique character in the history of the Communist movement, and is a key figure for anyone wishing to study the first years of the Communist International. Despite being a prolific writer, today he is almost forgotten, but during the years following the Russian Revolution he was one of the most important leaders in the International, and was effectively its Secretary for some months between his release from prison in Germany and the Second Comintern Congress. Moreover, he was the mentor of the KPD until 1923, and was appointed by the ECCI to deal with “German questions” in the same way that Trotsky was assigned “French questions.” Recent studies by H. Schurer and Warren Lerner have perhaps opened the way for works devoted to him, and we must now hope that the numerous ‘Radek’ files in East Germany and the Soviet Union, access to which was refused to us, will be opened.

The best portrait of him is without doubt that from the brush of the German journalist Wilhelm Herzog in 1920:

Karl Radek…has been elected secretary of the Third Communist International. His lively and ever-active mind is feverishly at work. His brain, filled with German romanticism (and a touch of Polish Judaism), is rich in irony and energy. Every day he writes two editorials, one for Pravda and one for Izvestia, and often another text as well, which is transmitted by radio from Christiania. Every day, he is visited by a dozen delegates from other parts of the world. He advises and instructs. He presides at the meetings of the Third International, and takes part in the conferences of the Executive Committee, of the Central Committee of the Party and of numerous other bodies. He lectures at the Workers’ University and to the officers of the Red Army. He speaks at meetings and at congresses of the central and local Soviets. All this without ever being superficial or unreflective, but after solid preparation, as a very competent man, very serious but never lacking wit. He masters his problem, lays hold of it, explains it and analyses it. It is a feast to listen to him. He overflows with ideas and with a rare knowledge of men and things. He knows every date, every leader, and even every individual of any importance in the workers’ movement throughout the world. Hence an immense historical culture and a very clear knowledge of world political relations.

He has a sparkling style. Although, to be sure, he does not command Russian as if it were his native language, we admire his articles for their clarity and their striking imagery. His quicksilver mind reacts to all the concerns of human life, political and intellectual. In short, he is an exceptionally talented man, a born propagandist and an agitator whom nothing can restrain or stop. He knows no compromise when the problem is to influence the hostile or the still-indifferent world, to infect it and to impregnate it with the idea of the world revolution. With Bukharin, Osinsky, and others, he belongs to the younger generation of the Bolsheviks (that is, of the revolutionary Marxists). This extraordinary strategist of the class war, this dreaded terrorist, loves German literature; he knows Goethe, Heine, Kleist, Friedrich von Gentz and the romantics, Büchner and Grabbe, he loves Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, and quotes verses from Stefan Georg and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.[1]

This is a flattering portrait, but no doubt a truthful one, though perhaps it should be slightly filled out with a reference to his physical ugliness and his neglect of his dress. Count Kessler describes him as “something between Puck and Wolf, a bit of a street Arab…Mephisto.” “A cross between a professor and a bandit,” wrote the British spy-cum-diplomat, Bruce Lockhart. The man was attractive for his wit, the liveliness of his repartee, the sharp sense of  humor which he never forgot to use at his own expense, the breadth of his culture and intellectual curiosity, and in short, despite the aggressiveness of his manner of speaking, his graciousness, sensitivity and an undeniable vulnerability.

Radek on tour through Germany, caricature in Pravda 1920

First and foremost, Radek was a freelancer. He had his own distinct personality when he appeared in the German Social-Democratic movement. In fact, he had had some revolutionary experience, in a period when the leaders of the German Party had nothing in this field but what they had read about the Paris Commune or the revolutions of 1848. But Radek had hardly emigrated before he returned to Poland at the beginning of the upheavals in 1905, and had replaced Leo Jogiches before he was twenty years old as chief editor of the newspaper of the Polish Social Democrats. He then had experience of prison. He later settled in Germany, and won a reputation as a polemicist and theoretician by his attacks on Kautsky at the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International and in Die Neue Zeit. He specialized in studies of imperialism, and devoted himself to demonstrating that inter-imperialist rivalries would lead to a world war. He based upon this perspective his theory of world revolution — a theme dear to the Bolsheviks, but not familiar to the members of the SPD. His talent won him fame as a journalist, but he remained isolated in Germany, and increased his isolation still more by supporting the opposition in the Warsaw committee of the SDKPiL against Luxemburg and Jogiches. Continue reading

Amadeo Bordiga fat old great

Against activism

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In this short article first published in 1952, Amadeo Bordiga addresses “activism” as “an illness of the workers movement” that exaggerates the “possibilities of the subjective factors of the class struggle” and neglects theoretical preparation, which he claims is of paramount importance. Recently a number of texts have emerged to challenge the unquestioned paradigm of “activism” among Marxists and radicals. Here’s a brief list that I’ve compiled:

  1. “Activism,” by Amadeo Bordiga (1952).
  2. “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” by Theodor Adorno (1968). Some notes on the decoupling of theory and practice.
  3. “Resignation,” by Theodor Adorno (1969). Responding to accusations made against the Frankfurt School.
  4. “Militancy: The Highest Stage of Alienation,” by L’Organisation des jeunes travailleurs révolutionnaires (1972). Following the wave of radicalism in 1968.
  5. “Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents,” by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti (2003). From the antiwar years.
  6. “Introduction to The Decline of the Left in the Twentieth Century: Toward a Theory of Historical Regression,” by Benjamin Blumberg for Platypus (2009).
  7. “Additional Remarks on the End of Activism,” by Theorie Communiste (2011).

As I’ve written elsewhere, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and others — one might add Luxemburg, Pannekoek, or Trotsky — would have found the word “activism” [Aktivismus, активизм] unintelligible, especially with respect to their own politics. Nowhere does it appear in any of their writings. Lenin only mentions “activists” [активисты] after 1918, and mostly then in connection with certain Menshevik factions that were “actively” opposed to Soviet power. Even when he’d use roughly equivalent terms like деятели [often translated as “activists,” though more literally “doers”], Lenin’s usual attitude was derisive. He referred, to give just one example, to “some local ‘activists’ (so called because they are inactive).” 

Bordiga’s article thus provides a vindication of sorts, coming from one of the old-timers who was involved in revolutionary agitation and organizing after 1917. Victor Serge described Bordiga as “exuberant and energetic, features blunt, hair thick, black, and bristly, a man quivering under his encumbrance of ideas, experiences, and dark forecasts.” Davidovich, for his part, praised “the living, muscular and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” Anyway, most of the others from this period didn’t live long enough to see “activism” become the modus operandi of the Left. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, the classical Marxist pairing of theory and practice gave way to the hazier binary of “thought” and “action.”

Here I think Bordiga is nicely complemented by some lines by Theodor Adorno, writing in a more scholarly vein:

Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant the pseudo-reality within which actionism moves…[A]ctionism is tolerated only because it is considered pseudo-reality. Pseudo-reality is conjoined with, as its subjective attitude, pseudo-activity: action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevated into an end in itself. (“Resignation” in Critical Models, pg. 291)

The only thing I disagree with in the following article is Bordiga’s characterization of the USSR as “state capitalist,” by which he means something quite different than Tony Cliff (but which seems inadequate nonetheless). I like that he repeatedly invokes Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: A Infantile Disorder (1922), which is especially remarkable given that Ilyich aimed many of his sternest criticisms in that book at Bordiga. Translation modified here and there for readability’s sake.

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Activism

Amadeo Bordiga
Battaglia Comunista
November 7, 1952
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It is necessary to insist on the word. Just like certain infections of the blood, which cause a wide range of illnesses, not excepting those which can be cured in the madhouse, activism is an illness of the workers movement that requires continuous treatment.

Activism always claims to possess the correct understanding of the circumstances of political struggle, that it is “equal to the situation.” Yet it is unable to engage in a realistic assessment of the relations of force, enormously exaggerating the possibilities based on subjective factors of the class struggle.

It is therefore natural that those affected by activism react to this criticism by accusing their adversaries of underestimating the subjective factors of the class struggle and of reducing historical determinism to that automatic mechanism which is also the target of the usual bourgeois critique of Marxism. That is why we said, in Point 2 of Part IV of our “Fundamental Theses of the Party”:

…[t]he capitalist mode of production expands and prevails in all countries, under its technical and social aspects, in a more or less continuous way. The alternatives of the clashing class forces are instead connected to the events of the general historical struggle, to the contrast that already existed when bourgeoisie [began to] rule [over] the feudal and precapitalist classes, and to the evolutionary political process of the two historical rival classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat; being such a process marked by victories and defeats, by errors of tactical and strategical method.

This amounts to saying that we maintain that the stage of the resumption of the revolutionary workers movement does not coincide only with the impulses from the contradictions of the material, economic and social development of bourgeois society, which can experience periods of extremely serious crises, of violent conflicts, of political collapse, without the workers movement as a result being radicalized and adopting extreme revolutionary positions. That is, there is no automatic mechanism in the field of the relations between the capitalist economy and the revolutionary proletarian party.

It could be the case, as in our current situation, that the economic and social world of the bourgeoisie is riddled with serious tremors that produce violent conflicts, but without the revolutionary party obtaining as a result any possibilities of expanding its activity, without the masses subjected to the most atrocious exploitation and fratricidal massacres being capable of unmasking the opportunist agents, who implicate their fate with the disputes of imperialism, without the counterrevolution loosening its iron grip on the ruled class, on the masses of the dispossessed.

To say that an objectively revolutionary situation exists, but that the subjective element of class struggle (i.e., the class party) is deficient, is wrong at every moment of the historical process. A blatantly meaningless assertion, a patent absurdity. Continue reading

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Comradeship, criticism, and collegiality

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When did “comradely” come to mean “collegial”?

Part of the academicization of Marxism, I’d contend, has involved the gradual replacement of frank, unsparing polemic with chummy, backscratching collegiality. This can be seen in all the gentle nudges and polite asides, with authors practically tripping over themselves in order to point out how “thought-provoking” and “insightful” their critics are. Flattery of one’s peers is now almost as institutionalized as the periodic paradigm shift — the cynical, cyclical revolt against the old guard.

Academics’ egos bruise easily, you see, and they’re all chasing tenure and book deals in an increasingly dried-up market. So they need to be mollified from time to time, reassured of how much they’re enriching the “discourse,” lest they become demoralized and drop out. “Keep at it, son. You’re doing good work. Just a few more asses to kiss and gushing reviews to write; then you’ll have it made.” Ball-washing cajolery has been elevated into a principle, becoming for all intents and purposes de rigueur.

I miss the days when Marx would inveigh against the Young Hegelians (Saint Max, Saint Bruno, the Rabbi Moses Hess) for their “theoretical bubble-blowing,” accusing Malthus of plagiarizing James Steuart and calling Herr Vogt a fat bastard. Or Engels declaring that Herr Dühring’s contributions to theory “haven’t even the weight of a fart.” Radicals had thicker skin and more bile in their bellies back then.

Nor it end with the founders, Marx and Engels. Luxemburg wasn’t mollycoddled at all in the Second International; she was simply more bloodthirsty than the boys, calling for Bernstein’s head and ruling the Polish section with an iron fist. Even Feliks Dzherzhinskii — founder of the Cheka, certainly no shrinking violet — was terrified of her. And he worshipped the ground she walked on.

Don’t you think it’d be great to go to an academic conference where a panelist says she supports her critics “in the same way a rope supports a hanged man,” as Lenin did?

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From painting to photography: Aleksandr Rodchenko’s revolution in visual art

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Against the synthetic portrait, for the snapshot

Aleksandr Rodchenko
Novyi lef № 4, pgs. 14-16
Moscow (April 1928)
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I was once obliged to dispute with an artist the fact that photography cannot replace painting in a portrait. He spoke very soundly about the fact that a photograph is a chance moment, whereas a painted portrait is the sum total of moments observed, which, moreover, are the most characteristic of the man being portrayed. The artist has never added an objective synthesis of a given man to the factual world, but has always individualized and idealized him, and has presented what he himself imagined about him — as it were, a personal summary. But I am not going to dispute this; let us assume that he presented a sum total, while the photograph does not.

The photograph presents a precise moment documentarily.

It is essential to clarify the question of the synthetic portrait; otherwise the present confusion will continue. Some say that a portrait should only be painted; others, in searching for the possibility of rendering this synthesis by photography, follow a very false path: they imitate painting and make faces hazy by generalizing and slurring over details, which results in a portrait having no outward resemblance to any particular person — as in pictures of Rembrandt and Carrière.

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Any intelligent man will tell you about the photograph’s shortcomings in comparison to the painted portrait; everyone will tell you about the character of the Mona Lisa, and everyone forgets that portraits were painted when there was no photography and that they were painted not of all the intelligent people but of the rich and powerful. Even men of science were not painted.

You need not wait around, intelligentsia; even now AKhRartists will not paint you. True — they can’t even depict the sum total, let alone .001 of a moment.

Now compare eternity in science and technology. In olden times a savant would discover a truth, and this truth would remain law for about twenty years. And this was learned and learned as something indisputable and immutable.

Encyclopedias were compiled that supplied whole generations with their eternal truths.

Does anything of the kind exist now? …No.

Now people do not live by encyclopedias but by newspapers, magazines, card catalogues, prospectuses, and directories.

Modern science and technology are not searching for truths, but are opening up new areas of work and with every day changed what has been attained.

Now they do not reveal common truths — “the earth revolves” — but are working on the problem of this revolution. Continue reading

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Tony Cliff’s legacy today

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

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

— Tony Cliff, interview with
Ahmed Shawki (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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Football in the first decades of the Soviet Union

Young people, particularly, need the joy and force of life. Healthy sport, swimming, racing, walking, bodily exercises of every kind, and many-sided intellectual interests. Learning, studying, inquiry, as far as possible in common. That will give young people more than eternal theories and discussions about sexual problems and the so-called ‘living to the full’. Healthy bodies, healthy minds! Neither monk nor Don Juan, nor the intermediate attitude of the German philistines. You know, young comrade…?

— Vladimir Lenin, 1919 Continue reading

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Assorted Soviet propaganda posters, 1918-1939

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Here’s an assortment of early Soviet propaganda posters from the revolutionary period up to the eve of the Second World War. I found a cache of exceptionally high quality, high resolution scans. Obviously my posting of them does not constitute an endorsement of the political views they express, especially in its more monumental Stalinist overtones (being more sympathetic to Trotsky and the Left Opposition myself).


Red Wedge beats the White Circle, 1919 El Lissitzky Aleksandr Rodchenko, poster for books with Lilia Brik, 1924 Aleksandr Rodchenko, Dobrolet poster 1923 Battleship Potemkin movie poster 1925 Soviet tramcar service advertisement, 1920s.


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