Something better than the nation?

Blair Taylor
Platypus Review
July 14th, 2014

Book Review:

Rob Ogman, Against the Nation:
Anti-National Politics in Germany
(Porsgrunn, Norway: NCP, 2013).

In the wake of the fall of the Wall and reunification the German left confronted a resurgent nationalism. One section of the Left’s response was an “anti-national” tendency whose answer to questions posed by historical developments challenged received political categories by rejecting not only nationalism but, ultimately, traditional left attitudes towards both the nation-state and “the people.” In Against the Nation, Rob Ogman charts the emergence of this “anti-national” tendency by examining two activist campaigns of the 1990s, “Never Again Germany” and “Something Better than the Nation,” to show how “the encounter with nationalism resulted in a fundamental reorientation of a broad set of political assumptions, and produced a deep restructuring in the content and contours of left politics and practice” (11). However, more than an interesting window into radical movements in Germany, the book’s real strength is that it uses these cases to reflect upon left discourse on nationalism and nation-states everywhere, but with particular emphasis on the post-9/11 United States.

The book’s opening chapter, “The Left and the Nation,” begins by tracing the evolution of left positions on nation-states and nationalism in the U.S. since the 1990s, examining discursive continuities and breaks between the alter-globalization movement, the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the Bush years, up to Occupy Wall Street in the recent past. This overview describes how a “binary worldview” in the alter-globalization movement often pitted presumably benign nation-states and cultures against the ravages of global capital, which later during the War on Terror morphed easily into a similarly uncritical understanding of “oppressed nations” dominated by imperialist states, the latter primarily represented by the United States and Israel. The result was a simplistic and flawed conceptualization of both global capitalism and state power which demonized foreign capital and imperialist states while ignoring or downplaying domestic forms of exploitation and oppression. Valorizing the people, nation, or “culture” as sources of resistance, the discourse of anti-imperialism turned a blind eye to local state and capitalist elites, as well as popular forms of domination in traditional societies. It also made for strange political bedfellows, translating into tolerance and support for reactionary movements and parties, especially Islamist ones like Hamas and Hezbollah, in some cases even defending oppressive theocratic regimes like Iran. Ogman describes how this political frame obscured a more complicated political reality shaped by the deeper structural logic of state and capitalist power relations, one that undermines simple inside/outside distinctions. It also reinforced the nation-state and “the people” as the logical alternatives and unproblematic bases of resistance to the ills of capitalism and empire. By tracing “the failure of the Left to develop an emancipatory perspective opposed to nationalism, the nation, and the nation-state” (33) within the U.S. Left, Ogman provides a political context for understanding the German case that follows.

The following chapter, “German Nationalism after Reunification,” lays out the specific historical context the anti-national left emerged from. Primarily, this meant German reunification, a process that saw an immediate spike in nationalist sentiment as postwar Germany’s discourse of postnational citizenship was eroded by a revived ethno-nationalist one, accompanied by a wave of right-wing extremism that often received tacit popular and governmental support. The Left was not immune to this nationalist turn. Even the main East German opposition group subtly shifted their previously democratic slogan, “we are the people,” into the nationalist articulation, “we are one people” (40). German identity was increasingly being defined in opposition to outsiders. At precisely the moment the German state was reconstituting itself, “foreigners” became the number one stated concern in opinion polls. As Ogman notes, “as soon as the division separating East and West Germany came down, new boundaries were drawn” (44). Reunification exposed the brutal underbelly of nation-state formation, with chilling historical continuities. It was followed by an explosive rise in violent racist attacks, culminating in what the anti-nationalists did not shrink from terming “pogroms” in Rostock and Hoyerswerda in 1991 and 1992. In what became watershed events for the anti-national left, neo-Nazis in these East German towns violently evicted local guest workers and asylum seekers, setting fire to their residence house and running them out of town. The neo-Nazis had been unhindered by police and local officials, and were cheered on by crowds of locals.

Contesting nationalism:
“Never again Deutschland!” and
“something better than the nation”

These developments prompted the formation of an oppositional coalition called The Radical Left, which organized the “Never again Germany!” mobilization to protest reunification and draw attention to its negative effects, such as the “Aliens Act” that restricted immigration and asylum. Aware that political reunification was basically inescapable, they mounted a principled symbolic opposition that sought to problematize and disrupt tendencies toward consensus and integration through “the power of negation.” This included militant protests and interventions into both public and left debates, developing and pushing an anti-national position. After reunification, the “Never again Germany” coalition was superseded by the campaign “Something better than the nation.” This network of musicians, artists, and intellectuals organized concerts, public fora, and blockades aimed at hindering the spread of both right-wing and centrist forms of nationalism. Their major campaign was a traveling caravan through the country, especially the East where neo-Nazism had taken root most virulently. The campaign aimed at fighting extreme right and nationalist sentiment by articulating an anti-racist and anti-national alternative culture embedded in music and youth subculture.


Ogman devotes a chapter to each of these early anti-national campaigns, drawing extensively on movement documents and media coverage to capture the aims and motivations of the mobilizations. In his narrative, their importance was less their direct impact on political events, which was marginal, but rather their articulation of a novel left approach to nationalism. Drawing on Frankfurt School critical theory, this milieu understood nationalism as structural rather than simply ideological. It was not an aberration derived from outmoded or irrational notions of communal identification, but was instead a radical expression of basic features of the dominant society: a competitive and hierarchical social order with clear winners and losers. Therefore solely attacking the extreme nationalism and explicit racism of neo-Nazis was insufficient: One had to address racism’s much deeper social roots. Indeed, the anti-national turn was in part a realization that traditional anti-fascist and anti-racist politics were too limited, and that nationalism must be fought on a broader scale. In particular, nationalism was another expression of the competitive logic of capitalism, wherein the winners and losers of class struggle within states are in turn reproduced between them in the international arena. The result of this recognition was a specifically anti-national critique that addressed an expanded range of concerns including Germany’s geopolitical normalization and return to the global stage; the complex relationship between capitalism, nationalism, and nation states; as well as racist and essentialist notions of identity and citizenship.

While also deploying more familiar concepts like “negative patriotism” that describe how “national unity” ideologically conceals underlying class cleavages and obscured the self-interest of workers, anti-national politics also understood nationalism as simultaneously an elite and a popular phenomenon. Unlike traditional left theories which primarily understand nationalism as an ideological ruse by elites to preserve their power by obscuring class interest, anti-national discourse viewed it as a populist impulse wherein the working class also appealed to “the nation” to gain material and symbolic benefits by excluding those at the bottom of national and international hierarchies. Thus nationalism was not simply a top-down project, but also an endeavor from below, part and parcel of an interlocking social totality. The result was a form of leftism deeply skeptical of its traditional target audience: “the people.”

By looking at the early historical emergence of a broad anti-national left in Germany, Against the Nation is a useful corrective to caricatures that reduce this milieu to its most visible and controversial tendency, the “anti-Germans” who only later emerge as a distinct and differentiated political tendency. Clustered around journals like Bahamas and Konkret, the anti-Germans are communists who espouse steadfast support of Israel and, in some cases, support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is often the only form of anti-national critique known outside Germany, often causing bewildered leftists abroad to over-generalize and dismiss it as a case of extreme national guilt. Yet this pop-psychologization misses the concrete historical conditions that fostered the initial emergence of the anti-national left in Germany. Rather than a guilt-induced obsession with National Socialism, anti-Semitism, and Israel, Ogman shows how German anti-nationalism developed out of specific anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles against racial violence and its tacit popular support. Although later in the specifically anti-German milieu, fear of the potentially fascist nature of populism translated into distrust of social movements generally, the early anti-national movement was a strongly activist as well as theoretical endeavor addressing concrete political problems confronting the German left. As a rather small tendency, this manifested primarily in provocative texts and symbolic demonstrations. Yet rather than an abdication of politics, this intervention was, at least initially, an attempt to force a certain conversation within the Left and build an alternative political base. Continue reading

Hands off we don’t even know anymore: On Israel/Palestine and the Left

James Bloodworth has written an article for The Independent titled “The Israel/Palestine Debate has More to Do with Revolutionary Tourism than Real Politics.” It’s a pretty predictable piece, not without its problems. Bloodworth insists, for example, that “there’s really something to be said for both sides,” when in fact there’s really nothing to be said for either side. All the same, he asks an important question:

Why isn’t the same level of concern shown for the world’s many other seemingly intractable problems?

Of course, there are a number of reasons that readily account for this fact. As a putative “first world democracy,” Israel’s hypocrisies are more obvious. When it holds a subject population in indefinite captivity — lingering in stateless limbo along its borders — it’s bound to reflect badly on its liberal cosmopolitan image. Moreover, it regularly mistreats many of its own citizens, black Jews from North Africa in particular. Plus, the U.S. provides it with military and financial support, which shifts at least some of the onus  to its constituency stateside. Finally, there’s the sheer length of time the problem has endured with no real end in sight. Intermittent conflicts only serve to illuminate longstanding grievances.

Returning to Bloodworth’s question, however, I find the points listed above insufficient as an explanation. The amount of attention that Israel/Palestine receives is so disproportionate compared to other major issues of the day that additional factors must be sought. Jews Sans Frontières, a Jewish anti-Zionist website of some renown, has stated that “Palestine is the moral question of our time” (italics mine). Notwithstanding its rather dross appeal to morality, something I’ve never found too compelling, I disagree with the singularity of this statement. How can its magnitude possibly be so great that it overshadows every other injustice in the world? What makes it the cause du jour, rather than something else?

A couple of suggestions Bloodworth makes in his article, trying to answer the question he posed early on, are worthy of mention. These I found at least somewhat convincing, as far as the inordinate coverage of Israel/Palestine in leftist circles and the press goes:

1. “Because when Arabs are killing Arabs no one cares.”

Syria is the obvious example here in terms of sheer body count, with an estimated 110,000 to 180,000 deaths having occurred since the outbreak of civil war in 2011. Most major media outlets and human rights organizations place the death toll above 160,000 since May. In Iraq, the wretched legacy of the U.S. invasion lives on in sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia extremists — groups like ISIS and the Sadr militia. Meanwhile, in Egypt, an old-fashioned Bonapartist regime has been set up, with frequent government crackdowns on independent news agencies and other civil society organizations. The democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi that the army overthrew was hardly much better, especially considering that the Muslim Brotherhood (which has since been outlawed) carried out similarly repressive measures right before it collapsed.

Ukraine naturally falls outside of Bloodworth’s narrow regional purview, though it was covered fairly extensively back in the West when it still seemed like Putin and Russian separatists were on the offensive. Casualties there have been heavier than what’s gone on in Gaza so far, though it’s been a bit more diffuse and has unfolded more gradually over time. Granted, it’s not been nearly as one-sided as Israel/Palestine, and leftists today tend to care less whenever they feels the sides are evenly matched.

None of this should be taken to imply that Zionism shouldn’t be opposed. As Lenin categorically put it, “Marxists resolutely oppose nationalism in all its forms.” But it does beg the question of why every other struggle seems to take a backseat whenever Israel-Palestine flares up.

2. Because “people are…inclined to project their desire for ‘struggle’ onto the seemingly exotic disputes of people in the developing world.”

I’m sure you’ve all seen the various “keffiyeh selfies” that Western leftists have posted in supposed solidarity with Palestine, LARPing intifada from afar. Separated by the safe distance of an ocean, of course, or at the very least thousands of miles. Leftists in the more advanced capitalist countries of the world refuse to reflect on the degraded political reality in which they live. The international, militant working-class movement that socialist parties in the 19th and 20th centuries took for granted no longer exists, or has long since entered into torpor. And so they prefer to transfer their hopes and ambitions onto remote parts of the globe, where the good fight is still being waged. Continue reading

Aleksandr Deineka, The Red Army (1929)

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Problems of the Red Army

Leon Trotskii
The Communist
November 1919

Red divisions are over a front of vast length. Draw a line from Moscow in any direction, prolong it, and you will reach some part of the Red Army which is fighting for Soviet Russia so heroically. The organization of this army is a very good example of the efficiency of the revolution.

No wonder the war was called an examination to the people. Of course, war itself is a great barbarity, and all Socialists are bent upon its extermination. But it must be overcome; that is, circumstances must be changed so that war will become not only needless but impossible. The people cannot leap over war instantly, surrounded by the jackals of imperialism, until the mad teeth are jerked out of the mouths of these jackals. And if the people are forced to wage war, then in its capability of defense, battle and attack all the resources of the people are shown: its economic power, its strength of organization, the spiritual average of its masses, the amount of material for leadership, etc., etc.

And so, taking the question from this angle, we may say with assurance that in a land such as ours, worn out, despoiled and ruined to the last degree, no other regime could organize an army. We may now say with certainty that an army will not be successfully organized in Germany, neither by Ebert or Scheidemann. Only Communists, who have taken the power into their own hands and shown in a practical way that this power knows no interests, worries or problems other than those of the working class, will find it possible to organize an army which will become the dependable hedge of the Socialist Republic.

We commenced with the divisions of the Red Guards. Into these we accepted workers, not seldom those who took a gun into their hands for the first time. While the task was to overcome the fighting bourgeoisie, junkers, white guards, groups of students, etc., the Red Guards showed an incomparable excellence in their revolutionary spirit and determination. In a very short period Red Guard divisions spread the Soviet power to all parts of the country. But with the offensive of the Germans in February of last year the condition changed immediately. The enthusiasm of the untrained, badly armed people proved weak before the well-organized Hohenzollern divisions under junker leadership. The first battle showed this, and brought about a fall of spirits in our divisions and armies. This fall of spirits resulted in decomposition within the ranks.

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Think of that period. The old army turned into an armed beggary all of Russia, filled all stations, cars, made direct attacks upon the workers on the railroads, ruined railroad property, forcefully robbed the food supplies, etc. The enemy attacked us from the west, taking the Ukraine. The Cossacks rebelled on the Don: in the East, the Czecho-Slovaks, and in the north Archangel was taken from us. The ring was growing tighter and tighter. Then the Mensheviki wrote about the “dying corpse” of the Soviet power. Not only the direct enemies of the working class, but some of the friends of the workers thought that there is no way out, salvation is impossible.

It was this moment of deadly danger for the revolution which gave birth to the crisis of salvation. The watchword: “The Socialist Fatherland is in danger” awakened the best that is in the laboring masses. This was the test of one revolution. Now we may say with quiet assurance that the workers’ revolution has passed the test. Continue reading

Towards a theory of the development of the world market and the world economy

Isaak Dashkovskii
Under the Banner of
(№ 1, 1927)

Translated by Noa Rodman with light edits by Ross Wolfe. Still waiting on a full copy of the Russian to go over some of the rougher sections. English is not Noa’s first language, to my knowledge. He’s a mysterious figure in general, who sometimes comments on my blog and occasionally Chris Cutrone’s, while also haunting the LibCom forums. Anyway, I’ve done what I can to clean it up.

First of three articles. Under the Banner of Marxism, 1927, № 1 , 86-117. See part two and three.1

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The most fundamental and dominant facts of modern economic life are the world market and the world economy. This is observed in countless written works, devoted to recent history of the economy and its modern situation. Even those authors, who, like [Werner] Sombart, tend to defend the paradoxical idea, that “the single national economy increasingly is becoming a completed microcosmos, and the internal market gradually outweighs for all industries the significance of the foreign market,”2 nevertheless have to recognize, that an essential condition for the growth of the domestic market is a “permanent and continuous extensive expansion of world economic relations.”

The development of international economic relations is a kind of dialectical process. As is known, exchange and trade historically occur “on the margins of social organisms.” International, intertribal trade is the starting point of the development of exchange, with which the capitalist economy also develops. 3 Later on capitalism gradually clears for itself a required “field of exploitation” inside the country, disintegrating the remnants of the natural order, paving the way of commodity economy throughout and transforming the latter into capitalist economy. During this period there occurs an intensive “formation of the internal market” for capitalism. When this work is done in enough depth and breadth, there comes the turn again of international exchange, on no longer primitive foundations, but on the basis of large-scale production and manufacture technology. Capitalism “pulls” all nations one after the other into the world economic orbit. The epoch of world economy arrives.

As troubadours of this international exchange act always the economists of those countries, which occupy a dominant position in the world market. Since the era of development of bourgeois political economy coincided with the dominance of England in the world market, it is only natural that the theory of the classics became the fighting banner of bourgeois “cosmopolitanism,” which essentially was the only adequate form of expression of the national interests of British capital. In the development of the “cosmopolitan” theory one can mention two stages: the first period associated with the names of Smith and Ricardo, characterizing the predominance of the interests of international trade in the strict sense, i.e., in terms of export of goods. Praising the benefits of international exchange both Smith and Ricardo refer negatively to the tendency to transfer capital and entrepreneurship abroad.

But in relation to this already Mill takes a step forward, pointing out that the export of capital is a powerful force for expanding the field of employment of remaining capital. It is quite fair to say that the more, to a certain extent, we will send capital out, the more we will have it and the greater the amount of it we will be able to keep in the fatherland.4 This evolution of the classical theory was closely related to changes in the economic environment. From export of goods British capital turned, after the Napoleonic Wars, to the export of capital. The pursuit of higher profits got the better over “attachment to the fatherland,” and Mill only registered a fait accompli. True, he has not yet completely done away with the old ideology and proves the benefits of export of capital by the consideration that the export contributes to increasing the amount of capital remaining in the fatherland. But this was already a simple tribute to prejudices, from which the later generation of economists managed to entirely escape.

In the theory of international economic relations as well as in all other matters of political economy, the classics remained true to their main method — to issue the specific laws of bourgeois economy to a natural order of things, to a pre-established harmony. The moving force of the development of world trade they saw in physical conditions of production, and not in the social form, which they take under capitalism. International trade spreads the frame of the division of labor, increasing its productivity. Growth of productivity is a simple consequence of technical factors — the division of labor, which therefore is the most natural order of things. Natural laws inevitably must forge a way through the artificial barriers created by the wrong policies of social organizations — the state, etc. Therefore the development of international trade is inevitable.

From the natural order of things proceeded, incidentally, also a prominent opponent of the classical school on the continent of Europe — Friedrich List. But he, in contrast to the classics, argued that the greatest economic benefits are obtained not from the division of labor between countries, but from the conjunction of labor within the same country, in particular from the conjunction of industrial and agricultural production. A clear case of how the meaning of “natural laws” is modified when they need to express opposing interests of different groups of bourgeoisie, in this case the bourgeoisie of England and Germany in the first half of the 19th century. True, also List did not depart from “cosmopolitanism” in relation to more or less distant future, when circumstances permit “universal” struggle. He also considered it necessary to flirt with “universal” considerations. “That the civilization of all nations, the culture of the whole globe is the mission of mankind, is a consequence of those immutable laws of nature, according to which civilized nations are driven by irresistible power to carry over their productive forces to the less civilized countries.”5

“Natural laws” unconsciously for their interpreters spoke in the purest language of bourgeois categories in those cases, for example, when the benefits of the international exchange strengthened arguments on the profit rate or wages. But since these categories in the representation of bourgeois economy had “antediluvian existence,” these same forces of development of the world market appeared independent of any form of social organization. They were rooted in the “immutable laws of nature.”

In his comments on Ricardo Diehl correctly notes that “​​Ricardo’s idea about foreign trade policy is closely connected with his theory of distribution of national income; he is in favor of free trade because it has the most favorable influence upon the distribution of wealth within the national economy” (K. Diehl, Erläuterungen, Bd. III, II Theil, 326 p.).

Only Marx put the question of the world market on a real scientific ground. He showed that the creation of the world market was not a function of “laws of nature” as such, but a function of capital, and moved, in this way, study on the ground of social laws, peculiar to a determined era. “What is free trade under the present condition of society?” Marx asks. “Freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action.”6

And further, revealing the essence of protectionism, Marx finds it in a strong growth, despite the apparent contrast, with the system of free trade:

The protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade.

In this way, both seemingly mutually exclusive, systems of economic policy, lead, according to Marx, to the same result: the expansion of the scope of capital’s activity, the expansion of world economic relations.

A theory of the world market had no fortune in Marxist literature. Marx himself assumed to devote a significant part of his research to the analysis of foreign trade, international market and international economy. He mentions this in the first lines of his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “I examine the system of bourgeois economy in the following order: capital, landed property, wage-labor; the State, foreign trade, world market.” The incompleteness of Capital is reflected precisely in the last three parts of Marx’s plan. In particular the theory of international economic relations is represented there only in the form of passing remarks, which, however, are themselves of an enormous scientific worth and allow in general outlines to build a system of Marx’s views on this question.

Regarding post-Marxian economic literature, although questions of world economy also were and are paid a lot of attention, a general theory of international exchange remained poorly developed. The dispute about the importance of foreign markets for capitalism between Marxists and populists, renewed in our days around the theory of Rose Luxemburg, revolves mainly around the problem of realization, or the complication of specific questions of modern imperialism, involving the highly advanced monopolization of important sectors of the world economy, the strong influence of “supra-economic” factors , etc., conditions interfering with the economic laws of capitalism “in its pure form.” Meanwhile, without a “pure theory” of the global market one cannot understand the real binding of global economic phenomena, just as without a “pure theory” of commodity and capitalist economy one cannot understand the general course of economic life, relations, classes, etc. The theory of “realization” is only a part of this pure theory. The question about realization of surplus value cannot be separated from the question about prices, for it is only through prices that potential surplus value is converted into real profit. The formation of price in international exchange is impossible to understand, without having a general theory of international exchange, and international exchange is part of a wider field of international economic relations (including the migration of capitals, the so-called “exchange of services,” the movement of labor forces, etc.). In short, here is an untouched region of theoretical research, in which Marxist science has made only first steps. Continue reading

World War I: The SPD left’s dirty secret

Benjamin Lewis
Weekly Worker 1016
June 26, 2014

The following article by Ben Lewis provides a fairly neat overview of “left” renegacy within the SPD in the run-up to, and aftermath of, Germany’s declaration of war on August 4, 1914. He challenges some of the predominant narratives of this history, especially those which trace the origins of German Social Democracy’s capitulation to the vulgar Marxism of the SPD center led by Karl Kautsky. In this respect, Lewis’ intervention may be seen as motivated by the rehabilitation of Kautsky and Kautskyism by the Canadian academic Lars Lih and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Some of the more orthodox Trotskyist sects, such as the Spartacists, have polemicized against the so-called “neo-Kautskyites” as merely recycling the Second International. For a more balanced article that is still critical of Lih and the CPGB, please see Chris Cutrone’s article on “1914 in the History of Marxism.”

Nevertheless, Lewis et al.‘s rigor in reconstructing the sequence of events and the personalities involved is to be welcomed. While Kautsky himself did not vote for war credits, as a mere consultant to the SPD delegation (he recommended abstention in this matter), he did still view the war as “German ‘self-defense’ against the Russian bear,” as Lewis put it. Only later did he and others come out in opposition to the war.

As long as there is imperialism, there will be “social”-imperialism, with sections of the “left” seeking to apologize for, downplay, or cheerlead for the actions of its own state. This article — based on continuing research and translation work with Mike Macnair 1 — will briefly outline the formation of a rather peculiar “social-imperialist” outfit within German social democracy around the publication, Die Glocke (The Bell), founded in 1915. This article draws largely on Robert Sigel’s study, Die Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe: eine Studie zum rechten Flügel der SPD im Ersten Weltkrieg (Berlin 1976), as well as my translation work.

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The leadership of the Social Democratic Party, of course, fell behind the kaiser’s war effort, as symbolized by the SPD parliamentary deputies voting for war credits on August 4 1914. The peculiarity of Die Glocke, however, lies in the fact that it was made up of figures who before 1914 had overwhelmingly been on the hard, anti-imperialist left of the party. Regularly working alongside several anti-imperialist icons of the workers’ movement — not least Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and Karl Liebknecht — lefts like Parvus (Israel Lazarevich Gelfhand, 1867-1924), Konrad Haenisch (1876-1925), Heinrich Cunow (1862-1936) and Paul Lensch (1873-1926) rapidly transformed themselves into some of the most vociferous champions of a German victory.

The fact that a grouping of this nature emerged poses various theoretical and historical questions regarding both our conceptions of anti-imperialist strategy and the history of social democracy. Additionally, many of the theoretical traps fallen into by the group concerning political democracy, the nature of war-driven nationalisations and the need to choose a side at all costs in imperialist conflicts remain a persistent problem of many sections of the left to this day.

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The dominant account is that the SPD’s ignominious capitulation to German imperialism on August 4, 1914 can largely be traced back to the Marxist center around Karl Kautsky and the non-dialectical, evolutionist and fatalist outlook for which he and his political allies were responsible. By contrast, so the story goes, the consistent struggle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the imperialist war either reflected the fact that they were much closer to the left of the SPD (like Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, and others) or that with the outbreak of war the scales suddenly fell from the eyes of Lenin and co, who abruptly broke with the center’s perspectives to chart new political territory.

In light of recent research, it is clear that this account is radically false, not only when it comes to Lenin,2 but because it overlooks the fact that some of the most important figures of the pre-1914 German left came out in support of the war and German victory — and did so more aggressively than the pro-war majority of the party.

Almost all historians agree that August 4 1914 was a milestone in the history of European socialism. But was the vote, and the consequent policy of Burgfrieden (social peace), a break with or a continuation of earlier perspectives? Was it a necessary outcome of the party’s development before 1914 — in particular its approval of the government’s Military Tax Bill to enlarge the German army (1913), on the basis that this bill introduced progressive property taxation?3

In his German Social Democracy 1905-1917, Carl E Schorske argues that “the vote for the war credits on August 4, 1914 is but the logical end of a clear line of development.”4 Susann Miller,5 by contrast, accepts that reformism had come to dominate the party, but states: “the question is merely whether a reformist policy necessarily had to the lead to the decision of August 3” (when the majority of the party’s Reichstag fraction agreed on the action to be taken the following day). Could another decision have been possible? For Georges Haupt, writing in 1970, “the fiasco of 1914…still always dominates judgements and views [in relation to the Second International]. One had emphasized the significance of this “capital offense,” yet neglected a clarification of the process that led to it, thereby arriving at the false conventional posing of the question: is [August 4] based on the lack of theoretical reflection or on the thoughtless repetition of the lessons of a Marxism that had been raised to…a dogma and isolated from practice?”6

The group around Die Glocke sheds some new light on the question of how, in the words of the Austro-Marxist Friedrich Adler, “it could come to pass that this revolutionary-socialist approach, something that was stressed over and again, burst like a bubble at the moment the war broke out.”7

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Parvus is a somewhat enigmatic figure, chiefly famous on the left for his influence on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Yet there is nothing mysterious about his theoretical commitment to the struggle against imperialism and war before 1914. He wrote a range of different publications on the world market and the main states’ colonial division of the world. His classic was Colonial Policy and the Breakdown, published in 1907 in the wake of the SPD’s unexpected defeat at the hands of a pro-colonialist political bloc in the so-called “Hottentot elections.”8 Luxemburg, Kautsky, and others drew on his theoretical output for their polemics on questions of war and peace. But on August 4 1914 Parvus advocated a German victory, albeit from abroad, and, given his importance, it is quite likely that he provided the inspiration for others to rethink their anti-war politics.

Parvus gave an interview to the Istanbul daily, Tasvir-i Efkar, which was published on August 4 1914 — not only the day of the SPD Reichstag fraction’s vote, but of the British declaration of war. It came three days after the German declaration of war on Russia, and a week after the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia. Parvus was thus very quick to make up his mind in stating his opinion on what the war means for Turkey: “The hostilities in Europe laid bare all matters of conflict. Those nations who fail to get their demands will be the prey of others. The time for talk and reasoning has passed. Now action is needed! You should heed this well.” Parvus could not be more clear: now the war had started, it was impossible to stand aside from it. Before leaving Istanbul, he also wrote for Türk Yurdu two pamphlets with the same theme: Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: Almanya Galip Gelirse (The Outcome of the General War if Germany Wins), and Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: İngiltere Galip Gelirse (The outcome of the general war if England wins). Continue reading

Pour Hegel: Marx’s lifelong debt to Hegelian dialectics

By now it should be obvious to anyone who has looked at Karl Marx’s entire corpus, both published and unpublished works, that the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was an abiding influence on his thought. Marx certainly had no patience for those “the ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones” who treated Hegel a “dead dog,” much in the same way that the Leibnizian philosopher Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza like a “dead dog.” This is amply evident both in the 1873 postface to his masterpiece, Capital, as well as in private letters written to friends and colleagues between 1866 and 1870.

In this post, I will adduce clearly that Marx still held Hegel in high regard up to and beyond the publication of his “mature” works (if one still insists, following Althusser and Colletti, upon drawing a rigid distinction between the Young Marx and Old Marx). Even further, I will show that Marx understood his own dialectical method as a critical application or “inversion” of Hegel’s. As Marx saw it, the principal difference between his own theoretical framework and that of Hegel consisted in their respective points of departure. Hegel was an idealist, after all, and started with the Idea. Marx, on the other hand, started with the real world. “With [Hegel],” Marx wrote, “[the dialectic] is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”

First, however, a couple of caveats:

  1. None of this should be taken to mean that Marx was still wasting his time with philosophy as he sat down to write Capital. He and Engels had settled that score back in the 1840s, with a number of searing polemics against the Young Hegelians. Philosophy was, for all intents and purposes, finished by then. Hegel had completed it, and all that was left to do was to realize what philosophy had merely declared, ideologically, at the level of the Idea. Any attempt to travel back down that road was bound to lead to a dead end. Engels himself reaffirmed in 1886 that “with Hegel philosophy comes to an end.”
    Joseph Dietzgen probably came closest to providing a philosophical account of Marx’s theory; Marx and Engels affectionately called him “the philosopher of socialism.” Generally speaking, however, the notion of founding a Marxist “philosophy” is absurd — something Althusser failed to recognize. Which isn’t to say that it’s not useful to retrace the steps by which Marx and Engels took their leave of philosophy. Karl Korsch’s outstanding essay “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), makes the strongest case for this exercise.
  2. My aim here is hardly to “re-mystify” Marx’s thought, or to turn him into some harmless figure whose books can be found in the philosophy section of Barnes and Noble. There’s doubtless cruel irony in the fact that Marx was overwhelmingly voted the “greatest philosopher” of all time in a 2005 BBC poll. He would doubtless have been appalled by the verdict, since he understood his vocation to be non-philosophical. Instead, my intention is to elucidate Marx’s rationalization and demystification of Hegel’s dialectic, placing it on terra firma rather than high up in the clouds.

Plenty of clues exist which verify Marx’s favorable opinion of Hegel, not just in the 1873 postface itself (though here also) but in letters Marx sent to colleagues around the same time, corroborating his annoyance with “ill-humored” anti-Hegelian boors. A proper timeline will help clear things up a great deal.

So before we take a look at his letters, let’s glance at the relevant passage from the postface again:

My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of “the Idea,” is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought.

I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just when I was working at the first volume of Capital, the ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began to take pleasure in treating Hegel in the same way as the good Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza in Lessing’s time, namely as a “dead dog.” I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell. (Capital, pgs. 102-103)

Clearly Marx credits Hegel as being “the first to present [the dialectic's] general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner,” despite the mystifications it suffers at his hands. This does not render Marx’s own theoretical efforts superfluous: his task is precisely to demystify it and place it back on its feet. Its “general forms of motion” are the same, as readers from Lenin to Postone have pointed out, but its trajectory is precisely the reverse (“exactly opposite”). He places Hegel’s dialectic on solid foundations. After all, Marx says outright that “[his] dialectical method” is exactly opposite to Hegel’s “in its foundations.”

But wait, you might ask: Who were these “ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles,” anyway? And when was it that Marx was provoked by their unlettered anti-Hegelianism to openly avow himself the pupil of that “great thinker” (Hegel)? Marx doesn’t provide any examples of who he’s talking about in the 1873 postface, nor does he indicate when he took such umbrage at their treatment of Hegel like a dead dog. Continue reading

Mauer dreamstory

Agata Pyzik

The following is an early draft from Agata Pyzik’s excellent book-length debut, Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes between East and West. I’m about halfway through writing a review of it, which I’ll probably pitch to Radical Philosophy or Art Margins. Everyone reading this should pick up a copy immediately. Pyzik’s interpretation of Possession and other films, reproduced below, is one of my favorite sections.

(Cross-posted from Faces on Posters as well as
nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour)

Zulawski Retrospective.

I didnt want that to happen, but it did.

“A woman who fucks an octopus” — that was the way Andrzej Żuławski pitched his 1980 film Possession to the producer, fresh after the success of his French film L’Important C’est D’aimer, about a fallen actress, played by a sad-eyed Romy Schneider, who is made to act in pornographic movies, surrounded by other failed artists, including an unusually melancholic, tender performance from Klaus Kinski. He was also right after the fiasco of his three-hour long monumental metaphysical SF On a Silver Globe (1978) — an adaptation of a futurological fin-de-siècle novel by his great-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski — pulled before completion by the hostile communist authorities and shelved until 1987, when only Żuławski had a chance to “finish” the film. Around that time, he was abandoned by his wife Malgorzata Braunek, actress in his Third Part of the Night and The Devil, due to his famously domineering and possessive personality as a partner and a director. Left in shock and depression, he started plotting a misogynist fairy tale about a monster…

The sleep of reason produces demons, and one of them materialized when Anna, living in West Berlin with her functionary nice husband and child in a neat, three-storey block estate, realized she despised her husband. She confesses that to him. The rest is what happens after that confession.

Possession was made in the golden era of the genre of exploitation, and it must be due to the communal genius that things conceived as forgettable schlock to this day shine with a magnificent mixture of the visceral and the metaphysical, with cinematography, colors, costumes and set design taken from a masterpiece. Argento and the lesser gialli creators, Jean Rollin with his erotic horror, the expansion of an intellectual SF, started and inspired Tarkovsky, all paved the way for Possession, a still unrivaled study of a marital break-up, thrown in the middle of political turmoil in divided cold war Berlin. Still, Possession had a special “career” in the UK, if by career we understand horrible reception, extremely negative reviews and eventually putting it to the “video nasties” list of banned films. “Film nobody likes,” it was deemed too arty for the flea pits and too trashy for the art house.*

Possession_1981_6 2cap065

Today perhaps we can’t imagine what it was like to live in a city surrounded by barbed wire and under a constant look of armed guards. When we first see Anna, played by a disturbingly pale, un-Holy Mary-like Isabelle Adjani and Mark (Sam Neill), we instantly see something is terribly wrong: their windows are under constant scrutiny, and surrounded by wire — the symbol of political oppression just as of the marital prison, of conventional life. Continue reading

Krugman on Piketty: From one celebrity neo-Keynesian to another

Paul Krugman writes in today’s New York Times on the buzz around Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Believe the hype, he advises, but the French economist is certainly no Marxist. The celebrated columnist documents some of the more extreme reactions the book has elicited from Republicans and right-wingers, which he calls “the Piketty panic”:

[C]onservatives are terrified…James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute warns in National Review that Mr. Piketty’s work must be refuted, because otherwise it “will spread among the clerisy and reshape the political economic landscape on which all future policy battles will be waged”…it has been amazing to watch conservatives, one after another, denounce Mr. Piketty as a Marxist. Even Mr. Pethokoukis, who is more sophisticated than the rest, calls Capital a work of “soft Marxism,” which only makes sense if the mere mention of unequal wealth makes you a Marxist.

It is to Krugman’s credit that he can see through the hysterical right-wing denunciations of Piketty as a “Marxist” or “collectivist,” however. That’s something that can’t really be said for the book’s various “Marxian” admirers. Many on the Left tend to believe the Right’s paranoid rhetoric about fairly anodyne liberalism: if conservatives decry Keynesianism or political correctness as “Marxist” (i.e., economic  or cultural), then it must be!

Yeah, not really. Continue reading

Real abstraction: On the use and abuse of an idea

The Marxian notion of “real abstraction” has garnered a great deal of attention in leftist theoretical circles of late, with somewhat mixed results. It was first formulated and treated systematically by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, an economist associated with the Frankfurt School of social theory. Helmut Reichelt has pointed out, however, that the term was used prior in a couple instances by the German sociologist Georg Simmel (Reichelt, “Marx’s Critique of Economic Categories,” pg. 4). Notably, Simmel’s usage occurs in connection with the “abstract value” represented and measured by money, as that which converts qualitatively incommensurable items into quantitatively commensurable commodities. He writes that “not only the study of the economy [economics] but the economy itself is constituted by a real abstraction from the comprehensive reality of valuations” (Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, pg. 78).

With Sohn-Rethel, the exposition of the concept is much more thoroughgoing. According to the definition he provides in Intellectual and Manual Labor (1970), “real abstraction” refers solely to the social relationship of commodity exchange, or rather to their exchangeability as such. The exchange of commodities, and the abstract equivalence on which it is based, does not simply take place within the minds of those exchanging them. It occurs at the level of reality. Sohn-Rethel asserts that “real abstraction arises in exchange from the reciprocal relationship between two commodity-owners and it applies only to this interrelationship” (Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor, pg. 69).

Reichelt and others have noted the importance of the way this was framed by the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, one of Sohn-Rethel’s close friends and correspondents. He responded to charges of an overly “abstract” conceptualization of society by maintaining that this abstractness was not invented by sociologists, but rather belongs to the very constitution of social reality. Adorno explained:

The abstraction we are concerned with is not one that first came into being in the head of a sociological theoretician who then offered the somewhat flimsy definition of society which states that everything relates to everything else. The abstraction in question here is really the specific form of the exchange process itself, the underlying social fact through which socialization first comes about. If you want to exchange two objects and — as is implied by the concept of exchange — if you want to exchange them in terms of equivalents, and if neither party is to receive more than the other, then the parties must leave aside a certain aspect of the commodities…In developed societies…exchange takes place…through money as the equivalent form. Classical [bourgeois] political economy demonstrated, as did Marx in his turn, that the true unit which stands behind money as the equivalent form is the average necessary amount of social labor time, which is modified, of course, in keeping with the specific social relationships governing the exchange. In this exchange in terms of average social labor time the specific forms of the objects to be exchanged are necessarily disregarded instead, they are reduced to a universal unit. The abstraction, therefore, lies not in the thought of the sociologist, but in society itself. (Introduction to Sociology, pgs. 31-32)

Real abstraction does not refer to ideologies that arise on the basis of material exchange of goods, or the labor process that allows such exchange in the first place. Of course, Sohn-Rethel is interested in accounting for “the conversion of the real abstraction of exchange into the ideal abstraction of conceptual thought” (Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor, pg. 68). But this “conceptual abstraction” or “ideal abstraction” is clearly derivative, a mirroring of  the abstraction at work in reality itself at the level of ideas. Continue reading