Art into life

Marx once declared, critiquing Hegel, that the historical task confronting humanity was “to make the world philosophical.” Hegel had completed philosophy, effectively brought it to a close. Now all that was left was to make this philosophy real by transforming the world according to its dictates. As he put it:

It is a psychological law that the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy, and, leaving the shadowy empire of Amenthes as will, turns itself against the reality of the world existing without it. (From a philosophical point of view, however, it is important to specify these aspects better, since from the specific manner of this turn we can reason back towards the immanent determination and the universal historic character of a philosophy. We see here, as it were, its curriculum vitae narrowed down to its subjective point.) But the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It’s the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea. But this immediate realization of philosophy is in its deepest essence afflicted with con­tradictions, and this its essence takes form in the appearance and imprints its seal upon it.

When philosophy turns itself as will against the world of appearance, then the system is lowered to an abstract totality, that is, it has become one aspect of the world which opposes another one. Its relationship to the world is that of reflection. Inspired by the urge to realize itself, it enters into tension against the other. The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards. The result is that as the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly, that its realization is also its loss, that what it struggles against on the outside is its own inner deficiency, that in the very struggle it falls precisely into those defects which it fights as defects in the opposite camp, and that it can only overcome these defects by falling into them. That which opposes it and that which it fights is always the same as itself, only with factors inverted.

Reflecting on these lines nearly a century later, in the aftermath of the stillborn October Revolution, Karl Korsch famously concluded that “[p]hilosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.” In other words, it is vital not to cast philosophy unceremoniously aside simply because its time has passed. One must come to terms with it, and critically engage it, before doing away with it completely. Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in many ways a sequel to Korsch’s essay on “Marxism and Philosophy,” thus begins with the sobering observation: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who corresponded for decades with Adorno, explained at the outset of his monumental work on Intellectual and Manual Labor, provided a clue as to what this might have meant:

[Work on the present study] began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor W. Adorno, and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter.

Korsch’s insight into this theme from the early thought of Karl Marx, reaffirmed subsequently by Adorno and his best followers, can be extended to encompass art and religion as well. For Hegel, of course, art and religion each provided — in their own, particular way — privileged access to the Absolute. Art reigned supreme in the ancient world, while religion dominated medieval thought (with its “great chain of being”). By the time Hegel was writing, however, these modes of apprehending the Absolute had been surpassed by philosophy, which rationally comprehended the Absolute Idea in its spiritual movement. Intuition and belief had been supplanted by knowledge. Science, or Wissenschaft, had been achieved.

Yet this achievement did not last long. After Hegel’s death, his successors — Left and Right, Young and Old — battled for possession of the master’s system. Only Marx succeeded in carrying it forward, precisely by realizing that philosophy itself must be overcome. The same may perhaps be said for those older forms of life which had the Absolute as their object, art and religion. Feuerbach’s religion of humanity, which read theology as secret anthropology, perhaps found its most revolutionary articulation in the writings of Bogdanov, Gorky, and Lunacharsky, who promoted a project of “God-building” [богостроиетльство]. Lenin rightly scolded them for their excessive, premature exuberance, but they were on the right track. Similarly, the avant-garde project of dissolving art into life, in hopes of bringing about the death of art, can be read as an effort to make the world artistic (“to make the world philosophical”). Or, better, to make the world a work of art.

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

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

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

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

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

Béla Balázs

Sergei Eisenstein


The future of film

Béla Balázs
July 6, 1926

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On the position of Béla Balázs

Sergei Eisenstein
July 20, 1926

Balázs’ article will surprise some people. Without its concluding stipulation: “The cameraman is the alpha and omega of film.”

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

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

Raph Schlembach
Interface journal
November 2010

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


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

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

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

Post-Holocaust origins

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

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

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

New normal: The Left and the growth of religious reaction

Paul Demarty
Weekly Worker 1046
February 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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The theory of “reification”

A response to Georg Lukács

Originally published in Platypus Review 73

Izrail’ Vainshtein

Under the Banner of
10-11 (1924)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Je suis Bezbozhnik

Just over a week ago, I published a series of antireligious images from the early Bolshevik journal Bezbozhnik u stanka along with an article by Leon Trotsky from 1925 on the subject of atheistic propaganda. In it, he praised “the satirical journal Godless, where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists…Issue after issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehovah, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist [Dmitrii] Moor and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely.” Many of the images are every bit as offensive as the ones printed by the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, the offices of which were recently the target of a brutal assault by reactionary Islamists. Eleven were killed that day, executioner-style. Several hostages at a printing house and a kosher market in Paris were murdered along with the gunmen in the standoff a few days later.

There was obviously no way of knowing this tragedy would take place when I uploaded the aforementioned post. Like everyone else, I followed the drama that unfolded and watched with dismay the flailing attempts by various leftists to spin the story to fit their own preexisting narratives. Richard Seymour’s article over at Jacobin, which largely framed subsequent debate, was exemplary in this respect. While he condemned violence against civilians, he nevertheless felt it necessary to add that “there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that [they] are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.” Appended to this was the condescending suggestion: “If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with Edward Said’s Orientalism as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia.”

Der Stürmer, Sonderausgabe 1934

Islamophobia has been Seymour’s main concern for some time now. Other issues occasionally show up, such as austerity and intersectionality, but these are few and far between. Wasn’t always so: back in 2004 you could still find him defending revolutionary universalism against the idiocy of left-liberal multiculturalism. Take this entry, “Jihad Chic,” from 2004 (back when Seymour was just a poor man’s Christopher Hitchens). Anyway, going from his description of Charlie Hebdo above — i.e., “frankly a racist publication” — one could easily get the mistaken impression that it’s some latter-day Der Stürmer. Surprisingly, Seymour seems totally oblivious to the context in which this imagery appears. His old buddy Sebastian Budgen, on whom he relies for most of his gossip about the French Left, came much closer to getting this right:

There is a silly debate about whether Charlie Hebdo is a “racist” publication or not. Clearly not, in the sense of its origins lying in a left-wing, post-′68, highly transgressive vulgarity and its opposition to the far Right. It is part of the mental furniture of much of the French Left, radical included (think of a mash-up between Private Eye, Viz, Oz, Ben Elton, and The Young Ones), and most people will have affectionate memories of it prior to the 2000s. Charb himself illustrated Daniel Bensaïd’s Marx for Beginners books not so long ago.

Not just that, either. Cabu, one of the staff cartoonists, got his start as a kind of avant la lettre Oliver North. He’d served as a colonial soldier in Algeria, but later publicly lampooned French militarism in numerous comic strips. Virtually everyone involved in the magazine had campaigned on behalf of immigrants and mocked right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen. (There is cruel irony in the fact that she’s now cynically using their memory for political gain). Regardless, Seymour’s brief characterization is highly misleading. Perhaps certain cartoons in the magazine could be construed as racist or antisemitic, and several clearly are, but to smear the entire project and those involved in it as virulent racists is grossly unfair. One comrade even went so far as to compare the victims of the attack to “Nazbols.”

Bob from Brockley posted a response to Seymour written by Contested Terrain on his blog. The rest of Seymour’s argument is boilerplate; Contested Terrain parries its thrusts with relative ease. Seymour, he contends, “portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors.” This weakness is compounded by an overall reticence to entertain that it might have origins in Islamist ideology. “In [Seymour’s] account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.” He’s since posted a rejoinder to the criticisms he’s received, which more or less states that he thought some things went without saying. Continue reading


Marx on the history of “the Eastern question” (1853)

MECW, vol. 13
Pgs. 102-104

In order to understand…all the actual complications in the East, it is necessary to cast a retrospective glance at its past history and development.

The Koran and the Mussulman legislation emanating from it reduce the geography and ethnography of the various people to the simple and convenient distinction of two nations and of two countries; those of the Faithful and of the Infidels. The Infidel is “harby,” i.e. the enemy. Islamism proscribes the nation of the Infidels, constituting a state of permanent hostility between the Mussulman and the unbeliever. In that sense the corsair-ships of the Berber States were the holy fleet of Islam. How, then, is the existence of Christian subjects of the Porte to be reconciled with the Koran?

According to the Mussulman legislation,

If a town surrenders by capitulation, and its habitants consent to become rayahs, that is, subjects of a Mussulman prince without abandoning their creed, they have to pay the kharatch (capitation tax), when they obtain a truce with the faithful, and it is not permitted any more to confiscate their estates than to take away their houses…In this case their old churches form part of their property, with permission to worship therein. But they are not allowed to erect new ones. They have only authority for repairing them, and to reconstruct their decayed portions. At certain epochs commissaries delegated by the provincial governors are to visit the churches and sanctuaries of the Christians, in order to ascertain that no new buildings have been added under pretext of repairs. If a town is conquered by force, the inhabitants retain their churches, but only as places of abode or refuge, without permission to worship.

Constantinople having surrendered by capitulation, as in like manner has the greater portion of European Turkey, the Christians there enjoy the privilege of living as rayahs, under the Turkish Government. This privilege they have exclusively by virtue of their agreeing to accept the Mussulman protection. It is, therefore, owing to this circumstance alone, that the Christians submit to be governed by the Mussulmans according to Mussulman man law, that the patriarch of Constantinople their spiritual chief, is at the same time their political representative and their Chief Justice. Wherever, in the Ottoman Empire, we find an agglomeration of Greek rayahs, the Archbishops and Bishops are by law members of the Municipal Councils, and, under the direction of the patriarch, [watch] over the repartition of the taxes imposed upon the Greeks. The patriarch is responsible to the Porte as to the conduct of his co-religionists: Invested with the right of judging the rayahs of his Church, he delegates this right to the metropolitans and bishops, in the limits of their dioceses, their sentences being obligatory for the executive officers, kadis, etc., of the Porte to carry out. The punishments which they have the right to pronounce are fines, imprisonment, the bastinade, and exile. Besides, their own church gives them the power of excommunication. Independent of the produce of the fines, they receive variable taxes on the civil and commercial lawsuits. Every hierarchic scale among the clergy has its moneyed price. The patriarch pays to the Divan a heavy tribute in order to obtain his investiture, but he sells, in his turn, the archbishoprics and bishoprics to the clergy of his worship. The latter indemnify themselves by the sale of subaltern dignities and the tribute exacted from the popes. These, again, sell by retail the power they have bought from their superiors, and traffic in all acts of their ministry, such as baptisms, marriages, divorces, and testaments.

It is evident from this exposé that this fabric of theocracy over the Greek Christians of Turkey, and the whole structure of their society, has its keystone in the subjection of the rayah under the Koran, which, in its turn, by treating them as infidels — i.e., as a nation only in a religious sense — sanctioned the combined spiritual and temporal power of their priests. Then, if you abolish their subjection under the Koran by a civil emancipation, you cancel at the same time their subjection to the clergy, and provoke a revolution in their social, political, and religious relations, which, in the first instance, must inevitably hand them over to Russia. If you supplant the Koran by a code civil, you must occidentalize the entire structure of Byzantine society.

Having described the relations between the Mussulman and his Christian subject, the question arises: What are the relations between the Mussulman and the unbelieving foreigner?

As the Koran treats all foreigners as foes, nobody will dare to present himself in a Mussulman country without having taken his precautions. The first European merchants, therefore, who risked the chances of commerce with such a people, contrived to secure themselves an exceptional treatment and privileges originally personal, but afterward extended to their whole nation. Hence the origin of capitulations. Capitulations are imperial diplomas, letters of privilege, octroyed by the Porte to different European nations, and authorizing their subjects to freely enter Mohammedan countries, and there to pursue in tranquillity their affairs, and to practice their worship. They differ from treaties in this essential point that they are not reciprocal acts contradictorily debated between the contracting parties, and accepted by them on the condition of mutual advantages and concessions. On the contrary, the capitulations are one-sided concessions on the part of the government granting them, in consequence of which they may be revoked at its pleasure. The Porte has, indeed, at several times nullified the privileges granted to one nation, by extending them to others; or repealed them altogether by refusing to continue their application. This precarious character of the capitulations made them an eternal source of disputes, of complaints on the part of ambassadors, and of a prodigious exchange of contradictory notes and firmans revived at the commencement of every new reign.

The real point at issue is always Turkey in Europe: the great peninsula to the south of the Save and Danube. This splendid territory has the misfortune to be inhabited by a conglomerate of different races and nationalities, of which it is hard to say which is the least fit for progress and civilization. Slavonians, Greeks, Wallachians, Arnauts — twelve million men — are all held in submission by one million of Turks, and up to a recent period it appeared doubtful whether, of all these different races, the Turks were not the most competent to hold the supremacy which, in such a mixed population, could not but accrue to one of these nationalities. But when we see how lamentably have failed all the attempts at civilization by Turkish authority — how the fanaticism of Islam, supported principally by the Turkish mob in a few great cities, has availed itself of the assistance of Austria and Russia invariably to regain power and to overturn any progress that might have been made; when we see the central, i.e. Turkish authority weakened year after year by insurrections in the Christian provinces, none of which, thanks to the weakness of the Porte and to the intervention of neighboring States, is ever completely fruitless; when we see Greece acquire her independence, parts of Armenia conquered by Russia (Moldavia, Wallachia, Serbia, successively placed under the protectorate of the latter power) — we shall be obliged to admit that the presence of the Turks in Europe is a real obstacle to the development of the resources of the Thraco-Illyrian Peninsula.

Bernstein and Kautsky together in 1910a

Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

The latest round in the ongoing saga between Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS) stems from the latter’s review of the former’s book, Revolutionary Strategy, and contains a number of points that might interest readers of this blog. Among other things, they debate the role of the party in Marxist politics, its relation to the state, and the troublesome figure of “democracy” as it exists under capitalism. In his critique of Macnair’s overemphasis on the democratic republic as the form by which proletariat must govern, Cutrone writes:

Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor — but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits, in crisis.

Unfortunately, the response by Macnair in the pages of the Weekly Worker is one of his weaker ones. He accuses Cutrone of “vacuous circularity,” mistaking the materialist dialectic for some sort of mystical abracadabra. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explain why I think Cutrone’s argument is basically right, even if Macnair’s motivations are understandable given the abuse of Leninist organizational principles on the sectarian left.

Anyway, I’m posting this 1924 article by the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and critic Georg Lukács because I think it addresses some of the issues at the center of this debate. Furthermore, it’s useful insofar as it pits the respective avatars of CC and MM against each other in a fairly neat fashion: Kautsky for Macnair, and Lukács for Cutrone. Macnair tends to dismiss Lukács as a “philosopher-king,” and his writings as “theoretical overkill.” Obviously, in this I side with Lenin and Lukács against Bernstein and Kautsky. But you can be the judge.


Bernstein’s triumph: Notes on the essays written in honor of Karl Kautsky’s seventieth birthday

Georg Lukacs
Die Internationale
VII, № 22 (1924)

The main thing, however — as I’ve already said to you — is to do something like this, but not to say so.

— Ignaz Auer, Letter to Bernstein

The man who did it without saying so, the man who did not preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, the transformation of revolutionary dialectics. into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky. It was, therefore, only fitting and logical that the reformists of every country should come together to celebrate his seventieth birthday. The Vorwärts report on the celebration in London was equally true to form in its — correct — emphasis on the real climax of the proceedings.[1] “It was only when the aging Eduard Bernstein finally rose from his place to the right of Kautsky, the man who, like Kautsky, has faithfully preserved and administered the enormous intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels throughout his life, that the celebration acquired its peculiar, deeper significance…The words that Bernstein uttered were words of friendship. Adler once quoted, in a different context, the saying that what divides people is insignificant beside the multitude of factors which unite them. For Kautsky and Bernstein, this saying took on a new and special meaning. When Bernstein had finished speaking and the two veterans, already legendary figures in the eyes of a young third generation — embraced and held each other for several seconds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved. Indeed, who would have wished it otherwise?”

Kautsky himself does not dispute such harmony with Bernstein. On his attitude to the World War he writes : “I was very close to Bernstein at that time. It was in the war that we rediscovered each other. Both of us maintained our theoretical individuality, but in our practice we were now almost invariably at one with each other. And so we have remained ever since” (Self-Portraits, pg. 26). These words indicate the spirit in which the Kautsky jubilee took place. While the struggles concerning Marxist “orthodoxy” which occupied Kautsky’s early period and culminated in the Bernstein debate are fading increasingly into the past as an insignificant episode, those disputes which he waged after the first Russian revolution — initially with Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, and others, later with Lenin and Trotsky — are developing into the central concerns of his life’s work.

rosa-luxemburg-and-other-international-socialist-leaders-including-karl-kautsky-german-victor-adler-austria-georgii-plekhanov-russia-edouard-vaillant-france-and-sen-katayama amsterdam-1904-hall-paint

Hence it is no coincidence that appreciation of Kautsky should be based chiefly on his latest sizable work, The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, a book in which all his reformist tendencies manifest themselves clearly in the guise of a new “theory of revolution.” Karl Kautsky is acclaimed by all reformists as the great theoretician of revolution. And rightly so. For their sabotaging of revolution, their fear of revolution, their frantic efforts to prevent revolution — all this has found its clearest theoretical expression in the life’s work of Karl Kautsky.

Precisely therein lies Bernstein’s triumph. The isolated “differences of opinion” have in any case long since been forgotten. The really crucial question even then was whether, in the period leading up to the decisive power struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat, social democracy would become the leader of the revolutionary class, or whether it would hurry to help the bourgeoisie to survive this, the severest crisis in its history. Bernstein expressed his preference for the latter course in a premature, overly frank and tactically clumsy fashion. Had his arguments been really discussed and their consequences properly and thoroughly analyzed, the Social Democrats would inevitably have been split. This would have left the bourgeoisie facing a party which, though numerically weakened, took a clear and determined revolutionary line. It was Karl Kautsky’s historic mission in that situation to thwart the clarification of such problems, to prevent the development of any such tension, and to preserve at any price the unity of the SPD (and with it that of the Second International). He has fulfilled this mission faithfully. Instead of calling openly for the liquidation of the revolutionary theory of Marxism, as Bernstein did, Kautsky argued for a “development,” a “concretization” of the Marxist theory of revolution. This new approach, while apparently rejecting Bernsteinian reformism, in fact provided the theoretical underpinning for precisely what is central to Bernstein’s conception of history, namely the notion of peaceful evolutionary progression towards socialism.

L. Boudin has summarized this vocation of Kautsky’s quite clearly: “Not until the smoke of battle [the allusion is to the Bernstein debate. G.L.] had cleared somewhat and this battle had been practically won could Marx’s great successor — Karl Kautsky — write the series of masterpieces which for the first time explained Marxist theory as an evolutionary conception of the coming social revolution” (Die Gesellschaft, pg. 44). ZRonais puts it in similar terms: “In Kautsky’s struggle with reformism, where the theoretician proved to be better at Realpolitik than the shortsighted, merely practical, day-to-day politicians, history has decided in Kautsky’s favor” (Der Kampf, pg. 423). In The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, which his admirers have consequently and quite rightly hailed as his greatest achievement, Kautsky expresses this equivocal and ambiguous theory with the utmost possible clarity. He claims that he is not intent on liquidating the revolution. Quite the reverse, in fact: he attempts to grasp its essence, the essence of the proletarian revolution, quite clearly, and to protect the proletarian revolution from any possibility of being confused with the bourgeois revolution. But it is precisely this “pure” proletarian revolution which, in Kautsky’s exposition, acquires a form which objectively is such as to make it essentially equivalent to Bernstein’s notion of peaceful progression towards socialism.

For this revolution takes place within democracy. And the significance of democracy is precisely “that it brings the greatness of this power [of the proletariat, G.L.] clearly to light while obviating the need for a confrontation of armed forces” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, p. 82). The advantage of this kind of revolution over the bourgeois variety is precisely that a counter-blow, a counter-revolution does not usually follow it (ibid., p. 96) — provided, of course, that the principle of “pushing the revolution forward” (ibid., pgs. 85-94) which Rosa Luxemburg erroneously took over from the bourgeois revolution is not applied. Under such circumstances, clearly, to talk of democracy as being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is to employ “one of the most ludicrous slogans produced in modern times” (ibid., pg. 112). And so on. Continue reading

Radek 2aa

Karl Radek, Bolshevik revolutionary

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
(1939). Pg. 164.

Karl Radek: The confusion of styles?

Pierre Broué [John Archer] 
The German Revolution,
1917-1923 (1971/2005)

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