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Nikolai Bukharin on the criterion of practice in epistemology

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Below appears an excellent chapter from Nikolai Bukharin’s book, unpublished in his lifetime, Philosophical Arabesques (1937-1938).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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wages for masturbation? Burning questions of our movement

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Owen Jones, ageless boy wonder of the British Left, has apparently upset some of his more matronly fans. Seems he wasn’t sufficiently scandalized by revelations that Labour MP Simon Danczuk from Rochdale beats off at work. “Who cares?” asked Jones in The Guardian, as if shrugging his shoulders. “Danczuk is a human being with flaws. For me, it’s the political flaws that matter.”

Socialist Wanker

Not everyone is taking this matter so lightly, of course, as our preceding remarks suggest. EP from the matfem (maternal feminist, not materialist feminist) blog All Mothers Work scolds Jones for laughing this off:

Too many men, like Owen Jones, seem to think that men have a right to do whatever they want sexually, at any time, in any situation. His attitude throughout his piece is tiresomely familiar; a pathetically schoolboyish sneer at deluded prudes who clutch their pearls at the thought of a bit of wanking. Let’s cut the bullshit: anybody who thinks it is acceptable to masturbate at work is not fit to be in decent society and needs therapeutic help.

What might such sentiments mean for the international proletariat, however? Can the toiling masses not demand “the right to jerk”? Need we remind you that Marx’s Das Fapital is the Bible of the wanking class? Didn’t Lukács write something about the simultaneous autoerotic subject-object of History?

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Luckily, the good folks over at Left Unity in Britain were pondering these questions just the other day. Comrade Coates mentioned it in passing in a post entitled “Wanking while you work: Debate shakes Left Unity, but we have the whole unexpurgated version for you here to enjoy. It’s a bit long, so we’ll break it up and intersperse commentary throughout.

Left Unity right to masturbate at work thread, part 1

Ugh.

Bet you hadn’t considered the dilemma faced by “professional sperm donors.” Personally, I would have never thought of that. The commenter Colin Chambers is right to bring up the decision in Brazil, though. It’s very relevant.

According to the popular mental health magazine Uncovered, a Brazilian woman recently won a landmark case. Charlotte Fantanelli reports that the court found in favor of Ana Catarian Bezerra, a 36-year-old accountant suffering from a severe chemical imbalance. Her condition requires that she masturbate up to forty-seven times per day, though meds have brought that number down to as low as eighteen. Under the new ruling, Ms. Bezerra will be allowed to watch pornography and periodically pleasure herself while at work. It is unclear whether or not she will remain on the clock during such times.

Obviously, this could have major economic repercussions should other countries and their legal and judicial systems follow suit. Fantanelli spells out its radical implications: “The need to orgasm [is now] recognized by law.”

Who’s to say that masturbation is unproductive labor, either? It’s perfectly legitimate for wankers to demand wage compensation for their self-gratification. PornHub just released its new Wankband last month, which recharges your phone using repeated movement of the wrist. Half the world’s energy problems could be solved right there.

Enough idle speculation, though. Back to the sexperts in the public Left Unity thread. Continue reading

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

Sibylle Fuchs
Verena Nees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Establishing the VKhUTEMAS

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

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

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

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Leaked ISO internal bulletins, 2015 edition

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Below you will find the latest batch of internal bulletins from the International Socialist Organization, a US Trotskyist sect. Multiple concerned members, troubled by the group’s lack of transparency and accountability, sent me the documents via e-mail. Like last year’s set, these are marked “for members’ eyes only.” Such secrecy is usually justified by dusting off passages from Lenin’s 113-year-old tome What is to be Done?, which sought to adapt Marxist organizational principles to the tsarist police state. Police infiltration, monitoring, and surveillance of radical groups certainly continues to be a problem, as documents from 2008 confirm, but I would be hard pressed to find anyone who believes this is some sort of new COINTELPRO or Okhrana.

Don’t tell them that, though. They’re still under the delusion that their puny organization — fewer than two thousand members, even on paper — is the object of intense persecution by the United States government. When I posted the internal bulletins back in February 2014, there was lots of talk on the Kasama Project website about “security culture,” where an article by Mike Ely appeared under the title “Leaking internal ISO docs: A question of revolutionary ethics.” Beyond that, the ISO tried to smear me, issuing this defamatory prompt to be posted wherever people linked to my blog:

Anyone who considers defending or associating with Ross Wolfe should always have this reposted, a defense of the FBI arrests of Palestine solidarity activists, as a reminder of what he is. Not just an utterly racist, elitist, sexist troll with a creepy, nasty obsession with wanting Muslim women unveiled. But also an utter scumbag and danger to the Left, ready to call for a state crackdown on activists, no matter what their background. Know your enemy.

Following a recent row resulting from my disclosure of a reported rape coverup in Solidarity-US, which implicates a prominent “socialist feminist” initialed JB (Joanna Brenner?) in the obstruction of an internal investigation, Shaun Joseph of the ISO Renewal Faction reassured me: “Character assassination is basically how these people [leftists] work, as I know all too well. All this stuff about protecting the survivor’s identity is bullshit — it’s so transparently self-interested.” Shaun was expelled from the ISO a year ago, along with the rest of the Renewal Faction en masse. Last month people tried to claim I threatened to release information about the victims in the Soli case, which was, of course, a complete fabrication. They even led a “boycott, divestment, sanction, and unfriend” campaign against me (I’m not kidding), threatening to block anyone who still had mutuals with me on Facebook. It’s pretty sad that the most politically meaningful act anyone can imagine is an ultimatum to cut ties with some person on social media. Like cutting someone off from the leper colony of the contemporary Left is some great punishment. Most people outgrew this petty bullshit in middle school.

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Anyway, I’ve gone ahead and removed all names of individual ISO members in the documents, as well as the cities in which they live or are active. Not that I believe for one minute that anyone lost their job over last year’s leak, but this way they don’t even have that canard to hurl back at me. Here they are, available to download as PDFs:

  1. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 01
  2. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 02 — The complexities of rape and sexual assault: A contribution (Nov 16 2014)
  3. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 03
  4. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 04
  5. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 05
  6. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 06
  7. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 07
  8. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 08
  9. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 09 — Believing Survivors: A Response to Concerns (Feb 6, 2015)
  10. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 10
  11. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 11
  12. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 12 — Reply to “Believing Survivors” (February 10, 2015)
  13. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 13
  14. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 14 — Against the Proposals set forth in the document “Believing Survivors: A Response to Concerns”
  15. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 15 — Assessing the Response to Sexual Misconduct (February 11, 2015)
  16. ISO Preconvention Bulletin 16

Some highlights from the bulletins: First, responding to the whole issue of whether accusers should be believed when it comes to accusations of rape, harassment, or sexual assault, SS wrote:

The aims and strategies of state infiltrators need to be carefully considered [in assessing accusations of misconduct].

COINTELPRO — the FBI program to “disrupt, discredit, and destroy” left wing and social justice movements between 1957 and 1971 — involved a massive infiltration strategy. COINTELPRO operatives used any and all means to accomplish its aims — including sowing distrust between movement members that sometimes involved inventing fictional sexual activities. In 1974, a U.S. government investigation of this program revealed:

A distressing number of the programs and techniques developed by the intelligence community involved transgressions against human decency that were no less serious than any technical violations of law. Some of the most fundamental values of this society were threatened by activities such as the smear campaign against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the testing of dangerous drugs on unsuspecting American citizens, the dissemination of information about the sex lives, drinking habits, and marital problems of electronic surveillance targets, and the COINTELPRO attempts to turn dissident organizations against one another and to destroy marriages.

R and B argue, “We feel that a straightforward policy that trusts survivors in the absence of direct counter-evidence will decrease the likelihood that this sort of accusation could be used by the state against us. If the policy is uniform and clear, there is far less to be gained by the state through false accusations of rape.” But R and B’s approach actually makes it easier for the state to successfully harm its targets inside the organization — since the assumption of guilt will automatically result in the expulsion of those accused (by anyone, including a state infiltrator) of sexual assault.

This strikes me as delusional at best, and cynical at worst. SS attempts to scare up sympathetic paranoia in the ranks of the membership, so that any accusation of misconduct might be greeted with suspicion. Who’s to say the accuser is not some sort of state agent or government saboteur? Once this specter is raised, the whole imperative to “believe the survivor” is chucked right out the window. Personally, I believe there should still be a presumption of innocence no matter what the charge — though such charges are not made frivolously, and must of course be taken with the utmost seriousness. But that doesn’t mean an organization can’t at least suspend a member in the meantime while they check out the evidence. Marxist organizations are not, nor do they need to be, courts of law. It’s not like a bunch of crusty sectarians have the power to send someone to jail, so the burden of proof shouldn’t have to be so high.

You can’t have it both ways, however: either you believe the accuser or you believe she or he might be a plant. The leadership is clearly ready to cast aspersions on anyone who would dare to accuse its cadre of wrongdoing. Continue reading

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Art into life

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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.

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

Béla Balázs

Sergei Eisenstein

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The future of film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the position of Béla Balázs

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Post-Holocaust origins

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

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

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

New normal: The Left and the growth of religious reaction

Paul Demarty
Weekly Worker 1046
February 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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Tensions

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

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

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

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The theory of “reification”

A response to Georg Lukács
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Originally published in Platypus Review 73

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Izrail’ Vainshtein

Under the Banner of
Marxism
10-11 (1924)
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The philosophical explanations present among people claiming to be Marxists manifest a haphazardness of speculative philosophizing that must meet their nemesis in the philosophy of dialectical materialism.

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

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

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

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

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

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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