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Weekend at Bernie’s: On Sanders 2016

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Two articles I’m reposting here. Both concern the Bernie Sanders campaign. One, written by Jake Verso, specifically focuses on US politics. It also provides some historical context, mentioning past socialist figures such as Bernstein and Debs. The other, written by Michael Rectenwald, compares the enthusiasm surrounding the Sanders campaign to the outpouring of support for the Syriza coalition in Greece.

Enjoy.

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Weekend at Bernie’s

Jake Verso
Communist League Tampa
August 20th, 2015
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However fed up it claims to be, a certain portion of the Left in the United States remains sympathetic (if not outright loyal) to the Democratic Party. Many of these people are coming to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and for them, the legacy of the postwar American economy looms large. When not focusing on identity politics and fear of republicans, Keynesian economic policy tends to be the ideological basis of the left wing of the Democratic Party. However, that same institution is incapable of bringing forth such reforms, not only due to the capitalist nature of the organization, but also because the leadership understands, at least unconsciously, that such reforms are impossible in the current historical moment.

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In the dark comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s, two reformist insurance employees discover the corpse of their boss at his weekend beach house. In order to protect their lives and keep the party going, they spend the rest of the film working to maintain the illusion that the lifeless corpse of their boss is still alive and is having the time of his life. To their surprise, and the delight of most of the unknowing spectators, the ruse is successful: the dead guy brings more joy to everyone who encounters him as a corpse than he probably would have were he still alive.

Bernie Sanders has frequently identified himself — in interviews, speeches, etc. — as a “socialist.” When pressed as to what this means, he usually mentions something about Sweden or else sticks the “democratic” moniker in front of it, presumably to be less scary. Yet Sanders is deliberately appealing to something bigger and more powerful than what is normally found within the bounds of typical political rhetoric. While most of the Democratic Party has stoically marched right, Sanders has veered left, raising the specter of a revamped populism with his appeal to outrage over growing economic inequality. His seemingly unpolished style, appearing and talking like your old socialist uncle who probably still mimeographs his own newsletters, Sanders appeals to the legacy of American unionism and nostalgia for its former strength. During this period of escalating election hype, it is important to remember that this remains within a framework of mainstream left-of-center politics. Positioning himself within Democratic Party primary politics, Sanders has drawn more attention to this type of rhetoric than one might have thought feasible. Since Sanders has nowhere to go but up, this has been the key to his appeal: raise the specter of working class strength, state directed social development, and populist economic outrage contained within a palatable framework and channeled into old political currents.

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This is nothing new. If anything, it is the new normal. This same self-congratulatory politics could be seen during the 2008 Obama campaign. In his tone and diction Obama sought to subtly evoke the legacy of Martin Luther King, and would later famously install a bust of the man in the Oval Office. Today the Eugene Debs poster in Sander’s office is a similar object of note for reporters. Obama also acted as insurgent candidate against Clinton, filling a necessary power vacuum in the Democratic Party’s shallow bench of celebrity politicians. Obama promised a new kind of politics, albeit of a vaguer sort than Sanders, and sailed in on a wave of popular outrage toward the Bush administration and panic at the sudden emergence of the economic crisis. During Obama’s rise, all of the usual useful idiots pressed the line, excited that someone is able to appeal to loftier notions in anything resembling a mainstream context. To his credit, Sanders policies and political history go slightly deeper than Obama’s, but at the same time this poses a greater hurdle for him. A good deal of the Democratic Party base identifies as moderate or conservative. If Sanders hopes to actually secure a nomination, like Obama or anyone else, he will be forced to make concessions to those components of the party. All of this is moot anyway. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination, or even if he somehow gets elected, the Democratic Party as a whole and as an institution is both unwilling to and incapable of implementing the kind of economic policy Sanders is touting. For now, Sanders has skillfully exceeded the extremely low expectations surrounding his candidacy and made great strides in closing the gap in the polls against Hillary Clinton. There has been a great deal of euphoria on some sectors of the American Left (to the extent that a Left can be said to exist in America). There has also been a growing chorus of dissident voices pointing out that Sanders platform is much less radical than some are touting it as. I suppose that I stand in the latter camp. But rather than listing the numerous political sins he’s committed over the years through his relationship with the Democrats, I’m going to examine and critique some of the assumptions underlying his appeal and then briefly look at just how meaningless Sanders conception of socialism really is.

Reformism and neoliberalism

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The extent to which one can place hope in reformist efforts today, depends in part as to one’s conception of neoliberalism. It can be tough to characterize the economic opinions of the Left, since so little of it can be said to hold any kind of economic conception of capitalism. For many people, in today’s environment Clintonite stooge Robert Reich has come to constitute some kind of economic guru for many people. Still, a unifying theme, from soft Marxists like David Harvey and Richard Wolf to liberal reformists like Robert Reich is that the period encompassing neoliberalism roughly amounts to an attack on the working and middle classes by the rich. That the gutting of US manufacturing, international trade deals, the welfare state, and dying off of trade unions was the result of a concerted effort, lead on a political front by greedy elites who were not satisfied with the previous equilibrium that had been established in the economy. This skillfully and self-servingly reduces structural economic problems to a question of political leadership, and from this standpoint, it makes sense to expect that the United States could return to “peace and prosperity” through the policy decisions of elected officials. Unfortunately this picture does not correspond to the reality of the last forty years or to capitalism in general. Continue reading

Meyer, Hannes  Interior view of Dvorets Sovietov (Palace of Unions) subway station platform, Moscow, 1935-1954

Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer’s adventures in the Soviet Union, 1930-1936

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I’ve posted about Hannes Meyer several times already. For those who don’t know, Meyer was the second Bauhaus director. He stepped in after Walter Gropius returned to his own private practice in 1928, and presided over the art and architecture school until he was forced out due to his Marxist convictions in 1930. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe replaced him. After his tenure came to an abrupt end, Meyer and a number of his students traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet government. Despite his enthusiastic support for the five-year plans then underway, and his unwavering loyalty throughout, Meyer eventually wore out his welcome in the USSR. Several of his colleagues were rounded up and arrested before he finally decided to return to Switzerland. Meyer didn’t stay long there, however, moving permanently to Mexico in 1938.

Today he is largely forgotten, though some have expressed interest in his legacy of late. Claude Schnaidt has provided probably the best comprehensive account of his work. It is not surprising that Meyer would be overshadowed by his predecessor Gropius on the one hand, and his successor Mies on the other. Both were more significant in the history of modern architecture, more groundbreaking or talented. Nevertheless, Meyer was quite innovative himself, as can be seen from his designs for co-ops and proposal for the League of Nations building in Geneva (1926). His skill in other media, such as photography and city planning, was also considerable.

Yesterday I discovered a rare article Meyer wrote in 1942, originally in Spanish, on the architectural profession in the Soviet Union. It was translated into English and published by Harvard’s student design magazine TASK in 1943. The article is interesting in several respects. First, because it displays no bitterness whatsoever at the Stalinist regime that forced Meyer into exile and many of his friends. Second, because the pioneering modernist implicitly repudiates many of his earlier positions on the role of architecture in modern society, criticizing the avant-garde architects at VKhUTEMAS and providing a “dialectical” justification for protopostmodernist eclecticism. Third, because it includes a number of facts and figures, which are interesting even though they are without a doubt inaccurate or misleading.

Alongside the article, which appears below, I’ve included a bunch of photos Meyer took documenting his journeys across the USSR. Enjoy.

The Soviet architect

Hannes Meyer
TASK magazine
February 1943

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I dedicate this unpretentious work to the composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, who, in the trenches of Leningrad, December 1941, put the final notes on his Seventh Symphony, rising in this classic form — score and weapon forged in hand — to the present duty of all democratic intellectuals in the entire world: the defense of our culture and of humanity.

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The architect has always been intimately linked with his social environment. He is one of the human tools that serve the ruling power to fortify its position. Architecture besides its direct utility, has always served to maintain power. We find an architect serving the Pope, in Bramante, or the King, in Le Nôtre, or as a colonial functionary, in Tolsa, or as a privileged member of the bourgeoisie, in Tony Garnier. To this we must add that building’ is an activity profoundly connected with social-economic needs and the superimposed spiritual structure. And the architect is always of necessity a collaborator. He does his work together with economists and industrialists, with workers, artisans, and housewives. In Hindu tradition the future architect must first perfect himself as a carpenter, a mason, a painter, a sculptor, and an iron worker. Mature men of forty years are then known as “masters of architecture.”

In capitalist society architecture is numbered among the “liberal professions,” and this is why bankers, speculators, and other knights of the stock market can use the decorative cloak of architecture to cover the sores of the social body. — Architecture is not an autonomous art, as certain prima donnas of the drawing board would like to have us believe. The architect is born and finds his form in the womb of his society and is brought forth by a specific age and by a definite epoch. Hence we find the most capable and creative architects in the heart of the classical forms of society.

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The socialist society in the USSR, created by the October Revolution of 1917, is an experiment without precedent. For the first time in human history the people themselves own the factories and all the means of production. The land also has been nationalized. Private economy, until then in a state of anarchy, has been transformed into a planned and directed economy. Together with the great change in the position of intellectuals in the USSR, the position and the role of the architect has been completely altered. The architectural structure of the new state has itself been transformed.

Outside of the USSR it is very hard to form any clear idea of the present conception of architecture in that country. It is confusing to find in its publications buildings of the most diverse character, examples of classicism, and of conflicting trends. These efforts in search of a national ideal are described as backward by American architects, who are justly proud of their highly industrialized achievements. They describe the Soviet attempt to connect by way of dialectics the magnificent past of Russian architecture with the dynamic present as a new academicism. Because of their ignorance of social and economical matters, they can employ no other pattern than those found in their everyday surroundings. For this reason “glass construction,” which is the last word on this continent, over there, in a different environment appears completely out of place. Chippendale furniture, here an expression of conservatism, is there a step forward in the development of the highest quality in cabinet work.

Hannes Meyer, Palace of the League of Nations Continue reading

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Open source Marxism: Free PDFs from Historical Materialism, Verso, and Jacobin

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UPDATE: Though the links below are no longer working, some hero bundled the entire contents of this post into a torrent that can be downloaded from The Pirate Bay.

Stumbled across an amazing database of free Marxist PDFs, the posts of which seems to be password protected but whose files are nevertheless accessible. (You can click any of the hundreds of links below to download them directly, since the post itself is locked). Even if these get taken down, as seemed to happen with the Fuck V£R$0 blog a few years ago, the cat is already out of the bag. As Novara Media pointed out following the Lawrence & Wishart copyright controversy in 2014, once published these things tend to obey the logic of the so-called “Streisand effect.” They explained that “[the] attempt to ban or censor something will tend to increase its prominence and breadth of dissemination. The instantly and near-infinitely replicable quality of digital information makes this easy.”

In their view, this is just one of “Seven Reasons ‘Radical’ Publishers are Getting OWNED by the Internet.” You should really read the whole article; it’s quite good. With Lawrence & Wishart, the outcry over their exclusive claims to ownership over material that should be made available to all was nearly universal. However, publishing tycoons such as Sebastian Budgen — until recently a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party in Britain (prior to its 2013 rape scandal), commissioning editor of Historical Materialism, Verso Books, New Left Review, and now also Jacobin — take exception when similar demands are placed on books released by their own companies. Budgen of course claims that the printing presses he works for are not ordinary companies, but rather integral parts of a “counterhegemonic apparatus” that will someday challenge hegemonic capitalism.

The Association of Musical Marxists captured this hilarious sense of exceptionalism on their “Sebastian Budgen Memorial Download Page,” featuring one of his trademark outbursts against those who illegally download books:

Before the internet people had to actually go to the photocopying shop. Now they don’t even have to do that and they are outraged when they can’t download the stuff for free. Fuckers – I hate them so much…

I make a distinction between the honest downloaders who do it discreetly and will spend money when they have it and the loud-mouthed freeloading scum who have no interest in or understanding of how to build a counterhegemonic apparatus.

I’m not just interested in people being customers but in recognising, to the extent that they are leftists, that they should be involved in building a counterhegemonic apparatus. The anarchoids and lazy leftists of today don’t get that so they act like the lowest petty bourgeois individualist swine.

Usually rhetoric denouncing “lazy fuckers” and “freeloading scum” comes from neoliberal demagogues, who want to gut social welfare programs and impose austerity. Not this time, though. This time it’s straight from the mouths of counterhegemonic apparatchiks, tilting at windmills in order to protect intellectual property. Pretty pathetic, if you ask me. Whoever uploaded these PDFs has it more right, to my mind: “Knowledge must be held in common.”

Erik Olin Wright, in his book Envisioning Real Utopias (ironically published by Verso), went so far as to claim online file-sharing as an “interstitial strategy” that can “subvert capitalist intellectual property.” I personally doubt whether acts of petty piracy can undermine capitalist social relations, but maybe it’s significant as a utopian impulse. Better to just recognize file-sharing as an unavoidable fact, and that embarrassing hissy fits like the one above only encourage practitioners to download harder.

Maybe I’d feel a bit worse about linking to all these texts if Budgen weren’t such a whiny crybaby. Hard to sympathize with him, however, after he put out this ridiculous burn notice against me a couple months back, urging other leftists to erect a cordon sanitaire around me. Leftists should “shun” and “no platform” me, defriending anyone who posts or shares links to this blog. Kind of reminds me of a recent Clickhole article, “Uncompromising: This Tyrant Unfriends All Dissidents as an Example to the Rest,” which describes “[a] despotic maniac rules with an iron fist of callous indifference, unfriending anyone who dares go against something he posts.”

Childishness and grandiosity aside, though, this is a great list of books. Grab them while you can, but don’t despair if they’re removed before you get the chance. Someone will repost them eventually, probably sooner than later. Enjoy. Continue reading

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Nothing new to see here: Towards a critique of communization

Donald Parkinson
Communist League
June 30, 2015

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Originally posted at Communist League Tampa

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Awaiting the release of Endnotes 4, I decided to write a critique of the broad tendency of communization, focusing specifically on Dauvé and Theorie Communiste. Quite a few have asked me for a critique of Endnotes and communization theory more broadly, seeing as I mentioned these things briefly in my earlier piece Towards a Communist Left. So I decided to elaborate on my critique of these currents as well as provide a critical introduction to communization in general.

Communization must be placed within the context of the overall defeat of proletarian struggles in the 20th century. This defeat in many ways led to a crisis in Marxism, where increasingly isolated theorists looked to innovate and break from orthodoxy in order to “save” Marxist theory and politics. Sometimes breaks with orthodoxy are necessary. Yet there is also a danger of needlessly breaking with orthodoxy in the name of theoretical innovation, when instead the result is just a repetition of past bad politics. While communization theory does make the occasional interesting insight and serve as a useful theoretical foil, it is largely the case that what it offers is not a fresh new perspective for Marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication.

Communization refers to relatively broad tendency of writers and journals that don’t all agree on everything. When referring to communization one has to be careful what they say, as there is as much divergence amongst “communizers” as there is ideological unity. Overall what unites this tendency is a belief that revolution will have to immediately establish communist relations of production from day one, that an immediate break from waged labor, commodity production and the value-form is to be favored as opposed to an approach where the working class holds political power and dismantles capitalism in a transition period that may temporarily maintain aspects of capitalism. Added to this is a general hostility to organized politics and anything resembling “old forms” like parties, councils, and unions.

Overall communization can fall into two camps: Gilles Dauvé’s “normative” communization and Theorie Communiste’s “structuralist” theory of communization. The key differences between these tendencies can be found in Volume 1 of Endnotes, essentially a debate between Dauvé and Theorie Communiste. In his pamphlet When Insurrections Die, Dauvé puts forward the thesis that the proletariat failed in past revolutions because it didn’t make a sufficient break with waged labor, opting for self-management and collectivization instead where labor vouchers replaced money. Using Spain as his example, Dauvé argues that these revolutions failed because they aimed to manage the proletarian condition rather than abolish it, therefore reproducing capitalism in a different form. Therefore the idea of a transition period where the proletariat raises itself to the ruling class within a decaying capitalism is to be rejected in favor of the immediate “self-abolition” of the proletariat.

Dauvé’s work is in many ways an attempt to square the insights of older left communists like Anton Pannekoek and Amadeo Bordiga with the ideas of the Situationist International. Dauvé is just as critical of workers councils managing production as he is critical of the party-form, opting for an approach that focuses on the content of revolution, this content being an immediate break with waged labor and money aka communization. For Dauvé the abolition of value is key to revolution, something that can not be achieved gradually or “by half steps” but in the process of insurrection itself. This means rejecting any kind of scheme involving “labor vouchers” or “labor notes” where labor-time is directly measured to determine the worker’s access to the social product, even if these measures are merely temporary transitional steps towards communism.

Dauvé makes many important points, many of which are reiterations of classic left communist politics (for example, rejecting the anti-fascist popular front). Bringing value and its abolition back into the picture is certainly important, reminding us that communism is not simply a better way of managing capitalist forms but a radical break from wage labor and the commodity-form itself. His critiques of councilist formalism and workers self-management also are welcome as antidotes to many ideas among the anti-Stalinist left that act as if Stalinism would work if more self-management existed (PARECON comes to mind). It’s also a move away from traditional leftist workerism, that valorizes workers as workers rather than a class which abolishes itself and all other classes. Putting the transformation of social relations at the heart of communist revolution is certainly a step forward. Yet Dauvé has little to suggest how this can be achieved, only stating that Kautksy and Lenin’s formula of merging socialism with the workers movement is to be avoided because communism is imminent to the struggle of labor against capital.

Theorie Communiste responds to Dauvé by accusing his argument of essentially being tautological: the communist movement failed because it failed to produce communism. For Theorie Communiste, Dauvé sees communism as a normative essence within the proletariat itself, and that past revolutions failed because the proletariat failed to live up to this essence or are betrayed by managers and chose to manage capitalism instead of create communism. Dauvé fails to answer the question of why the workers didn’t create communism, and instead simply states the obvious. Rather than being some essence to the proletariat, Theorie Communiste see communism as a product of the historical periodization of capitalism, which is itself a series of cycles of contradictions between the proletariat and capital.

For Theorie Communiste the “why” question of why workers didn’t create communism is answered by the concept of programmatism. Programmatism basically means the “old workers’ movement” which was all about affirming the proletarian condition rather than abolishing it. This is meant to describe the entire workers movement of the past, not just its more reformist elements, describing all politics where “revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalized self-management, or a “society of associated producers.” Programmatism in this theory is not a means towards communism, but a product of capitalism in the phase of “formal subsumption” transitioning into the more advanced phase of “real subsumption.” This phase decomposed in the period of the 1920s to the 1970s, leading to today’s modern phase of “real subsumption” where capitalism has fully dominated the proletariat. Programmatism created a “worker identity” that allowed for an affirmation of the proletariat that is now no longer possible, and therefore there can only be the complete negation of the proletarian condition through its immediate self-abolition.

This argument, while more sophisticated than Dauvé’s, essentially reduces the entire workers movement to a means of capitalist development and claims that all along communism was impossible until (conveniently) now. Yet why this era will produce communism when all class struggle in the past simply affirmed capital is never explained. Without the millenarian expectations of apocalyptic revolution Theorie Communiste’s theory simply would argue that communism is impossible. It also completely writes off the actual possibility of organizing politically and developing a real strategy to defeat capitalism, since any attempt to organize the proletariat to abolish itself would mean organizing it as a class within capitalism and therefore affirming it. As a result the only way forward will be spontaneous outbursts that develop to the point of some kind of “rupture with the wage relation.” Theorie Communiste and Dauvé have very similar positions when it comes to their actual political conclusions, which is that revolution will not have a transition based on a dictatorship of the proletariat organized in parties and councils but see an immediate move towards communism, where value is abolished and free access to all goods is established. They just come to these conclusions from different theoretical reckonings. Theorie Communiste are ultra-determinist, almost to the point of being fatalist, while Dauvé seems to suggest communism was possible all along if the workers made the right choices.

In this sense they theorize the conclusions of the anarchist Kropotkin, who imagined a revolution taking the form of local communities spontaneously establishing common access to all property and federating with each other as needed without any kind of transition where the proletariat would hold state power. Kropotkin came from a time where self-sufficient peasants were far more prominent as well as their spontaneous outbursts, making his politics a bit more believable and easier to sell. While Dauvé and Theorie Communiste don’t spell out the localist implications of their theory, the idea that there must be immediate communization does strongly suggest that in a revolutionary situation isolated regions would attempt essentially autarkic communism rather than making any kind of compromises with the old order. Other adherents of communization, like Jasper Bernes in his essay Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Project do essentially spell this out. Bernes argues the complexity of the global division of labor means revolutionary zones would have to trade with other nations to operate capitalist means of production. Bernes writes off the idea of trade since this would entail temporarily holding onto aspects of capitalism, instead suggesting that revolutionaries won’t be able to operate most capitalist forces of production. How this strategy will be capable of feeding people in a crisis situation never seems to cross his mind. At least communization theorist Bruno Astarian in his article Communization as a Way Out of the Crisis openly admits that people may have to starve for his schemes to work out:

Finally, there is always the chance that the supply of flour for our bakers will be sporadic, at least at first, if the proletarians at the mill prefer to discuss the meaning of love or life instead of grinding wheat. Would this lead to chaos? We shall be told that today there will be no bread. You just have to accept it. Another alternative is that someone conceives a plan, quantified and taking time scales into account, and someone else complies with its terms. In such a case not only is value reestablished. In fact, a proletarian experience of this kind has no future: if it works the proletarians will rapidly lose their rights (restoration of wage labor in one form or another); if it does not work they will return to the old framework of unemployment and unpaid wages. It is likely, in any event, that the communizing solution will not be considered until various chess matches of this kind have tried and found wanting.

What all of this ignores is that communism isn’t possible on a local scale, and that “true” communism where value has been completely abolished will require the co-operation of all of humanity utilizing the the worlds collective productive forces. This reason alone explains why immediate communization is not possible, with transition being a necessity imposed by objective circumstances rather than the will of revolutionaries. It also misses the basic Marxist insight that it is capitalism that creates the conditions for communism in the sense of creating a globalized society (with a global class, the proletariat) with forces of production that are developed enough to allow humanity to pursue a life beyond endless toil and starvation.

Immediate communization is also impossible because of the realities of specialization under capitalism, where a large and essentially petty-bourgeois strata of professionals with skill-sets necessary for the reproduction of society (surgeons for example) are able to use their monopolies on skills and information to assert a privileged position above proletarians in society. This strata would have much reason to resist communism and withhold their skills at the expense of society to assert material privileges. As a result concessions would have to given to this strata until their skill monopolies can be broken through the collective reorganization of production and education in a way to challenge the very basis of the mental/manual division of labor. Such a process would not happen overnight, problematizing the notion that a immediate transcendence of capitalism is possible. In other words transition isn’t something revolutionaries choose but something imposed by objective conditions. Communism must be created from the raw material produced by capitalism, raw materials that aren’t as malleable as the “revolutionary will” of communists would like them to be. Continue reading

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Fauxcahontas: On Andrea Smith, colonialism, and “authenticity”

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The Andrea Smith debacle likely won’t get as much play as the Rachel Doležal incident from a few weeks back. In my opinion, though, Smith is way worse than Doležal. Not only has she been lying about her heritage for more than two decades, she’s positioned herself as a major theorist within “decolonial” studies and discourse. Her papers are still widely cited across the field, author of the hugely influential Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide and an editor for Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society, as well as the collection Theorizing Native Studies. Smith is much more prominent intellectually and institutionally in indigenous politics than Doležal ever was in black politics.

Most of the reactions I came across on social media regarding Smith were of shocked disbelief, especially those that showed some prior familiarity with her work and awareness of her standing as a leading theoretician of decoloniality. “Wow — Andrea Smith has been a force,” remarks one. “All built on a lie about identity.” Clearly surprised, another recalls: “Just found out Andrea Smith was faking her indigenous ancestry. It went on so long. Her work was big when I was in uni in 2005.” Zehra Husain exclaims, incredulous: “What? What? Andrea Smith?”

Those who’d studied her texts closely were hit even harder by the news. “This is really surprising and troubling as someone who has studied her work,” one student writes. Ayanna Dozier reacts similarly: “Well, damn. This is very upsetting. I have to rethink my relationship to Andrea Smith’s work.” Matt Jaber Stiffler candidly admits: “Andrea Smith was on my dissertation committee. Feeling torn today.”

Others are more apologetic. “Andrea Smith enhanced the debate, the conversation, the thinking, the thought,” Rinaldo Walcott maintains. “Regardless of Andrea Smith’s identity, the power and clarity of her seminal work Conquest cannot be denied. It still informs my thinking,” expresses another.  “Opportunistic white people should keep their mouths on the Andrea Smith case,” opined Karen Macrae, herself white.

Joanne Barker of the Delaware Tribe published a fairly scathing critique of Smith, though. Entitled “Rachel Doležal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity,” it anticipated the charges against Smith would be met with defensive and dismissive responses, “including criticisms of those who did the circulating [of information] as witch-hunters, mean-spirited, lacking logic, not knowing what they were talking about, and the like.” Klee Benally, another well known indigenous activist, immediately leapt to Smith’s defense, confirming this prediction. She publicly decried what she called

a witch hunt against fierce feminist author and friend, Andy Smith. While I’m not privy to all that’s been published, so far I’ve read Barker’s response and a couple others. Her statements eerily evoke COINTELPRO bad-jacketing rather than Indigenous feminism. Reading it I couldn’t help ask myself what interests are served via this pillory?

When Ward Churchill’s identity was called into question it clearly served a conservative agenda. My position then was that his identity is between him and the creator and an issue for his family and Nation to address internally through their own cultural process. After all, the primary issues regard accountability, colonialism, and white supremacy. I still maintain that his political contributions shouldn’t be uncritically thrown out when challenged with the colonial institution of “blood-quantum.”

And here we Marxists thought colonialism meant the dispossession and oppression of the native population in order to create a racially-structured, low-cost workforce. Turns out colonialism is actually just being mean to self-proclaimed representatives of “the indigenous.” What a silly and inconsequential thing colonialism would be, in that case.

Such suspicions are not entirely unjustified. Churchill, the scholar who Benally mentioned above, has detailed a long history of infiltration and counterintelligence pursued by the federal government against the Amerindian movement (before serious inconsistencies were noticed in several statements he made concerning his own ancestry). The Trotskyist International Socialist Organization, or ISO, has raised similar doubts about those making accusations within their milieu.

However, all of the documents compiled regarding Smith’s heritage seem to be vetted and verified. If the allegations are true — and Smith is not only not Cherokee, but is not of native descent at all — then there is no more damning critic of her actions than Smith herself. As she wrote in her 1994 article, “For All Those Who Were Indian In A Former Life”:

When white “feminists” see how white people have historically oppressed others and how they are coming very close to destroying the earth, they often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness. They do this by opting to “become Indian.” In this way, they can escape responsibility and accountability for white racism. Of course, white “feminists” want to become only partly Indian. They do not want to be part of our struggles for survival against genocide, and they do not want to fight for treaty rights or an end to substance abuse or sterilization abuse. They do not want to do anything that would tarnish their romanticized notions of what it means to be an Indian.

Moreover, they want to become Indian without holding themselves accountable to Indian communities. If they did they would have to listen to Indians telling them to stop carrying around sacred pipes, stop doing their own sweat lodges and stop appropriating our spiritual practices. Rather, these New Agers see Indians as romanticized gurus who exist only to meet their consumerist needs. Consequently, they do not understand our struggles for survival and thus they can have no genuine understanding of Indian spiritual practices.

“The work of Andrea Smith does not excuse her blatant disrespect toward and appropriation of the experiences of Native American women,” writes one commentator, stating the obvious. Less egregious than the scandal surrounding The Education of Little Tree (1976), a children’s book about a wee lad growing up between two worlds: the alienating world of “white” modernity on the one hand, and the mystical organic Volksgemeinschaft of his Cherokee grandfather on the other. Everyone ate it up like pigs at a trough, including prominent Native Americans who affirmed that the author clearly must be a genuine native. It won awards, was taught in schools. Some diligent indigenous scholars later found out toward the end of the 1970s that the author was in fact white. And not just any white man, either, but Asa Earl Carter (using the pseudonym “Forrest”). Carter was a notorious white supremacist and a speechwriter for George Wallace. He’d written the infamous “segregation now, segregation forever!” speech a decade or so earlier.

One has to love this category, “authenticity.” It seizes on a real shortcoming within bourgeois society, the persistence of injustice and inequality, and then redirects this recognition to reactionary ends, embracing the perceived irrationalism of that which escapes civilizational norms. “The bourgeois form of rationality has always needed irrational supplements in order to maintain itself as what it is, continuing injustice through justice,” wrote Theodor Adorno in The Jargon of Authenticity. “Such irrationality in the midst of the rational is the working atmosphere of authenticity. The latter can support itself on the fact that over a long period of time literal as well as figurative mobility, a main element in bourgeois equality, always turned into injustice for those who could not entirely keep up.” Affirming irrationality or mysticism, that seemingly genuine immediacy that escapes so-called “Western” modes of rationality or enlightenment, is no better than what it opposes or denies. In no way does it transcend the abstract totality of modern society, or remove the layers of mediation that exist therein. Quite the opposite: it sustains it.

Smith’s fakery is more along the lines of Ward Churchill than Rachel Doležal or Binjamin Wilkomirski, let alone Forrest Carter. Outrageous nevertheless. Probably the sickest burn I came across online, however, caustically observed that “[t]here are plenty of members of the Wanabi tribe.” Inverting the title of Glen S. Coulthard’s recent book, Red Skin, White Masks, we might say that Andrea Smith is a case of someone with white skin who wears a red mask. Fauxcahontas, then?

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Dmitrii Moor, Bolshevik cartoonist and propagandist (1883-1946)

My favorite Bolshevik propaganda artist of all time might be Dmitrii Orlov, better known as “Moor,” who was active in revolutionary struggles from 1905 through the Russian Civil War and World War II. His drawings are just so fucking hardcore. Readers of this blog will have seen some of his illustrations for the militant godless journal Bezbozhnik, as well as other assorted propaganda posters. Trotsky named him as one of the USSR’s finest young cartoonists.

In this post I’m just including some of the ones I like the most. No real rhyme or reason to it. Enjoy!

 tumblr_npzq00jK1g1ta0q7zo1_1280 IN_1134_B_l Плакаты СССР- Ты записался добровольцем? (Моор Д.) 1920 00-unknown-artist-the-golden-idol-of-the-lord-of-world-capitalism-1918-20 Плакаты СССР- Помоги. (Моор Д.) 1921 Continue reading

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In defense of Slavoj Žižek

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The title of this post recalls Žižek’s own 2008 work In Defense of Lost Causes. Not one of his better books, in my opinion. Žižek remains one of the few redeemable intellectuals of our time. Despite, or perhaps because of, his zany antics and constant clowning, he manages to be consistently insightful. Or at least compared to most. Marxism, like Žižek, might today be a lost cause. But I’ll defend it nonetheless.

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Molly Klein and friends have leveled a number of accusations against the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Among other things, they have alleged that he is a “psyop” in the employ of the US government. Supposedly he is working to undermine the rebirth of any genuinely anti-imperialist Left. (Recently Molly suggested that the Jacobin editor and founder Bhaskar Sunkara is also a paid propagandist). Klein’s online clique — a couple drones and devotees, but mainly sock puppets run by Klein herself — takes great exception to the term “tankie,” yet calls anyone who disagrees with them a fascist.

They have also implied that Žižek and his Ljubljana school colleagues Alena Zupančič and Mladen Dolar published a translation of the apocryphal Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1989, the first to appear in Slovenia. Certainly a serious charge, not to be taken lightly. It is however baseless, as can be proved without much difficulty. Perhaps Klein’s other arguments against Žižek are accurate (not bloody likely). But this is the claim under investigation here, so I’ll confine my remarks to it.

Most are probably aware that the Protocols were widely disseminated in the first few decades of the twentieth century, providing “indisputable proof” of an international Jewish conspiracy. Anti-Semites in multiple countries across Europe and North America promoted the text as an authentic document, as part of their vicious smear campaign against the Jews. So its translation would seem especially incendiary in a place like former Yugoslavia, where memories of the Holocaust were still fresh in the 1980s.

Perhaps it is a waste of time to debunk Klein’s defamatory claim. Nobody really believed this ridiculous libel to begin with. Readers of Žižek will no doubt be surprised to hear that he endorses the view that the Protocols are genuine, as this runs counter to everything he has said on the subject in his writings. For example, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real he wrote:

When we consider [the Palestinian-Israeli] conflict we should stick to cold, ruthless standards, suspending the urge to try to “understand” the situation: we should unconditionally resist the temptation to “understand” Arab anti-Semitism (where we really encounter it) as a “natural” reaction to the sad plight of the Palestinians; or to “understand” the Israeli measures as a “natural” reaction against the background of the memory of the Holocaust. There should be no “understanding” for the fact that, in many — if not most — Arab countries, Hitler is still considered a hero; the fact that in primary-school textbooks all the traditional anti-Semitic myths — from the notorious forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion to claims that the Jews use the blood of Christian (or Arab) children for sacrificial purposes — are perpetrated. To claim that this anti-Semitism articulates resistance against capitalism in a displaced mode does not in any way justify it (the same goes for Nazi anti-Semitism: it, too, drew its energy from anticapitalist resistance): here displacement is not a secondary operation, but the fundamental gesture of ideological mystification. What this claim does involve is the idea that, in the long term, the only way to fight anti-Semitism is not to preach liberal tolerance, and so on, but to express the underlying anticapitalist motive in a direct, non-displaced way.

Žižek’s understanding of anti-Semitism as a misrecognized form of anticapitalism mirrors that of Moishe Postone and Werner Bonefeld, as well as other Marxist theorists of antisemitism. But the pertinent point here is that the Slovenian philosopher explicitly denounces the Protocols as a forgery, which they are. Why would he maintain the Protocols were the Real deal if he clearly believes them to be a hoax? Klein takes this a step further, of course, “betting that [Žižek] translated the Protocols into Slovenian and wrote Sublime Object side by side.”

Let’s examine the accusation in detail, however, point by point.

  1. First, it is pointed out that Žižek, Dolar, and Zupančič edited and wrote essays for the Ljubljana-based student journal Tribuna. In 1971, Dolar became editor of “the student newspaper Tribuna,” as he relates in a recent interview. More info can be found in Žizek and His Contemporaries: On the Emergence of the Slovenian Lacan, an intellectual history put out by. Perfectly true.
  2. Next, Klein et al. refer to an obscure report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 1990, discussing a scandal that had broken out the previous year. “A prominent member of the tiny Jewish community in Slovenia has sued the youth magazine Tribuna for publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery that originated in Czarist Russia at the turn of the century.” Perfectly true.
  3. Third, a paper by Laslo Sekelj on “Antisemitism and Jewish Identity in Serbia after the 1991 Collapse of the Yugoslav State” from 1997 is invoked. “Ljubljana’s University magazine Tribuna (financed from the republic’s budget) between August 1988 to March 1989 published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for the very first time in the Slovenian language, and there was no way to have its publication suspended,” writes Sekelj. “This was the first open publication of the Protocols in Yugoslavia since 1945.” Perfectly true.

Indeed, this is the same publication Dolar edited in the early- to mid-1970s, to which Žižek and Zupančič contributed articles. Case closed! Turns out they were right. Right? Continue reading

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About Two Squares: El Lissitzky’s 1922 suprematist picture book for kids

Originally published in the
Cambridge Literary Review
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Most children’s books do not come with instructions for how to read them. El Lissitzky’s About Two Squares is not most children’s books.

Lissitzky first announced his plan to write a “suprematist tale”[1] about two intergalactic squares while teaching graphic arts and printmaking at the Vitebsk Institute of Popular Art in 1920. Traces of the idea can be detected as early as September 1919, however, shortly after he arrived in the city. Initially a disciple of the Jewish folk painter Marc Chagall, Lissitzky soon came under the spell of the charismatic avant-garde pioneer Kazimir Malevich (who usurped Chagall’s role as rector of the Institute that winter). Almost immediately one notices a shift in the form and subject-matter of Lissitzky’s oeuvre, as he abandoned village scenes and stylized conventional figures in favor of planar abstractions and floating rectilinear shapes. Within a matter of months, his entire artistic worldview was transformed.

Part of this transformation involved a change in Lissitzky’s approach to typography and book design. These were fields in which he showed prior interest. He had prepared a songbook for the traditional Passover poem Chad Gadya in 1917, and then again in 1919. Both of these versions clearly demonstrate the abiding influence of Chagall, though by the time the second one was published, suprematist elements already began to enter in. Following the release of the 1919 edition, Lissitzky informed Malevich of his newfound perspective:

It is my belief that the thoughts we drink from the book with our eyes must be poured over every visible shape. The letters and punctuation marks, which introduce order to thoughts, must also be taken into account. Besides that, the way the rows are set corresponds to certain condensations of thought; these should be condensed for the benefit of the eye as well.[2]

Evidently, suprematism for Lissitzky had consequences well beyond the realm of the painted object. It implied a broader reconsideration of the medium of print. Lissitzky was an ardent — if self-trained — bibliologist, and in 1926 he hypothesized what effect modern art might have on the future of the book. “There are today two dimensions to the word,” he maintained in an article for the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch. “As sound, it is a function of time; as exposition, of space. The book of the future must be both.”[3]

Yve-Alain Bois, a Swiss art critic and Lissitzky scholar, has noted that authors only began to take an interest in the visuals of their books toward the end of the nineteenth century.[4] Questions of format, font, and layout generally seemed besides the point. Little attention was paid to the arrangement of text upon the page. With the advent of photography and improved printing technology, however, new possibilities were opened. Citing the development of “facsimile-electrotype (or half-tone blocks),” Lissitzky speculated that this would allow for greater flexibility in the illustration of written materials.[5] Great innovators like F.T. Marinetti likewise had a role to play in Lissitzky’s scheme, discerning the potential of boldface lettering and ALL CAPS to convey emphasis or emotion.[6] Nevertheless, the aesthetics of print continued to lag behind other fields of art until the outbreak of World War I, usually held up as a cultural watershed.

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Russia was no exception to this trend. “Before October 1917,” Lissitzky explained in a catalog ten years later, “our artists hardly concerned themselves with typesetting. That matter was left to the printers.” He continued: “After October, many of our premier artists in different fields, hoping to express the new through the specific properties of each medium, took up the task of reinventing the book according to the material of the book itself — i.e., type.”[7] Painters especially participated in this process, starting even before the war, working together with poets to revolutionize the medium.[8] By the 1920s, swept along by the maelstrom of revolution, avant-garde bookmakers were employed in the production of posters as propaganda for the masses. Lissitzky even likened such placards and printed visual displays to single pages ripped from books, magnified and blown up several dozen times.[9]

This new movement, which sought to break down the barrier separating art from life, entailed the “death” of painting as it had hitherto been known. Aleksandr Rodchenko gave up painting in order to pursue photography and agitprop. Varvara Stepanova abandoned the canvas for fabrics and textile patterns. For Lissitzky, the prewar experiments in painting had simply prepared artists for the revolutionary enterprise of construction, an idea charged with meaning at the time. His celebrated PROUN series merely provided the point of departure, being “the way station between art and architecture.”[10] Similarly, the book displaced painting and sculpture as the most monumental art form of revolutionary Russia.[11] It was this fact, in Lissitzky’s view, that sealed the fate of older forms of artistic production. “Once the printed page started to seduce the artist,” he wrote morbidly, “painting slowly died.”[12]

Bois has referred to this rhetorical conceit regarding the death of easel painting as “the cliché of the era.”[13] Was it really nothing more than a cliché, though? Might it not have had a real sociohistoric basis?

Indeed, About Two Squares can be read as a dramatization of this very aspiration, though intended for children. Lissitzky stressed the importance of such literature in the upbringing of the New Man: “We should add to the number of illustrated weeklies the flood of children’s picture-books. Children’s reading teaches them a new plastic language. They grow up with a different relation to image and color, the world and space.”[14] About Two Squares recapitulates Lissitzky’s belief that revolutionary form heralds the arrival of revolutionary content, and that the former must act as a vehicle for the latter.

The book finally appeared in 1922, roughly two years after Lissitzky envisioned it, under the imprimatur of the Scythian press [Skythen Verlag] in Berlin. On the back cover, however, was a symbol indicating its origin in Vitebsk: the UNOVIS logo — a red square set inside a thin black frame, partially circumscribed within a circle. Scythian publishing house was loosely affiliated with the Left Socialist-Revolutionary party in Russia, run mostly by Russian symbolist poets living abroad. In some ways it may be seen as a prototype of later samizdat operations. About Two Squares was among the first modernist publications they put out. Continue reading

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Trotsky’s Italian connection: Gramsci or Bordiga?

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Since the rediscovery of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks after World War II, there have been a number of attempts to adapt their heavily-coded theoretical content to various political projects. Particularly during the period of the New Left, Gramsci was interpreted and reinterpreted ad nauseam. Gradualists of a social-democratic stripe tried to fit the (allegedly anti-Leninist) “war of position” to their own frameworks. Figures like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deploy the ubiquitous Gramscian buzzword of “hegemony” for their postmodernist, post-Marxist populism. Finally, theorists such as Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Peter D. Thomas have sought to reconcile Gramsci with a more classically Leninist program in light of critiques by Louis Althusser in France and Perry Anderson in England.

Gramsci = Trotsky?

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Trotskyists during the 1960s down to the present have followed suit. Even the Spartacist League, known for their strict orthodoxy, nodded approvingly toward a document by Cliff Slaughter from 1960 in which he relied heavily on Gramsci’s The Modern Prince. Just how compatible are Trotsky’s politics with those of Gramsci, though? Certainly during their political careers, they found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum within international communism. Not only did Gramsci support Trotsky’s expulsion from the Russian party in 1925 and 1926, but he continued to lambaste Bronshtein during the period of his imprisonment. Paolo Casciola, an Italian Trotskyist, explains the continued differences between Gramsci and Trotsky from 1926 up through the 1930s in his rebuttal to the “turncoat” Alfonso Leonetti:

Gramsci or Trotsky?

[I]t would be useful to pause for a while on the fable of the “identity of views” between Trotsky and Gramsci. Such a fable is based on the fact that Gramsci “broke” with Stalinism during his prison years, after the “turn of 1930” — a turn which Leonetti had continuously championed. This is a question with which we shall deal in future. What we want to emphasize here is that Leonetti used such an ostensible “identity” as a voucher to justify politically his adherence to Gramscism and Togliattism. It was a rather dubious historico-political operation which was made easier by the cooperation of a series of “Trotskyist” intellectuals and unscrupulous “historians of the workers’ movement.” As a matter of fact, Gramsci’s “moral break” with Stalinism was only a temporary disagreement with the “Third Period” policy, and he was reabsorbed after the Popular Front counter-turn of 1935. If this be the case, then certain things said in the article which Tresso wrote after Gramsci’s death seem somewhat rash. But whereas Tresso could not know anything about Gramsci’s evolution during the 11 years of his imprisonment, Leonetti was able to read several testimonies on that period. But he used them in his own unfortunate way.

To Leonetti, the “identity of views” of Gramsci and Trotsky lies above all in their ostensibly identical assessment of the “period of transition” from Fascism to Communism, as well as in the fact that they both raised the slogan of a constituent assembly for Italy. But this is a superficial and utterly false equation. As a matter of fact, whereas Trotsky emphasized that the “democratic transition” was only one possible variant of the post-Fascist development — linked to and dependent upon the revolutionary awakening of the working class — Gramsci saw such an event as “the most likely one,” and, on this basis, put forward the slogan of a constituent assembly within the framework of a gradualist, Menshevik, Popular Front perspective. It is not by chance that, a few days before his death, Gramsci let the PCd’I know that “the Popular Front in Italy is the constituent assembly.” The Stalinist continuity between Gramsci and Togliatti was thus re-established, after the interlude of the “Third Period.” On the other hand, the lack of identity between the views of Trotsky and Gramsci is shown by several other bits of evidence. According to the testimony of Bruno Tosin, whilst opposing the “turn of 1930” not only did Gramsci hold that the party had been right to expel the Trotskyist oppositionists, but in his Prison Notebooks he criticizes Trotsky every time he mentions him, ever inclined to legitimize the continuity from Lenin to Stalin.

I don’t irrationally hate Gramsci. For the most part I prefer his “liberal” Marxist phase from 1916-1920, when he was closer to Gobetti, and then his early Leninism in alliance with Bordiga. After 1923, Gramsci basically took his orders from Moscow, following all the zigzags coming out of the Kremlin. Had he not been imprisoned, I suspect he would have eventually become a more theoretically sophisticated version of Togliatti. Some of his historical and philosophical reflections are interesting, but politically he’s the pits.

Personally, it’s my opinion that the effort to sanitize Gramsci’s Dmitrovian popfrontism, in order to render them compatible with Trotsky’s views, owes to the intellectual celebrity of the former after World War II. And this celebrity is in turn largely a product of the PCI’s nonstop promotion of Gramsci since 1945. The definitive study of this historiographical shift is John Chiaradia’s “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci.” Chiaradia contends that many of the same tactics that were used to oust Trotsky from the Russian party were used to oust Bordiga from the Italian party.

This seems to be borne out by the documentary evidence. If you read anything written by communists about the Italian party before 1945, Gramsci’s name barely even appears. By contrast, Bordiga’s name appears repeatedly. In Franz Borkenau’s World Communism, Trotsky’s writings, Arthur Rosenberg’s books, Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Ignazio Silone’s section of The God that Failed, Bordiga is mentioned over and over. Like I said, after WWII he was mostly just known as Gramsci’s justly vanquished opponent.

Trotsky on Bordiga

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In all his published works and correspondence, the only reference Trotsky made to Gramsci came in Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight it, published in 1931. He explained that Italian comrades informed him that “with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party would not even allow for the possibility of the fascists’ seizing power.” Appreciative enough, I suppose. The source of this information, the “Italian comrades” to which Trotsky alluded, can be easily guessed, however. Leonetti, the erstwhile Left Oppositionist who later defected to Stalinism — dealt with above by Casciola — corresponded with Bronshtein about Italian fascism frequently during those years. He remained a loyal Gramscian throughout every phase of his career, and was one of the few prior to 1945 who recalled Gramsci’s name. Deeply resentful toward Bordiga, Leonetti even wrote an article trying to convince Trotsky that the source of Stalin’s Third Period doctrine of “social fascism” was the communist left. From the reply Trotsky sent to Souzo (pen name of Leonetti), it would seem the former was briefly swayed:

February 14, 1932

Dear Comrade Souzo:

I have received your article on the Bordigists, which I find very good and extremely useful, especially the paragraph that shows Bordiga to be the father of the theory of social fascism.

Apart from this, Trotsky was overwhelmingly positive regarding Bordiga’s role within the Italian party. In 1929, he wrote a letter to the editorial board of the journal Prometeo, in which he praised “the living, muscular, and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” He underscored his longstanding respect for and personal acquaintance with the man who had inspired their movement: “I have become acquainted with the pamphlet ‘Platform of the Left,’ which you issued back in 1926 but which has only just now reached me. Similarly, I have read the letter you addressed to me in issue number 20 of Prometeo and some of the leading articles in your paper, which enabled me to renew, after a long interruption, my fairly good knowledge of the Italian language. These documents, along with my acquaintance with the articles and speeches of Comrade Bordiga — not to mention my personal acquaintance with him — permit me to judge to a certain extent your basic views as well as the degree of agreement there is between us.” Continue reading