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Nietzsche through the lens of Nazism and Marxism

Mazzino Montinari
Reading Nietzsche
West Berlin, 1982
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Mazzino Montinari (4 April 1928 – 24 November 1986) was an Italian scholar of Germanistics. A native of Lucca, he became regarded as one of the most distinguished researchers on Friedrich Nietzsche, and harshly criticized the edition of The Will to Power, which he regarded as a forgery, in his book The Will to Power Does Not Exist.

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After the end of fascism in Italy, Montinari became an active member of the Italian Communist Party, with which he was occupied with the translation of German writings. During 1953, when he visited East Germany for research, he witnessed the Uprising of 1953. Later, after the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, he drifted away from orthodox Marxism and his career in party organizations. He did however keep his membership in the Italian Communist Party and upheld the ideals of socialism.

At the end of the 1950s, with Giorgio Colli, who was his teacher in the 1940s, Montinari began to prepare an Italian translation of Nietzsche’s works. After reviewing the contemporary collection of Nietzsche’s works and the manuscripts in Weimar, Colli and Montinari decided to begin a new, critical edition. This edition became the scholarly standard, and was published in Italian by Adelphi in Milan, in French by Éditions Gallimard in Paris, in German by Walter de Gruyter and in Dutch by Sun (translated by Michel van Nieuwstadt). Of particular help for this project was Montinari’s ability to decipher Nietzsche’s nearly unreadable handwriting, which before had only been transcribed by Peter Gast (born Heinrich Köselitz).

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In 1972, Montinari and others founded the international journal Nietzsche-Studien, to which Montinari would remain a significant contributor until his death. Through his translations and commentary on Nietzsche, Montinari demonstrated a method of interpretation based on philological research that would forgo hasty speculations. He saw value in placing Nietzsche in the context of his time, and to this end, Colli and he began a critical collection of Nietzsche’s correspondence. Montinari died in Florence in 1986.

I’m posting this here in anticipation of the 1,000+ page book by Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche: The Aristocratic Rebel, translated by Peter Thomas. From the reviews that’ve been written of the book by Thomas and Jan Rehmann, it appears to be an epic screed. Last year I wrote up a bit on Malcolm Bull’s The Anti-Nietzsche. Sunit Singh also wrote up a good article on “Nietzsche’s Untimeliness,” from a Marxist perspective.

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Nietzsche between
Alfred Bäumler and
Georg Lukács

Nietzsche and National Socialist ideology: Alfred Bäumler’s interpretation

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1. A national socialist “ideology” in the current sense of the word could, perhaps, be reconstructed. But it would be impossible, on the contrary, to speak of a genuine national socialist assimilation of Nietzsche’s ideas. As recent research has determined, Nietzsche was as good as alien to the founders of national socialism. Alfred Rosenberg, who laid claim to him as a forerunner to “the movement” in Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts, placed Nietzsche in the dubious company of Paul de Lagarde (whom Nietzsche despised) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (who, from his Wagnerian and racist standpoint, rejected Nietzsche). Hitler himself had no relation to Nietzsche; it is questionable whether he had read him at all. The entire ideology of race was profoundly alien to Nietzsche. It would be carrying coals to Newcastle if I were to cite the countless passages in which Nietzsche spoke out against the racial theories of the true forerunners of national socialism in general and anti-Semitism in particular. He even had occasion to correspond with someone who later was a national socialist representative, Theodor Fritsch; his two letters to the latter are a complete mockery of the muddled racial theories of the eighties in the previous century, with their — as Nietzsche said — dubious concepts of “Aryanism” and “Germanism.” Shortly after his correspondence with Nietzsche, Theodor Fritsch reviewed Beyond Good and Evil in 1887 and found in it (with good reason!) a “glorification of the Jews” and a “harsh condemnation of anti-Semitism.” He disposed of Nietzsche as a “philosopher-fisherman of the shallows” who had abandoned “any and all understanding for national essence” and who cultivated “old wives’ philosophical twaddle in Beyond Good and Evil.” According to Fritsch, Nietzsche’s pronouncements concerning the Jews were the “flat twaddle, too forced, pretending to be intellectual, of a Judaized type, self-taught in some apartment”; luckily, he believed, “Nietzsche’s books will be read by scarcely more than two dozen men.”[1] This was Nietzsche’s actual relationship to anti-Semitism and Germanism as long as he lived. And yet still today, among the wider public, Nietzsche is considered an “intellectual pathfinder of national socialism.”

2. We owe Hans Langreder credit for having carefully examined “the confrontation with Nietzsche in the Third Reich” using the methods of historical-empirical research in his dissertation at Kiel from 1970. In this way he was able to determine that there was no consensus in the Third Reich in the evaluation of Nietzsche. He spoke of a “positive” (in the sense of national socialist ideology) and a “negative” image of Nietzsche in the Third Reich. Among national socialist ideologues, there were several who endeavored to win him for Hitlerism; others who on the contrary opposed the unsettling, cosmopolitan, decadent, individualistic Nietzsche; and as a result, still others who sought to mediate between the two positions. The so-called positive image of Nietzsche officially won the upper hand and unfortunately still holds it today. Langreder rightfully named the “conservative revolutionary” Alfred Bäumler as the key figure in Nietzsche’s appropriation into the Third Reich. “At the inception and at the mid-point of the development of a positive Nietzsche image in the national socialist period stands […] Alfred Bäumler”: thus Langreder in his dissertation. After the “seizure of power,” Bäumler was called to the newly founded academic chair for political pedagogy at the University of Berlin; soon afterward he became head of the science department in the governmental office of the “führer’s deputy for oversight of the general spiritual and philosophical schooling and education of the NSDAP,” hence in the so-called Rosenberg bureau [Amt Rosenberg].[2] Continue reading

fuck capitalism

Tony Cliff’s legacy today

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

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

— Tony Cliff, interview with
Ahmed Shawki (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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Lenin’s tomb

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The cult of Lenin

Boris Groys
The Total Artwork
of Stalinism
(1986)

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The Lenin cult was very significant both in the political legitimization of Stalin and in the evolution of socialist realism, since even before Stalin came to power Lenin had been proclaimed the model of the “new man,” “the most human of all human beings.” Maiakovskii’s slogan “Lenin is more alive than the living” adorning the streets of Soviet cities does not contradict the cult of Lenin’s mummy in the mausoleum (perhaps one of the most mysterious in the history of world religion). Although I shall not attempt an exhaustive description of the cult here, it does deserve a few words. It has undeniably exerted a hidden formative influence on all subsequent Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet culture, if for no other reason than the central position it occupies in the invisible Soviet sacred hierarchy. Twice a year, “the entire Soviet land” submits its “report” in parades and demonstrations that pass by the mausoleum, and the leaders who accept this report stand on the roof of the structure, symbolically basing their power on the mummy of Lenin concealed within.

The construction of the mausoleum on Red Square and the founding of the Lenin cult were vigorously opposed by traditional Marxists and the representatives of left art [LEF]. The former spoke of “Asiatic barbarism” and “savage customs unworthy of Marxists. ” LEF also reacted to the first temporary variant of the mausoleum, which was later slightly simplified, describing it as “a verbatim translation from the ancient Persian” that resembled the grave of King Cyrus near Mugraba. Such criticism today, of course, is no longer possible — not only because the mausoleum was long ago pronounced “sacred to all Soviet citizens, ” but also because everyone got used to it long ago.

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The LEF critics, who perceived in Lenin’s mausoleum only an analogy with ancient Asian tombs, were as usual blind to the originality of the new Stalinist culture taking shape before their very eyes. The mummies of the pharaohs and other ancient rulers were walled up in pyramids and concealed from mortals — opening such graves was considered sacrilege. Lenin, in contrast, is on public display as a work of art, and his mausoleum, as is evident from the long lines that have formed before it every day for decades, is without a doubt the most frequented museum in the Soviet Union. If the “militant atheists” of the time exhumed the relics of saints and exhibited them in museum-like displays as antireligious propaganda, Lenin was from the outset simultaneously buried and displayed. The Lenin mausoleum is a synthesis between a pyramid and a museum that exhibits Lenin’s body, the mortal husk he shed to become the personification of the building of socialism, “inspiring the Soviet people to heroic deeds.” Continue reading

7. Дом промышленности

Samara: Constructivism into Stalinism

Architecture at the margins of
the Soviet Union (1927-1936)

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via golem

golem adds a remark made by one E. Radniskii, who apparently wrote:

Гигантомания — это частая болезнь диктаторов. Но они не зря путают великое и большое. Кое-какой резон в этой гигантомании есть: огромные размеры устрашают толпу. Рождают бессознательное представление о мощи государства. Что же касается искусства тоталитаризма, всех этих бездушных подражаний античности, любви к тупому реализму, то вкус диктаторов, вышедших из народа, объединял их со вкусом простых людей. Но по прошествии времени происходит порой таинственное преображение – вчерашний маразм начинает казаться любопытной эстетикой.

A bit overstated, in my opinion. Rough translation of the first bits: “Gigantomania — this is a common ailment of dictators. However, don’t confuse ‘big’ with ‘great.’ The kind of reasoning that lies behind this gigantomania is: enormous size will frighten the crowd.”

I think this collapses constructivism and post-constructivism (early Stalinism), without making much distinction between their formal features. Of course, it’s not total discontinuity between avant-garde and kitsch. Boris Groys has a point here. Nevertheless, it’s a little odd that the author of this post titles it “Samaran constructivism,” and then describes the style as dictatorial or Stalinist.

Either way, some fantastic photos. You can see some of the transitional hybrid style Selim Khan-Magomedov referred to as post-constructivist here.

27. управление милиции ныне сгоревшее7. Дом промышленности6. Дом Красной Армии Continue reading

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Piketty and Marx: Or, why no one needs to read anything

Less than a week ago, Jacobin magazine enumerated a list of nine canned responses criticizing the French neo-Keynesian economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Zachary Levenson gave us the guide for “How to Write a Marxist Critique of Thomas Piketty without Actually Reading the Book.” It ranges between Marx and Piketty’s radically different conceptions of capital to the latter’s conflation of derivatives stemming from finance and industry. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a long book,” Levenson writes, sympathizing with his readers, “and you just don’t have time in your busy schedule to finish it and formulate a materialist critique.” Don’t worry, he urges, “we’ve got you covered.”

No doubt: there’s plenty of truth to such a list, conceived as it is in parody. Many self-proclaimed Marxists are quite eager to dismiss the latest fad in social liberal economic thought, and counterpose the trenchant historical critique offered by Marx to the dry data analysis offered by Piketty. Who hasn’t heard some of these scripted objections bandied about by “radicals” who clearly haven’t read the book?

Yeah, from the blurb on the back it may seem a tired rehashing of Keynesian commonplaces (now almost a century old). Granted, it might appear that Piketty merely “repackages the commonly known as the expertly known,” as one reviewer has put it, by treating observations of inequality under capitalism as if they were earth-shattering discoveries. But does that really justify all the unlettered pedantry of the Marxish commentariat? Shouldn’t people read Capital in the Twenty-First Century before issuing a judgment? Continue reading

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Birthday > Earth Day: Happy 144th, Vladimir Il’ich!

Never thought of it before, but Maiakovskii’s tripled refrain

Ленин ⎯ жил,
Ленин ⎯ жив,
Ленин ⎯ будет жить!

…in his poem Lenin, seems to echo Rosa Luxemburg‘s final written words in “Order Reigns in Berlin”:

Ich war,
Ich bin,
Ich werde sein!

Vladimir Lenin, born 144 years ago today. Some rare and not-so-rare posters of Lenin appear below. Click to enlarge.

Nikolai Akimov - Lenin. For every 10,000 enemies we will raise millions of new fighters, 1925  Continue reading

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Bauhaus master Walter Gropius’ submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition, 1931

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Just a few brief notes, since I’m presently occupied with other tasks and because I’ve dealt with this topic (however cursorily) elsewhere. Recently I stumbled upon a cache of outstanding images of Walter Gropius’ 1931 submission to the Palace of the Soviets competition in Moscow. The majority of these images are floor plans, numerous because of the complex multilevel structure Gropius envisioned. Many, however, are sketches — perspective and axonometric drawings — depicting the view of the Palace from the river as well as approaches to its various entrances. A few more show the building’s situation vis-à-vis the rest of the city, site plans and the like.

Some have noted the similarities between Gropius’ proposal for the Palace of the Soviets and his earlier experiments with the idea of “total theater” for Erwin Piscator. James Marston Fitch, for example, pointed out the continuities that exist between the designs Gropius made for Piscator up through a 1930 proposal for a theater in Kharkhiv, Ukraine, leading ultimately to his conception of the Palace of the Soviets (Fitch, Walter Gropius, pg. 22). Gropius had already designed a theater for Oskar Schlemmer at his Bauhaus building in Dessau.

Total theater.

Important differences may be mentioned as well, however. Certainly Gropius’ Palace of the Soviets project was conceived on a much grander scale, given the specifications and requirements outlined by the Bolshevik government. Predictably, this entailed shifting qualitative dynamics that couldn’t be solved merely by quantitative increase or multiplication. Acoustical studies thus form an integral part of Gropius’ argument for the viability of his building.

Obviously, as everyone knows, things didn’t turn out the way the modernists had expected in the USSR. Neoclassicism won out, much to the chagrin of Le Corbusier, Moisei Ginzburg, Hans Poelzig, Erich Mendelsohn, Hannes MeyerSigfried Giedion, and the rest. Many felt it was a repeat of the whole League of Nations debacle. Giedion even sent Stalin an angry collage in protest — a futile but rather entertaining gesture. Would’ve loved to have seen the befuddled look on Dzugashvilii’s face when he opened that letter.

You can enlarge any of these images by clicking on them and scrolling through the gallery I’ve compiled.

Sketches.

Continue reading

8mars (1)

International Women’s Day

Aleksandra Kollontai
Moscow, USSR: 1920
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A militant celebration

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Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women.

But this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out.[1] It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us.

But if this is a general holiday for all the proletariat, why do we call it “Women’s Day”? Why then do we hold special celebrations and meetings aimed above all at the women workers and the peasant women? Doesn’t this jeopardize the unity and solidarity of the working class? To answer these questions, we have to look back and see how Women’s Day came about and for what purpose it was organized.

How and why was Women’s Day organized?

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Not very long ago, in fact about ten years ago, the question of women’s equality, and the question of whether women could take part in government alongside men was being hotly debated. The working class in all capitalist countries struggled for the rights of working women: the bourgeoisie did not want to accept these rights. It was not in the interest of the bourgeoisie to strengthen the vote of the working class in parliament; and in every country they hindered the passing of laws that gave the right to working women.

Socialists in North America insisted upon their demands for the vote with particular persistence. On the 28th of February, 1909, the women socialists of the U.S.A. organized huge demonstrations and meetings all over the country demanding political rights for working women. This was the first “Woman’s Day.” The initiative on organizing a woman’s day thus belongs to the working women of America.

In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Working Women, Clara Zetkin [2] brought forward the question of organizing an International Working Women’s Day. The conference decided that every year, in every country, they should celebrate on the same day a “Women’s Day” under the slogan “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”

During these years, the question of making parliament more democratic, i.e., of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women, was a vital issue. Even before the first world war, the workers had the right to vote in all bourgeois countries except Russia. [3] Only women, along with the insane, remained without these rights. Yet, at the same time, the harsh reality of capitalism demanded the participation of women in the country’s economy. Every year there was an increase in the number of women who had to work in the factories and workshops, or as servants and charwomen. Women worked alongside men and the wealth of the country was created by their hands. But women remained without the vote.

But in the last years before the war the rise in prices forced even the most peaceful housewife to take an interest in questions of politics and to protest loudly against the bourgeoisie’s economy of plunder. “Housewives uprisings” became increasingly frequent, flaring up at different times in Austria, England, France and Germany.

The working women understood that it wasn’t enough to break up the stalls at the market or threaten the odd merchant: They understood that such action doesn’t bring down the cost of living. You have to change the politics of the government. And to achieve this, the working class has to see that the franchise is widened.

It was decided to have a Women’s Day in every country as a form of struggle in getting working women to vote. This day was to be a day of international solidarity in the fight for common objectives and a day for reviewing the organized strength of working women under the banner of socialism.

The first International Women’s Day

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The decision taken at the Second International Congress of Socialist Women was not left on paper. It was decided to hold the first International Women’s Day on the 19th of March, 1911.

This date was not chosen at random. Our German comrades picked the day because of its historic importance for the German proletariat. On the 19th of March in the year of 1848 revolution, the Prussian king recognized for the first time the strength of the armed people and gave way before the threat of a proletarian uprising. Among the many promise he made, which he later failed to keep, was the introduction of votes for women.

After January 11, efforts were made in Germany and Austria to prepare for Women’s Day. They made known the plans for a demonstration both by word of mouth and in the press. During the week before Women’s Day two journals appeared: The Vote for Women in Germany and Women’s Day in Austria. The various articles devoted to Women’s Day — “Women and Parliament,” “The Working Women and Municipal Affairs,” “What Has the Housewife got to do with Politics?”, etc. — analyzed thoroughly the question of the equality of women in the government and in society. All the articles emphasized the same point: that it was absolutely necessary to make parliament more democratic by extending the franchise to women.

The first International Women’s Day took place in 1911. Its success succeeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere — in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women. Continue reading

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Zaha in Qatar: The “duty” of the architect

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The prominent Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid has recently come under fire in the press due to her alleged indifference over labor conditions in Qatar. Hadid’s curvaceous design for the al-Wakrah soccer stadium was selected by the Gulf state to house the 2012 FIFA World Cup competition. Revelations emerged in the Guardian newspaper last week regarding the extraordinarily high number of worker fatalities involved in the execution of her design, particularly among precarious migrant populations. Five hundred or more Indian workers have already perished in the construction of the building so far, in addition to almost four hundred deaths of Nepalese nationals.

Confronted with these figures, Zaha first pleaded ignorance and subsequently claimed powerlessness. She said:

I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government — if there’s a problem — should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.

[W]hat do I do about that? I’m not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.

I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. But, as I said, I think there are discrepancies all over the world.

Zaha’s remarks came across as cold and detached, if not utterly insensitive. Though she spoke of her “concern” over the situation, she refused to take the blame for any of it. In the opinion of many analysts and architectural critics, this simply confirmed what they’d suspected about her all along: namely, that Hadid is an architect without an adequate sense of civic responsibility, a near-perfect embodiment of the “designer” (in Hal Foster‘s sense) in the neoliberal age. Dezeen points out that even close peers and contemporaries such as Richard Rogers or Daniel Libeskind, who have often been criticized along the same lines as Hadid, have spoken out about the architect’s duty to society at large.

Actually I tend to agree with Zaha here, though it probably bothers her — it should bother anyone — on a purely human level. (Which she has already said that it does). Hadid must be made to answer for her designs, however, specifically “as an architect.” Personally, I think this qualification is crucial to any balanced assessment of her what she said. Unless there was something intrinsic to her design that would necessitate cruel labor conditions or expose workers to undue risk, there’s nothing about the project that demands she take responsibility “as an architect.” Continue reading

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To remember a future long silenced by history

Greg Gabrellas
Platypus Review 27
September 2010
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Book review:

Renewing Black Intellectual History
Adolph Reed Jr. & Kenneth W. Warren, eds.
(Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010)

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In a 2005 commencement address, Howard Zinn urged the graduates of Spelman College to look beyond conventional success and follow the tradition set by courageous rebels: “W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.”[1] At first, Zinn’s lineage feels like an omnium-gatherum. Compare Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” militarism to Marian Edelman’s milquetoast non-profit advocacy — “by any grant-writing or lobbying necessary” — and the incoherence stands out. But there is logic to Zinn’s cherry picking: namely, the flattening out of history to instill pride in one’s own identity. Du Bois and King may have belonged to radically divergent political tendencies, but what matters is their usefulness as role models, heroes in a continuous tradition of black resistance.

Zinn’s historical reasoning has a history of its own. Beginning in the early moments of decolonization, insurgent black nationalists attempted to rewrite history in the service of race pride. Think of Cheikh Anta Diop’s demonstration that the ancient Egyptians were really black Africans. Though such appeals proved too essentialist for the post-structuralist historiography of the 1970s and 1980s, historians who still hoped to preserve the therapeutic value of history continued to assert the cultural legacy of the black diaspora. This legacy was forged over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years of oppression. And black resistance, it was claimed, dates to about the same period. In the absence of any actual politics, historical research became a substitute satisfaction. By revealing the racism implicit in, say, Orson Welles’s 1935 “Voodoo Macbeth,” the historian seems to win a political victory against racism.

In their edited collection, Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought, Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren mount a challenge to the political pretensions of black studies. Now, bemoaning the excesses of identity politics is not new; in fact, it has paid for many a conservative’s third swimming pool. But Reed and Warren’s critique is meant to come from the Left, to show how the unexamined assumptions of black history mystify the present and block the development of critical politics.

One major assumption is that racism poses a persistent and persisting problem in American history. To make the point, historians, literary critics, and pundits often use W.E.B Du Bois’s adage that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. In a recent article, for example, Linda Darling-Hammond details racial disparities in education, and asks whether America will be ready to “roll up its sleeves to at last solve the problem of the color line.”[2] Reed’s capstone essay “The ‘Color Line’ Then and Now” shows how such contemporary appropriations not only misunderstand the context of Du Bois’s remark, but also obscure the recognition of real social problems.

“Treat ‘Em Rough,” a political cartoon originally from the George Matthew Adams Newspaper Syndicate Service, August 16, 1919.

“Treat ‘Em Rough,” a political cartoon from George Matthew
Adams Newspaper Syndicate Service. (August 16, 1919).

Du Bois’s formulation was not exactly a clarion call for the black revolution; in fact, as Reed demonstrates, it came at the most conservative moment in his career. When Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, he was not alone in prophesying the primacy of race in current affairs: In the academy, scientific racism had reached its zenith, and in popular political discourse, the imagination of a racial “Struggle for Existence” shaped foreign and domestic policy. Balking at the notion of innate inferiority, Du Bois had a softer view of racial inheritance than most, but he shared the race-centric view of his moment. An admirer of Bismark, he advocated for social reforms to squelch racial and class tensions, and divert blacks from more radical politics. Du Bois would reevaluate his perspective, of course, over his long lifetime. A member of the Communist Party in the years before his death in 1963, he later questioned his own formulation of the “color line” as the problem of his century.[3] Continue reading