With the global fall in oil prices, Venezuela’s fifteen-year experiment in “petrol populism” seems to be winding to a close. Either the regime will collapse in short order, or it will maintain itself through increasingly bloody and repressive measures, as Maduro’s claim to represent the interests of the people grows even more tenuous. George Ciccariello-Maher, a seasoned apologist of Chavismo in the United States, writes in an article for Jacobin that the “enemies” are the ones who are out there “in the streets, burning and looting.” Socialists, he contends, should be supporting the recent state crackdown on the protestors, which has already left 130 or so dead.
Pavel Minorski, a Croatian left communist and trustworthy comrade, comments that “[Ciccariello-Maher’s latest piece] is basic leftism. There is good capitalism and bad capitalism. Good capitalism is run by The People, bad capitalism by (((the elite))). Eventually, of course, people will revolt against good capitalism. But don’t worry, those aren’t The People™. They’re malicious, deluded, or both. Here’s how national developmentalism can still win!” For anyone interested, “Dialectics and Difference: Against the ‘Decolonial Turn’,” my polemic against Decolonizing Dialectics by Ciccariello-Maher just came out, and can be read over at the Insurgent Notes website.
Michael Roberts’ analysis of “The Venezuelan Tragedy” paints a much bleaker picture. The numbers are just brutal. “Income poverty,” observes Roberts, “increased from 48% in 2014 to 82% in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Venezuela’s three most prestigious universities.” Chávez, like every other leader who came before him, was content to rake in profits when times were good, i.e. when the price of oil was high, funding ambitious social programs with the profits as part of his wedge electoral strategy. He didn’t bother trying to diversify the country’s production, so when its sole export monocommodity plummeted in value, the whole country went tits up.
Sergio López of Kosmoprolet saw this coming as early as 2009. “21st-century socialism? Charitable kleptocracy! A kleptocracy, indeed, which is steering the country to its next economic and social crisis.” López noted then, at the pinnacle of Chavismo, the popularity of slogans such as “Chávez is the People!” and “President Chávez is a tool of God!” “Postmodern Bonapartism,” as Marco Torres dubbed Bolivarianism in a 2010 piece, is “a bricolage of thirties vintage pop-frontism together with nineties antiglobalization, molded upon sixties developmentalist Third Worldism.” Continue reading →
Henri Lefebvre’s work spans a variety of disciplines and fields, ranging from philosophy and sociology to architecture and urbanism. Obviously, this relates to a number of the themes discussed on this blog. A past entry featured Alfred Schmidt’s laudatory essay dedicated to Lefebvre, which I urge everyone to read. Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies, defended his contemporary against “criticism blind and dumb” in the press: “You don’t explain philosophers, but they explain you. You have no desire to understand that play by the Marxist Lefebvre, but you can be sure that the Marxist Lefebvre understands your incomprehension perfectly, and above all that he understands (for I myself suspect you to be more subtle than stupid) the delightfully ‘harmless’ confession you make of it.”
Lefebvre blazed a path, moreover, in the theoretical inquiry into “everyday life,” taking up a thread from the early Soviet discourse on the transformation of “everyday life” [быт] and Marx’s musings on “practical everyday life” [praktischen Werkeltagslebens]. Trotsky had authored a book on the subject in the 1920s, under the title Problems of Everyday Life, and the three-volume Critique of Everyday Life by Lefebvre, released over the course of four decades (1946, 1961, and 1981), can be seen as an elaboration of its themes. Eventually, inspired by this series, the Situationist upstar Raoul Vaneigem would publish The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), while the Catholic theorist Michel de Certeau released two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life (1976, 1980).
Russell Jacoby passingly remarked in his excellent Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981) that “Lefebvre’s career in France recapitulates the general development of Western Marxism.” He continued: “Lefebvre left the French Communist party only after 1956, but his earlier activities and writings betrayed a commitment to unorthodox Marxism. He belonged to a group called ‘Philosophies,’ which briefly (1925-1926) formed an alliance with the surrealists. With Norbert Guterman he translated Hegel, Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, and early Marx. He also wrote with Guterman a book that represented a high point of French Western Marxism in this earlier period, La Conscience mystifiée. Published in 1936, the title itself hints of History and Class Consciousness… rewritten in the context of the struggle against fascism.” Continue reading →
My friend has started a weblog under the title Cold and Dark Stars. He actually treats it more like a blog than I do with The Charnel-House, which often just features reposted articles or else functions as an all-purpose image and long-form essay dump. The entries on Cold and Dark Stars are, by contrast, relatively short and easily digestible reflections on topics like love, science, and the indifference of global economy to local ventures like chicken farms and other small-scale projects.
In terms of the blog’s style, what I appreciate the most about it is its directness and lack of any pretense. Politically, I find its commitment to internationalism admirable. You can check out a few representative posts linked below, along with some choice quotes:
Global economy doesn’t care about your local chicken farm: “If capitalists have global political projects, such as the ones dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, why can’t leftists have their own global political programs? Why is it so hard to imagine a global movement, for example, that lays the foundations for a world, socialist republic?”
White supremacy can only be fought through internationalism: “Today, a shock in the housing market of the United States is felt in the value of tortillas in Mexico. The development of new technology to extract oil from shale trickles down to the price of a tractor bought by a farmer in Zimbabwe. Yet the Left does not have a vision of emancipation through a global, political structure that can mold the course of the global economy. For a long time, activists, militants and theorists thought that the first step for the liberation of people of color was through the increase of legal sovereignty within a specific geographic zone — from the autonomy in first nation reserves in Canada, to the sovereignty of the former colonies in Africa.”
The productive human cannot love: “Interpersonal relations are eroded by the imperatives of optimization; there is nothing more infernal than the dating market of thirty-something professionals. Future partners are judged for their potential as mortgage companions, where the tension between how interesting their personality is versus the respectability of their career plays out. Everyone wants to date the good-looking engineer who’s also a musician. Yet optimized society selects some traits against the others — a person that spent all their bandwidth grinding through the math homework, job searching, and acquiring the right work experience for a fruitful career, will have no energy left to cultivate a deep taste in music, art, or literature.”
It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word. Such journeys, whether short or long, monotonous or varied are always instructive. But in every major language there are a dozen or so terms, never more, often less, whose past is no food for the scholar. But it is for the historian if we give the word historian all its due force.
Such terms, whose meaning is more or less crudely defined in dictionaries, never cease to evolve under the influence of human experience and they reach us pregnant, one might say, with all the history through which they have passed. They alone can enable us to follow and measure, perhaps rather slowly but very precisely (language is not a very rapid recording instrument), the transformations which took place in a group of those governing ideas which man is pleased to think of as being immobile because their immobility seems to be a guarantee of his security.1 Constructing the history of the French word civilisation would in fact mean reconstituting the stages in the most profound of all the revolutions which the French spirit has achieved and undergone in the period starting with the second half of the eighteenth century and taking us up to the present day. And so it will mean embracing in its totality, but from one particular point of view, a history whose origins and influence have not been confined within the frontiers of a single state. The simple sketch which follows may make it possible to date the periods in the revolution to which we refer with more rigor than previously. And it will at least show once more that the rhythm of the waves which break upon our societies are, in the last instance, governed and determined by the progress not of a particular science and of thought that revolves within one and the same circle, but by progress in all the disciplines together and in all the branches of learning working in conjunction.
Let us clearly mark out the limits of the problem. Some months ago a thesis was defended in the Sorbonne dealing with the civilization of the Tupi-Guarani. The Tupi-Guarani are small tribes living in South America which in every respect fit the term “savage” as used by our ancestors. But for a long time now the concept of a civilization of non-civilized people has been current. If archaeology were able to supply the means, we should see an archaeologist coolly dealing with the civilization of the Huns; who we were once told were “the flail of civilization.”
But our newspapers and journals, and we ourselves, talk continually about the progress, conquests and benefits of civilization. Sometimes with conviction, sometimes with irony and sometimes even with bitterness. But what counts is that we talk about it. And what this implies is surely that one and the same word is used to designate two different concepts.
In the first case civilization simply refers to all the features that can be observed in the collective life of one human group, embracing their material, intellectual, moral and political life and, there is unfortunately no other word for it, their social life. It has been suggested that this should be called the “ethnographical” conception of civilization.2 It does not imply any value judgment on the detail or the overall pattern of the facts examined. Neither does it have any bearing on the individual in the group taken separately, or on their personal reactions or individual behavior. It is above all a conception which refers to a group. Continue reading →
Igor Dukhan Belorusian State University, 2013 .
Victor Carpov belongs to that rare breed of contemporary scholars who have preserved the “pure principles” of such Russian art theorists as Alexander Gabrichevskii, Vassilii Zubov, and Aleksandr Rappaport and linked them with the Western methodology of architectural typology, drawn from the work of Joseph Rykwert, Giulio Carlo Argan and others. He is a senior fellow of the Institute for the Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning in Moscow and one of the leading architectural thinkers in Russia today.
The paper “Typology and Ideology: Moisei Ginzburg Revisited” was published in 2013 in the magazine Akademia: Arkhitektura i Stroitelstvo [Academia: Architecture, and Construction] and was based on a lecture, first presented at the conference “Style and Epoch,” which was organized by the Aleksei Shchusev State Museum of Architecture in cooperation with the Institute for the Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning, and dedicated to the centenary of Moisei Ginzburg’s birth. This paper is closely connected with Victor Carpov’s entire research into the evolution of architectural typology, which celebrated an important step in contemporary post-Heideggerian architectural theory.
Already in his dissertation of 1992, the author considered the history of typological thinking in architecture from Vitruvius to the late twentieth-century architects and theorists (Saverio Muratori, Giulio Carlo Argan, Aldo Rossi, Joseph Rykwert, Rob and Léon Krier and others). Later, an interest in typological (that is, ontological and pre-linguistic) thinking in architecture — which might be called architectonic thinking per se — led him to Alberti and other heroes of typological thinking in architecture in essays including “Tip-antitip: k arkhitekturnoi germenevtike” [Type-Antitype: Towards Architectural Hermeneutics] of 1991 (revised in 2012).
Photograph of a perspective drawing for the editing block of the Izvestiia newspaper combine, Moscow
Photograph of an elevation for the principal façade for the editing block of the Izvestiia newspaper combine, Moscow
Photograph of a perspective drawing for the editing block of the Izvestiia newspaper combine with an erased [?] plan, Moscow
Photograph of a perspective sketch for the Izvestiia newspaper combine, Moscow
Photograph of a model for the editing block of the Izvestiia newspaper combine, Moscow
Photograph of a model for the club of the Izvestiia newspaper combine, Moscow
Photograph of first and second floor plans for the club of the Izvestiia newspaper combine, Moscow
Photograph of a plans and perspective sketches for the Izvestiia newspaper combine, Moscow
It is asserted that in order to eliminate social injustice, all that is required is to relate every commodity’s exchange value to the value of the labor contained within it. Marx shows — and will show later, pitting himself against Bakunin, against Lassalle, against Dühring, against Sorel and against all the other latter-day pygmies — that what lies beneath all this is nothing other than the apologia, and the preservation, of bourgeois economy.
For about ten years or so prior to the October Revolution, revolutionary syndicalism had been fighting against social-democratic revisionism. Georges Sorel was the main theoretician and leader of this current, even if earlier antecedents certainly existed. It was a movement which was particularly strong in the Latin countries: to begin with they fought inside the socialist parties, but later split off, both because of the vicissitudes of the struggle and in order to be consistent with a doctrine which rejected the necessity of the party as a revolutionary class organ.
The primary form of proletarian organization for the syndicalists was the economic trade union, whose main task was supposed to be not only leading the class struggle to defend the immediate interests of the working class, but also preparing, without being subject to any political party, to lead the final revolutionary war against the capitalist system.
Sorelians and Marxism
A complete analysis of the origins and evolution of this doctrine, both as we find it in Sorel’s work, and in the multifarious groups which in various countries subscribed to it, would take us too far off our track; at this point we shall therefore just discuss its historical balance sheet, and its very questionable view of a future non-capitalist society.
Sorel and many of his followers, in Italy as well, started off by declaring that they were the true successors of Marx in fighting against legalistic revisionism in its pacifist and evolutionist guise. Eventually they were forced to admit that their tendency represented a new revisionism; left rather than right wing in appearance but actually issuing from the same source, and containing the same dangers.
In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it… even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
— Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Since Jeremy Corbyn took leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, he and his party have been the North Star for many on the Left. This reorientation has raised old questions about the Left’s relationship to the Labour Party. At the Oxford Radical Forum in March the description for a panel on “Corbyn, Labour, and the Radical Left” put forward a number of symptomatic propositions. It registered the fact that “several socialist tendencies which had previously campaigned against the party now committed to supporting it under Corbyn’s leadership” and that Corbyn’s election to leader “was largely viewed as a moment of triumph for the far left.” But what is the Left? And what would mean for it to triumph? It suggested that the Left has “a greater degree of influence in party politics than it has for decades.” But what is a political party for the Left? The description worries about what will happen if Corbyn loses in a general election. The hopes for transforming the Labour Party seem in danger. Ralph Miliband is unconsciously invoked: Should the left “pursue socialism” by “parliamentary” or “non-parliamentary” means? Solace is taken in the thought that the Labour Party is “clearly more socialist than any since 1983 — and perhaps even earlier.”1 But what is socialism?
As the Left, in various ways, rushes to embrace Labour, the history of the Labour Party rises up behind it. This article relates that history to the history of Marxism from 1848 to WWI, particularly the “revisionist dispute.” On the ruins of that history appears the apparent plethora of “Left” orientations to Labour today.
Bonapartism and reformism
In their respective criticisms of revisionism in the revisionist dispute within the Second International, Luxemburg and Lenin argued that the revisionists had regressed to pre-Marxian socialism, to liberalism and petit-bourgeois democracy, liquidating the need for socialist leadership. Lenin and Luxemburg sought to advance beyond the impasse by returning to the high point of consciousness in Marx’s recognition of the lessons of the failed revolutions of 1848. Unlike the revisionists they did not have a linear-progressive view of history. The 1848 revolutions failed to deliver the “social republic.” As Marx wrote, the bourgeoisie were no longer able to rule and the proletariat not yet ready.2 The state had to intervene to manage the self-contradiction of bourgeois society, that is, capitalism. Louis Bonaparte filled this vacuum of power by appealing for support to the discontents of all classes in society and expanding state institutions of welfare and police as tools for controlling contradictions in society. So Bonapartism led the discontents of the masses to politically reconstitute capital through the state. This was an international phenomenon, affecting all the major capitalist countries, including the United Kingdom. For Marx, the lesson of 1848 was the necessity of the political independence of the working class from petit-bourgeois democracy, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the absence of this independent political leadership, the masses would be led by the right, as they were by Louis Bonaparte.
In Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg argues that social reforms do not socialize production, leading piecemeal to socialism, but socialize the crisis of capitalist production. The workers’ bourgeois demands for work and justice needed a proletarian party for socialism to “achieve the consciousness of the need to overcome labour as a commodity, to make the ‘objective’ economic contradiction, a ‘subjective’ phenomenon of politics”3 — “to take its history into its own hands.”4 In Lenin’s terms, the revisionists’ “tailing” of trade union consciousness dissolved the goal into the movement, liquidated the need for the political party for socialism.
Because Marxism addresses itself principally to history, its adherents often traffic in historical predictions. This was true of Marx and Engels no less than their followers, and more often than not their predictions turned out to be inaccurate or mistaken. Proletarian revolution — which Marx sometimes called “the revolution of the nineteenth century” — did not ultimately win out or carry the day. Capitalism has not yet collapsed, and despite the periodic pronouncements of Marxist professors every time the stock market dips, none of the crises it’s endured has proved terminal.
Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, and other opponents of Marxian theory often raise the failure of such forecasts as proof that its doctrine is “unfalsifiable.” Opponents of Marxism are not the only ones who rejoice at Marxism’s frustrated prognostications; opportunistic revisionists have also taken comfort whenever things don’t quite pan out. Georg Lukács observed almost a hundred years ago that “the opportunist interpretation of Marxism immediately fastens on to the so-called errors of Marx’s individual predictions in order to eliminate revolution root and branch from Marxism as a whole.”
Some of this is rather unavoidable. Debates about whether the capitalist breakdown is inevitable, the vagaries of Zusammenbruchstheorie, necessarily involve speculation about the future results of present dynamics — whether self-annihilation is a built-in feature of capitalism, whether the entire mode of production is a ticking time-bomb. Yet there have been concrete instances in which the foresight of certain Marxists seems almost prophetic in hindsight. Not just in broad strokes, either, as for example the eventual triumph of bourgeois economics across the globe.
Engels’ very detailed prediction, originally made in 1887, came true almost to the letter:
The only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts.
The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of trade, industry, and credit, ending in universal bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle.
Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.
Regarding this last line, “the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class” undoubtedly were created by the world war between great capitalist powers. Whether these conditions were acted upon is another, sadder story. Counterfactuals aside, the fact remains that things could have been otherwise. Historic circumstances conspired to open up a definite field of potential outcomes, in which international proletarian revolution seemed not just abstractly possible but concretely probable.
Dialectics elude straightforward definition. No doubt it is easier to say what dialectics is not, rather than to say what it is. Against Ferdinand Lassalle, Marx remarked in a letter to Engels that “Hegel never described as dialectics the subsumption of vast numbers of ‘cases’ under a general principle,” and therefore concluded that “the dialectical method is wrongly applied.”1 Vladimir Lenin likewise pointed out that Georgii Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, erred in treating dialectics as “the sum-total of examples,” a mistake from which even Engels was not fully exempt.2
Still less is dialectics reducible to an abstract formula or stereotyped procedure of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. James regarded this series as “a ruinous simplification” in his 1948 Notes on Dialectics,3 while Lenin followed Hegel in considering “the ‘triplicity’ of dialectics… [as] its external, superficial side.”4 In similar fashion, the Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno recalled that “Hegel expressed the most cutting objections to the claptrap triplicity of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis as a methodological schema.”5 Early in his career, Lenin upbraided the populist Nikolai Mikhailovsky for his fatuous portrayal of the materialist dialectic as some sort of parlor trick which “proves” capitalism must collapse. “Marx’s dialectical method does not consist in triads at all,” explained Lenin in 1894, “but precisely in the rejection of idealism and subjectivism in sociology.”6
How can this method be retained in sociology, however, while at the same time getting rid of its idealist residues? Obviously, if the dialectic is to be anything more than a subjective addition, an arbitrary “way of thinking” about the world, its logic has to be discovered in the object (i.e., society) itself. The materialist inversion of Hegel’s dialectic can only be justified if its contours appear at the level of social reality. “Dialectical understanding is nothing but the conceptual form of a real dialectical fact,” wrote Georg Lukács in his 1924 monograph Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought.7 Lukács’ contemporary, the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, maintained that the method should not be applied to just any sphere of knowledge “like an ever-ready master key,” since “dialectics cannot be imposed upon facts, but must be deduced from their character and development.”8 Reflecting on his conversion to Marxism, Trotsky wrote that “the dialectical method revealed itself for the first time, not as an abstract definition, but as a living spring found in the historical process.”9
Trotsky’s metaphor of the spring recurs frequently in his articles and speeches. “Marxism without the dialectic is like a clock without a spring,” he later declared.10 Wound tightly into the shape of a spiral, the materialist dialectic simply mirrors the dynamic tension of capitalism itself. “Cycles explain a great deal,” Trotsky maintained in 1923, “forming through automatic pulsation an indispensable dialectical spring in the mechanism of capitalist society.”11 Earlier in the year he stressed that an adequate sociological account must be both strong and flexible, since “dialectical thought is like a spring, and springs are made of tempered steel.”12
Foremost among these, of course, is CLR James’ classic The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution (1938). Against the naïve imperative that says “we must not censor works hailed by the subaltern as masterful pieces of our history, but instead celebrate them if the subaltern says we should” — which almost reads like a reductio ad absurdum of standpoint epistemology — we ought rather to uphold those works which pass critical and scholarly muster. James’ book, though not written by an academic, stands up brilliantly to this test.
Some of the others are also worth checking out. In particular, Susan Buck-Morss’ influential study of Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), which caused something of a stir when the first half was published as an essay back in 2001. “Decolonial dialectician” George Ciccariello-Maher criticized her for focusing too much on Toussaint, at the expense of his compatriot Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Nevertheless, out of these two, I greatly prefer Toussaint.
James repeatedly compared Toussaint to Robespierre, and in this analogy Dessalines could only be compared to Napoleon. After selling Toussaint out to Leclerc, and disposing of rivals such as Charles and Sanité Bélair, Dessalines crowned himself emperor and ruled with an iron fist over the ex-colonial island. Marx, as we know, had little patience for would-be New World Napoleons like Simon Bolivar, so it’s not hard to imagine what he would have thought of Dessalines.
But even beyond these monographs and histories, Toussaint’s life has inspired works by great literary figures as well. To honor and commemorate his birthday, then, I’m also including a poem dedicated to Toussaint by the poet William Wordsworth and a short story by the novelist Ralph Ellison. Enjoy!
Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men! …Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now …Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den; —
O miserable Chieftain! where and when …Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow: …Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind …Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind …That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies, …And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.