Seventy-five years since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising

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Yesterday marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Below you can download a number of histories and firsthand accounts of the revolt, and below that read an article Marcus Barnett wrote on the subject last year for Jacobin. Roughly 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were killed by gas or bullet over a six-week span in 1943, after 92,000 or so perished from starvation or disease the three years before.

About the authors below: Edelman and Goldstein were Bundists, while Rotem and Zuckerman were left-wing Zionists. Gutman was later an inmate of Auschwitz, where he narrowly survived. Berg was only a child when she lived in the Warsaw Ghetto, and refused to share further details of her experience or speak out after a translation of her diary (by Henri Lefebvre co-author and Frankfurt School fellow traveler Norbert Guterman) was serialized in American newspapers in 1944.

Daily life in the ghetto

Scenes from the uprising

Remembering the Warsaw ghetto uprising

Marcus Bennett
Jacobin Magazine
April 19th, 2017

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On the eve of Passover 1943 — the nineteenth of April — a group of several hundred poorly armed young Jews began the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the first insurrections against Nazism.

For a small group of fighters, realizing — in the lyrical words of one militant — that “dying with arms is more beautiful than without,” an isolated group of Jewish militants resisted for twenty-nine days against a much larger foe, motivated by a desire to kill as many fascists as they could before they themselves were killed. The uprising, etched into the collective memory of postwar Jewry, remains emotive and emboldening.

That their heroism was a crucial part of the war is disputed by nobody today. But less known is the extent to which the uprising, far from being a spontaneous one of the masses, was the product of planning and preparation from a relatively small — incredibly young — group of Jewish radicals. Continue reading

Jewdas and Yiddish anarchism

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They raised a beetroot in the air and shouted “F*** capitalism!”

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Sorry, but I find this shit hilarious. Jewdas are a bunch of Yiddish anarcho pranksters, but they are far better than most when it comes to diagnosing and opposing antisemitism on the Left. They do lots of Palestine solidarity stuff, but they’ve always been careful to emphasize the dangers of antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism. Plus, they had no problem kicking that dumbass Ken Livingstone in the teeth.

Corbyn played this all rather well, I must say, and doesn’t come off as disingenuous in the least. Really, after flipping out on him for attending Seder, how is the public supposed to take these same people attacking him as an antisemite seriously? Instead, shifting the narrative, the media has attempted to portray Jewdas as a bunch of dangerous extremists — i.e., “a hate-filled group that mocks Judaism.”

Oz Katerji, the New Statesman journo who covered this story, stressed that members of Jewdas weren’t all “extremists.” Nevertheless, he questioned the wisdom of Corbyn in attending the event:

I am sure the Jewdas Seder was a blast, I’m sure the vast majority of those in attendance are good people. But the leader of the opposition should know better than to associate with a group that take pride saying  “Burn down parliament.”

Like, come on. That’s awesome. If anything, it should have been Jewdas that was reluctant to meet with the leader of any parliamentary party. Either way, Jez said he “learned a lot” from the evening’s festivities. Wish they’d schooled Corbyn about some other matters, however, maybe taught him to hum the bars of “Daloy politsey!” (a Yiddish anarchist song, “Down with the Police!”).

What follows is a nice testimony by Rob Abrams originally posted on the Open Democracy website.

When I found antisemitism on the Left, Jewdas were there for me

Robert Abrams
Open Democracy
April 2nd, 2018

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By now, it is very possible you have heard of Jewdas. In the last 48 hours, this community of mostly left-wing, non- and anti-Zionist Jews based in the UK has gone from being a medium-sized network of friends to the talk of the hour. Previously celebrated for its use of humour and playful feather-ruffling by some while being dismissed as a minor inconvenience at best by others, everything changed when Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn joined the group for a Passover Seder on Monday evening.

Against the backdrop of a vicious debate about antisemitism in the Labour party, news publications including the BBC, Sky News, the Daily Mail, the New York Times, and the Israeli Haaretz have all clamored to define Jewdas. It’s hard to express in words just how surreal it was to write this sentence. Continue reading

Red seder

In Berlin 5777, a new communist Haggadah for a Red Passover Seder was brought forth into the world. It replaces the communist Haggadah of  Brooklyn, 5771. This new one is the first Red Haggadah since the Jewish Bolsheviks used them in the 1920s. I now offer it here for use (the Hebrew text came out backwards, unfortunately). The historical background text is below, but to do an actual seder, one must download the Haggadah and follow the steps. Love live October 5778!

Download the Haggadah for a RED SEDER: to readto print

The celebration of Passover is traditionally associated with the spirit of freedom and independence. The seder ceremony features a special menu, the reading of the Haggadah (the retelling of the story of Exodus), songs, and even games. Passover is also the only Jewish celebration whose ritual requires dialogue between children and parents. All this creates an ideal basis for the introduction of new concepts in a popular, well-known format. By the end of the nineteenth century Jewish radicals in Poland, the United States, and Canada were employing the Passover seder for the promotion of political views as well as a way to criticize their opponents. Various political movements organized political seders in interwar Poland.

Soviet Jewish activists, too, did not miss the opportunity to use Passover as a propaganda tool. In 1921 the Central Bureau of the Bolshevik Party’s Evsektsii sent instructions to all local branches to organize “Red Passovers.” Popular brochures that came to be known as “Red Haggadahs” were published, specifying how to conduct the alternative celebrations. Many were written by local activists following a series of centrally directed patterns. One of these was the Komsomolishe Haggadah (Komsomol Haggadah), published in Moscow in 1923 by Moyshe Altshuler. Traditionally the start of Passover (an eight-day holiday during which the consumption of bread or leavened products and yeast is forbidden) is marked with the Bdikas khometz — a search for all remaining traces of leavened food, followed by its burning. In Altshuler’s Komsomolishe Haggadah, this ceremony was transformed as follows:

Ten years ago [in 1917] the working class of Russia with the help of peasants searched for khometz (leaven) in our land. They cleaned away all the traces of landowners and bourgeois bosses in the country and took power in their own hands. They took the land from the landowners, plants and factories from the capitalists; they fought the enemies of the workers on all fronts. In the fire of the great socialist revolution, the workers and peasants burned Kochak, Yudenich, Vrangel, Denikin, Pilsudskii, Petlyura, Chernov, Khots, Dan, Martov, and Abramovich. They recited the blessing: “All landowners, bourgeois and their helpers — Mensheviks, Esers, Kadets, Bundists, Zionists, Esesovtses, Eesovtses, Poaley Zionists, Tsaarey-tsienikes, and all other counterrevolutionaries should be burned in the flame of revolution. Those who are burned should not ever survive, and the rest should be given to us and we shall transfer them to the hands of the GPU.

The Komsomol Haggadah combines all enemies of the Soviet regime as khometz, and recommends burning them. Equating antagonists who were notoriously anti-Jewish, such as the commander of the White Army Aleksei Denikin, to Jewish Soviet opponents, such as Bundists or Zionists, was a popular method of Soviet propaganda. It was not important why or how but simply that they were portrayed as being equally obnoxious.

Haggadah shel pesakh (Story of Passover), cover from the second edition. Drawing by Alexander Tyshler. Moscow, 1927

Every seder ritual was transformed in the Soviet Haggadah. The traditional handwashing and blessing before the meal became a political statement:

Wash off all the bourgeois mud, wash off the mold of generations, and do not say a blessing, say a curse. Devastation must come upon all the old rabbinical laws and customs, yeshivas and khaydorim, that becloud and enslave the people.

Soviet ideologists saw a clear need to create viable alternatives to established rituals and holidays for Jews. They considered that, during the transition period, these rituals had to be based on Jewish traditions and then gradually lead to the establishment of completely new Soviet holidays. In the 1920s these holidays were used both as propaganda against the old religion and promotion of the new political system and ideology. The most notable attempt was the organization of alternative Passover and Yom Kippur celebrations. Continue reading

Antisemitism as a “blindspot” for the Left

Why anyone would want to support Jeremy Corbyn or join the Labour Party is beyond me. I don’t live in Great Britain, so at least I’m spared that grim imperative. From what I’m told, spontaneous adulation for “Jez” and “the absolute boy” broke out on the floor of the DSA convention this last year. A strange occurrence, considering that Corbyn has nothing whatsoever to do with the American political system. He was seen as the limey equivalent to Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy in 2016, so I guess it makes some sense.

Still, since the subject keeps coming up, I might as well address the recurring charge of “antisemitism” that’s been leveled at Corbyn’s Labour. Many of his supporters reflexively suspect this is another attempted coup, an effort by the old Blairite wing of the Party to topple its Corbynite adversary and thereby reassert its dominance. Unfortunately, there’s a very good chance that this is indeed the case. This is unfortunate because antisemitism is a real blindspot for many on the Left, one which is only further occluded by cynical allegations.

Let me lay my cards on the table: I don’t think that Corbyn is a hardened antisemite or anything like that. Efforts to portray him as such are in my opinion transparently opportunistic. Yet again, this is a manufactured scandal resuscitated several years after the fact for political gain. Worst of all, this is leading people to dislike Corbyn for the wrong reasons. Jez sucks not because he’s “the absolute goy,” as some have pithily put it, but because he’s a milquetoast reformist leading a bourgeois political party, who wants to put more cops on the street and complains that foreigners are stealing British jobs.

One can make casually antisemitic, racist, or sexist comments, though, without necessarily being an ideologically committed antisemite, racist, or sexist. This is really the crucial takeaway from theories of structural antisemitism, racism, or sexism. In other words, these ideologies don’t rely on self-consciously antisemitic, racist, or sexist agents or individuals in order to be reproduced societally at an unconscious level.

Pseudo-emancipatory character

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Racist ideologies typically employ a double-operation with regard to those they deem parasitic upon the greater social body. In contrast to the broad masses of society (e.g., “ordinary hardworking Americans,” a codeword for the predominantly WASPish working class) there is a lower and an upper stratum of parasites. Whereas the lower stratum includes supposed inferiors — i.e., illegal immigrants, “welfare queens,” and so on, who leech off of the surplus wealth generated by industrious individuals — the upper stratum covers supposed elites — i.e., globalists, Jews, and banksters, who surreptitiously rob honest workers through financial speculation or manipulate them with their control of the media.

Moishe Postone, the late theorist of structural antisemitism, argued that it possesses a peculiar quality compared to other racist ideologies. Impersonal aspects of the capitalist social order are identified with the person of the Jew, who for historically contingent reasons fulfills a logically necessary function of capitalism. A faceless and anonymous form of domination is given both a face and a name. For this reason, Postone maintained that “antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension other forms of racism rarely have… Racism is rarely a danger for the left. While the Left has to be careful not to be racist, it isn’t an ongoing danger because racism doesn’t have the apparent emancipatory dimension of anti-semitism.” Continue reading

Moishe Postone, 1942-2018

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(Caricature depicting Postone on the left,
next to Karl Marx and Karl Liebknecht)

Yesterday morning I saw it announced across social media and on several sites, namely by Zer0 Books and Shades Magazine, that my former teacher Moishe Postone has died. I had known from friends close to his family that he was very ill, and heard they were taking him off life support this last weekend. So when news circulated that he had left us, I assumed it was fact and wrote the short tribute published here. Later, a fellow student of Moishe, Istvan Adorjan, contacted me to say the reports were false, and that he was still clinging to life (though probably not for much longer). Obviously, I did not intend to mislead anyone by passing along this information, since I believed it to be true, much less disrespect him or his loved ones.

As soon as I learned of the mistake, I tried to publicize as far as possible that Moishe was still alive. Many others had by then written premature obituaries, including Peter Frase of Jacobin, though he likewise went on to correct it. For some reason, Sebastian Budgen of Verso and Historical Materialism began alleging that that I’d invented the malicious rumor Moishe was dead, despite the fact Budgen had widely shared the false reports of his passing across multiple platforms hours before I even saw anything about it. Ironically, Budgen only learned Moishe was still alive at that point thanks to Brendan McGeever’s crosspost of my note. Nevertheless, he fulminated that I ought to be boycotted like “apartheid South Africa or Zionist Israel” (I can only imagine what Moishe would have said about that).

That the sad occasion of Moishe’s passing would be used by Budgen to perpetuate his silly beef with me is of course petty beyond belief, but it is not surprising, just as little as it should surprise anyone that sycophants hoping to get published by him would kiss his ass all over that status update. Regardless, I intend to dedicate the remainder of this post to the memory of Postone, without worrying about what these idiots might say. Jennifer Moran, a family friend, contacted me a couple hours ago to tell me she had just received a pastoral notice from the synagogue that the funeral will be held at Rodfei Zadek tomorrow. Goodbye, Moishe. You will be missed immensely.

When I attended his lectures on Capital almost ten years ago he was undergoing treatment for cancer, which was subsequently in remission. Apparently it came back. Still, if you haven’t read his groundbreaking contributions to the reinterpretation of Marx’s mature critique, you should do so without delay. His works in English and German can be downloaded below.

An interview with Postone, published almost exactly ten years ago, can be read following a photograph showing him visiting the grave of the Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse. For worthwhile critical engagements with Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination, see Loren Goldner’s appreciative “Critique of Pure Theory: Moishe Postone’s Dialectic of the Abstract and Abstract” (2003), Michael Heinrich’s somewhat captious “Too Much Production: Postone’s New Interpretation of Marx’s Theory Provides a Categorical Critique with Deficits” (2004), Chris Arthur’s “Subject and Counter-Subject” (2004), Slavoj Žižek’s sustained reading of it in Living in the End Times (2009), and Chris Cutrone’s “When was the Crisis of Capitalism? Moishe Postone and the Legacy of the 1960s New Left” (2014).

Marx after Marxism:
An interview with Moishe Postone

Benjamin Blumberg & Pam Nogales
Platypus Review 3 | March 1, 2008

 

BB: We would like to begin by asking some questions about your early engagement with Marxism and the impetus for your contribution to it. Very basically, how did you come upon Marx?

MP: I went through various stages. My first encounter was, as is the case with many people, the Communist Manifesto, which I thought was… rousing, and not really relevant. For me, in the 1960s, I thought it was a kind of a feel-good manifesto, not that it had been that in its own time, but that it no longer was really very relevant. Also, hearing the remnants of the old Left that were still around campus — Trotskyists and Stalinists arguing with one another — I thought that most of it was pretty removed from people’s concerns. It had a museum quality to it. So, I considered myself, in some vague sense, critical, or Left, or then the word was “radical,” but not particularly Marxist. I was very interested in issues of socialism, but that isn’t necessarily the same as Marxism.

Then I discovered, as did many in my generation, the 1844 Manuscripts. I thought they were fantastic… At that point, however, I still bought into the notion, very widespread then, that the young Marx really had something to say and that then, alas, he became a Victorian and that his thought became petrified. A turning point for me was an article, “The Unknown Marx,” written by Martin Nicolaus while translating the Grundrisse in 1967. Its hints at the richness of the Grundrisse blew me away.

Another turning point in this direction was a sit-in in the University of Chicago in 1969. Within the sit-in there were intense political arguments, different factions were forming. Progressive Labor (PL) was one. It called itself a Maoist organization, but it was Maoist only in the sense that Mao disagreed with Kruschev’s speech denouncing Stalin, so it was really an unreconstructed Stalinist organization. The other was a group called Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which tried to take cognizance of the major historical shifts of the late 1960s, and did so by focusing on youth and on race. It eventually split; one wing became the Weathermen. At first friends of mine and myself kind of allied with RYM, against PL — but that’s because PL was just very vulgar and essentially outside of historical time. But the differences I and some friends had on RYM were expressed tellingly after the sit-in. Two study groups emerged out of the sit-in, one was the RYM study group, called “Youth as a Class,” and the other I ran with a friend, called “Hegel and Marx.” We felt that social theory was essential to understanding the historical moment, and that RYM’s emphasis on surface immediacy was disastrous. We read [Georg] Lukács, who also was an eye-opener — the extent to which he took many of the themes of some conservative critics of capitalism — the critique of bureaucratization, of formalism, of the dominant model of science — and embedded them within Marx’s analysis of the commodity form. In a sense this made those conservative critics look a lot more superficial than they had looked beforehand, and deepened and broadened the notion of a Marxian critique. I found it really to be an impressive tour de force. In the meantime I was very unhappy with certain directions that the Left had taken.

BB: To begin with a basic but fundamental question, one that is very important for your work, why is the commodity form the necessary category of departure for Marx in Capital? In other words, why would a category that would appear to be, in certain guises, an economic category be the point of departure for a critique of social modernity capable of grasping social phenomena at an essential level?

MP: I think what Marx is trying to do is delineate a form of social relations that is fundamentally different from that in pre-capitalist societies. He maintains that the social relations that characterize capitalism, that drive capitalism, are historically unique, but don’t appear to be social. So that, for example, although the amazing intrinsic dynamic of capitalist society is historically specific, it is seen as merely a feature of human interaction with nature. I think one of the things that Marx is trying to argue is that what drives the dynamic of capitalist society are these peculiar social forms that become reified.

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Yiddishland and beyond: Jews, nationalism, and internationalism

Jews have long been associated with socialist politics, either maliciously or adventitiously. Obviously I have no interest in lending weight to this association, as it’s more a matter of historical accident than any cultural or biological predisposition. Because I like to use this blog as a resource for readers, however, providing materials that are otherwise hard to find, I thought I’d post some documents pertaining to the issue. Without further ado, then:

Some of these are primary source memoirs. For example, those of the Bundist leader Vladimir Medem, the Bundist agitator Bernard Goldstein, and the Bundist-turned-Bolshevik-turned-Left Oppositionist-turned-Zionist Hersh Mendel. Others are essay collections, whether compiling the shorter works of a single figure like the “Marxist Zionist” Ber Borochev, founder of Poale Zion, or individual contributions by a number of authors (as in Jews and Leftist Politics). Other texts are more thematic studies. Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klineberg’s Revolutionary Yiddishland and Michael Löwy’s outstanding Redemption and Utopia are good examples of this. Historical overviews are also included, like Yoav Peled’s Class and Ethnicity in the Pale and Arno J. Mayer’s Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?

Needless to say, I don’t necessarily endorse the views espoused in the texts shared above. Indeed, many of them are at odds with each other. Zionism and Bundism are equally antithetical to me, insofar as I consider myself an internationalist opposed to nationalism in all of its forms. The politics of Medem and Borochov thus do not appeal to me, as interesting they may be as historical figures. Likewise, Traverso’s End of Jewish Modernity was deeply disappointing to me, as was Butler’s Parting Ways (and I entered that one with much lower expectations). Jews are not any more broad-minded or inherently universalist than any other group of people, and there is no “true diasporic essence” that can be somehow recaptured. For if the last seventy years have shown anything, it’s that Jews can be just as narrow and chauvinistic as any other nation.

Because the topic repeatedly comes up, I thought I might briefly address the relation of Jewish politics (to the extent one can speak of a single body of Jewish political thought) to the two rival orientations of the modern age: nationalism and internationalism. Jewish nationalisms flourished throughout Europe around the fin-de-siècle. Two main types may be distinguished: Bundism and Zionism. Whereas the former sought to establish a Jewish homeland wherever a sufficient concentration of Jews already lived, the latter proposed relocation to Palestine (or sometimes to Uganda). Each type was ideologically inflected by mainstream European socialism, though they deviated from its internationalist scope and outlook.

For whatever reason, Borochov’s Labor Zionism proved more cosmopolitan than Medem’s Bundism when it came to propagating international communism. Although he died in 1917, before the October Revolution, the followers of Borochov fought with the Red Army in much higher numbers than their Bundist counterparts. The image above, by the Polish constructivist Henryk Berlewi, features Yiddish text which reads “Workers of all lands, unite!” Quite clearly, the unnamed figure shown in between the floating suprematist shapes is Borochov (compare with the photo portrait before it). Likewise, the Hebrew of the next, above and below the stock Comintern image of the worker smashing the chains of the world, reads:

With the workers of Zion, to the struggle!
For a Histadrut that will fight!
For the sake of Socialism!
Left Workers of Zion,
The Borochovian opposition,
And “Non-Partisans”

Medem, in contrast with Borochov, was far more sympathetic to the Mensheviks than to the Bolsheviks. He reviled Lenin and Trotsky, suggesting the former suffered from megalomania.

VKhUTEMAS: The “Soviet Bauhaus”

Architectural Review

Agata Pyzik
May 8, 2015

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VKhUTEMAS was an art and technical school set up in 1920 in Moscow that saw itself as a realization of the new revolutionary government’s approach to art, and which was to become a vital part of building a new society. Often this ‘building’ was in the most literal sense: one of the chief skills taught there was architecture, next to industrial and technical design, textiles, painting and sculpture. This exhibition in Martin-Gropius-Bau focuses on the school’s architecture teaching, and on the highly interdisciplinary, experimental methods developed there by some of the greatest Russian architects of the 20th century, such as Nikolai Ladovsky, Moisei Ginsburg, and Konstantin Melnikov. They were able to produce such pioneering results by treating artistic education as part of a whole. Many of these architects were also fascinating painters. At the same time, few of VKhUTEMAS students’ boldest designs were built, and the school faced a political backlash as early as 1929.

This “Soviet Bauhaus” (as the exhibition’s subtitle has it) raises interest today not only because Constructivist luminaries such as Rodchenko, Klutsis, and Popova taught there, but also because of an emerging interest in the less explored aspects of the art of the revolutionary period. The Berlin show concentrates on the pedagogic work of teachers and usually unknown students at VKhUTEMAS, whose rarely seen work hangs next to the better-known abstract compositions of Stepanova or Rodchenko’s spatial constructions.

Given the traditionalist legacy of tsarism, these artists had first to break with the 19th century. This is visible in the early 1920s work of Nikolai Kolli, later the job architect on Corbusier’s only completed Soviet building, Tsentrosoyuz. His drawings of foliage compositions on Neoclassical architecture show how attaining Constructivist form meant learning from the past as well as its rejection. The school’s architecture faculty initially combined three threads: Neoclassicist, taught by Ivan Zholtovsky; the experimental Rationalist school, headed by Ladovsky; and a non-conformist pedagogical program led by Melnikov and Ilya Golosov, the “New Academy.” The link between classicism and Modernism is here less sharp than it’s often portrayed — there are many student drawings, which, in order to reach for new spatial forms, reach first to French visionary architects, such as Boullée and Ledoux, and develop these in an ever more stern, reduced way.

This relationship between the French Revolution and classicism is echoed in the creation of a new, atheistic, rational Soviet state and society, cherishing internationalism and heroes of modernity, in such projects as the Cathedral of International Understanding by the Rationalist and VKhUTEMAS teacher Vladimir Krinsky, or Ladovsky’s Monument to Columbus in Santo Domingo. Successive rooms show how students’ responses to extremely matter-of-fact tasks, such as “production exercise to determine and represent a form,” produced extremely varied results, bulky edifices or thin, fragile towers, coming in bright, contrasting colors, and using collage and photomontage, to establish new forms of space. Students had a lot of freedom, leading to extraordinary diploma projects such as Nikolai Sokolov’s Constructivist spa, which was envisaged to be partly under a mountain, a reminder that one of objectives of early Communism was comfort and luxury. Another final-year project is Georgi Krutikov’s Flying City, accompanied by a Surrealist photomontage predicting the space program and proving that traffic will soon become too congested and dangerous — as early as 1928!

In the end, VKhUTEMAS’ undoing was part of increasingly pragmatic late 1920s politics, which demanded its greater involvement in national industry. Although students like Ivan Leonidov attempted more utopian approaches to planning than the likes of the showcase steeltown Magnitogorsk, they were rejected. Finally, the school’s dissolution was an inevitability tied not just to the Stalinization of Soviet Russia, but to the tendency by 1930s modern architects everywhere to abandon experimentation in favor of a more bland International Style.

Student projects

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Complex frontal composition based on nuance and contrast combination of plastic and shade, using elements of rhythm

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Student exercises for the color course

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CLR James, critical theory, and the dialectic

The writings of the Trinidadian Marxist and revolutionary Cyril Lionel Robert James contain some of the noblest reflections on human freedom ever put to page. Obviously the present author does not agree with all of James’ arguments, especially those concerning national self-determination as a step toward global emancipation. Eventually this mistaken belief led him to extend his “critical support” to Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Mao Tse-Tung’s China, as Matthew Quest has amply shown for Insurgent Notes. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from reading the works of James.

Postcolonial theorists in particular would do well to learn from his appreciation of the universal achievements of capitalist modernity. “I denounce European colonialism,” he wrote in 1980. “But I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilization.” Similarly, James always insisted that “the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics.” He stressed in his landmark study of The Black Jacobins that “to think of imperialism in terms of race would be disastrous.” Whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who blogs under the handle Of C.L.R. James, ought to take note.

James might well be denounced as a “class reductionist” these days for his 1960 speech before an audience in Trinidad. “The great problem of the United States,” he declared, “with all due respect to the color of the majority of my audience, is not the ‘negro question’… If the question of workers’ independent political organization were solved, the ‘negro question’ would be solved. As long as this is not solved the ‘negro question’ will never be solved.” From first to last, James remained a Marxist in his strict emphasis on the primacy of working-class autonomy.

Even as the yoke of colonial oppression was finally being lifted, in 1958, he maintained: “We are breaking the old connections, and have to establish new ones… Let us not repel [onlookers] by showing them that we are governed by the same narrow nationalist and particularist conceptions which have caused so much mischief in Europe and elsewhere… Help [from the rest of the world] is precious and, far from being a purely economic question, is a social and political necessity. Industrial expansion is not merely a question of material forces but of human relations.”

Zimbabwe is only the latest example of a failed postcolonial state. Apart from a few stray tankies like Caleb Maupin — who somehow still contends that Mugabe was not a dictator, despite having ruled the country for 37 years straight — not too many tears have been shed on account of the African leader’s sudden downfall. No one, except for brazen racists and white nationalists, longs for a return to colonial times or the restoration of Rhodesia. Yet Zimbabwe is proof that underdevelopment was not solely due to colonialism. The once-rich nation has plummeted into poverty over the past couple decades.

Moreover, I feel vindicated by James’ skepticism toward cultural studies programs. Jewish studies, to speak only of the discipline that’s grown up around my culture of origin, have always seemed to me a colossal waste of time. “I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such,” James told students in 1968, “but simply the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain social and political setting [capitalism]. During the last two hundred years, in particular, it’s impossible to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”

Regardless, enough from me already. You can download the following works by James by clicking on the links below:

  1. At the Rendezvous of Victory: Selected Writings, 1931-1981
  2. The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932)
  3. Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts (1934-1936)
  4. World Revolution, 1917-1936 (1937)
  5. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution (1938)
  6. On the “Negro Question” (1939-1950)
  7. “Historical Retrogression or Socialist Revolution?” (1946)
  8. with Raya Dunayevskaya, A New Notion: The Invading Socialist Society and Every Cook Can Govern (1947, 1956)
  9. Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (1948)
  10. with Grace Lee Boggs and Raya Dunayevskaya, State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950)
  11. Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1952)
  12. The Nobbie Stories for Children and Adults (1953-1956)
  13. Modern Politics (1960)
  14. Beyond a Boundary (1963)
  15. Marxism for Our Times: On Revolutionary Organization (1963-1981)
  16. “Wilson Harris andthe Existentialist Doctrine” (1965)
  17. Lectures on The Black Jacobins (1970)
  18. with Grace Lee and Cornelius Castoriadis, Facing Reality (1974)

And you can download the following pieces of secondary literature:

  1. Louise Cripps, C.L.R. James: Memories and Commentaries (1997)
  2. Aldon Lynn Nielsen, C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction (1997)
  3. Frank Rosengarten, Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society (2008)
  4. Ornette D. Clennon, The Polemics of C.L.R. James and Contemporary Black Activism (2017)
  5. Beyond Boundaries: C.L.R. James and Postnational Studies (2006)
  6. C.L.R. James’ Caribbean (1992)
  7. The Black Jacobins Reader (2017)
  8. Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (2014)

What follows is an exploration of the affinities between James and the Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor Adorno, written by the Italian Marxist Enzo Traverso as part of his new book Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2016). Continue reading

El Lissitzky exhibition in Moscow, November 2017-February 2018

El Lissitzky, renaissance man of the Soviet avant-garde, is the subject of a major career survey in Russia that opened last week. It is the first such show in the country for thirty years.

Ambitiously organized across two venues, the State Tretyakov Museum and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the shows are being treated as a single exhibition. They draw on an archive of the artist’s work preserved against all odds by Sophie Küppers, his German wife, an art historian and collector. Roughly 400 works are on display.

Lissitzky spent a significant portion of the 1910s and 1920s in Germany, promoting revolutionary art. When he returned to the Soviet Union in 1925, he left dozens of his paintings, photographs, architectural and graphic designs behind.

Lissitzky married Küppers in 1927 — for which she later paid a chilling price. Three years after her husband’s death in 1941, she was exiled to Siberia as an enemy alien, and works in her collection were seized by Soviet authorities. In July 2017, her heirs won a major battle in a German court over a work she had owned by Paul Klee, which was seized by the Nazis in 1937 and sold off as “degenerate” art.

Tatyana Goryacheva, the Tretyakov’s curator, says Küppers sold “part of her archive and nearly 300 graphic works” to the museum in 1959. “The collection includes drawings and sketches of Prouns” as well as “lithographs, sketches of architectural and exhibition projects, posters and book designs,” she says.

Goryacheva says that while the exhibition underscores Lissitzky’s talent, it also illuminates “the interrelations between the artist and the authorities, avant-garde art, and totalitarian ideology — an issue that inevitably arises in connection with art of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde.”

  • El Lissitzky, State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, until 4 February 2018
  • El Lissitzky, Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, Moscow, until 18 February 2018

Continue reading

Victor Serge, chronicler of revolution

A week ago, the centenary of the October Revolution came and went. For this week’s post, I thought I’d share the works of one of its most important witnesses and participants. Victor Serge was a Belgian-Russian anarchist who repatriated to Russia shortly after the Bolshevik seizure of power, joining Lenin and Trotsky in their historic effort to overthrow capitalism. You can download PDFs of Serge’s major works by clicking on the following links:

  1. Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908-1938
  2. Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921
  3. Witness to the German Revolution: Writings from Germany, 1923
  4. “Is a Proletarian Literature Possible?” (1925)
  5. Men in Prison (1929)
  6. Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930)
  7. Conquered City (1930-1931)
  8. Birth of Our Power (1931)
  9. Midnight in the Century (1936-1938)
  10. From Lenin to Stalin (1937)
  11. Russia Twenty Years After and Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution (1937, 1947)
  12. The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1940-1942)
  13. Mexican Notebooks, 1940-1947
  14. Unforgiving Years (1946)
  15. Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (with Natalia Sedova, 1946)
  16. Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1947)
  17. A Blaze in the Desert: Selected Poems

Most of the secondary literature on Serge is comprised of rather short essays, articles, and reviews. The only book-length studies in English are Suzi Weissman’s Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope (2001) and Paul Gordon’s Vagabond Witness: Victor Serge and the Politics of Hope (2013). Hopefully a more Bolshevik book on Serge will appear at some point. Back in 1994, the Trotskyist scholarly journal Revolutionary History dedicated an issue to Serge under the title Century of the Unexpected, which is probably worth checking out.

One of Susan Sontag’s last works, “Unextinguished: The Case for Victor Serge,” is roughly thirty pages long and appears as the foreword to The Case of Comrade Tulayev, above. Andras Gyorgy’s “But Who, After All, was Victor Serge?” (2008) offers a nice corrective to the aforementioned writings of Sontag and Weissman, both of whom are far more liberal in their politics than Serge ever was. Something similar could be said of Richard Greeman, to be honest, though his translations of Serge redeem him somewhat.

Doug Enaa Greene, an incel Trot historian who hates my guts for some reason, wrote a piece for Red Wedge “Victor Serge: On the Borders of Victory and Defeat” in 2015. Rather pedestrian, on the whole, but nevertheless a serviceable introduction to Serge’s work. Finally, my former teacher Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote a nice review of Serge’s memoirs for The Guardian a few years back. Weissman and others exchanged some critical remarks on Serge in the US socialist magazine Against the Current, which were subsequently compiled and published over at Links.

Philippe Bourrinet’s 2002 essay on Serge, which traces the evolution of his thought vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and relates it concurrent left communist views, is reproduced below. A couple words on this piece: Bourrinet seems to be unfamiliar with Evgenii Preobrazhensky’s concept of “socialist primitive accumulation,” doubtless the source of Serge’s own conception. Obviously, criticisms can and should be made of this notion, but it is not as if it was an original coinage by Serge or an insight into the bloodiness of forced collectivization.

I’ve recently been reading Paresh Chattopadhyay’s book on The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience (1991), which compellingly argues that only the juridical existence of capital was suspended in the USSR while its economic existence remained intact. Serge recognized this fact, Bourrinet alleges, in writing that “where there are wage workers, there is capital.” While I plan to reread the works of Hillel Ticktin to finally determine where I come down on the whole “state capitalism” debate, I must confess I’m more open to this category than previously.

Victor Serge:
Totalitarianism and state capitalism

Philippe Bourrinet
Collective Action
January 1, 2002
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Night heralds the advent of a morning so radiant and so full of promise we cannot even conceive of it.

Let us not be discouraged.

— Victor Serge

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Russia’s transition towards a relative democratization, based on a private capitalist sector, poses three questions: how did so-called “Soviet totalitarianism” take power and endure for such a long time, only to finally collapse; how was it that the transition from state capitalism, which some have called “collectivist planned economy,” to a private capitalist sector was so easily accomplished; and also how can a socialist alternative for the twenty-first century1 be realized that responds to the needs of a new autonomous social movement whose goal is to free man from his economic and political chains.

Victor Serge’s testimony is of unique value for the new social movement for the purpose of addressing these crucial questions in the wake of the disappearance of Stalinism. Victor Serge has bequeathed a valuable legacy to succeeding generations. His works, both political and literary, and his talents, constitute a rich mine for understanding the origin of totalitarianism in Russia as well as how its economic infrastructure functioned for almost seventy years.

Defining totalitarianism and state capitalism

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Beginning in the 1930s, Serge would make frequent use of the term “totalitarian” in his writings.

The term originated among the Italian antifascists, although the fascists also used it. In 1925 Mussolini proclaimed the “fierce totalitarian will” of his regime. Totalitarianism was above all the total absorption of civil society by the state, which, of course, the fascists defined as no longer capitalist. According to Mussolini himself, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”2 Hitler’s accession to power, which installed a racist totalitarianism where the state was the embodiment of the will of the Leader (Führer) lastingly impressed the notion of totalitarianism on antifascist literature. Continue reading