Leon Trotsky, “demon” of the revolution


Com­rades, we love the sun that gives us light, but if the rich and the ag­gressors were to try to mono­pol­ize the sun, we should say: “Let the sun be ex­tin­guished, let dark­ness reign, etern­al night…”

— Le­on Trot­sky (Septem­ber 11, 1918)

То­ва­ри­щи, мы лю­бим солн­це, ко­то­рое да­ет нам жизнь, но если бы бо­га­чи и аг­рес­со­ры по­пы­та­лись за­хва­тить се­бе солн­це, мы бы ска­за­ли: «Пусть солн­це по­гас­нет, пусть во­ца­рит­ся тьма, веч­ная ночь…»

— Лев Троц­кий (11 сен­тяб­ря 1918 г.)

Dmitrii Volko­gonov, former court his­tor­i­an of Sta­lin­ism turned ra­bid an­ti­com­mun­ist, fam­ously dubbed Trot­sky the “de­mon” of the Oc­to­ber Re­volu­tion. When he com­manded the Red Army, dur­ing the Civil War, this was in­deed the im­age en­emies of the So­viet Uni­on had of him. He would ap­pear in Theodor Ad­orno’s dreams, and Wal­ter Ben­jamin de­voured his auto­bi­o­graphy and His­tory of the Rus­si­an Re­volu­tion. The psy­cho­ana­lyst Helmut Dah­mer, a stu­dent of Ad­orno, has writ­ten on the vari­ous in­tel­lec­tu­al res­on­ances and par­al­lels between Trot­sky’s Left Op­pos­i­tion and Horkheimer’s In­sti­tute of So­cial Re­search. I’ve poin­ted out both the ten­sions and con­nec­tions of Trot­sky with the Itali­an com­mun­ist lead­er Amedeo Bor­diga, if not Trot­sky­ism and Bor­di­gism (which are much fur­ther apart than their re­spect­ive founders).

Some of his works could already be found in a pre­vi­ous post, but here are a few more titles:

  1. Le­on Trot­sky, 1905 (1907)
  2. Le­on Trot­sky, Ter­ror­ism and Com­mun­ism: A Reply to Karl Kaut­sky (1920)
  3. Le­on Trot­sky, Mil­it­ary Writ­ings, 1920-1923
  4. Le­on Trot­sky, Lit­er­at­ure and Re­volu­tion (1923)
  5. Le­on Trot­sky, The Chal­lenge of the Left Op­pos­i­tion: Writ­ings, 1923-1925
  6. Le­on Trot­sky, My Life (1928)
  7. Le­on Trot­sky, The Third In­ter­na­tion­al After Len­in (1928)
  8. Le­on Trot­sky, His­tory of the Rus­si­an Re­volu­tion, Volume 1: The Over­throw of Tsar­ism (1929)
  9. Le­on Trot­sky, His­tory of the Rus­si­an Re­volu­tion, Volume 2: At­tempt at Coun­ter­re­volu­tion (1930)
  10. Le­on Trot­sky, His­tory of the Rus­si­an Re­volu­tion, Volume 3: The Tri­umph of the So­vi­ets (1931)

Here are some bio­graph­ies and mem­oirs by his friends, as well:

  1. Vic­tor Serge and Nat­alia Se­dova, Life and Death of Le­on Trot­sky (1946)
  2. Jean van Heijenoort, With Trot­sky in Ex­ile: From Prinkipo to Coyoacán (1978)
  3. Dmitrii Volko­gonov, Trot­sky: The Etern­al Re­volu­tion­ary (1992)
  4. Ian D. Thatch­er, Trot­sky (2002)
  5. Joshua Ruben­stein, Le­on Trot­sky: A Re­volu­tion­ary’s Life (2011)

More be­low.

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A revolutionary impulse: Russian avant-garde at the MoMA

Four months back, the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art opened an ex­hib­it en­titled A Re­volu­tion­ary Im­pulse: Rise of the Rus­si­an Av­ant-Garde. The show re­ceived mostly fa­vor­able write-ups in lib­er­al out­lets like New York Times and New York­er as well as art/cul­ture mags like Stu­dio In­ter­na­tion­al, Seca Art, and He­don­ist. Marx­ist and left­ish pub­lic­a­tions such as World So­cial­ist Web­site (or­gan of the So­cial­ist Equal­ity Party) and Brook­lyn Rail also ran ap­pre­ci­at­ive re­views of the ex­hib­i­tion.

Per­haps my fa­vor­ite crit­ic­al re­flec­tion on the show came from Caesura, an off­shoot from the Platy­pus Af­fil­i­ated So­ci­ety ex­clus­ively fo­cused on art, mu­sic, and lit­er­at­ure. It fea­tured a fairly char­ac­ter­ist­ic but nev­er­the­less poignant ob­ser­va­tion:

Of the stag­ger­ing num­ber of ob­jects on dis­play, most strik­ing was film­maker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 col­lab­or­a­tion with Rod­chen­ko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a pro­pa­ganda film (the title trans­lates to cinema-truth) track­ing the fail­ing health, death and fu­ner­al of Len­in. Black and white graph­ics con­trib­uted by Rod­chen­ko de­pict­ing, without com­ment, the med­ic­al stat­ist­ics of the ail­ing re­volu­tion­ary lead­er cre­ated a palp­able sense of worry as they edge, at an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slow pace, to­wards the res­ult we all know already: Len­in’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced pro­ces­sion of mourn­ers at his fu­ner­al, ded­ic­at­ing por­trait shots and name plates to party lead­ers: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Le­on Trot­sky and Joseph Stal­in stead­fastly look­ing ahead. The lat­ter was ut­terly chilling — a glimpse of a fu­ture yet un­known to the film­makers but known all too well today. Stand­ing, in 2017, in the Amer­ic­an Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in a mo­ment of ut­ter polit­ic­al con­fu­sion, the tragedy of this mo­ment was cut­ting. Could the mourn­ers have pos­sibly known that they had wit­nessed both the be­gin­ning and the end of a mo­ment of tre­mend­ous his­tor­ic­al po­ten­tial? Did Vertov and Rod­chen­ko real­ize that in their mont­age of party lead­ers it would be Stal­in who would take power? Did they know that, after the crip­pling de­feat of the Ger­man Left the year pri­or, 1924 would mark a clos­ing and not an open­ing of his­tory?

Caesura’s re­view­er fur­ther spec­u­lates that “if the art of the Rus­si­an av­ant-garde has a time­less qual­ity, it is be­cause of its unique his­tor­ic­al ori­gin. Nev­er be­fore or since have artists op­er­ated un­der the thrall of three so­ci­et­ies — crum­bling czar­ist Rus­sia, the dy­nam­ic bour­geois west, and the ad­van­cing specter of so­cial­ism — so dif­fer­ent. It ex­presses all three but be­longs to none.” A sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment is cap­tured by a line in the New York­er: “His­tory is not a con­stant march for­ward; it can stand still for dec­ades and then, as it did in Rus­sia a hun­dred years ago, ex­plode in a flash.” This line it­self merely para­phrases a quip at­trib­uted to Len­in, to the ef­fect that “there are dec­ades where noth­ing hap­pens, but then there are weeks where dec­ades hap­pen.”

I my­self at­ten­ded the ex­hib­it, and was im­pressed by what I saw. Some of the same pieces had ap­peared in spe­cial gal­ler­ies across the city over the last few years, but the sheer wealth of ma­ter­i­al con­cen­trated in one space was breath­tak­ing. Fur­ther­more, the way this ma­ter­i­al was or­gan­ized and form­ally ar­ranged was skill­ful. You can see a pic­ture of me stand­ing next to Lis­sitzky’s “new man of com­mun­ism,” taken from his series for Vic­tory over the Sun. Be­low you can read a fine med­it­a­tion on the show writ­ten by Bloom Correo, a young ul­traleft au­thor who vis­ited NYC just to see it.

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Moar like Absurdo, amirite?

Fol­low­ing the mis­sile strike on Shayr­at in West­ern Syr­ia last Thursday, a wave of protests broke out across the United States. These proved something of a mixed bag, as one might ex­pect. In ad­di­tion to those who sup­port the Free Syr­i­an Army but op­pose fur­ther Amer­ic­an in­ter­ven­tion, a num­ber of un­sa­vory sorts also showed up. Por­traits of Putin and As­sad could be seen along­side yel­low signs put out by the AN­SWER Co­ali­tion. A few flags fea­tur­ing the mod­i­fied or­ange tor­nado-swastika of the fas­cist Syr­i­an So­cial Na­tion­al­ist Party or SS­NP, a close ally of the Ba’ath­ist re­gime, also ap­peared at the demon­stra­tions. Some or­gan­izers took a more prin­cipled stand, however, re­ject­ing calls for a heightened US mil­it­ary role while at the same time re­fus­ing to march with As­sad­ists.

While I’m heartened by such un­equi­voc­al de­clar­a­tions of prin­ciple, we are still all too ready to for­give those who make ex­cuses for re­ac­tion­ar­ies. Marx­ists must do more to dis­tance ourselves from bour­geois na­tion­al­ists, re­li­gious fun­da­ment­al­ists, and oth­ers who present false al­tern­at­ives to for­eign dom­in­a­tion. Even more so, we must stop giv­ing a pass to those who dis­cred­it the an­ti­war move­ment through ca­su­istry and mor­al equi­val­ence. Un­der the crude lo­gic of “the en­emy of my en­emy is my friend,” any­one and every­one who chal­lenges Anglo-European he­ge­mony is viewed as a po­ten­tial ally. Clif­fites, like the So­cial­ist Work­ers’ Party (SWP) in Bri­tain or the In­ter­na­tion­al So­cial­ist Or­gan­iz­a­tion (ISO) in the US, lend their “crit­ic­al but un­con­di­tion­al sup­port” to openly an­ti­semit­ic groups such as Hezbol­lah and Hamas against Is­raeli ag­gres­sion in­to Ga­za. Gio­vanni Scuderi of the Marx­ist-Len­in­ist Party of Italy (PMLI) re­cently called on his fol­low­ers to unite with the Is­lam­ic State against West­ern im­per­i­al­ism.

Of course, it’s far easi­er to skew­er ob­scure sects with barely a hun­dred mem­bers than it is to do the same to be­loved Marx­ist aca­dem­ics. Domen­ico Los­urdo, for ex­ample, en­joys the repu­ta­tion in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world of a di­li­gent and wide-ran­ging in­tel­lec­tu­al his­tor­i­an. Richard Sey­mour was among the first to her­ald his work, opin­ing in 2007: “Los­urdo is, if you ask me, the best crit­ic of cap­it­al­ist ideo­logy writ­ing today.” His ar­gu­ments were cited fre­quently, moreover, in the 2010 study Fan­at­icism: On the Uses of an Idea by Ba­di­ou trans­lat­or Al­berto To­scano. Mean­while, the mono­lin­gual Hegel schol­ar Har­ris­on Fluss praises Los­urdo’s re­search to the rafters, Ishay Landa laud­ing him for his “mas­terly dia­lect­ic­al style” [meister­hafte dialekt­ische Art]. Speak­ing just for my­self, I find his book on Hegel and the Free­dom of Mod­erns (1992) to be his strongest work, though his cri­tique of Aren­dt on to­tal­it­ari­an­ism and over­view of Heide­g­ger and the Ideo­logy of War: Death, Com­munity, and the West (1991) are also pretty good.

Glan­cing at some of the PCI philo­soph­er’s past polit­ic­al po­s­i­tions, however, one is shocked to learn that he’s con­sist­ently sought to re­hab­il­it­ate both Sta­lin­ist dic­tat­ors from the age of “ac­tu­ally-ex­ist­ing so­cial­ism” as well as na­tion­al­ist strong­men whose in­terests happened to run counter to US geo­pol­it­ic­al aims in the post­com­mun­ist era. With re­gard to the lat­ter, of these, a couple of cases suf­fice to make the point. Back in the 1990s, Los­urdo was an out­spoken apo­lo­gist for Slobodan Milošević, go­ing so far as to pre­face a pamph­let in de­fense of the dis­graced Ser­bi­an lead­er as late as 2005. Milošević was sus­pec­ted of in­cit­ing vi­ol­ence against Al­bani­ans earli­er in the dec­ade as well as sub­sequent eth­nic cleans­ing cam­paigns in Bos­nia, Kosovo, and Croa­tia. Yet Milošević is not the only na­tion­al­ist strong­man Los­urdo has sup­por­ted since the fall of com­mun­ism in East­ern Europe. He earli­er de­fen­ded the Ro­mani­an premi­er Nic­olae Ceau­ses­cu, in power for dec­ades, from charges of gen­o­cide ar­ti­fi­cially con­cocted by the “lie in­dustry” [l’in­dus­tria della men­zogna] — i.e., the West­ern me­dia — which Los­urdo con­siders an “in­teg­ral part of the im­per­i­al­ist war ma­chine” [parte in­teg­rante della mac­ch­ina di guerra dell’im­per­i­al­ismo].

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Gary Johnson, Syria, and the apocalypse

The best we can do right now with re­spect to Syr­ia and vari­ous oth­er world-his­tor­ic­al phe­nom­ena is pre­dict likely out­comes, since we have no abil­ity to mean­ing­fully al­ter the course of events. Ex­cept, of course, if we’re pre­pared to fig­ure out what it would take to as­sert and ex­er­cise real agency in his­tory, something which is much harder than just shout­ing an­ti­war or hu­man­it­ari­an in­ter­ven­tion­ist plat­it­udes. It in­volves identi­fy­ing the forces with­in so­ci­ety that could bend the blind hap­pen­stance of the mar­ket and the clumsy in­trigues of state powers to its will. Po­s­i­tion-tak­ing and slo­gan­eer­ing are mean­ing­less and vain in the ab­sence of ef­fect­ive re­volu­tion­ary prac­tice.

For the time be­ing, however, it has very been en­ter­tain­ing to see Richard Spen­cer and his “Alt-Right” al­lies lose their col­lect­ive shit over Trump’s sud­den 180° with re­spect to Syr­ia. Al­most on cue and all at once, 4chan’s /pol/ seemed to suf­fer an an­eurysm. Some of its mem­bers com­plained that this would mean more Muslim im­mig­rants the West. Oth­ers called upon the an­onym­ous hordes to form a bloc with Putin and wage holy war against the Jews. Mean­while, Steve Ban­non has fallen out of fa­vor in the White House, cucked by the “glob­al­ist” New Jer­sey Demo­crat Jared Kush­ner. With this de­vel­op­ment, lib­er­als might have fi­nally got­ten their wish. Be­cause if Ivanka is now the one really pulling the strings, to stick with the pup­pet-mas­ter meta­phor, then it’s as if Hil­lary Clin­ton got elec­ted after all.

Lib­er­als’ main ob­jec­tion to Trump has al­ways been aes­thet­ic, rather than prin­cipled or sub­stant­ive. They miss the smooth, well-spoken, at times in­spir­a­tion­al rhet­or­ic of someone like Obama to the bizarre toi­let bowl of free as­so­ci­ation that comes out of Trump’s mouth. At the level of policy the two could be com­pletely identic­al, but no one would care so long as everything was de­livered with the right pres­id­en­tial pack­aging. Com­rade Em­met Pen­ney con­veys this grim truth rather well:

So after run­ning a can­did­ate down­loaded from the un­canny val­ley — who didn’t be­lieve in or stand for any­thing, really — and money­balling their way to de­feat against a gold-plated, syph­il­it­ic so­ciopath, I’m see­ing all these mem­bers of the Demo­crat­ic “#Res­ist­ance” come out in full sup­port of the Syr­ia strikes like the bat­talion of over­paid cow­ards they’ve al­ways been.

It’ll be tite af when they re­in­sti­tute con­scrip­tion and make you use an app struc­tured like Obama­care where you pick from com­pet­ing pro­viders to get body ar­mor and bul­lets be­fore ship­ping out to go die alone scream­ing for your fam­ily while their lob­by­ist mil­it­ary con­tract­or bud­dies stuff their pock­ets by the fist­ful. The fu­ture the Demo­crats want is just a gami­fied ver­sion of with the Re­pub­lic­ans want, with maybe Beyoncé play­ing in the back­ground and a sub­scrip­tion to The New York­er.

Nev­er­the­less, it could well be that Trump’s sheer un­pre­dict­ab­il­ity ac­tu­ally re­duces the chances of WW3. Putin was will­ing to play chick­en over Syr­ia with Obama, be­cause he knew Obama is a ra­tion­al guy who knows when to hit the brakes. He’s not go­ing to play that game with someone who would just as soon set him­self on fire or drive the car off a bridge for rat­ings.

All the same, with mo­bil­iz­a­tion against US mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in­to Syr­ia ramp­ing up, it’s more im­port­ant than ever that com­mun­ists be able to stake out a po­s­i­tion that op­poses in­ter­ven­tion­ist wars while also re­fus­ing any sup­port for bour­geois na­tion­al­ists and tin-pot dic­tat­ors like As­sad. Over the past fifty years, anti-im­per­i­al­ists have op­por­tun­ist­ic­ally made com­mon cause with any­one and every­one who de­clare them­selves to be “anti-Amer­ic­an.” This has dis­cred­ited le­git­im­ate ef­forts to op­pose for­eign wars. Marx­ists should re­ject such co­ali­tions and or­gan­ize on an in­de­pend­ent and in­ter­na­tion­al­ist basis, ex­clud­ing na­tion­al­ists of all stripes. But I’m not hold­ing my breath.

It is in this dis­pir­it­ing mood that I’m shar­ing a re­flec­tion sub­mit­ted by Com­rade Hegel Damascene, re­mem­ber­ing the quiet dig­nity of liber­tari­an can­did­ate Gary John­son. John­son remains a beacon of bygone normie-dom in a bat­shit age.

Gary Johnson
Normie prophet in an apocalyptic age

Hegel Damascene
Interstate 95
April 8, 2017


The tra­di­tion of all dead gen­er­a­tions weighs like a night­mare on the brains of the liv­ing.

Sit­ting on an over­pass over I-95, watch­ing cars come onto and off of the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge, I was over­come with the feel­ing of be­ing trapped in the belly of a hor­rible ma­chine. And the ma­chine is bleed­ing to death. I al­ways used to stare at the over­passes near the Garden State Mall, the ar­ti­fi­cial mar­ket­place where high­ways meet, and think about what a Great Civil­iz­a­tion (both words cap­it­al­ized) Amer­ica was. But I saw the cracks back then, too, I just didn’t think they would open up so quickly.

Sit­ting on that un­der­pass, I half ex­pec­ted the of­fices of Kim & Bae, PC to grow legs and start lob­bing mis­siles at Bashar As­sad’s palace. Maybe the Port Au­thor­ity Po­lice build­ing was a fact­ory pro­du­cing mech­an­ic­al cops, who would march out to re­store or­der in the new Salafist prin­cip­al­ity — and de­tain any big beau­ti­ful ba­bies who wanted to leave their young uto­pia for Amer­ica, where they could be a se­cur­ity risk.

Syr­ia is both a source and mi­cro­cosm of the slow col­lapse. Continue reading

Theories of the young Marx


Wer die Ju­gend hat, hat die Zukun­ft.

— Karl Lieb­knecht

In a civil­iz­a­tion that’s grown old, ours is a cul­ture that prizes youth. No longer as pres­age to a ra­di­ant fu­ture, but part of a per­man­ent present. Philo­sophy paints its gray on gray onto the pages of Teen Vogue, the Ar­ab Spring fol­lowed by an Is­lam­ist Winter. From Young Thug to la jeune-fille — to the fa­mil­i­ar re­frain of “I like their early stuff bet­ter” — all beauty is fleet­ing, as the pro­verb goes. A sea­son or so later, it loses its luster. Ef­forts at re­in­ven­tion or renov­a­tion more of­ten than not end up a laugh­ing stock. Worse yet: ig­nored. Mod­ern­ity thrives off the eph­em­er­al, Baudelaire no­ticed long ago, to the point that an en­tire style took youth as its theme. “Ju­gend­stil is a de­clar­a­tion of per­man­ent pu­berty,” ob­served Ad­orno, “a uto­pia that barters off its own un­real­iz­ab­il­ity… Hatred of the new ori­gin­ates in a con­cealed ten­et of bour­geois on­to­logy: that the tran­si­ent should be tran­si­ent, that death should have the last word.”

Raoul Peck’s film Der junge Karl Marx premiered last month in Ber­lin. It’s his second ma­jor re­lease already this year, the first be­ing I am Not Your Negro, a doc­u­ment­ary based on the life of the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an writer James Bald­win. Though it was nom­in­ated for an academy award, the Haitian film­maker’s ef­fort ul­ti­mately lost out to the five-part ES­PN epic OJ Simpson: Made in Amer­ica. Most of the Marx biop­ic was shot in Bel­gi­um back in 2015. While I’m al­ways wary of sil­ver screen por­tray­als of great his­tor­ic­al fig­ures, I per­son­ally can’t wait to see it. As a way of cel­eb­rat­ing its de­but, then, I’m post­ing sev­er­al ma­jor art­icles and es­says on the theme of the “young” Marx. Usu­ally, the young­er Marx is con­tras­ted with or coun­ter­posed to the older Marx, al­though the dates as­signed to each phase is a mat­ter of some con­tro­versy among schol­ars. If you don’t be­lieve me, just glance at the fol­low­ing pieces to get a sense of the wide range of opin­ions:

  1. Erich Fromm, “The Con­tinu­ity in Marx’s Thought” (1961)
  2. Gajo Petrović, “The ‘Young’ and the ‘Old’ Marx” (1964)
  3. Louis Althusser, “On The Young Marx (1960) and “The Evol­u­tion of the ‘Young’ Marx” (1974)
  4. Ir­ing Fetscher, “The Young and the Old Marx” (1970)
  5. István Mészáros, “The Con­tro­versy about Marx” (1970)
  6. Paul Mat­tick, “Re­view of Marx Be­fore Marx­ism (1971)
  7. Lu­cio Col­letti, In­tro­duc­tion to The Early Writ­ings of Karl Marx (1973)
  8. Michel Henry, “The Hu­man­ism of the Young Marx” (1976)

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David Riazanov and the tragic fate of Isaak Rubin

Re­portedly, the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion­ary and pi­on­eer­ing Marx­o­lo­gist Dav­id Riazan­ov once in­sul­ted Stal­in to his face at a party meet­ing held dur­ing the mid-1920s. At the time, the ma­jor top­ic of de­bate was over the feas­ib­il­ity of so­cial­ism ab­sent a re­volu­tion in the West. In the years that fol­lowed Oc­to­ber 1917 the fledgling So­viet re­gime had sur­vived bru­tal win­ters, food short­ages, and an in­ter­na­tion­al block­ade while fight­ing off a bloody do­mest­ic coun­ter­re­volu­tion staged by dis­par­ate ele­ments of the old re­gime (the Whites) with the sup­port of for­eign powers (the Al­lied In­ter­ven­tion). The civil war was over, but re­volu­tion had else­where stalled out as the USSR’s bor­ders sta­bil­ized: the European pro­let­ari­at failed to over­throw the crisis-rid­den bour­geois gov­ern­ments of France, Ger­many, Eng­land, Aus­tria, and a host of oth­er na­tions. Now the ques­tion on every­one’s mind where the Bolshev­iks should go from there. Could so­cial­ism could be es­tab­lished in one (re­l­at­ively back­wards) na­tion?

Bukhar­in was the chief ar­chi­tect of the pro­gram for those who af­firmed that it could. His days as a left com­mun­ist be­hind him, Nikolai Ivan­ovich had mean­while suc­cumbed to prag­mat­ism and un­ima­gin­at­ive Real­politik. Mar­ket re­forms put in place by Len­in un­der the New Eco­nom­ic Policy after 1921 were to be con­tin­ued, and the trans­ition to “a high­er stage of com­mun­ist so­ci­ety” delayed, but its achieve­ment no longer de­pended on the spread of world re­volu­tion. Eager to make a name for him­self as a lead­ing the­or­eti­cian, Stal­in in­ter­jec­ted with some com­ments of his own. “Stop it, Koba,” Riazan­ov acerbically replied. “You’re mak­ing a fool of your­self. We all know the­ory isn’t ex­actly your strong suit.” Little won­der, then, that Stal­in would later want Riazan­ov’s head on a plat­ter; he’d in­flic­ted a deep nar­ciss­ist­ic wound. For as Trot­sky would later point out, in a two-part art­icle mock­ing “Stal­in as a The­or­eti­cian,” noth­ing was more im­port­ant to the Gen­er­al Sec­ret­ary than to be re­garded as well-versed in the sci­ence of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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Mihály Biró, 1886-1948

Bud­apest nat­ive Mihály Biró (1886-1948) joined the So­cial Demo­crat­ic cause early in life. He spent the peri­od between 1910 and 1914, design­ing strik­ing and widely noted posters and il­lus­tra­tions for the SZDP [Hun­gari­an So­cial Demo­crat­ic Party].

Fol­low­ing the First World War, Biró be­came the graph­ic mouth­piece of the new Red Army of the Hun­gari­an So­viet Re­pub­lic. The ad­vent of the right-wing dic­tat­or­ship of Miklós Hort­hy soon forced him to flee to Vi­enna, however, where he cre­ated the Hort­hy Port­fo­lio (1920), con­sist­ing of col­or litho­graphs doc­u­ment­ing the at­ro­cit­ies of the Hort­hy re­gime.

Along­side the polit­ic­al posters — Biró’s true call­ing — he also cre­ated posters for in­di­vidu­al busi­nesses and the boom­ing film in­dustry. Biró fi­nally fled from Aus­tro­fas­cism in 1934 and settled in Czechoslov­akia, where he be­came ill and deeply de­pressed. In 1938, he suc­ceeded in flee­ing on to Par­is, where he was to stay un­til 1947.

It was only in 1947 that he was able to re­turn to Bud­apest, where he died in 1948.

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Trump and healthcare

Many left-lib­er­als are cur­rently cel­eb­rat­ing the col­lapse of the Re­pub­lic­ans’ pro­posed health­care bill, which would have “re­pealed and re­placed” Obama­care. There is good reas­on to cel­eb­rate, of course: the AHCA would have likely been even more dis­astrous than the ACA has proved to be. But some pun­dits seem to think that this, along with the on­go­ing Rus­sia in­vest­ig­a­tion, will be enough to sink Trump’s pres­id­ency. Fi­nally, they say, after months of scan­dal and dip­lo­mat­ic faux pas, the or­ange men­ace will be laid to rest. Re­id Kane Kot­las spells out why this isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily the case:

Don­ald Trump did not lose; he got ex­actly what he wanted. He let the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment dis­cred­it them­selves. Re­peal­ing Obama­care was not Trump’s is­sue; it’s been a Tea Party hobby­horse since the bill first passed in 2010. They couldn’t even re­peal it with a sol­id Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress, which just demon­strates the depth of di­vi­sion with­in the party. Con­gres­sion­al GOP lead­er­ship now look bad in the eyes of their own sup­port­ers, which strengthens Trump’s lead­er­ship role in the party.

Trump is only in of­fice be­cause he’s been ex­ploit­ing and ex­acer­bat­ing that di­vi­sion since he first an­nounced his can­did­acy. Mean­while, as the ACA gets worse and worse, it just re­flects neg­at­ively on the Demo­crats who passed it in the first place. So Trump won. If you don’t get that, you don’t get polit­ics.

All this should be fairly ob­vi­ous to any­one not caught up in the 24-hour news cycle, with its con­stant bar­rage of bull­shit re­port­age. What happened with health­care is that Trump handed the House Re­pub­lic­ans an un­ex­ploded gren­ade with the pin already re­moved. He let them in­de­cis­ively juggle it around be­fore blow­ing them­selves up. Now if Trump wants to move in an­oth­er dir­ec­tion, even a drastic­ally dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion — something like, say, uni­ver­sal single-pay­er health­care or medi­care for all — he can hon­estly say to Paul Ry­an and the rest of the GOP, “You had your chance.”

Corey Robin, humbled in his polit­ic­al pre­dic­tions ever since Trump won the elec­tion, hoped “that the rage of the GOP would over­whelm its reas­on.” Trump did him one bet­ter: he banked on it, while trolling the Pro-Life Free­dom Caucus with mid­night ul­ti­mata pos­ted on Twit­ter. In all like­li­hood, Trump prob­ably wouldn’t mind if the Re­pub­lic­ans got mauled in the midterm elec­tions. Es­pe­cially some of the Tea Party hol­d­overs, be­cause he’d be bet­ter able to pass ac­tu­al health­care re­form and in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing with Dems man­ning the le­gis­lat­ive branch.

For the mo­ment, however, his only vis­ible in­tern­al op­pos­i­tion has been totally un­der­cut. Some have gone so far as to sug­gest that it’s not even use­ful to think of Trump and his in­ner circle as Re­pub­lic­ans. Rather, they rep­res­ent a het­ero­gen­eous fac­tion with­in a party they’re seek­ing to des­troy and re­cre­ate. After all, Trump was re­gistered as a Demo­crat between 2001 and 2008, and stated for the re­cord that he was “very pro-choice” in a live in­ter­view from Oc­to­ber 1999. His Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents dur­ing the primar­ies wer­en’t wrong when they ac­cused him of re­peatedly prais­ing the Scot­tish and Ca­na­dian mod­els of so­cial­ized health­care.

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Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a certain mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

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