Civilisation: Evolution of a word and a group of ideas

Lucien Febvre
May 25, 1929

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

Typology and ideology: Moisei Ginzburg revisited



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).

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Bordiga on Sorel

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.

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“Last illusions”: The Labour Party and the Left

Efraim Car­le­bach
Platy­pus Re­view
№ 97
, June 2017

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 polit­ics3 — “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.

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Marxism and historical predictions

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.

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Society, totality, and history

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

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Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution

Haitian re­volu­tion­ary lead­er and states­man Tous­saint Louver­ture was born 274 years ago today. You can read a num­ber of books, es­says, and art­icles by click­ing on the links be­low.

  1. CLR James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution (1938)
  2. CLR James, Lectures on The Black Jacobins (1974)
  3. Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004)
  4. Jeremy D. Popkin, Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (2008)
  5. Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009)
  6. Jeremy D. Popkin, A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution (2011)

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!

To Tous­saint L’Ouver­ture

Wil­liam Wordsworth
The Morning Post
February 4, 1802


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.

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Don’t bother reading Settlers



So after I pos­ted this a couple days ago it was picked up by Anti-Fas­cist News, which linked to it along with the sole re­mark that it was “in­ter­est­ing.” This led some fans of Set­tlers to then launch a cam­paign against me per­son­ally, re­fer­ring to me as “a sac­ri­fi­cial pig to be made an ex­ample of” (a Mar­rano, per­haps?) and ap­plaud­ing the fact that I’d been doxxed in the past as a “com­mie Jew” by Storm­front neo-Nazis. One per­son even threatened to send people to my door, all be­cause I cri­ti­cized a book she likes. Joshua Mou­fawad-Paul of the blog M-L-M May­hem, whose meta-re­view I linked and whose name I un­for­tu­nately mis­spelled, also re­spon­ded to the post.

Now the per­son who threatened to send people after me is de­mand­ing a re­trac­tion and an apo­logy, fol­lowed by “mon­et­ary re­par­a­tions will be made to the mul­tiple Black and in­di­gen­ous people who have had to de­fend their his­tory from the de­valu­ation of a White per­son for their labor.” You can’t make this shit up; it’s way too elab­or­ate and de­ranged. Rather than en­gage with a small group of ded­ic­ated and ob­vi­ously dis­turbed trolls, however, I’d prefer to sub­stan­ti­ate some of the cri­ti­cisms made in my open­ing tirade. Ad­mit­tedly, most of this con­sisted in me sum­mar­iz­ing en­gage­ments with Set­tlers un­der­taken by oth­er Marx­ists, with very little in the way of ori­gin­al com­ment­ary. Hope­fully this ad­dendum will give some sense of what it is I ob­ject to in the book.

To provide just one ex­ample of Sakai’s shoddy his­tor­ic­al re­search, he writes on page 53 of Set­tlers: “The pro-im­per­i­al­ist labor ar­is­to­cracy — which in 1914 Len­in es­tim­ated at roughly 20% of the Ger­man work­ing class — were the lead­ers of the Ger­man trade-uni­ons, the ‘so­cial­ist’ party, etc.” Un­sur­pris­ingly, no men­tion is made of what text Len­in sup­posedly made this es­tim­a­tion in (much less a cita­tion). I have scoured through all of Len­in’s writ­ings and have yet to find any­where he claims twenty per­cent of the Ger­man work­ing class be­longed to the “labor ar­is­to­cracy.” Neither in 1914 nor in any oth­er year.

Fur­ther, it’s very frus­trat­ing that Sakai nowhere ex­plains what his cri­ter­ia are for someone be­long­ing to the “labor ar­is­to­cracy.” In­stead he just cites US Labor Bur­eau stat­ist­ics, but then fol­lows it by par­en­thet­ic­ally claim­ing that “60% of this sec­tion is labor ar­is­to­cracy.” As if that were a cat­egory the Labor Bur­eau would ever use. On the fol­low­ing page he just baldly as­serts that “the set­tler labor ar­is­to­cracy is con­sid­er­ably lar­ger than its hard core, per­haps com­pris­ing as much as 50% of all male Euro-Amerik­ans.” Be­cause Sakai provides no in­form­a­tion for how he ar­rives at this fig­ure, there is no way of as­sess­ing its ac­cur­acy.

The “labor ar­is­to­cracy” thes­is first ad­vanced by En­gels dur­ing the 1890s and then ex­pan­ded upon by Len­in between 1905 and 1922 has already been chal­lenged con­vin­cingly by writers such as Charles Post and or­gan­iz­a­tions like the In­ter­na­tion­al Com­mun­ist Cur­rent as first “a myth” and then “a so­ci­olo­gic­al the­ory to di­vide the work­ing class.” Even grant­ing some an­ec­dot­al valid­ity to the ob­ser­va­tion that there’s an elite strat­um of skilled laborers — who, to use Len­in’s meta­phor, “fight for the scraps that fall off the im­per­i­al­ist ta­ble” — there’s no em­pir­ic­al ground­ing of the thes­is. Mostly it’s just a post-hoc ra­tion­al­iz­a­tion of work­ing class re­form­ism and de­feat.

Char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally, moreover, Sakai neg­lects to men­tion that op­pressed pop­u­la­tions in the New World have just as of­ten been at each oth­er’s throats — e.g., the “Buf­falo Sol­diers,” all-black vo­lun­teer cav­alry units which served with dis­tinc­tion in mas­sac­ring Plains In­di­ans for nearly a quarter-cen­tury. Sev­er­al cen­tur­ies earli­er in what today is Mex­ico, the ma­nu­mit­ted Afric­an slave Juan Gar­rido be­came a highly suc­cess­ful Span­ish con­quista­dor. He also helped con­quer Pu­erto Rico, Cuba, Guada­lupe, Domin­ica, and Flor­ida. Or the Cher­o­kee lead­er Stand Watie, a slave-driv­ing plant­a­tion own­er who fought on the side of the Con­fed­er­acy dur­ing the Civil War and rose to the rank of bri­gadier gen­er­al. Watie was the last South­ern gen­er­al to stop fight­ing. Jews owned some of the ships in the Dutch and Eng­lish transat­lantic slave trade. Treach­er­ous at­ti­tudes and be­ha­vi­ors to­ward oth­er ex­ploited and op­pressed groups was hardly lim­ited to the white work­ing class.

Need­less to say, as a side note, I do not in any way deny the hor­rors en­dured by black and in­di­gen­ous people in Canada, the US, and else­where throughout the world. For a far bet­ter ac­count of ra­cism and white su­prem­acy check out Theodore W. Al­len’s The In­ven­tion of the White Race (1994), Bar­bara and Kar­en Fields’ Race­craft: The Soul of In­equal­ity in Amer­ic­an Life (2012), or Loren Gold­ner’s ma­gis­teri­al es­say on “Race and the En­light­en­ment” from Race Trait­or (1997).

Spanish inquisition, Marrano Jews 1

Open­ing tirade

J. Sakai’s 1983 screed Set­tlers: The Myth­o­logy of the White Pro­let­ari­at has been mak­ing the rounds again lately. Pre­sum­ably be­cause it of­fers a readymade ex­plan­a­tion for why the so-called “white work­ing class” voted for Trump en bloc, a premise which is it­self de­bat­able. Rhizzo­, an on­line mes­sage board where shit-tier Maoist Third Worldists and oth­er ran­dom nerds can meet and mingle, spear­headed the ini­ti­at­ive to re­launch Read­Set­ amidst the 2016 US Pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. You can fol­low the #read­set­tlers hasht­ag on Twit­ter, and there’s even been a tumblr ded­ic­ated to the in­junc­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, the “ana­lys­is” offered in Set­tlers is tenden­tious garbage. Few Marx­ists have had the pa­tience, however, to read through the book in or­der to of­fer a point-by-point re­but­tal. This isn’t so much due to its style, which fam­ously flouts aca­dem­ic con­ven­tions and es­chews ac­cep­ted dis­curs­ive norms. I’m all for shit­ting on MLA writ­ing stand­ards, to say noth­ing of the stil­ted jar­gon of ad­juncts and pro­fess­ors. But if you’re go­ing to make de­tailed stat­ist­ic­al claims about the per­cent­age of white col­on­ists in­volved in vari­ous lines of work dur­ing the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, I ex­pect a foot­note ex­plain­ing the meth­od­o­logy used (how data was col­lec­ted and sor­ted, what “class” means in this con­text, etc.). Continue reading

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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