by Reid Kane Kotlas
Image: Augustine Kofie’s Triangulation
of the Golden Northeast (2009)
This is reposted from the tumblr page of a contact of the Platypus Affiliated Society, Reid Kane Kotlas. Though I was considering using this space to briefly relate Reid’s intellectual trajectory and how he arrived at the Marxist tradition, as well as our encounter several years back, it’s become clear to me that this would take up too much space. Perhaps this could be the subject of another post. Suffice it to say, at least for now, that our subsequent correspondence was largely the outcome of a debate we had over Lenin’s (in)compatibility with Luxemburg. At the time, he was quite skeptical of the Platypus Affiliated Society and what he then believed was its excessive pessimism with respect to the present. I’d assumed what was probably a haughty and overly dismissive stance toward the actually-existing Left, to which he responded:
I find your defamatory comments about the existing Left (and those of Platypus more generally) to be extremely discouraging. These people are our allies, and while I may disagree with a lot of what they say and do, the way to make that evident is not through condescension, but by expressing critical solidarity, by joining them and trying to steer them in other directions where appropriate, and where there is too great a divide or too much stubbornness, to demonstrate in practice what is wrong with their approach. I agree that its a shame that we are no longer witness to the sort of working class mobilization of the earlier part of the last century, but I don’t count this fact as either a cause or effect of “regression in Leftist consciousness.” The left hasn’t regressed, we’ve been brutally beaten down, silenced, defamed and overwhelmed for a century, and the disorganized and splintered remnants that persist today, however “backward” their thinking may be at times, are not symptoms of the Left’s decadence and degeneration but the first flares of its rekindling.
Later on, I tried to clarify what I’d meant by my remarks and remove some of their needless cynicism, which were unhelpful and probably off-putting. This brought Reid and I into closer accord in our understandings of the present political moment. In an e-mail a little over a year ago, he related to me that “[w]hile before I had reservations about Platypus due to its assessment of the Left, I now basically agree with that assessment.” Recently, it came to my attention that Reid has been quietly and independently dedicating himself to a closer study of some of Platypus’ past engagements. Because of the remarkable lucidity and critical acuity of his observations here, I thought I’d make available his dossier on the debate between the International Bolshevik Tendency, Communist Party of Great Britain, and Platypus. The post also includes a number of helpful links to background readings on the debate. Thanks again to Reid for granting me permission to repost this.
The following is a series of documents and recordings relating to an ongoing debate between members of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS), the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT).
I believe these deserve to be grouped together because, in the discursive space sustained between these three distinctive organizations, the central problems of the contemporary left are saliently circumscribed. Any pair of the three organizations, as well as the trio, share interesting points of convergence and divergence. The differences between their respective ideologies, programs, historical perspectives, and practical approaches elucidate that absent locus of revolutionary politics.
To summarize some important points very briefly:
A. CPGB comes under scrutiny from both PAS and IBT for their ‘neo-Kautskian’ approach to party building, namely one that encourages broad unity of Marxists around acceptance, though not necessarily agreement upon, a common program, and open internal debate. Nonetheless, it shares with the IBT an attempt to rebuild Marxist politics, and with Platypus, a broad critical engagement with the existing Left.
B. IBT is criticized by CPGB for their sectarian organizational structure, specifically for their refusal to allow internal debates in public. CPGB also criticizes fundamental elements of orthodox Trotskyism, specifically the transitional program and the “Theses on the Role of the Communist Party” from the second congress of the Comintern, which project a distorted, ‘civil war’ version of Bolshevism that obscures the latter’s real virtues, and which is defended through bad historiography exemplified by Joseph Seymour’s “Lenin and the Vanguard Party.” On the question of organizational structure, the IBT respond that they are not a party but a propaganda group, for which a consistent public message is crucial, and that different organizational norms would be required for building a mass party. The problem is that building a mass party on orthodox Trotskyist lines today is subjectively impossible, and so the ideological ground must be prepared first. A broad fusion of Marxist elements, of the sort sought by the CPGB, would be either unstable or overpowered by its reformist elements. Platypus, while lauding their preservation of the revolutionary memory of revolutionary Marxism as exemplified by Trotsky, criticizes them for failing to recognize the anachronism of such an endeavor, as the revolutionary continuity to which they cling has been fatally interrupted. The task, for Platypus, is to understand the nature of this discontinuity and what is required to overcome it — how to till the subjective soil, rather than planting seeds in fallow ground.
C. Platypus is criticized by both for being a ‘theoretical dead-end’, or for engaging in an academic rather than a political project. Yet for Platypus, the problem with both CPGB and IBT is that revolutionary politics is no longer possible, in that historical memory has disintegrated. This is also to say that, because there is no longer a common recognition of the problematic character of bourgeois society, or its inability to realize its own ideals, there is no longer a sense of the unfinished historical tasks that would constitute the basis for genuinely political engagement. Without such a common faculty, there is little sense of putting forward either a program or a narrative of continuity, because the masses will be unreceptive. Platypus’s project, I think, can be summarized as an attempt to reconstitute the faculty for historical memory by reanimating the central problems of bourgeois society. The problems can be characterized as follows:
- liberalism as response to the crisis of traditional society
- socialism as response to the crisis of bourgeois society
- Marxism as response to the crisis of socialism
- Bolshevism as response to crisis of Marxism
- Trotskyism and critical theory as responses to crisis of Bolshevism
Each of these responses need to be understood as preserving and elevating the problem to which they respond. However, each is accompanied by an obfuscatory response that seeks to deny the problem in one form or another (either through denial of the problem or rejection of that which is problematized).
- conservatism as response to the crisis of traditional society
- Bonapartism as response to the crisis of bourgeois society
- anarchism as response to the crisis of socialism
- Reformism as response to the crisis of Marxism
- Stalinism and new-leftism as responses to crisis of Bolshevism
The goal is thus to undermine the false optimism represented by the latter quintuplet, and to raise the specters of the former. Only by recognizing the incomplete historical task, whose ambivalent progression is captured by these five items, can historical memory be reconstituted, and with it, an impetus for revolutionary politics. Thus, the dialectical tension between the partyism of the CPGB and the partyless factionalism of the IBT can only be resolved by first reopening the possibility for politics.
Background: Perspectives on Trotskyism
- “Notes on Luxemburg and Trotsky 1917-1919” by Chris Cutrone
- Richard Rubin’s Lectures on Trotsky and Trotskyism
- “The Dead Left: Trotskyism” by the Platypus Historians Group
Background: Triangulating the debate
PAS-Spartacist League (ICL-FI)
- Exchange on Iraq Occupation (PAS, SL)
- “Platypus Group: Pseudo-Marxist, Pro-Imperialist, Academic Claptrap” (SL)
- “Hysteria in the face of Platypus?” by Chris Cutrone (PAS)
- “Four Kinds of Ambiguity” by Richard Rubin (PAS)
- “Bolshevism and Trotskyism: Defending our Legacy” (IBT) / “Frozen in Dogma” (CPGB) / “Lenin’s Heir” (IBT)
- “IBT and Holy Water” (CPGB)
- “Stalinism vs Trotskyism” (IBT)
- “Vote For Class Independence” by Mike Macnair (CPGB)
- “Democratic Centralism and the Idiocy of Sects” by Jim Creegan (CPGB)
- CPGB Teach In (2011) by Mike Macnair
- “No need for party?” by Mike Macnair (CPGB)
- “Platypus” by Chris Cutrone and “De rigueur” by Watson Ladd (PAS)
- “Theoretical dead end” by Mike Macnair (CPGB)
- “Fish nor fowl” by Chris Cutrone (PAS)
- “The study of history and the Left’s decline” by Mike Macnair (CPGB)
- “The philosophy of history” by Chris Cutrone (PAS)
- Platypus Discussion of Mike Macnair’s Critique
- “Marx’s Critique of Political Economy: Proletarian Socialism Continuing the Bourgeois Revolution?” by Spencer Leonard (PAS)
- “Capital in History: Marxism and the Modern Philosophy of Freedom” by Chris Cutrone (PAS)
- CPGB Teach In (2012) by Ben Lewis
- “Chicago School” by Ben Lewis (CPGB) and Response by Chris Cutrone (PAS)
- “Trotsky’s Marxism” Panel featuring Ian Morrison (PAS) and Jason Wright (IBT)
- “The Marxist Turn: The New Left in the 1970s” Panel featuring Tom Riley (IBT)
- “Third Parties and the Left: Problems and Prospects” Panel featuring Jason Wright (IBT)
- “What is the #Occupy Movement? London I” Panel featuring Barbara Dorn (IBT)
- IBT Teach In by Josh Decker