Identity crisis: Against capital and nation

Below you can read a couple English-language translations of texts by the German Gruppen gegen Kapital und Nation. They are relevant to a number of issues which I plan to cover in a forthcoming post.

Gegen Kapital und Nation is chiefly informed by Marx’s original writings, but draws inspiration from the anti-nationalism of Rosa Luxemburg and the council communism of Anton Pannekoek as well. It is useful to revisit these texts, both released in 2010, since many self-declared ultraleftists seem to be wavering on issues of national liberation and the politics of identity. Activistic Maoism and academic poststructuralism have sadly not lost any of their allure.


the longing for identityProud to be… so what?

Gegen Kapital
und Nation

Identity, the forced community of individuals

When the term identity is applied to a person, a reasonable interpretation would be to understand it as signifying their self-awareness as a thinking entity in a material body, both of which — in this dyadic union — are forced to endure a great deal in this society already, well before acquiring the capacity of even thinking in such terms. But all humans are also branded with another type of identity: They are combined into groups according to their “sex,” gender, nationality, “race,” sexual desire and a plethora of other categories. This is more than just a harmless indication of a person’s physical characteristics, the pigmentation of their skin or whom they happen to be in love with. To a considerable degree, this sorting influences one’s material circumstances, psychological state, and even the duration of one’s existence.

“One is not born a woman, but becomes one”

With this truth, feminist critics have unmasked the differences asserted by various (social) groups as socially constructed, well over sixty years ago. Without fail, all people are subsumed under any given number of collective identities. They are ascribed qualities and behavioral patterns which are attributed to their alleged “essence.” Predications of ethnicity, gender, “race,” sexual orientation, (dis)ability, or class manifest themselves as essentialist judgements. The people in question are subjected to binding statements which aim at fundamentally defining their lives, their thoughts as well as their actions. In that process they are being differentiated from one part of humanity while a strong bond is constructed with another, with whom they are supposed to share a common fate. Many of these statements are simply false (“all black men have large penises”), while some are undue generalizations (“all British people drink warm beer” and “all Canadians wear tuques”), and even where a particular attribution actually does characterize a large number of people (homo homini lupus), it is socially produced.

All this is not the same as saying that “all footballers are idiots,” which would be no more than a polemic conclusion, equating a social practice with someone’s propensity for reasoning, in order to attack a sports craze. One can stop playing football at any time, while one cannot stop being black. An attribution based purely on social practice is a distinctly different thing than one based on someone’s supposed nature.1 As soon as an essentialist judgement has been coined and socially established, the people affected by it have no choice but to react to it: judgements must be refuted, positively or negatively adopted — or criticized. In some cases, the affected groups may even break up into sub-collectives in the course of the debate over different strategies of response. These judgements are all the more severe wherever they are part of strategies of discrimination or even form the legitimization for the exclusion or oppression of a particular group. That is wherever such judgements are taken as proof for any given group’s inferiority and serve as the basis for their subjugation. Continue reading

On progress: Critical theory and the “decolonial” imperative

I repost below Bruce Robbins’ excellent review of Amy Allen’s very poor book, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016), originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books website. My reasons for titling this post “Critical Theory and the ‘Decolonial’ Imperative” is that Allen clearly thinks decolonization is something that ought to happen (i.e., a moral guideline or maxim that determines practical action). She somehow fails to self-reflexively see the normative foundations of her own critique of critical theory, at least until the very last chapter, as Robbins points out in his review. He is a bit disingenuous, I think, when he remarks at the outset that The End of Progress is a “difficult but rewarding book” — a begrudgingly charitable judgment not borne out by what follows, which thoroughly dismantles Allen’s argument. Nevertheless, her argument deserved to be panned, so I don’t see this as a problem.

Apart from this specific instance of “decolonial” thought, I should perhaps explain my more general objections to the discourse. One of my reasons for being so skeptical is purely aesthetic, a result of my distaste for clunky academic language. “Conversations with Enrique Dussel on Anti-Cartesian Decoloniality & Pluriversal Transmodernity,” a 2015 collection of articles edited by Mohammad Tamdgidi, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Ramón Grosfoguel, provides ample evidence of the jargon employed by theorists of decolonization. The title alone should be enough to discredit it. Beyond this aesthetic disgust, however, a more intellectual objection I’ve always had to decolonial theory is its anachronism and its consequent reliance on metaphor. Great colonial empires are today mostly a thing of the past, the colonizers having been driven out by anti-colonial movements for national liberation or self-determination. In fact, the only real colonies that remain today are arguably Palestine (occupied by Israel) and Tibet (occupied by China). Even then, they’re odd sorts of colonies. Palestine is not directly administered, and Tibet is ruled by a government which claims to be communist.

Whenever decolonial activists go beyond the metaphoric injunction to decolonize — “kill the pilgrim in yr head!” — and insist on its literal meaning, they veer into absurdity. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” proposes to forcibly expel everyone who is not of Amerindian or African descent from the Americas, i.e. Occupied Turtle Island. By that logic, all East Asians, Middle Easterners, and Indians would have to repatriate, to say nothing of individuals who are of mixed descent. Sadly, claims of “indigeneity” can be used to justify the most ridiculous ends. Ryan Bellerose, an indigenous rights activist from Alberta, Canada, advocates on behalf of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland, upholding their native rights. It’s hard to counter this line of reasoning once you accept indigenist premises. Unless one wants to concoct some statute of limitations for Blut und Boden ethnic claims to historic lands, it’s impossible to resolve the issue within the framework of indigenous politics. Fortunately Marxism does not aim to permanently restore territories to any particular group. Individuals should be able to live peaceably wherever they damn well please, irrespective of any “organic connection” to the land.

Paul-KleeProving the impossibility of progress

Bruce Robbins
LA Review of Books
May 13, 2016

REVIEW: Amy Allen, The End of Progress:
the Normative Foundations
of Critical Theory
(January 12, 2016)

Walter Benjamin famously imagined the angel of history, wings spread, propelled backward into the future by an irresistible, all-annihilating wind. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote, the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage on wreckage.” The angel can obviously know nothing of the future, to which his back is turned. All he can know is “the pile of debris before him.” This, Benjamin says, is how we should think of progress.

Within months of composing this scenario, Benjamin was dead, a victim of the Nazis. The manner of his death helped make his beautiful, disillusioned tableau of progress-as-catastrophe one of the best remembered takeaways from the Frankfurt School. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, the Frankfurt School was a brilliant group of German-Jewish Marxo-Freudian analysts of culture who (except for Benjamin) escaped the Holocaust and lived long enough to denounce American consumerism, jazz, and the student movement. Their present-day inheritors, collectively known as critical theory, include thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth in Germany and, in the United States, Seyla Benhabib, Thomas McCarthy, Nancy Fraser, Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, and other luminaries. They and what they made of the concept of progress are the subject of Amy Allen’s difficult but rewarding book, The End of Progress. Allen argues that key members of this generation (the Germans, but for some reason not the Americans) have been too uncritical of progress — much more uncritical than Benjamin or Theodor Adorno or, for that matter, Michel Foucault, whom she drags across the Rhine and conscripts as an ally. Allen exposes, hidden below the philosophical work of Habermas, Honneth, and Rainer Forst, a belief in progress that in her view is fatally Eurocentric, hence unworthy of their high emancipatory project.

Beyond making the charge of Eurocentrism, Allen does not really argue the anti-progress case. She doesn’t compare childhood mortality statistics or the quality of neighborliness, the situation of women or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere now and 100 years ago; the sorts of pros and cons that might come up in a dorm room late at night don’t interest her much. And her indifference to empirical examples is not incidental. The major accusation she levels against the best-known of the critical theorists, Habermas and Honneth, is that although they seem rigorously philosophical, they pay too much attention to facts like these. For Allen’s style of philosophy, any attention is too much attention. Continue reading

Moscow constructivism

Images taken from the Russian language website Medusa, along with a translation of the short blurb that accompanied it. Reportedly several hundred Musvovites gathered to protest the razing of the Tagansk Telephone Exchange, mentioned below. But developers went ahead with it anyway.

Demolition of the Tagansk Telephone Exchange — a constructivist building lacking the official status of architectural landmark — began at the end of April in Moscow. In place of the Telephone Exchange, they plan to build a hotel. Aleksandr Gorokhov, photo editor of Medusa, found in the archives of the Shchusev Architecture Museum some old photographs of other constructivist buildings, in order to show readers how they looked having just been built.

В конце апреля в Москве начался снос Таганской АТС — конструктивистского здания, не имевшего формального статуса памятника архитектуры. На месте АТС планируют построить отель. Фоторедактор «Медузы» Александра Горохова нашла в архиве музея архитектуры имени Щусева старые фотографии других конструктивистских зданий, чтобы показать читателям, как они выглядели, когда только были построены.

Вегнер А.П., Мотылев М.И., Молоков Н.М., Звездин И.А., Шервинский Е.В., Федоров А.Н., Буров И.Г., Блохин Б.Н., Савельев Л.И., Виссинг М.Г. Дворец культуры автозавода им. Сталина-Лихачева. Здание столовой. Архитекторы братья Веснины А.А., В.А., Л.А. Фото 1937 года Дворец культуры автозавода имени Сталина-Лихачева (ЗИЛа). Крыша с обсерваторией. Архитекторы братья Веснины А.А., В.А., Л.А. Фото 1937 года Дворец культуры автозавода имени Сталина-Лихачева. Клубная часть. Интерьер, лестница. Архитекторы братья Веснины Фото 1937 года Дворец культуры автозавода имени Сталина-Лихачева. Переход из театрального зала в клубную часть. Архитекторы братья Веснины Фото 1937 год. Дом «Известий». Архитектор Бархин Г.Б. Фото 1937 года Continue reading

Not yet human: Universality, common inhumanity, and Marx


The earth will rise on new foundations.
We have been nothing; we will be everything.
’Tis the final conflict, let each stand in their place.
The International will be the human race.

— L’Internationale, 1871

Universality today seems a lost cause, the mild resurgence of Marxism in recent years notwithstanding. A number of prominent theorists have championed this category in their critiques of multicultural neoliberalism, perhaps most notably Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, but have made little headway. Vivek Chibber’s noble (if somewhat flawed) 2013 polemic against Postcolonial Studies was made to suffer the indignity of a public scolding by whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who writes under the handle Of CLR James: “If postcolonial theorists want to hold onto the particularity of the particular, and engage the universal through it, Chibber uses these ‘two universalisms’ [the universalism of capital and the universalism of labor] in order to denude the particular, to remove the particularity of the particular in order to reduce it to the universal.” He claims that Chibber’s book is thus not even Marxist, since the real Marxists à la mode have already all accepted the legitimate points raised by postcolonial and decolonial theory and moved on:

The Marxism fashionable both inside and outside the academy today is one which has learned to meet people where they are, that has learned that a caring approach to particularity and a concern to foster difference is not opposed to the universal but is, rather, one way of producing new universals, of realizing freer modes of being in common. Indeed, the Marxism fashionable today is that one which has taken postcolonial theory as a serious incitement, as a spur to think critically about its own deficits but also as a challenge to uncover its hidden possibilities.

Obviously, there’s no accounting for fashion. And I won’t even touch the platitude about “meeting people where they are.” Loren Goldner is perhaps a little old-fashioned. In any case, he has little patience for this fashionable nonsense. Deploring postcolonial theory as “a relativizing discourse of cultural ‘difference’ incapable of making critical judgments,” Goldner argues that Marxist universality must be recovered, reasserted, and boldly upheld. “Today, the idea that there is any meaningful universality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if the opponents of such a view rarely state their case in so many words (or are even aware that this is the issue),” he writes. “For them, such an idea, like the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria from which one can judge the humanity or inhumanity of different ‘cultures,’ are ‘white male’ or ‘Eurocentric’ constructs designed to deny to women, people of color, or gays the ‘difference’ of their ‘identity’.”

Goldner’s fulminations against the influential Heideggerian idea of ontological difference and its French variations are well known. He suspects that the partisans of “the current climate of postmodern culturalism” are mostly disturbed by the fact the Marxian critique does not have recourse to its usual explanatory mechanisms: “What bothers them is that the concept of universality for Marx and Engels was ultimately grounded neither in cultural constructs nor even in the metaphysics of ‘power,’ which is the currency in which today’s fashion trades.”

Questions of fashion aside, it might still be asked whether the method described above by Taylor is the way Marxists actually approach matters of universal import. In what does the universality of Marx consist? Goldner tells us: “The universalism of Marx rests on a notion of humanity as a species distinguished by its capacity to periodically revolutionize its means of extracting wealth from nature, and therefore as free from the relatively fixed laws of population nature imposes on other species.” According to Marx, then, the special characteristic that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, or rather potentially sets it apart, is that humans exist historically. Unlike other species, knowledge and customs are transmitted from one generation to the next through record-keeping, allowing individual humans to participate in the past as more than just temporary embodiments of genetic code. “History itself is a real part of natural history and of nature’s becoming man,” Marx concluded in Paris 1844. Élisée Reclus, a prominent nineteenth century anarchist and professional geographer, put it pithily: “Man is nature become conscious.”

One crucial detail is omitted in Goldner’s otherwise accurate formulation of Marx’s view, however: namely, that this uniquely human capacity manifests only at a specific moment in history, though perhaps it was always latent in its nature. By a confluence of factors, many of them fortuitous and by chance, a systemic logic took hold which would sweep away older forms of local community in the name of a global society founded on exchange. With the historic emergence of capital, new vistas of possibility are opened up (even if today they seem to have closed). Powers and capacities that did not hitherto exist become available for the first time. Continue reading

Capital as civilization


Few words arouse such controversy as “civilization,” which calls to mind the self-appointed mission civilisatrice undertaken by great colonial empires of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Etymologically the word derives from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and politesse. It is thus historically tied to the sporadic growth of cities, population centers separate from the countryside which often doubled as the seat of political power. Amadeo Bordiga had this in mind when he briefly sketched the meaning of civilization in his polemical letter to the post-Trotskyist group Socialisme ou Barbarie, “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil” (1951), initially defining civilization by way of contrast. “Barbarism is the opposite of civilization and also of bureaucracy,” wrote Bordiga. “Our barbarian ancestors, lucky them, did not have organizational apparatuses based (old Engels!) on two elements: a defined ruling class as well as a defined territory. Under barbaric conditions there were clans and tribes but not the civitas, meaning city as well as state. Civilization is the opposite of barbarism and means state organization, therefore necessarily bureaucracy; this is what Marxism says.” Henri Lefebvre, a French dissident Marxist, located “the political city at the point of origin on the space-time axis of total urbanization, populated primarily by priests, warriors, princes, ‘nobles,’ and military leaders, but also administrators and scribes.” (The Urban Revolution, pg. 8). Later the political city was supplanted by the mercantile city in Lefebvre’s schema, and this in turn was supplanted by the industrial city.

All this squared neatly with the Marxist classics, as Bordiga alluded to above. Friedrich Engels claimed in his work on Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) that “the fixation of the antithesis between town and country as the basis of the entire social division of labor [is one of the] marks of civilization” (MECW 26, pg. 275). Karl Marx jotted down in one of many barely-legible polyglot scribblings that “about 850 BC civilization began unter the Asiatic Greeks.” Commenting on John Lubbock’s 1870 The Origin of Civilization and Lewis Morgan’s 1877 Ancient Society: Research in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, Marx noted the historic passage from gentility to civility: “Griechische society first comes under notice around time of… legislation of Cleisthenes, vorgehend Übergang von gentile in political (or civil) Organisation… Er hätte sagen sollen dass political hier Sinn des Aristoteles hat = städtisch und politisches animal = Stadtbürger, ζῷον πολιτικόν. Der Township, mit der fixed property it contained und people who inhabited for the time being, was to become the unit of organization; gentilis transformed into civis” (Ethnographic Notebooks, pgs. 196-197). Vere Gordon Childe, like Lefebvre, considered civilization the result of an urban revolution, calling the very notion of prebourgeois “civilization” a contradictio in adjecto. “There was never such a thing as neolithic civilization,” argued Childe (Man Makes Himself, pg. 65). Lefebvre, for his part, maintained that “cities have always been a place of civilization.” In another text, he continued: “By excluding the urban from groups, classes, and individuals, one also excludes them from civilization, if not society itself” (Writings on Cities, pg. 195).

While the word is rooted in these ancient Latin words, “civilization” as a neologism dates only from around the age of Enlightenment. The timing of its coinage is no mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. Like “society,” it is a concept of the Third Estate, as Adorno liked to point out. Émile Benveniste, a French semiotician, discovered the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau. In its post-1765 usage, Benveniste observed that “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as a state of civilized society.” From there the concept was imported to Britain by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith, likely through their contact with the physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot in France. Anticipating Sigmund Freud’s later conceit that the civilization of society resembles the maturation of the individual, Ferguson in his Essay on the History of Civil Society postulated: “Not only does the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.” See Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents: “The development of civilization is a special process comparable to the normal growth of individuals.” Millar and Smith each felt civilization was marked by a complex division of labor, wherein “the human mind can be fully cultivated and expanded; man thereby rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.” Once again, this lined up with the earlier gloss on the word provided by Victor Riqueti, alias Mirabeau. “If I was to ask most people of what civilization consists,’ he began, ‘they would reply, “the civilization of a people is a softening of its manners, an urbanity, politeness and a spreading of knowledge so that the observation of decencies takes the place of laws of detail.”

Following the European discovery and conquest of the New World, maritime commerce expanded as cities again came to dominate the countryside. Seigneurial virtues like courage, magnanimity, and noblesse oblige gave way to entrepreneurial virtues such as cunning, austerity, and philanthropy. Contracts took the place of oaths. Norbert Elias has forcefully argued that certain conventions from prebourgeois European court life (manners, etiquette, dress codes, behavioral norms) were carried into bourgeois society out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although moral philosophers like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic selflessness with bourgeois self-love, these courtly vestiges in civic life account for the high premium placed on “courtesy” [courtoisie, cortesia] as well as “civility” [civilité, civiltà, Zivilität] among representatives of the rising middle class. Yet this legacy passed down from medieval court society was only part of what Elias called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, the process entailed a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this new regime of self-restraint. Some have suspected a similarity between Elias’ notion of civilized “restraint” and Michel Foucault’s concept of “discipline” through correct training, but this similarity is only apparent. Elias’ concept of self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression. Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias was quick to acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms or expectations associated with the workplace, rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis. The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor.

Jean Starobinski, the Swiss philologist and literary critic, definitively showed that “the word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress.” Denis Diderot, Marx’s favorite political author, was already using the term in exactly this sense around 1775, declaring that “civilization follows from the inclination which leads every man to improve his situation.” Lucien Febvre of the Annales school of historiography wrote in his 1930 essay “Civilization: Evolution of a Word and a Group of Ideas” François Guizot,

“The idea of progress, of development, appears to me the fundamental idea contained in the word, civilization. What is this progress? what this development? Herein is the greatest difficulty of all. The etymology of the word would seem to answer in a clear and satisfactory manner: it says that it is the perfecting of civil life, the development of society, properly so called, of the relations of men among themselves.”

Freud, Future of an Illusion: “Human civilization [Kultur], by which I mean all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of beasts — and I scorn to distinguish between civilization and culture — presents, as we know, two aspects to the observer.” Pg. 2.

Marx, Grundrisse: “all the progress of civilization, or in other words every increase in the powers of social production [gesellschaftische Produktivkräfte], if you like, in the productive powers of labor itself — such as results from science, inventions, division, and combination of labor, improved means of com­munication, creation of the world market, machinery etc. — en­riches not the worker but rather capital; hence it only magnifies again the power dominating over labor; increases only the pro­ductive power of capital.” (Pg. 308)

Spengler, Decline of the West: “the period of Civilization is that of the victory of city over country, whereby it frees itself from the grip of the ground, but to its own ultimate ruin” (Volume 2, Pg. 107)

“The word ‘Capital’ signifies the center of this thought — not the aggregate of values, but that which keeps them in movement as such. Capitalism comes into existence only with the world-city existence of a Civilization.” (Volume 2, pg. 493)

Humboldt: “In every survey of world history there is a progress… With the rise of man, the seed of civilization is also planted, and grows as his existence evolves. This humanization we can perceive in advancing stages.” On Language (1835)

Gilles Dauvé, “Crisis of Civilization”

Capitalism is driven on by a social and productive dynamism, and by an unheard-of regenerative ability, but it has this weakness: by its very strength, by the human energy and the technical power it sets into motion, it wears out what it exploits, and its productive intensity is only paralleled by its destructive potential, as proved by the first civilization crisis it went through in the twentieth century.

No value judgement is implied here. We do not oppose civilized people to savages (even noble ones) or barbarians. We do not celebrate “great civilizations” which would have been witness to the progress of mankind. On the other hand, we do not use the word in the derogatory sense it has with writers like Charles Fourier, who called “civilization” a modern society plagued by poverty, trade, competition and the factory system. Neither do we refer to those huge geohistorical sociocultural constructs known as Western, Judeo-Christian, Chinese, or Islamic civilizations.

The civilization we speak of does not replace the notion of mode of production. It merely emphasizes the scope and depth of a world system that tends to be universal, and is also capable of disrupting and then reshaping all kinds of societies and ways of life. The hold of wage-labor and commodity over our life gives them a reality and dynamics that were unknown in the past. Capitalism today is the only all-encompassing network of social relationships able to expand geographically and, with the respective differences being considered, to impact on Jakarta as well as Vilnius. The spread of a world capitalist way of life is visible in similar consumer habits (McDonald’s) and architecture (skyscrapers), but has its deep cause in the dominance of value-production, of productivity, of the capital-wage labor couple.

The identity of capital and civilization

“Capital is only another name for civilization.” Marx quoted this dictum by John Wade repeatedly in the economic manuscripts, and with approval each time. Another quotation was usually situated nearby, this one by the Swiss Sismondian Antoine-Elisée Cherbuliez, whose writings on political economy Marx generally held in high esteem: “The capitalist is the social man par excellence; he represents civilization.” His reason for citing these remarks is opaque. Often they just hang there, like epigraphs awaiting excogitation. Reminders are attached: “Wade’s explanation of capital. Labor mere agency of capital… Civilization, together with my remarks about it” (Grundrisse, pg. 584). A clue is contained in another section of the Grundrisse, with suggestive allusions to free time: “Since all free time is time for free development, the capitalist usurps free time created by the workers for society, i.e. civili­zation, and Wade is again correct in this sense, insofar as he posits capital = civilization” (Grundrisse, pg. 34). Echoing this in his notebooks from 1861-1863, Marx later wrote that “surplus labor is on the one hand the basis of society’s free time, and on the other hand, by virtue of this, the material basis of its whole development and of civilization in general. Insofar as it is capital’s compulsion which enforces on the great mass of society this labor over and above its immediate needs, capital creates civilization, and performs a sociohistoric function.” Lenin similarly stressed the “luxury” generated by labor under capitalism: “The proletariat showed by deeds that modern civilization owes its existence to it and to it alone, that its labor creates wealth and luxury.”

Despite its uniform pattern, capitalism maps unevenly onto preexisting cultures, producing multiform results. While this does entail peripheral variations on the central theme of capitalist production — which is, as always, the antagonism between labor and capital in the constitution of value — this surface heterogeneity belies a fundamental homogeneity. Marx called this “the great civilizing influence of capital, its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.” “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility,” he continued. “Capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, …and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Grundrisse, pgs. 409-410). All parochial relations brought into its fold are either swiftly dissolved or irrevocably modified. “It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production,” wrote Marx and Engels in the Manifesto, “introducing what it calls civilization into their midst — in a word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Elsewhere, in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dealt with this twin tendency of capital to both create and destroy, or create new conditions by destroying old ones. Later, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed this double-edged property of capitalist production “creative destruction.” Polemicizing against Proudhon, who wanted to simply get rid of the bad byproducts of bourgeois society while retaining the good ones, Marx assigned priority to the negative or destructive moment of the value-relation. Famously, he argued that “history progresses according to the bad side” (the left communist group Il Lato Cattivo takes its name from the Italian translation of this passage). Destructiveness, negativity is what drives progress. Read now the following line from Marx’s Grundrisse in light of this: “It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labor which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests” (Grundrisse, pg. 287). Marx returns to this motif once more toward the end of volume three of Capital, in chapter on the trinity formula. Just before passing on to his discussion of socialism as the “realm of freedom,” he explained that “one of the civilizing aspects of capital is that it extorts surplus labor in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.” (Capital, Volume 3, pg. 958).

On this last point, Marx announced in an 1867 speech to Polish delegates of the First International in London that “Russia, by the emancipation of the serfs, has entered the family of civilized nations” (MECW 20, pgs. 199-200). Rosa Luxemburg almost five decades later welcomed the 1905 revolution in Russia with similar sentiments: “All lovers of civilization and freedom, that is, the international working class, can rejoice from the bottom of their hearts… For on this day the Russian proletariat burst on the political stage as a class for the first time; for the first time the only power which historically is qualified and able to cast tsarism into the dustbin and to raise the banner of civilization in Russia and everywhere has appeared on the scene of action.” Her comrade August Bebel affirmed that same year that “it is not our object to destroy civilization… We do not wish to throw humanity back into barbarism; on the contrary, we desire to lift the whole of humanity to the highest thinkable plane of civilization.” This simply restated what Wilhelm Liebknecht stated thirteen years prior: “Socialism presupposes modern civilization. It does not run counter in any way — far from being the enemy of civilization, socialism wishes to extend it to all humanity.” Bebel died in 1913 and Liebknecht in 1900, before the wholesale relapse of capitalist society into barbarism, but Karl Liebknecht carried their message forward in an address to workers for May Day 1916. “Let us fight for everything that means the future triumph of the working classes, the future of humanity and civilization,” declared Liebknecht before he was arrested for agitation.

Postcolonial critiques

Marx’s identification of capital with civilization, so often overlooked, has given rise to many misunderstandings. Postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said, for example, have taken exception to some of Marx’s journalistic writings on India from the 1850s. “England has to fulfill a double mission in India,” Marx wrote for the New York Tribune, “one destructive, the other regenerative — the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia. The British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindu civilization” (MECW 12, pgs. 217-218). On this passage, Said disparagingly remarked that “Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking” (Orientalism, pg. 154). “In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution,” added Said (ibid., pg. 153). Aijaz Ahmad has already highlighted Said’s “anti-Marxism,” as well as his attempt to define “a postmodern kind of anti-colonialism” (In Theory, pg. 222) — in other words, a relativist anti-colonialism. However, it is enough to turn to Marx’s follow-up article on “The Future Results of British Rule in India” to understand the sweeping scope and grandiose scale of the history he sought to articulate. Note his implicit association of civilization with urban centers:

The centralization of capital is essential to the existence of capital as an independent power. The destructive influence of that centralization upon the markets of the world does but reveal, in the most gigantic dimensions, the inherent organic laws of political economy now at work in every civilized town. The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world: on the one hand universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind, and the means of that intercourse; on the other hand the development of the productive powers of man and the transformation of material production into a scientific domination of natural agencies. Bourgeois industry and commerce create these material conditions of a new world in the same way as geological revolutions have created the surface of the earth. When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch — the market of the world and the modern powers of production — and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain. (MECW 12, pg. 222)

Sadik Jalal al-’Azm perhaps came closest to grasping this underlying “civilizational” theme in Marx’s theory of capital, even if he did not explicitly name it as such. Capital’s civilizing effect consists precisely in its “development of the productive powers of man” and so forth. In his 1981 review of Said for the Marxist journal Khamsin, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” al-’Azm unequivocally upheld the superiority of British civilization at this historical juncture: “That nineteenth century Europe was superior to Asia and much of the rest of the world in terms of productive capacities, social organization, historical ascendency, military might and scientific and technological development is indisputable as a contingent historical fact,” he asserted. “Orientalism, with its ahistorical bourgeois bent of mind, did its best to eternalize this mutable fact, to turn it into a permanent reality — past, present, and future. Hence Orientalism’s essentialistic ontology of East and West. Marx, like anyone else, knew of the superiority of modern Europe over the Orient. But to accuse a radically historicist thinker such as Marx of turning this contingent fact into a necessary reality for all time is simply absurd.” Al-’Azm went further than this, even, claiming that “the fact that he utilized terms related to or derived from the Orientalist tradition does not turn him into a partisan of the essentialistic ontology of East and West any more than his constant use of pejorative epithets like ‘nigger’ and ‘Jew’ (to describe foes, class enemies, despised persons, and so on) could turn him into a systematic racist and antisemite.”

Kevin Anderson, whose 2010 book Marx at the Margins grapples with postcolonial criticisms leveled at Marx, concedes too much to Said on this matter. “Marx repeatedly extols the beneficial impact of Britain’s ‘higher’ civilization on India’s ‘lower’ one,” Anderson laments. “This problem needs to be acknowledged” (Marx at the Margins, pg. 20). Anderson is far too keen a scholar not to have noticed Marx’s equation of capital and civilization in his mature economic texts, and the greater nuance implied. He thus reluctantly granted the point raised by Spencer Leonard in their 2012 interview, regarding the relationship of these two terms. Leonard contended:

When Marx says England represents a higher civilization [than India], he is not really talking about the “Englishness” of England, much less anything “authentically Western.” Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization. Rather, capitalist society is “civilization,” per se, in such a way that the past can only be said to be so by analogy with it. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, he uses the language of “civilization,” and terms everything else barbaric, as for instance in the passage where he talks about the battering down of Chinese walls by British imports. The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history. So, it seems that when he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.

Though civilization is certainly a loaded term, selections from Engels lend credence to this interpretation of Marx’s view: “Civilization is that stage of development of society at which division of labor, the resulting exchange between individuals, and commodity production reach their full development and revolutionize the whole of hitherto existing society.” Marx in his 1863 economic manuscripts chided the prerevolutionary French author Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, who had criticized Voltaire, Rousseau, and the phisolophes, preferring Oriental tributary states to European absolutism. “Linguet is not a socialist,” wrote Marx. “His polemics against the bourgeois-liberal ideals of the Enlighteners, his contemporaries, against the dominion of the bourgeoisie then beginning, are thus given — half-seriously, half-ironically — a reactionary appearance, defending Asiatic despotism against the civilized European forms of despotism; thus he defends slavery against wage-labor.”

Relapse into barbarism

After the revolutionary cycle of 1917-1923 drew to a close without spreading westward, the USSR was surrounded, encircled, and besieged. The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 attempted to transform the world war between nations into an international civil war, the idea being that relatively backward countries like Russia represented the weakest link in the imperialist chain. Everything depended on successful revolution in the advanced capitalist core, however, especially in Germany. Uprisings broke out across Europe, but all of them save the Russian Revolution were eventually crushed. Lenin recognized the desperate situation in which the fledgling Soviet Union now found itself, and framed the possibility of socialism’s victory as resting on civilization. “To ensure our existence until the next military conflict between the most civilized countries of the world and the Orientally backward countries which, however, compromise the majority, this majority must become civilized,” wrote Lenin in 1923. “We, too, lack enough civilization to enable us to pass straight on to socialism, although we do have the political requisites for it [Нам тоже не хватает цивилизации для того, чтобы перейти непосредственно к социализму, хотя мы и имеем для этого политические предпосылки].” Here again civilization signifies a certain level of economic development brought about by capital, which constitutes an objective conditio sine qua non for socialist transition.

Nevertheless, Marx and his followers were never blind to the violence of capitalist accumulation, particularly along its periphery. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” he declared in 1853, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked” (MECW 12, pg. 221). Barbarism is in no sense extrinsic to civilization, qua capital. It is an ever-present possibility intrinsic to its development from the start, and exists in dialectical tension with capital’s civilizing qualities. Lenin conceptualized this dialectical tension as “civilized barbarism” in a 1913 article. Discussing the proposal to connect England and France via an underwater tunnel, amidst fears of invasion, he remarked that “the civilized nations have driven themselves into the position of barbarians. Capitalism has brought about a situation in which the bourgeoisie, in order to hoodwink the workers, is compelled to frighten the British people with idiotic tales about ‘invasion,’ …in which a whole group of capitalists who stand to lose ‘good business’ from the tunnel are doing their utmost to wreck this plan and to hold up technical progress. On all sides, at every step one comes across problems which man is quite capable of solving immediately, but capitalism is in the way; capitalist barbarism is stronger than civilization.” As Marx and Engels had before him, Lenin recognized in 1913 that capitalism had actually become an impediment to further progress.

Following Lenin’s lead, Adorno would also write of “civilized barbarism” in his 1951 essay on Kulturkritik: “Were mankind to possess the wealth of goods [produced by capitalism], it would shake off the chains of that civilized barbarism which cultural critics ascribe to the advanced state of the human spirit, rather than to the retarded state of society.” Along with Horkheimer, he endeavored to “the reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, pg. xvi). Civilization itself, they maintained, had relapsed into a sort of barbaric state.

this was one of Marx’s and Engels’ most original and devastating insights. After all, it was not only civilization that they discerned in liberal bourgeois society. Contained within these very same forms of social organization there also lurked the possibility of a new and untold barbarism. The issue at hand here is the one Adorno and Horkheimer dealt with as  Three decades earlier, Engels noticed this tendency of bourgeois society — that is, civilization — to increasingly move to conceal the traces of its own steady barbarization. “[T]he more civilization advances,” he asserted, “the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.”59 But of all the variations on this theme in the annals of Marxist literature, none approaches the poetry of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy:

Friedrich Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.” What does a “reversion to barbarism” mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism…This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of humanity. In this war imperialism has been victorious. Its sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery.

The naked barbarity that was seen in the trenches of Europe in World War I was simply the homecoming of what post-1848 European liberalism hoped to confine to its colonies. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” commented Marx, in an 1853 article on India, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” Still, this inherent barbarism of bourgeois society did not first show its face in the colonies. It had actually emerged several years prior, as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”

August Bebel

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“Gay imperialism”: Postcolonial particularity

Those who op­pose Marx­ism, En­light­en­ment, or even lib­er­al ideo­lo­gies on the ground that they are Euro­centric or co­lo­ni­al im­pos­i­tions, and pro­pose as an al­tern­at­ive sup­posedly more or­gan­ic, au­then­tic­ally in­di­gen­ous life­ways and autoch­thon­ous, com­munit­ari­an wis­dom, are them­selves simply vic­tim to an­oth­er European ideo­logy: Ro­man­ti­cism. I hope it is clear in the fol­low­ing that I do not share the views of Mas­sad or Bouteldja.

Homon­ation­al­ism and “pink­wash­ing”

Since her re­fus­al to ac­cept the Ber­lin Pride Civil Cour­age Award, Ju­dith But­ler has been a lead­ing crit­ic of “homon­ation­al­ism” and the closely re­lated phe­nomen­on of so-called “pink­wash­ing.” Homon­ation­al­ism is un­der­stood here as an ideo­logy which uses a na­tion’s lib­er­al at­ti­tudes to­ward ho­mo­sexu­al­ity as a means of en­cour­aging ra­cist at­ti­tudes to­ward oth­er na­tions, on the grounds that they are sup­posedly less en­lightened. But­ler stated in a May 2010 ad­dress on “Queer Al­li­ance and An­ti­war Polit­ics” in Ank­ara, Tur­key that “in some parts of Europe and surely in Is­rael as well, the rights of ho­mo­sexu­als are de­fen­ded in the name of na­tion­al­ism.” Or as she put it in Ber­lin, what was sup­posed to be her ac­cept­ance speech: “Les­bi­an, gay, trans, and queer people can be used [by] war­mon­gers in­volved in cul­tur­al wars against im­mig­rants through Is­lamo­pho­bia and mil­it­ary wars against Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. In this time, through these in­stru­ments, we be­come re­cruited for na­tion­al­ism and mil­it­ar­ism.”

Ref­er­ence is only made in But­ler’s lat­ter state­ment to NATO and the US — which partly ra­tion­al­ized their in­va­sions of Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, or at least made them more pal­at­able to left-lib­er­als, by present­ing them as an op­por­tun­ity to lib­er­ate wo­men — but Is­rael is clearly also im­plied. Tel Aviv’s vi­brant LGBT scene has been de­servedly praised for its open­ness and ac­cept­ance of dif­fer­ent sexu­al ori­ent­a­tions and gender iden­tit­ies, but this repu­ta­tion sim­ul­tan­eously serves pro­pa­gand­ist­ic ends. Jux­ta­posed against daily life in the Ga­za strip, where Hamas is in power and things are dif­fi­cult due to crip­pling eco­nom­ic block­ades, Tel Aviv is made out to be a gay oas­is sur­roun­ded by a desert of Is­lam­ist ho­mo­pho­bia. Is­rael uses this con­trast to present a tol­er­ant im­age of it­self, and to di­vert at­ten­tion away from the bit­ter real­it­ies of oc­cu­pa­tion. For­get for a mo­ment the string of stabbings last sum­mer at the Jer­u­s­alem Pride fest­iv­al by Yishai Sch­lis­sel, an ul­tra-or­tho­dox Jew.

In Novem­ber 2011, New York Times ran a brief op-ed by Sarah Schul­man on the “pink­wash­ing” prac­tice of mod­ern Is­rael. Ac­cord­ing to Schul­man, the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment as well as un­of­fi­cial travel agen­cies in­stru­ment­al­ize the coun­try’s strong re­cord on gay rights (com­pared to the rest of the re­gion, any­way) as a “mes­saging tool” to coun­ter­bal­ance some of the bad press it’s re­ceived from on­go­ing hu­man rights ab­uses. Schul­man’s ori­gin­al art­icle was de­cent, but much of the sub­sequent de­bate dis­mal. Dis­cus­sions of Is­raeli pub­lic re­la­tions, com­monly eu­phem­ized as “ex­plan­a­tion” [has­bara], tend to de­volve rather quickly. They either veer in­to con­spir­acy the­ory, re­peat­ing the old charge that Jews (er, Zion­ists) con­trol the me­dia, or end up deny­ing such a policy even ex­ists, when fel­low­ships are reg­u­larly awar­ded to ad­voc­ates on Is­rael’s be­half. For­ward, the bi­lin­gual Yid­dish daily foun­ded in 1897 by fol­low­ers of Daniel De Le­on, had a sens­ible take: “Not all Is­raeli gay mes­saging is pink­wash­ing. Most of it is just ad­space meant to at­tract gay tour­ists to Tel Aviv. Which it does.” Jay Mi­chael­son, the au­thor of the piece, nev­er­the­less took is­sue with a highly ma­nip­u­lat­ive full-page ad placed by Rabbi Schmu­ley in Decem­ber 2014.

But­ler and Schul­man are of course right to point out that Is­rael’s pro­gress­ive views on gay rights do not ex­cuse its na­tion­al op­pres­sion of Palestini­ans or eth­nic chau­vin­ism to­ward Ar­abs, but the in­verse should also hold true: Hamas’ so-called “res­ist­ance” to Is­raeli mil­it­ar­ism does not ex­cuse its or­gan­iz­a­tion­al an­ti­semit­ism or il­liber­al stance on rights for wo­men and gays.

Se­lect­ive “shib­boleths”

Many left­ists stop short of this ba­sic equi­poise, however. For ex­ample, But­ler her­self is ready to ex­cuse or­gan­iz­a­tions guilty of or com­pli­cit with oth­er forms of op­pres­sion. At a 2006 an­ti­war teach-in, watch­able be­low, she af­firmed the “pro­gress­ive” cre­den­tials of brazenly an­ti­semit­ic and ho­mo­phobic groups like Hezbol­lah and Hamas:

Yes, un­der­stand­ing Hamas and Hezbol­lah as so­cial move­ments that are pro­gress­ive, on the Left, part of a glob­al Left, is ex­tremely im­port­ant. That does not stop us from be­ing crit­ic­al of cer­tain di­men­sions of both move­ments. It doesn’t stop those of us who are in­ter­ested in non-vi­ol­ent polit­ics from rais­ing the ques­tion of wheth­er there are oth­er op­tions be­sides vi­ol­ence. So again, a crit­ic­al, im­port­ant en­gage­ment. I mean, I cer­tainly think it should be entered in­to the con­ver­sa­tion on the Left. I sim­il­arly think boy­cotts and di­vest­ment pro­ced­ures are, again, an es­sen­tial com­pon­ent of any res­ist­ance move­ment.

When these re­marks were brought up again in 2012, But­ler re­vised her claims some­what: “These polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions define them­selves as anti-im­per­i­al­ist. Anti-im­per­i­al­ism is one char­ac­ter­ist­ic of the glob­al left. On that basis one could de­scribe them as part of the glob­al Left.” Even with this qual­i­fic­a­tion, de­scrib­ing Hezbol­lah and Hamas as pro­gress­ive or left­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions based solely on their res­ist­ance to Is­raeli mil­it­ar­ism is laugh­able. Still, like the Marx­ist aca­dem­ic Susan Buck-Morss, But­ler main­tains that some Is­lam­ist groups may be in­cluded un­der the broad um­brella of a “glob­al left.” Buck-Morss wrote in “Can there be a Glob­al Left?”, the fi­nal chapter of her 2003 book Think­ing Past Ter­ror: Is­lam­ism and Crit­ic­al The­ory on the Left: “Is­lam­ist polit­ics has been mul­tiple and con­ten­tious, span­ning a wide vari­ety of polit­ic­al po­s­i­tions, in­clud­ing a crit­ic­al Left… ‘Left’ here would mean rad­ic­al in the crit­ic­al sense [and] also mean cos­mo­pol­it­an: it would define so­cial justice in a way that ex­cludes no group of hu­man­ity from the be­ne­fits of, and mor­al ac­count­ab­il­ity with­in, the glob­al pub­lic sphere.” For a scath­ing re­view of this work, see Arya Za­hedi’s 2009 piece for In­sur­gent Notes.

Frantz Fan­on was far too com­mit­ted an athe­ist to en­ter­tain the pos­sib­il­ity that re­li­gious re­viv­al might play a pro­gress­ive polit­ic­al role in the struggle against im­per­i­al­ism. Though by then he had aban­doned the cos­mo­pol­it­an hu­man­ism of Black Skin, White Masks in fa­vor of all-out war with co­lo­ni­al­ism and the West, Fan­on con­veyed his skep­ti­cism to his ad­mirer Ali Shari­ati. He wrote in a let­ter to Shari­ati:

Even if I do not share your views with re­spect to Is­lam, I re­spect your view that in the Third World (and if you don’t mind, I would prefer to say in the Near and Middle East), Is­lam, more than any oth­er so­cial and ideo­lo­gic­al force, has had an anti-co­lo­ni­al­ist ca­pa­city and an anti-West­ern nature. I hope that your in­tel­lec­tu­als will be able to in­still life in the in­ert and drugged body of the Muslim East so as to raise the con­scious­ness of the people… in or­der to found a dif­fer­ent kind of man and a dif­fer­ent kind of civil­iz­a­tion. I, for one, fear that the fact of re­vital­iz­ing the spir­it of sec­tari­an­ism and re­li­gion may res­ult in a set­back for a na­tion that is en­gaged in the pro­cess of be­com­ing, of dis­tan­cing it­self from its fu­ture and im­mob­il­iz­ing it in its past.

Later, after he sup­por­ted the na­tion­al­ist up­ris­ing in Al­ger­ia, Fan­on ex­pressed his deep mis­giv­ings. “My left­ist lean­ings drove me to­ward the same goal as Muslim na­tion­al­ists. Yet I was too con­scious of the dif­fer­ent roads by which we reached the same as­pir­a­tion. In­de­pend­ence, yes, I agreed. But what in­de­pend­ence? Were we go­ing to fight to build a feud­al, theo­crat­ic Muslim state in Al­ger­ia frowned on by for­eign­ers?” At least in this re­gard, des­pite his ca­pit­u­la­tion to na­tion­al­ism, Fan­on re­mains su­per­i­or to the “de­co­lo­ni­al” dum­basses who id­ol­ize him.

Sadly, this habit of ig­nor­ing ir­re­con­cil­able points of dis­agree­ment in the name of an anti-im­per­i­al­ist co­ali­tion or pop­u­lar front is not lim­ited to aca­dem­ics. Nu­mer­ous act­iv­ists and even some left-wing pop­u­list (“grass­roots”) politi­cians have suc­cumbed to it as well.

Lind­sey Ger­man, to take one act­iv­ist, no­tori­ously an­nounced in 2004 that she was will­ing to com­prom­ise on cer­tain is­sues but not on oth­ers. At the time, Ger­man was a mem­ber of the Brit­ish SWP and Stop the War co­ali­tion. Wo­men’s rights and gay rights were for her ne­go­ti­able, while anti-Zion­ism was not: “Stu­art King says some Muslims are anti-gay, and this is per­fectly true. But it is not a ques­tion we pose to Chris­ti­ans who join the So­cial­ist Al­li­ance, is it? Now I’m per­son­ally in fa­vor of de­fend­ing gay rights, but I am not pre­pared to have it as a shib­boleth, cre­ated by people who won’t de­fend George Gal­lo­way, and who re­gard the state of Is­rael as some­how a vi­able pres­ence, jus­ti­fied in oc­cupy­ing Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies.” Gal­lo­way him­self is un­will­ing to de­fend wo­men’s re­pro­duct­ive rights in par­lia­ment, de­cry­ing abor­tion as in­fant­i­cide and spout­ing oth­er sex­ist tripe. Of course, none of this mat­ters. His anti-Zion­ism al­lows left­ists to over­look a pleth­ora of re­ac­tion­ary po­s­i­tions, a se­lect­ive blind­ness he is happy to ex­tend to fel­low anti-Zion­ists. Yusuf al-Qaradawi — an Egyp­tian tel­ev­an­gel­ist cler­ic who de­fends wife-beat­ing and fe­male gen­it­al mu­til­a­tion, as well as cor­por­al pun­ish­ment (either by lash­ing or ston­ing) for those guilty of ho­mo­sexu­al acts — was in­vited to Lon­don by Gal­lo­way in 2005. Ken Liv­ing­stone, the former may­or of Lon­don, lauded al-Qaradawi as “a lead­ing pro­gress­ive voice in the Muslim world.”

Auf­heben, an in­de­pend­ent Marxi­an the­or­et­ic­al journ­al in Bri­tain in­spired by Itali­an auto­nom­ism and Dutch-Ger­man coun­cil­ism, chron­icled the far­cic­al ef­fort of the an­ti­war Re­spect Party to win over the “Brit­ish Muslim com­munity.” In its 2009 art­icle “Crois­sants and Roses: New La­bour, Com­mun­al­ism, and the Rise of Muslim Bri­tain,” Auf­heben re­con­struc­ted the tail­ist lo­gic of Re­spect’s SWP lead­er­ship as it des­per­ately sought to house this new mi­lieu with­in its ideo­lo­gic­al head­space. Some of the old Swap­per stances on wo­men’s and gay rights had to be jet­tisoned to make room for this new crowd, it was be­lieved (though Clif­fite Trot­sky­ism al­ways has plenty of room at its dis­pos­al, so vacu­ous is its ideo­logy). Hap­pily, this pan­der­ing was met mostly with in­dif­fer­ence on the part of Brit­ish Muslims:

Vi­tal to the suc­cess of this project, par­tic­u­larly as the anti-war move­ment began to sub­side, was the need to bring the “Brit­ish Muslim com­munity” on board. So as not to put Muslims off, the SWP in­sisted that Re­spect es­chew left-wing “shib­boleths” such as wo­men’s and gay rights. They went to the mosques and echoed the ar­gu­ments of the more rad­ic­al polit­ic­al Is­lam­ists by claim­ing that Bush’s “Glob­al War on Ter­ror” was in fact a war on Muslims — both abroad, with the at­tack on Muslims in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, but also at home with the suc­ces­sion of anti-ter­ror­ist le­gis­la­tion — that should be op­posed by all Muslims as “Muslims.” And like the more rad­ic­al polit­ic­al Is­lam­ists they de­nounced New La­bour as Is­lamo­phobic and ra­cist. Yet for all their ef­forts to pander to muslim sens­it­iv­it­ies, Re­spect failed to win over the “Brit­ish Muslim com­munity,” which re­mained wed­ded to New La­bour.

Is there a reas­on left­ists are so ready to con­demn queer and fem­in­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions that sanc­tion or lend ideo­lo­gic­al sup­port to im­per­i­al­ism, yet hes­it­ate to con­demn anti-im­per­i­al­ist groups which es­pouse hatred and vi­ol­ence to­ward wo­men and gays? To be ab­so­lutely clear, both ought to be con­demned. But left­ists of­ten equi­voc­ate be­fore con­demning the lat­ter. Why are they so re­luct­ant to cri­ti­cize re­ac­tion­ary forms of anti-im­per­i­al­ism, es­pe­cially out­side the West?

Post­co­lo­ni­al par­tic­u­lar­ity

Usu­ally at this point some sort of “ir­re­du­cible par­tic­u­lar­ity” is in­voked, which is sup­posed to pre­vent a uni­ver­sal judg­ment from be­ing formed. Rad­ic­al oth­er­ness [l’altérité rad­icale] de­mands that the ob­ject of cri­tique be treated on its own terms, rather than sub­sumed un­der fa­mil­i­ar cat­egor­ies. (Nine times out of ten, the par­tic­u­lar­ity in ques­tion is cul­tur­al. See, in this con­nec­tion, But­ler’s 1997 art­icle “Merely Cul­tur­al,” de­fend­ing par­tic­u­lar­ism against its uni­ver­sal­ist de­tract­ors). Claims to uni­ver­sal­ity, it is ob­jec­ted, in real­ity fact re­flect the ex­per­i­ence of a very par­tic­u­lar cul­ture — namely that of Europe, or “the West” — which has been sur­repti­tiously el­ev­ated to the status of a norm­at­ive ideal. Ex­pect­ing every­one to con­form to Euro­centric norms of gay rights or gender equal­ity places an un­fair bur­den on non-West­ern cul­tures, to which these con­cepts do not ap­ply. Joseph Mas­sad’s post­co­lo­ni­al read­ing of what he calls “the Gay In­ter­na­tion­al” is at times al­most akin to Mah­moud Ah­mad­ine­jad’s flip reply to stu­dents at Columbia Uni­versity, where he was vis­it­ing in 2007 (and where Mas­sad con­tin­ues to teach). Asked wheth­er ho­mo­sexu­als in his coun­try have rights, the Ir­a­ni­an pres­id­ent answered: “We don’t have ho­mo­sexu­als in Ir­an.” Mas­sad, not to be con­fused with the Is­raeli secret ser­vice Mossad, writes in De­sir­ing Ar­abs:

The ad­vent of co­lo­ni­al­ism and West­ern cap­it­al to the Ar­ab world has trans­formed most as­pects of daily liv­ing; however, it has failed to im­pose a European het­ero­sexu­al re­gime on all Ar­ab men, al­though its ef­forts were suc­cess­ful in the up­per classes and among the in­creas­ingly West­ern­ized middle classes. It is among mem­bers of these rich­er seg­ments of so­ci­ety that the Gay In­ter­na­tion­al found nat­ive in­form­ants. Al­though mem­bers of these classes who en­gage in same-sex re­la­tions have more re­cently ad­op­ted a West­ern iden­tity (as part of the pack­age of the ad­op­tion of everything West­ern by the classes to which they be­long), they re­main a minus­cule minor­ity among those men who en­gage in same-sex re­la­tions and who do not identi­fy as “gay” nor ex­press a need for gay polit­ics.

Here one is re­minded of Bouteldja’s de­nun­ci­ation of “gay im­per­i­al­ism” [im­pé­ria­lisme gay]. Ac­cord­ing to her, there are no homos in the ban­lieue: “The ho­mo­sexu­al life­style does not ex­ist in the pop­u­lar quar­ters [Le mode de vie ho­mo­sexuel n’existe pas dans les quar­tiers po­pu­laires],” Bouteldja baldly as­serts. For her co-thinkers Félix Bog­gio Éwanjé-Épée and Stella Magliani-Belkacem, gay iden­tity is already a form of co­lo­ni­al im­pos­i­tion: “Ho­mo­sexu­al­ity is a West­ern in­ven­tion forced upon Africa and Mah­greb via an ‘im­per­i­al­ism of life­styles’ [L’ho­mo­sexua­li­té, in­ven­tion oc­ci­den­tale im­po­sée à l’Afrique et au Magh­reb, via un «im­pé­ria­lisme des modes de vie»].” Something sim­il­ar was claimed by Azed­ine Berkane in 2002, after he was ar­res­ted for stabbing Ber­trand Delanoë, the first openly gay may­or of Par­is. Berkane, a known ho­mo­phobe, ex­plained to re­port­ers his be­lief that “Muslim fags don’t ex­ist [Mu­sul­mans pé­dés, ça n’existe pas].” Per­haps Bouteldja & co. would agree with him? Des­pite dif­fer­ences of con­fes­sion, might they not also agree with Pope Fran­cis’ re­cent re­ac­tion­ary hog­wash about the “ideo­lo­gic­al col­on­iz­a­tion” of less de­veloped na­tions by mar­riage equal­ity and “gender the­ory”? Or Bish­op Vic­tor Mes­salles of Santo Domin­go, who re­cently de­cried “gay im­per­i­al­ism”?

Mas­sad told Bog­gio Éwanjé-Épée and Magliani-Belkacem in a 2013 in­ter­view, tellingly titled “Em­pire of Sexu­al­ity,” that sexu­al­ity as such ori­gin­ated in the West. It was sub­sequently ex­por­ted through im­per­i­al con­quest, along with a set of ri­gid bin­ar­ies like homo/hetero, etc. (Claims that bin­ary think­ing is pe­cu­li­ar to West­ern Europe, and was only brought to the rest of the world on galle­ons and steam­ships, are nev­er elab­or­ated or sub­stan­ti­ated. The as­sump­tion that pre­co­lo­ni­al cul­tures were some sort of gender­queer para­dise seems naïve). At any rate, the no­tion that gay iden­tity is a re­l­at­ively re­cent de­vel­op­ment is plaus­ible. Draw­ing on the in­sights of John D’Emilio, who barely war­rants a men­tion in De­sir­ing Ar­abs, Mas­sad stated:

“Sexu­al­ity” it­self, as an epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al and on­to­lo­gic­al cat­egory, is a product of spe­cif­ic Euro-Amer­ic­an his­tor­ies and so­cial form­a­tions: i.e., a Euro-Amer­ic­an “cul­tur­al” cat­egory that is not uni­ver­sal or ne­ces­sar­ily uni­ver­sal­iz­able. In­deed, even when the cat­egory “sexu­al­ity” has traveled with European co­lo­ni­al­ism to non-European loc­ales, its ad­op­tion in those con­texts where it oc­curred was neither identic­al nor even ne­ces­sar­ily sym­met­ric­al with its de­ploy­ment in Europe and Euro-Amer­ica. John D’Emilio ar­gued many years ago that “gay men and les­bi­ans have not al­ways ex­is­ted. In­stead, they are a product of his­tory, and have come in­to ex­ist­ence in a spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al era… as­so­ci­ated with the re­la­tions of cap­it­al­ism.” We must add… that their his­tor­ic­al emer­gence and pro­duc­tion was also spe­cif­ic to those geo­graph­ic re­gions of the world and those classes with­in them where a spe­cif­ic type of cap­it­al ac­cu­mu­la­tion had oc­curred and where cer­tain types of cap­it­al­ist re­la­tions of pro­duc­tion pre­vailed. As cap­it­al­ism is the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing means of pro­duc­tion and it has pro­duced its own in­tim­ate forms and modes of fram­ing cap­it­al­ist re­la­tions, these forms and modes have not been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized across na­tion­al laws and eco­nom­ies, and in the quo­tidi­an and in­tim­ate prac­tices of vari­ous peoples, in the same way.

D’Emilio sought to demon­strate that the ef­fect of cap­it­al­ism on the emer­gence of gay and les­bi­an iden­tit­ies in the West was both an out­come of labor re­la­tions that re­quired new res­id­en­tial and mi­grat­ory activ­it­ies, the dis­sol­u­tion or weak­en­ing of kin­ship and fam­ily ties, and the de­vel­op­ment of a con­sumer so­ci­ety and the emer­gence of so­cial net­works that pro­duce, shape, and ar­tic­u­late sexu­al de­sires that are com­men­sur­ate with these changes, which led to the de­vel­op­ment of sexu­al iden­tit­ies… That Gay In­ter­na­tion­al­ists seek to as­sim­il­ate these iden­tit­ies by for­cing them in­to the frame of the homo-hetero bin­ary is it­self a cul­tur­ally im­per­i­al­ist symp­tom of im­per­i­al cap­it­al’s pen­et­ra­tion of peri­pher­al coun­tries, and not the out­come or ef­fect of such pen­et­ra­tion, since in most cases it was un­able to re­pro­duce or im­pose norm­at­ive European sexu­al iden­tit­ies on the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. Here, we must bear in mind that, as Ed­ward Said re­minds us, “im­per­i­al­ism is the ex­port of iden­tity.” It op­er­ates in the re­gister of pro­du­cing non-Europe as oth­er, and some­times as al­most the same as (or po­ten­tially the same as) Europe.

Non­ethe­less, though he sets out from sol­id found­a­tions (D’Emilio’s), Mas­sad soon finds him­self on un­sure foot­ing. He spe­cifies cap­it­al­ism as “the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing means [he prob­ably means ‘mode’] of pro­duc­tion,” but al­ludes to its his­tor­ic spread across dif­fer­ent geo­graph­ic re­gions to even­tu­ally wrap the whole globe. This sup­posedly ac­counts for the “his­tor­ic­al dif­fer­ence” the­or­ized by post­co­lo­ni­al writers like Dipesh Chakra­barty, the un­sub­lated re­mainder left over by pre­his­tor­ic al­tern­at­ives to prim­it­ive ac­cu­mu­la­tion — a re­mainder which can nev­er be fully in­teg­rated in­to the re­gime of ab­stract labor. Chakra­barty des­ig­nates this the second of “two his­tor­ies of cap­it­al.” Where­as His­tory 1 is “the uni­ver­sal and ne­ces­sary his­tory we as­so­ciate with cap­it­al,” His­tory 2 en­com­passes the par­tic­u­lar and con­tin­gent form­a­tions “en­countered as ante­cedents” by His­tory 1. Marx was too stub­bornly Hegel­i­an for Chakra­barty’s taste, or rather in­suf­fi­ciently Heide­g­geri­an: “In a prop­erly Heide­g­geri­an frame­work… both the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand re­tain their im­port­ance without gain­ing epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al primacy over the oth­er; His­tory 2 can­not sub­late it­self in­to His­tory 1.”

Gayatri Spivak and Ed­ward Said are more rel­ev­ant ref­er­ences for Mas­sad, but the schem­at­ic dis­tinc­tion between His­tory 1 and His­tory 2 from Pro­vin­cial­iz­ing Europe is in­struct­ive here. Mas­sad’s ar­gu­ment pro­ceeds along es­sen­tially these same lines. “The cat­egor­ies gay and les­bi­an are not uni­ver­sal at all and can only be uni­ver­sal­ized by the epi­stem­ic, eth­ic­al, and polit­ic­al vi­ol­ence un­leashed on the rest of the world by in­ter­na­tion­al hu­man rights ad­voc­ates whose aim is to de­fend the very people their in­ter­ven­tion is cre­at­ing,” he con­ten­ded in De­sir­ing Ar­abs, an­ti­cip­at­ing But­ler’s speech in Ber­lin a couple years later. Against this par­tic­u­lar­ist on­slaught, what hope re­mains for Marx­ist uni­ver­sal­ism?

To an­swer this, the con­nec­tion between cap­it­al­ism and civil­iz­a­tion must be cla­ri­fied.

They saved Lenin’s brain


An autopsy was performed on Lenin the same night as his embalming, lasting four hours and forty minutes. “Approximately halfway through the process Lenin’s brain was opened, and the direct cause of death was ascertained… When Lenin suffered a stroke on January 21, 1924, a large amount of blood rushed into his brain, much more blood than the sclerotic arteries had been transmitting. This pressure was too great for the brain’s damaged vessels, and the walls of those vessels broke down, flooding the brain with blood.” An official report of the autopsy was published the day of Lenin’s funeral. One reader, a non-party intellectual, criticized it for conveying the message that “Lenin is only matter, nothing more than a combination of a cranial hemisphere, intestines, an abdominal cavity, a heart, kidneys, a spleen…”

The weight of Lenin’s brain was 1,340 grams.

In 1968, Paragon Films adapted one of its older theater releases for television. Madmen of Mandoras (1963) only ran for seventy minutes, so about twenty minutes of footage had to be added to fill an hour-and-a-half slot. The result was They Saved Hitler’s Brain, an awful potpourri of shitty sixties sci-fi, WWII nostalgia, and spy film.

Of course, no one actually saved Hitler’s brain. As everyone knows, most of it was left splattered over the walls of a Berlin bunker. What little remained could hardly be salvaged.

However, the brain of another world-historical figure — one who was comparable in stature, if politically his polar opposite — was in fact preserved. Vladimir Lenin’s brain is still soaking in a vat somewhere inside the Moscow Institute of Brain Research, founded shortly after his death. Nikolai Semashko, Commissar of Health, summoned a pair of internationally renowned neurologists to the Russian capital to examine Lenin’s brain. Cécile and Oskar Vogt were the ultimate brain cytology power couple in Paris at the time. Semashko and his Politburo ally, Stalin, ostensibly wanted to establish the genius of the deceased Soviet premier on a materialist basis.

Upon their arrival in 1925, the Vogts were warmly greeted by party officials. Given a team of understudies and laboratory aids, as well as a building in which they could conduct their research, the husband-and-wife tandem immediately set to work. Oskar in particular was impressed by Lenin’s neuronal arrangements. His brain apparently housed a high number of abnormally large pyramidal cells clustered near the cortex, supposedly indicating a strong associative faculty. Vogt referred to Lenin in private as an “association athlete.”

lenin's brain compared with another

But there was an ulterior motive behind their invitation to Moscow. Lenin had left a testament in which he commented upon the strengths and weaknesses of the leading Bolsheviks, many of whom were now vying to succeed him. While none emerged wholly unscathed, the sharpest criticisms were reserved for Stalin. In the final months before Lenin’s death, he and Stalin had fought vociferously. Things got so heated that Lenin recommended Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary.

Krupskaya, Trotsky, and a few others hoped Vogt would find Lenin was compos mentis up to his death. Stalin of course hoped that Vogt would vindicate Lenin’s brilliance, but judge him to be not fully competent at the time he dictated his testament. At the end of the day, not much came of the inquiry. Provisional results were published in 1929, but no follow-up articles or essays immediately succeeded it. Not until 1967 would more information be released regarding the tests performed on Lenin’s brain.

Мозг Ильича Журнал «Смена» за 1925 год, рассказывает о «лучшем образце мозга человека с крупнейшим интеллектом»

Much has been written about this bizarre episode in the history of medical science and the early Soviet state. Tilman Spengler, a German author, novelized the story in 1991. Lenin’s Brain has since been widely translated. Paul R. Gregory, a Cold War liberal, included a chapter on it in his hokey collection Lenin’s Brain, and Other Stories from the Soviet Secret Archives. Igor Klatzo’s joint biography of Cécile and Oskar Vogt features a chapter about their time in Moscow. Jochen Richter’s “Pantheon of Brains: The Moscow Brain Research Institute, 1925-1936” can be read here.

Dubious though the science must seem, at nearly a century’s remove, the cult of genius within neuroscientific circles was not limited to Lenin. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s brain was also donated to the Institute and studied at length. Following the death of Albert Einstein in 1955, the great physicist’s brain was removed, mapped, cut into cross-sections, and scrutinized at length. Like Lenin, Einstein considered himself a socialist (albeit of a different stripe). Go figure.

Communist cranial capacity crushes cretinous capitalism.

The first building of the Moscow Brain Institute "Mozga" DETAIL_PICTURE_697657_80754362untitledVogt, Oskar *06.04.1870-+Hirnforscher, D- in seinem Forschungsinstitut im Schwarzwald bei der Betrachtung einer Filfolie aus einer Serie von Gehirnschnitten- 1943

Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

Anti-imperialism, like anti-Zionism, is hardly sufficient cause to categorize a group or individual as “progressive.” Vladimir Lenin, whose pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1915) remains by far the most influential work on the topic to date, specifically warned against lending material or ideological aid to regressive political groups. In his “Draft Theses on Colonial and National Questions” (1920), he wrote:

With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:

  1. first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;
  2. second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;
  3. third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.

Lenin was expanding here on some ideas he’d laid out in an earlier work, from 1915. Rebutting Kievsky, he wrote:

Imperialism is as much our “mortal” enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Consequently, once the author [Kievsky] admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (“actively resisting” suppression means supporting the uprising), he also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.

Here we arrive at the crux of the matter: the tricky, historically fraught relationship between nationalism and internationalism in socialist movements. What relationship is there, if any, between national liberation and global revolution? In the first two decades of the twentieth century, a dispute over demands for national autonomy reverberated throughout the Second International. Oppressed nationalities living in multinational empires (e.g., the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires) and in the overseas colonies of European empires (e.g., the German, French, and British Empires) agitated for secession and self-government on a linguistic, geographic, or ethnic basis. These disparate movements rallied around the banner of a “right to national self-determination.”

Essentially, there were three different sides to this debate. First, there was Lenin, who argued that national liberation struggles could be supported within a frame of imminent world revolution, in the context of inter-imperialist war and widespread rebellion in the colonies. Second, there was Rosa Luxemburg, who rejected even Lenin’s highly qualified defense of national self-determination out of fear that this might lead to the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities within the states thus founded. Third, there were the Austromarxists, who upheld the principle of “national-cultural autonomy” with separate schools for each nationality to celebrate its unique language and culture. Lenin and Luxemburg both thought this amounted to chauvinism, and opposed it resolutely.

By 1959, the council communist Paul Mattick already noticed that shifting conditions had rendered the arguments of both Lenin and Luxemburg moot. “[The postwar] ‘renaissance’ of nationalism contradicts both Rosa Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s positions on the ‘national question’,” Mattick observed. “Apparently, the time for national emancipation has not come to an end. However, the rising tide of anti-imperialism does not serve world-revolutionary socialist ends.” While Lenin may have had the cooler head in the debate, and though his positions perhaps made sense given the impending interimperialist war, today Luxemburg’s unwavering opposition to nationalism — even national self-determination — seems more correct in retrospect. Loren Goldner, editor of the left communist online publication Insurgent Notes, made a similar point in 2011. “We consider nationalism in the current epoch to be reactionary,” Goldner explained. “Nationalism in the period from the French Revolution until approximately World War I could play an historically progressive, even revolutionary, role (i.e., in the era of bourgeois revolutions) when the formation of viable nation states out of the old dynastic order (e.g., Germany, Italy) was still possible. Even then, the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ was never part of the revolutionary tradition as an abstract principle, separate from a strategic geopolitical orientation to unite the working class (which is always international).” Continue reading

Exculpatory anti-Zionism

From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

Overt antisemitism on the Left is rare. When antisemitic rhetoric does occur, it is seldom obvious. It tends to be masked in more or less subtle ways. Matters are not made easier by Israel’s claim to represent and act on behalf of Jews throughout the world, of course. Yet antisemitism and anti-Zionism are clearly not identical. Some criticisms of Israel may be driven by antipathy toward the Jews, a false projection of alienated social power, but by no means all. How, then, can one distinguish antisemitic from non-antisemitic opposition to a nominally Jewish state? A fairly reliable acid test is to check whether a given statement about Zionism or Israel incorporates ideological elements from classical antisemitism. Just minus the whole bit about “the Jews,” usually, as these days such talk is seen as bad form. The old ideologemes and tropes are readily repackaged, however, given new anti-Zionist wrapping — the same content in a different form. By slightly modifying their terminology and diction, antisemites hope that no one will take notice.

CounterPunch is a particularly egregious case of an online platform where antisemitic rot is often passed off as anti-Zionist critique. Nominally leftist, the publication still claims a wide readership. Authors like Ian Donovan, Israel Shamir, Gilad Atzmon, and Alison Weir all have articles up over at CounterPunch’s website. Donovan is known for his “Draft Theses on the Jews and Modern Imperialism,” which contains such gems as the following: “Jews are not a nation, but there is a pan-national bourgeoisie with national aspirations… which wants a territorial asset [Israel].” Like Donovan, Atzmon believes Jews have infiltrated the governments of major world powers in order to advance Israel’s agenda. He thus refers to Corbyn’s party as “Zionist occupied territory,” and counterintuitively accepts the premise that Labour has a “Jewish problem.” Only it’s not the one everyone thinks it is, as Atzmon affirms “Yes, Indeed, Labour has a Jewish Problem: It is Dominated by Zionist Oligarchs.” Shamir goes a bit further than either Donovan or Atzmon on this score, however. Israel is just the beginning, says Shamir, part of a larger plan to achieve global domination. When he’s not penning paeans to Pol-Pot, then, Shamir therefore maintains: “Palestine is not the ultimate goal of the Jews; the world is.” Numerous antisemitic motifs can be identified in these passages, paranoid delusions about Zionist-Occupied Governments (ZOG) and an elaborate international, multi-generational plot to ensure Jewish hegemony.

Alison Weir is (in)famous for her groundless conjectures about “Israeli Organ Harvesting,” based on the widely discredited journalism of Daniel Boström for the Swedish periodical Aftonbladet. Of course, Aftonbladet is hardly a reputable source of information. The journal supported the Nazi occupation during World War II, and degenerated into tabloid reporting several decades later. Netanyahu nevertheless decided to take Boström’s article, buried in the back pages of an obscure paper, and turn it into a diplomatic incident. Demanding  the government of Sweden confiscate all physical copies of the paper, delete it from the web, and issue a formal apology, Bibi thrust a wild story based on rumor and hearsay in front of the media spotlight (while also haplessly making it an issue of free speech). Undeterred by the dubious authenticity of the original piece, Weir confidently reported: “Testimony and circumstantial evidence indicate that Israeli doctors have been harvesting internal organs from Palestinian prisoners without consent for years… Some of the information suggests that in several instances Palestinians may have been captured with this macabre purpose in mind.” Just three days later, CounterPunch ran a follow-up piece by Bouthaina Shaaban, media advisor to the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Here the grisly charge of “body-snatching” was again repeated, this time as a fact. “Israeli occupation forces [are] killing Palestinians with the objective of stealing their organs,” she asserted. Even Boström, who broke the story back in 2009, himself confessed to having no proof of the claims covered therein. Personally, he seemed to doubt their veracity. “Whether it’s true or not — I have no idea, no clue.” Boström’s visit to the country that December, attending a conference in Jerusalem, led him to have second thoughts about his decision to publish unsubstantiated gossip: “[My] visit to Israel, and the fact that I was part of a fair dialogue, made me rethink the whole issue.” Regardless, much of the outrage over the article can be explained by the parallels between accusations that Israeli doctors stole organs to save the lives of patients back home and the blood libel, according to which Jews stole the blood of Gentile children in order to revitalize themselves. George Galloway then helpfully chimed in that “Israel is playing mini-Mengele.”

Yet another jaw-dropping instance of throwback antisemitism appeared on CounterPunch as recently as last week. It was disguised — though just barely — as anti-Zionism. Anyone familiar with the history of antisemitic symbolism could easily pick up on them, however. Greg Felton, an investigative journalist and author specializing in international affairs and the Middle East, explained American foreign policy in a since-deleted article: “In my book The Host and The Parasite: How Israel’s Fifth Column Consumed America, I demonstrated that the US government has been fascist or proto-fascist for more than 30 years. This fascism has been predominantly Jewish. From Harry Truman to George W. Bush, the US has gone through six stages of increasing fascism called Zionization.” Fifth column? Jewish fascism? Parasitism on an otherwise healthy host? One of the most incendiary accusations leveled against the Jews in interwar Germany was that they somehow constituted a “fifth column” undermining the war effort. Despite the many medals for bravery and courage awarded to Jewish soldiers who served in the German army, the Jews were collectively blamed for the country’s defeat. Never mind imagery depicting the Jew as a “parasite,” the embodiment of finance capital, profiting off of the productive labor of others while producing nothing themselves. Honestly, I am not sure why Felton’s article disappeared. Looking at some of the other material that’s up on CounterPunch, this kind of drivel is fairly standard. Continue reading

Structural antisemitism

From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

Whether or not the aforementioned remarks were unintentional is of no consequence here. I have no interest in singling out individuals as virulent antisemites, even if a strong case could be made in certain instances. Here larger forces are at work, which operate according to a dynamic the Marxian theorist Moishe Postone has called “structural antisemitism.” Postone provided a fairly succinct definition in an interview with Martin Thomas for the German publication Krisis, distinguishing it from other forms of racism:

It’s true that the Israeli government uses the charge of antisemitism to shield it from criticisms. But that doesn’t mean that antisemitism itself isn’t a serious problem. The way in which antisemitism is distinguished, and should be distinguished, from racism, has to do with the sort of imaginary of power, attributed to the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, which is at the heart of antisemitism. The Jews are seen as constituting an immensely powerful, abstract, intangible global form of power that dominates the world. There is nothing similar to this idea at the heart of other forms of racism. Racism rarely, to the best of my knowledge, constitutes a whole system that seeks to explain the world; whereas antisemitism is a primitive critique of the world of capitalist modernity. The reason I regard it as being particularly dangerous for the Left is precisely because antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have.

He goes on to explain that “[antisemitism] represents a fetishized form of anticapitalism. That is, the mysterious power of capital — which is intangible, global, and which churns up nations and areas and people’s lives — is attributed to the Jews. The abstract domination of capitalism is personified as the Jews. Antisemitism is thus a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews.” Marx of course was careful, for all his fulminations against the bourgeoisie, to assign precedence to the impersonal logic of capital over and above its personification in individual capitalists. Capitalists are merely the “character masks” of capital, and are as much subject to its control as the workers they employ (despite enjoying a greater share of the wealth generated by it).

Building on Postone’s argument, as well as the arguments of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Werner Bonefeld writes: “Modern antisemitism is ‘the rumor about the Jews’ as the incarnation of hated forms of capitalism, which implies that antisemitism expresses resistance to capitalism.” This thesis is not without its problems, of course. For all its faults, however, especially in turning an historical accident of capitalism’s development into a logical necessity, the structural antisemitism argument is generally sound. Just as I would say there structural anti-black racism exists because of the role played by transatlantic slave trade in the colonization of the New World, not to mention its lingering legacy in postbellum labor relations. In other words, there is a logical role each can conveniently play (for historic reasons) in the systemic structure of capitalism.

Leftists often have this delusion where they think anyone who doesn’t simply parrot cable news anchors or political pundits is just an inch away from a comprehensive Systemkritik. Seeing the Illuminati behind everything is supposedly the first step on some inevitable road to a critique of the capitalist totality. Hence the isomorphy between the average “critical” narrative (including most leftist ones) and the antisemitic narrative. Both boil down to a critique of who makes up the management of a social structure — or at best, a critique of the mode of management — rather than a critique of the fundamental social relations themselves. It’s easier to stick with the idea that you just have to weed out “a few bad apples” than it is to tear apart the ideological fabric of everything that surrounds you. Continue reading