The theory of “reification”

A re­sponse to Georg Lukács

Izrail’ Vain­shtein
Un­der the Ban­ner of
10 (1924)


The philo­soph­ic­al ex­plan­a­tions present among people claim­ing to be Marx­ists mani­fest a haphaz­ard­ness of spec­u­lat­ive philo­soph­iz­ing that must meet their nemes­is in the philo­sophy of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

The his­tory of hu­man thought, from the dia­lect­ic­al stand­point, is least of all a ground for con­struct­ing hy­po­theses, con­coct­ing du­bi­ous con­cepts that bear on their face the im­print of tra­di­tion­al philo­soph­ic­al striv­ings. True and deep thought, thought that opens a new epoch in his­tory, of­ten be­comes a pole of at­trac­tion for philo­soph­iz­ing per­sons whose con­cep­tu­al fancy seizes upon such thought only to cov­er it over with their own ques­tion­able designs. Such a ques­tion­able design is the the­ory of re­ific­a­tion of Georg Lukács.1

Marx, as is known, dis­closed the fet­ish char­ac­ter of the com­mod­ity. He showed that value is not a fet­ish in­vis­ibly resid­ing in the com­mod­ity, but a pro­duc­tion re­la­tion in a so­ci­ety based on in­di­vidu­al ex­change between com­mod­ity pro­du­cers. The struc­ture of com­mod­ity so­ci­ety in gen­er­al, and cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety in par­tic­u­lar, is such that a thing be­comes a point of in­ter­sec­tion in a nex­us of in­ter­link­ing labors. The com­mod­ity es­tab­lishes links in such a so­ci­ety, where there is no planned reg­u­lat­ory con­trol over pro­duc­tion and where a thing, dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cer that made it, des­cends on to the mar­ket as a com­mod­ity unit, obed­i­ent to the spe­cif­ic laws of cir­cu­la­tion: “The labor of the private in­di­vidu­al mani­fests it­self as an ele­ment of the total labor of so­ci­ety only through the re­la­tions which the act of ex­change es­tab­lishes between the products, and, through their me­di­ation, between the pro­du­cers.”2 A thing is dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cers be­cause they them­selves are dis­con­nec­ted from each oth­er. The over­com­ing of this sep­ar­a­tion is car­ried out in com­mod­ity cir­cu­la­tion, through which things es­tab­lish so­cial ties. To un­der­stand the con­scious­ness of such a so­ci­ety and its con­stitutive classes (a means in the struggle) it is ne­ces­sary to go bey­ond the lim­its of thing­hood and to ad­dress the liv­ing con­crete act­ors in struggle. Things do not struggle amongst them­selves. If the so­cial con­scious­ness is a crit­ic­al factor in this mu­tu­al his­tor­ic­al rivalry, then, of course, it is ne­ces­sary to un­der­stand it in terms of so­cial class in­terest, which only finds ex­pres­sion in liv­ing agents of the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess. The geni­us of Marx’s dis­clos­ure con­sisted in re­veal­ing be­hind re­la­tions of things the re­la­tions of people and, con­versely, in es­tab­lish­ing the ne­ces­sity of the re­ific­a­tion of pro­duc­tion re­la­tions in a com­mod­ity so­ci­ety. Lukács, pro­ceed­ing from the fact of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism — which Marx so bril­liantly dis­sec­ted hav­ing seen be­hind this oc­cult idol hu­man re­la­tions — at­tempts to con­struct an en­tire “mon­ist­ic” the­ory of re­ific­a­tion in whose im­age and like­ness all phe­nom­ena of this so­ci­ety are for­mu­lated, in­clud­ing con­scious­ness. However, Lukács’s con­struc­tion stands in sharp con­tra­dic­tion to the sense of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

podZnamMarks 6a014e5fb9e8aa970c01a3fc9f8310970b

First of all, when Marx speaks about cap­it­al “as auto­mat­ic gen­er­a­tion”3 in which all traces of its ori­gin dis­ap­pear, he in this case does not at all de­scribe, as Lukács thinks, “the in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness to­ward re­ific­a­tion.”4 Rather, Marx is speak­ing about the re­frac­tion of de­term­in­ate forms of so­cial re­la­tions, op­er­at­ing as re­la­tions of things in the con­scious­ness of bour­geois the­ory and rep­res­ent­a­tion. Polit­ic­al eco­nomy is the sci­ence of re­la­tions between people rep­res­en­ted as re­la­tions between things. The cap­it­al­ist eco­nomy is a com­mod­ity eco­nomy, the single cell of which — the private busi­ness en­ter­prise — is man­aged by form­ally in­de­pend­ent com­mod­ity pro­du­cers, between whom an in­dir­ect link is es­tab­lished in the pro­cess of ex­change. Speak­ing about com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism and all its modi­fic­a­tions in cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, Marx least of all psy­cho­lo­gizes. He is de­scrib­ing an in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness, but he spe­cifies it in re­la­tion to the pro­duct­ive re­la­tions of people char­ac­ter­ist­ic of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. Ru­bin is com­pletely right to say that the the­ory of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism could be bet­ter called “a gen­er­al the­ory of the pro­duc­tion re­la­tions of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”5 Continue reading

The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014

Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha

We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)

The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)

The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?


Preliminary remarks

Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

Lukács’ abyss

Jeremy Co­han
Platy­pus Re­view
Au­gust 1, 2011

At the Marx­ist Lit­er­ary Group’s In­sti­tute on Cul­ture and So­ci­ety 2011, held on June 20–24, 2011 at the In­sti­tute for the Hu­man­it­ies, Uni­versity of Illinois at Chica­go, Platy­pus mem­bers Spen­cer Le­onard, Pamela No­gales, and Jeremy Co­han or­gan­ized a pan­el on “Marx­ism and the Bour­geois Re­volu­tion.” The ori­gin­al de­scrip­tion of the event reads: “The ‘bour­geois re­volu­tions’ from the 16th through the 19th cen­tur­ies — ex­tend­ing in­to the 20th — con­formed hu­man­ity to mod­ern city life, end­ing tra­di­tion­al, pas­tor­al, re­li­gious cus­tom in fa­vor of so­cial re­la­tions of the ex­change of labor. Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that, in con­tra­dis­tinc­tion to the cler­ic­al First Es­tate who ‘prayed’ and the ar­is­to­crat­ic Second Es­tate who ‘fought,’ the com­mon­er Third Es­tate ‘worked:’ ‘What has the Third Es­tate been? Noth­ing.’ ‘What is it? Everything.’ Kant warned that uni­ver­sal bour­geois so­ci­ety would be the mere mid­point in hu­man­ity’s achieve­ment of free­dom. After the last bour­geois re­volu­tions in Europe of 1848 failed, Marx wrote of the ‘con­sti­tu­tion of cap­it­al,’ the am­bi­val­ent, in­deed self-con­tra­dict­ory char­ac­ter of ‘free wage labor.’ In the late 20th cen­tury, the ma­jor­ity of hu­man­ity aban­doned ag­ri­cul­ture in fa­vor of urb­an life — however in ‘slum cit­ies.’ How does the bour­geois re­volu­tion ap­pear from a Marxi­an point of view? How did what Marx called the ‘pro­let­ari­an­iz­a­tion’ of so­ci­ety circa 1848 sig­nal not only the crisis and su­per­ses­sion, but the need to ful­fill and ‘com­plete’ the bour­geois re­volu­tion, whose task now fell to the polit­ics of ‘pro­let­ari­an’ so­cial­ism, ex­pressed by the work­ers’ call for ‘so­cial demo­cracy’? How did this ex­press the at­tempt, as Len­in put it, to over­come bour­geois so­ci­ety ‘on the basis of cap­it­al­ism’ it­self? How did sub­sequent Marx­ism lose sight of Marx on this, and how might Marx’s per­spect­ive on the crisis of the bour­geois re­volu­tion in the 19th cen­tury still res­on­ate today?” An au­dio re­cord­ing of the event is avail­able at the above link. What fol­lows is an ed­ited ver­sion of Jeremy’s Co­han’s open­ing re­marks.



In his “Idea for a Uni­ver­sal His­tory from a Cos­mo­pol­it­an Point of View,” Im­manuel Kant sets forth to tell the story of hu­man­ity as if it were one of pro­gress. This is not easy, says Kant,

Since men in their en­deavors be­have, on the whole, not just in­stinct­ively, like the brutes, nor yet like ra­tion­al cit­izens of the world ac­cord­ing to some agreed-on plan, no his­tory of man con­ceived ac­cord­ing to a plan seems to be pos­sible…One can­not sup­press a cer­tain in­dig­na­tion when one sees men’s ac­tions on the great world-stage and finds, be­side the wis­dom that ap­pears here and there among in­di­vidu­als, everything in the large woven to­geth­er from folly, child­ish van­ity, even from child­ish malice and de­struct­ive­ness.1

For Kant, ra­tion­al­ity in hu­man his­tory de­pends on the fu­ture. By com­plet­ing the seeds of free­dom and de­vel­op­ment im­pli­cit in the present, we might il­lu­min­ate and make mean­ing­ful the sound, fury, and idiocy thus far char­ac­ter­ist­ic of world-his­tory. The stakes are high:

Un­til this last step… is taken, which is the halfway mark in the de­vel­op­ment of man­kind, hu­man nature must suf­fer the cruelest hard­ships un­der the guise of ex­tern­al well-be­ing; and Rousseau was not far wrong in pre­fer­ring the state of sav­ages, so long, that is, as the last stage to which the hu­man race must climb is not at­tained.2

Georg Lukács sought to re­vive a Marx that, like Kant, strove to bring the crisis-char­ac­ter of the present to self-con­scious­ness, but un­der changed con­di­tions. This Marx un­der­stood the prob­lem of his — and our — epoch as the un­fin­ished bour­geois re­volu­tion, whose gains would be mean­ing­ful only from the stand­point of re­demp­tion — what Lukács called the stand­point of the pro­let­ari­at. The “or­tho­dox” Marx Lukács found in the polit­ics of the rad­ic­als of the Second In­ter­na­tion­al, Rosa Lux­em­burg and Vladi­mir Len­in, stood at the edge of an his­tor­ic­al abyss.

As Ni­et­z­sche’s Za­rathus­tra puts it: “Man is a rope tied between beast and over­man — a rope over an abyss. A dan­ger­ous across, a dan­ger­ous on-the-way, a dan­ger­ous look­ing back, a dan­ger­ous shud­der­ing and stop­ping.”3 On the oth­er side of the rope, the com­ple­tion of the hu­man free­dom whose pos­sib­il­ity the “bour­geois epoch” had be­gun. Be­neath, the whor­ing sub­ser­vi­ence of bour­geois thought and so­cial­ism both, to a status quo with ever dwind­ling pos­sib­il­it­ies for hu­man free­dom.

This is a very dif­fer­ent Lukács than the one who has gained some aca­dem­ic re­spect­ab­il­ity of late. A sec­tor of the aca­dem­ic left thinks we ought to take up many of the ana­lyt­ic­al tools Lukács has giv­en us to be­come more “re­flex­ive” crit­ics of cap­it­al­ism, pay­ing at­ten­tion to our “stand­point” of cri­tique to get past ob­ject­ive and sub­ject­ive di­cho­tom­ies that plague de­bate in the so­cial sci­ences, and to talk about ideo­logy as “so­cially ne­ces­sary il­lu­sion” rather than mere will o’ the wisp. Sure, we have to ditch the polit­ics — the crypto-mes­si­an­ic or proto-Sta­lin­ist (whichever you prefer) “pro­let­ari­at as the identic­al sub­ject-ob­ject of his­tory.” But Lukács can help us be­come keen­er, more crit­ic­al aca­dem­ics.

I want to res­ist this as­sim­il­a­tion of Lukács in­to the bar­bar­ism of aca­dem­ic reas­on.

As Lukács put it in his “What is Or­tho­dox Marx­ism?”: “Ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic is a re­volu­tion­ary dia­lectic.”4 Lukács is not the mere “ana­lyst” of re­ific­a­tion, on the mod­el of his cul­tur­al stud­ies epi­gones. He sought to demon­strate that Marx­ism was, from be­gin­ning to end, only pos­sible as a prac­tic­al self-cla­ri­fic­a­tion of the on­go­ing crisis of so­ci­ety triggered by the un­fin­ished bour­geois re­volu­tion. Re­cent at­tempts to res­cue the “aca­dem­ic” Lukács are an ex­er­cise in con­tra­dic­tion. It is pre­cisely when he stoppedbe­ing an aca­dem­ic that he could move for­ward with his philo­soph­ic­al prob­lems, be­cause they were be­ing ad­dressed polit­ic­ally by the re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism of his day.

But the at­tempt to re­cov­er the polit­ic­al Lukács may be just as fu­tile. For Lukács’s mo­ment is not ours; the crisis and pos­sib­il­ity of the early 20th cen­tury is far from what we face. So any “re­cov­ery” of Lukács must op­er­ate on two levels: one, by ask­ing ser­i­ously wheth­er we have over­come the crisis that Lukács at­temp­ted to for­mu­late the­or­et­ic­ally, and two, by re­cog­niz­ing that, if we have not, we can­not simply take up where he left off.


The prob­lem of epi­stem­o­logy, mor­als, aes­thet­ics in the “Re­ific­a­tion” es­say is reas­on at odds with it­self; reas­on that ends in myth­o­logy, suf­fer­ing, and un­free­dom.

We re­turn to Kant, this time of­fer­ing the battle cry of the En­light­en­ment: “Ours is the genu­ine age of cri­ti­cism, to which everything must sub­mit.”5 Not just ideas, but so­cial in­sti­tu­tions and forms of life too, must jus­ti­fy them­selves by ap­peal­ing to reas­on, rather than through claims of tra­di­tion or dogma. The philo­soph­ic­al En­light­en­ment and the polit­ic­al re­volu­tions that fought un­der its ban­ner — the Amer­ic­an, the French, the Haitian, and those of 1848 — looked for­ward to the real­iz­a­tion of reas­on, free­dom, and hu­man self-de­vel­op­ment in the world, in our so­cial in­sti­tu­tions and in ourselves. This would be eman­cip­a­tion — hu­man­ity’s “ma­tur­ity” as Kant puts it.

But bour­geois so­ci­ety has been un­able to ful­fill its prom­ise. We all-too reas­on­able mod­erns seem con­signed to con­tem­plate a ready-made world. Lukács shows this reas­on — a more power­ful and myth­ic­al dom­in­at­ing force than nature ever was — at odds with it­self, and in play in all forms in so­ci­ety: from the fact­ory ma­chine to the bur­eau­crat­ic state, from jur­is­pru­dence to journ­al­ism. He peoples his es­say with char­ac­ters from the great so­cial sci­ent­ists of his day, Max Weber and Georg Sim­mel — the bur­eau­crats, the ab­stract cal­cu­lat­ive in­di­vidu­als — to de­scribe a so­ci­ety whose “reas­on” is a soul­less re­strict­ive ra­tion­al­iz­a­tion shap­ing hu­man­ity in its nar­row im­age. He might, like Weber, have also turned to Ni­et­z­sche’s “last man” — the shrunken, all-too reas­on­able, mod­ern toady. Happy; un­able to give birth to a star.

Nor does aca­demia help us out of this crisis of mod­ern reas­on. Dis­cip­lin­ary frag­ment­a­tion is the rule, wherein the more we seem to know, the more reas­on­able each sci­ence be­comes, the less it has to say about the nature of our so­ci­ety as a whole. Weber puts it like so in his “Sci­ence as a Vo­ca­tion,” “Nat­ur­al sci­ence gives us an an­swer to the ques­tion of what we wish to do to mas­ter life tech­nic­ally. It leaves quite aside…wheth­er we should and do wish to mas­ter life tech­nic­ally and wheth­er it ul­ti­mately makes sense to do so.”6 We once thought we could go to reas­on with our deep ques­tions; we now know bet­ter, says Weber.

And, im­port­antly, Marx­ism has been on the whole no bet­ter — it has been only a more ad­vanced form of this dom­in­a­tion-re­con­sti­t­ut­ing reas­on. The tar­get of most of His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness is, after all, Marx­ism it­self, a “vul­gar” Marx­ism that loses the ca­pa­city to af­fect the course of events. This Marx­ism had signed on to na­tion­al war ef­forts in WWI; this Marx­ism was re­spons­ible for the tight­en­ing and spread of state con­trol over every­day life. We will re­turn to this point: Marx­ism, for Lukács, faced a crisis in which it would either have to trans­form it­self or would be­come one more apo­lo­gia for the status quo.

This be­tray­al of eman­cip­a­tion by reas­on — this form­al­iz­a­tion, frag­ment­a­tion, and tyr­an­nous in­dif­fer­ence to the par­tic­u­lar — is what Lukács calls re­ific­a­tion. None of this, let me em­phas­ize, can be solved by in­ter­dis­cip­lin­ary pro­grams. This is a prob­lem, Lukács as­serts, that arises in our text­books, be­cause it is real, it has a basis in our form of life. Cap­it­al­ist to­tal­ity really does pro­ceed frag­ment­ar­ily, un­con­sciously, re­leg­at­ing hu­mans in­to mere things. Re­ific­a­tion is a Ge­gen­stand­lich­keits­form, a “form of ob­jectiv­ity.” It can­not be over­come ex­cept through con­scious­ness, but it can­not be over­come through con­scious­ness alone.


We might read the en­tirety of the second part of the “Re­ific­a­tion” es­say, “The An­ti­nom­ies of Bour­geois Thought,” as demon­strat­ing, again and again, that re­ific­a­tion can­not be over­come in thought alone. But Lukács is not set­ting up philo­sophy for a fall. In­stead, Lukács gives an ac­count of “Ideal­ist” philo­sophy strug­gling to ex­press the prob­lems and po­ten­tials of free­dom in its mo­ment — that philo­sophy’s am­bi­tion, and the lim­its it reached, are char­ac­ter­ist­ic of the “high” mo­ment of bour­geois polit­ics. Bour­geois philo­sophy, says Lukács, is the self-con­scious­ness of a con­tra­dict­ory age, whose fur­ther trans­form­a­tions and de­vel­op­ments ne­ces­sit­ated its (self-)over­com­ing. This at­tempt to real­ize a free­dom not “im­posed upon” but im­man­ent in so­cial real­ity is passed on to Marx­ism. Marx­ism, in turn, is un­der­go­ing its own deep split, its own crisis, tak­ing up in trans­muted form the earli­er crisis of thought and ac­tion.

Marx­ism, for Lukács, is the dir­ect in­her­it­or of a bour­geois prac­tic­al philo­sophy of free­dom. This defin­it­ively sep­ar­ates Marx­ism from many oth­er vari­et­ies of anti-mod­ern dis­con­tent (of which post­mod­ern­ism is the most re­cent vari­ety). Philo­sophy seeks to ex­press, and through ex­pres­sion to be­come mid­wife to, the birth of the free­dom im­pli­cit in our so­cial re­la­tions. And while this task is more opaque in Lukács’s mo­ment, Lukács re­fuses to sadly shrug his shoulders at the com­ing bar­bar­ism; he calls us to risk achiev­ing the En­light­en­ment’s prom­ise. Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schiller, and Hegel would not cede the at­tempt to com­bine reas­on, free­dom, and hu­man de­vel­op­ment, even as they con­scien­tiously re­cog­nized that these could not be re­con­ciled in a bour­geois world. They ex­press that bour­geois so­ci­ety has not yet giv­en up on it­self.

Bour­geois philo­sophy stuck with its am­bi­tion: “…the idea that the ob­ject…can be known by us for the reas­on that, and to the de­gree in which, it has been cre­ated by ourselves.”7 But through epi­stem­o­logy, mor­als, aes­thet­ics (the sub­jects of Kant’s three cri­tiques) and even Hegel’s in­voc­a­tion of his­tory, this philo­sophy kept find­ing it­self left with, on the one side, an in­com­plete form­al reas­on, on the oth­er side an in­ert and ir­ra­tion­al ob­ject; on the one side a free, self-de­term­in­ing sub­ject, on the oth­er the brute facts and “laws” of the world. Reas­on simply re­pro­duces a sub­ject de­nuded of its ca­pa­city to shape the world and it­self, re­con­ciled at the ex­pense of un­free­dom.

Clas­sic­al philo­sophy’s hon­est fo­cus on its lim­its was one of the things Lukács ad­mired most about it. But even more im­port­antly, that philo­soph­ic­al lin­eage at­temp­ted to probe and over­come its dif­fi­culties through de­vel­op­ing a cer­tain form of know­ledge: the “identic­al sub­ject-ob­ject,” “its own age com­pre­hen­ded in thought,” or prac­tic­al self-con­scious­ness. Clas­sic­al ideal­ist philo­sophy shows that free­dom is pos­sible only through a trans­form­at­ive self-con­scious­ness, where “know­ing” and “prac­tic­al trans­form­a­tion” are mu­tu­ally con­stitutive — where know­ledge is im­man­ent, rather than ab­stract.

Reas­on is not an ab­stract form to be im­posed on a hos­tile real­ity — it is real­iz­ing something im­pli­cit in an ob­ject, an ob­ject which is ac­tu­ally us. A neur­ot­ic symp­tom ap­pears to be a hor­rible hos­tile en­tity to be conquered, but it is rather a de­vel­op­ment of self to be un­der­stood and prac­tic­ally over­come. By know­ing my­self, I change my­self. I am, but am not, the same self I was. Self-know­ledge al­lows me, as Ni­et­z­sche puts it, to “be­come my­self.”

Marx­ism is the at­tempt to real­ize the form of prac­tic­al self-know­ledge which of­fers the only hope of achiev­ing free­dom, reas­on, and de­vel­op­ment. But Marx­ism has in­her­ited not only the tasks, but also the prob­lems and crises, of the prac­tic­al philo­sophy of free­dom. Neo-Kan­tian, sci­ent­ist­ic Marx­ism, con­nec­ted with vari­et­ies of re­form­ism, be­comes the far­cic­al re­pe­ti­tion of Kant’s achieve­ment: it fails to rad­ic­al­ize the Kant–Hegel–Marx lin­eage. Much like what Freud would call re­gres­sion — the use of out­dated psych­ic tools to cope with new prob­lems and changed con­di­tions — Marx­ism threatened to be­come “stuck,” thus fail­ing to jus­ti­fy the leap the bour­geois re­volu­tions had ini­ti­ated. Marx­ism needed to learn to grow up. Or, more spe­cific­ally, it needed to learn to stop think­ing that it had already grown up.


Lukács in­sists that re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism is able to con­cretely pose the prob­lem of eman­cip­a­tion, be­cause its polit­ics seeks to prac­tic­ally achieve the self-con­scious­ness of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety in its crisis. And cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety’s crisis, in its most acute form, is the his­tor­ic­al de­vel­op­ment and con­scious­ness of the pro­let­ari­at. As Lukács puts it, “the pro­let­ari­at is noth­ing but the con­tra­dic­tions of his­tory be­come con­scious” (71). But why?

Firstly, be­cause the rise of the pro­let­ari­at meant, his­tor­ic­ally, the de­cline of bour­geois rad­ic­al­ism. The pro­let­ari­at’s in­cip­i­ent de­mand that they be­come the sub­jects prom­ised by bour­geois so­ci­ety — free, cre­at­ive, and equal — led the bour­geois­ie to be­come “vul­gar,” to give up on the rad­ic­al im­plic­a­tions of the En­light­en­ment and to call for “law and or­der.” Cap­it­al’s tragedy is that it is al­ways also the pro­let­ari­at. The bour­geois­ie’s tragedy is that it must, by ne­ces­sity, be al­ways one step be­hind cap­it­al.

Second, be­cause the pro­let­ari­at is a com­mod­ity, and thus the ul­ti­mate ob­ject, she sells her­self on the mar­ket, is en­slaved by the ma­chine, and is thrown about by eco­nom­ic crises over which she has not a whit of con­trol. But bour­geois so­ci­ety also prom­ises that each hu­man be­ing might be­come a self-de­term­in­ing sub­ject. For Lukács, “the work­er can only be­come con­scious of his ex­ist­ence in so­ci­ety when he be­comes aware of him­self as a com­mod­ity.” Or “[the pro­let­ari­at’s] con­scious­ness is the self-con­scious­ness of the com­mod­ity” (168). The com­mod­ity, this ir­ra­tion­al reas­on, canit­self make de­mands for its eman­cip­a­tion be­cause the typ­ic­al com­mod­ity is the pro­let­ari­at. The in­verse is also true: the pro­let­ari­at is the quint­es­sen­tial “ab­stract” bour­geois sub­ject, whose struggles to ap­pro­pri­ate so­ci­ety for its pur­poses de­mand that the ob­ject — the product of the his­tory of so­cial la­bour — be in­fused with sub­ject­ive pur­pose.

We are used to think­ing of the nat­ur­al con­stitu­ency of the Left as those who are “mar­gin­al” to so­ci­ety. Lukács de­vel­ops the dar­ing claim of re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism that cap­it­al­ism must over­come it­self, not through the in­ter­ven­tion of those out­side, but by the ac­tion of those at its very cen­ter. “[The pro­let­ari­at’s] fate is typ­ic­al of the so­ci­ety as a whole,” says Lukács (92). The only ad­vant­age the work­er might have is that her re­ific­a­tion is of­ten ex­per­i­enced as a form of power­less­ness and there­fore might be me­di­ated polit­ic­ally in­to a trans­form­at­ive prac­tice. Marx­ism is not the res­ist­ance to cap­it­al­ism or re­ific­a­tion or bour­geois sub­jectiv­ity — it is their self-con­scious real­iz­a­tion and self-over­com­ing.

As pro­let­ari­ans seek to really be­come “bour­geois sub­jects,” their de­mands for sub­jectiv­ity be­gin to strain against the lim­its of what is pos­sible in bour­geois so­ci­ety. But the pro­let­ari­at’s so­cial po­s­i­tion does not at all guar­an­tee that it will rad­ic­ally push for­ward the de­mands of eman­cip­a­tion, only that it might. Polit­ics is the at­tempt to real­ize this po­ten­tial.

Lukács saw in the crisis of Marx­ism pre­cip­it­ated by World War I, but already pres­aged in the “re­vi­sion­ist de­bate,” a re-en­act­ment at a new level of the crisis of bour­geois philo­sophy. Here self-con­scious­ness could ad­vance the new tasks posed, or think­ing would be­come little more than an apo­lo­gia for dom­in­a­tion. In the rad­ic­als of Second In­ter­na­tion­al Marx­ism, es­pe­cially Lux­em­burg and Len­in, Lukács saw the at­tempt to meet the tasks of the present, to for­mu­late the polit­ics that could real­ize bour­geois so­ci­ety’s — and Marx­ism’s — po­ten­tial self-over­com­ing.

The es­sence of Len­in and Lux­em­burg’s Marx­ist polit­ics was that so­cial­ism, in or­der to achieve eman­cip­a­tion, would have to be a con­scious hu­man act, im­man­ent in present real­it­ies; it could not be de­duced from so­cial be­ing nor a fer­vent wish from bey­ond. If one could “stumble in­to so­cial­ism,” as if so­cial­ism were fated from time im­me­mori­al by in­ex­or­able laws, then it would be one more form of un­free­dom, of fake sub­jectiv­ity. Hu­man con­scious­ness would be an in­teg­ral part of “ob­ject­ive” de­vel­op­ment, or noth­ing at all.

This was ex­em­pli­fied in their fo­cus on the “non-auto­mat­ic” char­ac­ter of the trans­ition to so­cial­ism. They cri­ti­cized both in­ev­it­ab­il­ism and the re­duc­tion of the pro­let­ari­at as just an­oth­er sec­tion­al in­terest, seek­ing its “cut of the pie.” This was not Marx­ism, the polit­ics of free­dom, at all. Pas­sages like the fol­low­ing from Rosa Lux­em­burg’s Re­form or Re­volu­tion, were key for Lukács:

So that if we do not con­sider mo­ment­ar­ily the im­me­di­ate ameli­or­a­tion of the work­ers’ con­di­tion – an ob­ject­ive com­mon to our party pro­gram as well as to re­vi­sion­ism – the dif­fer­ence between the two out­looks is…[a]ccord­ing to the present con­cep­tion of the party [Lux­em­burg’s po­s­i­tion], trade-uni­on and par­lia­ment­ary activ­ity are im­port­ant for the so­cial­ist move­ment be­cause such activ­ity pre­pares the pro­let­ari­at, that is to say, cre­ates the sub­ject­ive factor of the so­cial­ist trans­form­a­tion, for the task of real­ising so­cial­ism…we say that as a res­ult of its trade uni­on and par­lia­ment­ary struggles, the pro­let­ari­at be­comes con­vinced, of the im­possib­il­ity of ac­com­plish­ing a fun­da­ment­al so­cial change through such activ­ity and ar­rives at the un­der­stand­ing that the con­quest of power is un­avoid­able.8

Lux­em­burg sought, then, to struggle with the pro­let­ari­at in its halt­ing at­tempts to achieve bour­geois sub­jectiv­ity in or­der to con­stantly push against the lim­its of how much sub­jectiv­ity cap­it­al­ism could grant the work­ers — all so that the pro­let­ari­at might someday de­mand the end of their be­ing an ob­ject tout court. Fur­ther­more polit­ic­al edu­ca­tion and ac­tion around these lim­its would be de­signed to call work­ers to learn­ing about how they came to be what they are — i.e. to un­der­stand his­tor­ic­ally their be­ing as an ex­pres­sion of the crisis of cap­it­al — and thus be faced with the grav­ity of the task ahead for achiev­ing free­dom.

The re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism of Lux­em­burg and Len­in, then, was for Lukács the at­tempt to real­ize the prom­ises and pos­sib­il­it­ies of bour­geois so­ci­ety by con­sist­ently press­ing for­ward the de­mand for sub­jectiv­ity con­tained in the com­mod­ity it­self: the pro­let­ari­at. This polit­ics, in ex­tremely tele­scoped form, in­sists on:

  • the lead­ing role of the pro­let­ari­at as the most typ­ic­al ele­ment and crisis-point of cap­it­al­ism
  • an em­phas­is on the sub­ject­ive de­vel­op­ment of the pro­let­ari­at in any struggles it un­der­goes
  • a fight against the re­duc­tion of Marx­ism in­to sec­tion­al in­terest, seek­ing its “cut of the pie”
  • the im­port­ance of em­phas­iz­ing not vic­tor­ies, but lim­its in any giv­en in­terest-pur­sued ac­tion by the pro­let­ari­at
  • the con­com­it­ant value of self-cri­ti­cism and self-trans­form­a­tion
  • the cent­ral­ity of self-trans­form­at­ive polit­ic­al prac­tice
  • an or­gan­iz­a­tion — or party — ded­ic­ated (as Lukács quotes Marx in the Com­mun­ist Mani­festo) to cla­ri­fy­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al and his­tor­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance of any giv­en ac­tion.

This self-con­scious cap­it­al­ist polit­ics elu­cid­ated, for Lukács, what the prac­tic­al philo­sophy of free­dom would have to look like in or­der to over­come the present and to real­ize the en­dangered, fra­gile past, soon to be­come only the miser­able pre­curs­or to an even more miser­able se­quel.

This struggle with the pro­let­ari­at to achieve its own pos­sib­il­ity was for Lukács the oth­er side of the struggle of bour­geois so­ci­ety to achieve its po­ten­tial, an his­tor­ic­al open ques­tion that would be de­cided only by self-con­scious self-ac­tion. The crisis of mod­ern so­ci­ety is the crisis of the bour­geois re­volu­tion — which at a new, more deadly level, is the crisis of Marx­ism.

If this polit­ics is un­suc­cess­ful, there will cer­tainly be plenty of move­ments and res­ist­ance. But un­less cap­it­al, the dy­namo of mod­ern­ity, is over­come from with­in, rather than by a deus ex mach­ina from without, you won’t get the self-over­com­ing of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety at its highest point and the real­iz­a­tion of the po­ten­tial free­dom im­pli­cit in mod­ern­ity. In­stead res­ist­ance be­comes the cry ac­com­pa­ny­ing a resigned ac­cept­ance to the un­free­dom of the whole.


Lukács’s His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness might be summed up in Freud’s de­scrip­tion of the goal of psy­cho­ana­lys­is: Wo Es war, soll Ich wer­den; where it was, I shall be. Self-con­scious­ness changes us, but we are still some­how “us”; we have real­ized something about ourselves. Nor is self-con­scious­ness merely in the brain. To be really self-con­scious we need to change our whole way of be­ing. Lukács’s Marx­ism is try­ing to re­cog­nize that Marx­ism poses the ques­tion to bour­geois so­ci­ety and to mod­ern­ity as a whole wheth­er or not it can achieve this kind of trans­form­at­ive self-con­scious­ness. The pro­spects do not look bright.

But why re­turn to Lukács? Es­pe­cially if I in­sist that he was at­tempt­ing to make sense of his prac­tic­al mo­ment, to raise the mo­ment of world-his­tor­ic­al danger and pos­sib­il­ity of roughly 1917-1923 to self-con­scious­ness, what rel­ev­ance does he have in a mo­ment whose prac­tic­al pos­sib­il­it­ies are so dif­fer­ent, and so di­min­ished? Psy­cho­ana­lys­is again, per­haps, provides a use­ful meta­phor. We do not re­vis­it our child­hoods to re­live them — only to re­cog­nize how we have yet to in­teg­rate them by over­com­ing them. Lukács helps us see that we haven’t grown up.

This means that per­haps Lukács’s “identic­al sub­ject-ob­ject” seems so “mes­si­an­ic” to us not be­cause we have sur­passed Lukács and his silly meta­phys­ic­al spec­u­la­tions, but be­cause we find ourselves no longer able to ima­gine this kind of free­dom. We no longer be­lieve that we can over­come cap­it­al­ism for the bet­ter, real­iz­ing the reas­on, free­dom, and hu­man de­vel­op­ment it prom­ises. Cap­it­al­ism is a brute, in­ert, for­eign en­tity, dom­in­at­ing us and our ca­pa­cit­ies. All we can do is look to the mar­gin­al, the suf­fer­ing, and the pained, and of­fer sym­pathy and solid­ar­ity with their struggles: struggles that are part of the nat­ur­al laws of his­tory. There will be power, there will be res­ist­ance. Our polit­ics take something like the form of Niez­sche’s etern­al re­turn. As “crit­ic­al” as we are, we can only ima­gine free­dom swoop­ing in from bey­ond and bring­ing its lib­er­a­tion in­to our miser­able lives. And we are right — for we are surely in the age of second child­hood, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Was Lukács a fool for wager­ing on the pos­sib­il­ity of free­dom by be­com­ing, polit­ic­ally, a Marx­ist? Lukács would in­sist on Lux­em­burg’s call — so­cial­ism or bar­bar­ism. Either the im­man­ent over­com­ing of cap­it­al­ism and its ir­ra­tion­al ra­tion­al­ity, or resig­na­tion to ever-new, ever-hor­ri­fy­ing, forms of “reas­on­able” bar­bar­ism.

To end, I of­fer two quotes. The first from Lukács:

When the mo­ment of trans­ition to the ‘realm of free­dom’ ar­rives this will be­come ap­par­ent just be­cause the blind forces really will hurtle blindly to­wards the abyss, and only the con­scious will of the pro­let­ari­at will be able to save man­kind from the im­pend­ing cata­strophe. In oth­er words, when the fi­nal eco­nom­ic crisis of cap­it­al­ism de­vel­ops, the fate of the re­volu­tion (and with it the fate of man­kind) will de­pend on the ideo­lo­gic­al ma­tur­ity of the pro­let­ari­at, i.e. on its class con­scious­ness (69).

The second from Rilke in the first of his Du­ino Ele­gies:

Yes — the spring­times needed you. Of­ten a star
was wait­ing for you to no­tice it. A wave rolled to­ward you
out of the dis­tant past, or as you walked
un­der an open win­dow, a vi­ol­in
yiel­ded it­self to your hear­ing. All this was mis­sion.
But could you ac­com­plish it?9

Without Lukács’s Pas­cali­an wager on free­dom, it is not clear to me that Lukács is worth much of any­thing at all. The de­mon that drove him from philo­sophy to the polit­ics of re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism is what should call out to us today, not the ana­lyt­ic­al tools we can dig up from the grave of his prac­tic­al philo­sophy of free­dom. Or maybe he is just a dead dog. |P


1 Im­manuel Kant, “Idea for a Uni­ver­sal His­tory from a Cos­mo­pol­it­an Point of View,” in Kant on His­tory, trans. Lewis White Beck (In­di­ana­pol­is: Bobbs-Mer­rill, 1963[1784]), 12.
2 Ibid., 21.
3 Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche, Thus Spoke Za­rathus­tra, trans. Wal­ter Kaufmann (New York: Pen­guin Books, 1978 [1891]), 126.
4 Georg Lukács, “What is Or­tho­dox Marx­ism,” in His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness: Stud­ies in Marx­ist Dia­lectics, trans. Rod­ney Liv­ing­stone (Cam­bridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 2.
5 Im­manuel Kant, Cri­tique of Pure Reas­on, trans. Paul Guy­er and Al­len W. Wood (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­versity Press, 1998 [1787]), 100-101.
6 Max Weber. “Sci­ence as a Vo­ca­tion” in From Max Weber: Es­says in So­ci­ology, eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Ox­ford Uni­versity Press, 1958 [1918]), 144.
7 Georg Lukács, “Re­ific­a­tion and the Con­scious­ness of the Pro­let­ari­at,” in His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness: Stud­ies in Marx­ist Dia­lectics, trans. Rod­ney Liv­ing­stone (Cam­bridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 112. Here­after re­ferred to par­en­thet­ic­ally with the ap­pro­pri­ate page num­ber(s).
8 Rosa Lux­em­burg, So­cial Re­form or Re­volu­tion, in Rosa Lux­em­burg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Wa­ters (New York: Pathfind­er Press, 1979[1900]), 84-5.
9 Rain­er Maria Rilke. Du­ino Ele­gies in The Se­lec­ted Po­etry of Rain­er Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Steph­en Mitchell (NY: Ran­dom House, 1982[1922]), 151.

Continue reading

Democracy and the Left

Alan AkrivosDick Howard 
Alan MilchmanJoseph Schwartz

On February 5, 2014, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation titled ‘Democracy and the Left’ at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The participants were Alan Akrivos (Socialist Alternative), Dick Howard (Stony Brook University), Alan Milchman (Internationalist Perspective), and Joseph Schwartz (Democratic Socialists of America). The description of the event reads as follows:

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little — the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again. The elections in the U.S. and Germany seem, by comparison, to be non-events, despite having potentially far-reaching consequences. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections but was instead split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary. Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both emancipatory social demands as well as their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte.” What history informs demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote — or not — the cause of popular empowerment? What are the potential futures for “democratic” revolution as understood by the Left?

What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full recording can be found online. Once again, I’m not in Platypus. Indeed, I’m apparently not even welcome at their events, despite it having been over a year since I quit. Still, I think this is a worthwhile exchange and am reposting it here in the hope that someone might actually read it.

Opening remarks

Dick Howard:
 There is a fundamental difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution, which leads to a vision of democracy that is radically different in the two contexts.

The American Revolution was an anti-colonial revolution against the state that wanted to get the British off of the backs of Americans and leave society to go on in its own way. There’s an anti-statist tradition in the United States. The American Revolution went through three distinct phases: declaring independence, winning the war, and then the problem that Ukrainians are going have to face, namely, how do you give society a political framework such that it can hold together? That’s the period of the failure of that kind of direct democracy found in the Articles of Confederation. Finally, a nation-state was created.

America became a nation-state and a democratic state insofar as you had the “Revolution of 1803.” That was not only when the Jeffersonians (the opposition) won the presidency, but also when the decision in Marbury v. Madison recognized that the society was one, held together by its constitution despite the diversity of the society that was framed by the constitution. That gave America a republican democracy: the constitution which frames the republic holds priority and gives the unity within which a diversity can flourish.

During the French Revolution, insofar as the society was based on status rather than equality of opportunity, the power of the state was used in order to transform society. That process of using the state power to transform society went through phases, and you can list the canonical dates: the high point of the Jacobin period in 1793, the reaction against it, the empire, the return of the monarchy, then 1830, 1848, 1870, and finally — even Platypus puts it into its name — 1917, which, apparently, is the realization of that dream that begins with the French Revolution. That dream is that the gap between society and the state be overcome, but it is overcome by the action of the state. Instead of a republican democracy in the American sense, you had a democratic republic — the idea is that democracy and the state come together, and this is the elimination of the state.

I came to realize the importance of this distinction in 1990 or 1991 when I was giving a lecture in Greifswald, in the former German Democratic Republic, about the American Revolution and how the Americans created a “democratic republic.” The audience was not particularly happy because they had just gotten out of a democratic republic! What is that democratic republic? What is that republican democracy? There was awareness of this distinction well before a left-wing critique of totalitarianism developed.

Continue reading

Et tu, Slavoj? Must Žižek really be “destroyed”?

Continuing its proud tradition of accepting literally every panel proposal submitted to it, no matter how poorly written or conceived, this year’s Left Forum at Pace University brings you “Žižek delenda est” [Latin for “Žižek must be destroyed”]. I’m not kidding. Here’s the panel description, with solecisms left in for dramatic effect:

Is Slavoj Zizek a US propaganda psyop? I want to ask my comrades on the left to consider the possibility. After years of research, I have come to the conclusion that Zizek is a charlatan posing as a “Stalinist” to both discredit communists by performing a caricature Bolshevik and simultaneously, to smuggle fascist ideas including old fashioned Aryan supremacism and 19th century race theory, back into public discourse disguised as radical left critique of liberalism. I will focus on how he exploits his radical left image to spread imperialist propaganda and disinformation. I’ll trace the origins of the Zizek Industry to his first anointing by the New Left Review, then edited by Quentin Hoare and Branka Magas, Croatian Nationalists and Tudjman supporters and founders of the Bosnian Institute, as the Balkan Leftist who would initiate, in 1990, the dominant strain of imperialist propaganda about Yugoslavia, and yet further back to his career as an antiMarxist, antiCommunist “dissident” and Slovene ethnic nationalist. I will discuss the way he has influenced a generation to the point where now right wing and reactionary ideas as well as pure white house disinformation and propaganda are routinely packaged as hip “lefty” and “radical” thought.

My god, pure idiocy.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if this lunacy tarnishes the Left Forum’s good name, if only for the fact that there’s no good name to tarnish. The annual gathering already has the character of a circus — a “Renaissance fair of the Left,” as a comrade once put it — so this is really just one more scene in its extended slapstick routine. All the old corpses come out for this fin de semana de los muertos: aging hippies, dinosaur sects barely clinging to life, the Friends of the People of the Soviet Union. So in a way, panels like “Žižek delenda est” are strangely refreshing. It’s a fresh flavor of paranoid fantasy, our generation’s version of the show trials. Finally, a new term of reproach to replace those great epithets of old. Used to be “Trotskyist wreckers” or “British imperialist agents,” then later COINTELPRO. Now it’s Slavoj Žižek, deep cover CIA operative. Continue reading

Radical ideologies today: Marxism and anarchism

Christoph LichtenbergEva Curry
Alex KhasnabishChris Parsons

This spring, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a series panels on “Radical ideologies today: Marxism and anarchism” in New York, Frankfurt, Halifax, Thessaloniki, and Chicago. The panel description reads: “It seems that there are still only two radical ideologies: Marxism and anarchism. They emerged out of the same crucible — the Industrial Revolution, the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 and 1871, a weak liberalism, the centralization of state power, the rise of the workers movement, and the promise of socialism. They are the revolutionary heritage, and all significant radical upsurges of the last 150 years have returned to mine their meaning for the current situation. In this respect, our moment seems no different.

There are a few different ways these ideologies have been taken up. Recent worldwide square occupations reflect one pattern: a version of Marxist theory — understood as a political-economic critique of capitalism — is used to comprehend the world, while anarchist practice — understood as an anti-hierarchical principle that insists revolution must begin now — is used to organize, in order to change it. Some resist this combination, claiming that Marxism rejects anti-statist adventurism, and call for a strategic reorganization of the working class to resist austerity, and perhaps push forward a “New New Deal”. This view remains wedded to a supposedly practical welfarist social democracy, which strengthens the state and manages capital. There is a good deal of hand waving in both these orientations with regard to politics, tactics, and the end goal. Finally, there have been attempts to leave the grounds of these theories entirely — but these often seem either to land right back in one of the camps or to remain marginal.

To act today we seek to draw up the balance sheet of the 20th century. The historical experience concentrated in these ideas must be unfurled if they are to serve as compass points. In what ways does the return of these ideologies represent an authentic engagement and in what ways the return of a ghost? Where have the battles left us? What forms do we have for meeting, theoretically and practically, the problems of our present?”

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-Halifax hosted on February 1, 2014, at University of King’s College. The speakers participating in Halifax included Christoph Lichtenberg, Alex Khasnabish, Chris Parsons, and Eva Curry. A full recording of each of the events held in this series can be found online.

Christoph Lichtenberg: When I think of Marxism and anarchism, I think of two tendencies within the workers’ movement, both of which see themselves as revolutionary, as opposed to the tendency that is known as Social Democracy, which would work through reforms. I think of Marxism as interchangeable with Leninism or Trotsykism. I do not associate it with Maoism or Stalinism. I think of anarchism in its best representation as exemplified by people like Bakunin, Kropotkin, or anacho-syndicalism. There are some commonalities between the two tendencies. I just want to highlight three of them: I think Marxism and anarchism agree on the need for the liberation of humanity through the destruction of capitalism. I also think that we agree on the fact that there is a class struggle going on between the exploiters and the exploited. And finally, I think we agree on the need to destroy the existing, oppressive, capitalist state structure. What happens after that is where we diverge.

The conflict really began with the creation of the alliance with Social Democracy by Bakunin and his followers, and what it meant is that they maintained a somewhat secret organization within the First International and started to publish articles that were critical of Marx. There was a lot of going back and forth over organizational matters, but, as with every organizational dispute, at the heart of it is really politics. The difference in politics between Marxists and anarchists really came to the fore at the 1872 Congress of the First International in The Hague, when there was a big debate between the Bakunin faction and the Marx followers about the role of the state in the transformation towards socialism. The Marxists argued that there was a role of the state in the transformation towards of socialism while followers of Bakunin insisted that the state should immediately be replaced by self-governing workplaces and communes. The Bakunin faction lost that debate and were expelled from the First International for maintaining their secret organization.


Around 1880, Kropotkin and other Russian revolutionaries announced the need for a permanent revolt through word, gun, and dynamite. This set the anarchists, particularly in Russia, on the course of anarchist terrorism, which removed them from the masses and isolated them.

The October Revolution in 1917 is the key event to understanding revolution. The Second International collapsed in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War because the different sections of the International ended up supporting their own governments’ war efforts. So rather than being internationalists, they sided with their own national governments, which Lenin, the Russian revolutionary who led the Bolsheviks, identified as a complete betrayal of the spirit of socialism. The main thing he learned from the collapse of the Second International was the need for revolutionaries to set up a separate organization from the reformists — the need for a vanguard party.

Continue reading

Anti-fascism: Its problematic history and meaning

       Manuel Kellner | Henning Mächerle
Wolf Wetzel | Jan Gerber

Platypus Review 63
February 1, 2014
Image: Antifascist
conference (1922)

Since the Nazi seizure of power eighty years ago anti-fascism has been integral to left-wing politics. The struggle against fascists and Nazis is morally self-evident, so that political anti-fascism seems to be similarly self-evident. Yet in past periods of history, the politics of anti-fascism was completely different, as was the understanding of what it contributed to leftist politics more generally. Still certain continuity can be discerned in anti-fascism’s retention of anti-capitalist claims. Where does this come from? What was anti-fascism and how has it changed? How do the category and concept of anti-fascism help us to understand both historical and contemporary political realities? What does anti-fascism mean today in the absence of fascism as a mass movement?

What follows is an edited transcript of an event organized by The Platypus Affiliated Society in Frankfurt on April 30, 2013. The discussion addressed the different historical and political implications of anti-fascist politics in order to throw into relief the underlying questions and problems of left-wing politics in the present.

Opening remarks

Wolf Wetzel:
This discussion is itself an historical event. The Left is at present so fractured, that it is impossible, even forbidden, to have discussions with each other.  We would normally never see a group like this on a platform together. Yet the problem of the Left is also one of anti-fascism.  Many people from the “Antifa” [anti-fascist movement] here in Frankfurt have refused to attend this discussion, since on the evening before an anti-Nazi march, they can only meet to discuss plans of action. They cannot allow themselves to discuss anti-fascism itself because for them to do so on the day before an action would be demobilizing.  This is remarkable given that formerly such discussions of political substance were commonplace.

The other issue is the intense mutual criticism of the different positions represented on this platform. Who can speak with whom? When is it a betrayal? When is it bourgeois, even counterrevolutionary? The assemblage here — representing anti-German, Trotskyist, German Communist Party (DKP), and Autonomist positions — could meet nowhere else in the Federal Republic. Even though I oppose many of the views represented here, these meetings are valuable because they show where these political differences come from and what lessons can be drawn from them.

I want to raise the question of the role Nazism plays today and how to understand the Nazis. This is a big question, one that is too often avoided by anti-fascists themselves. But one must ask: How threatening are they? Are they dangerous materially, politically, or ideologically? Also the historical question must be raised: Who in the ruling apparatus and state institutions of the 1930s when the Nazi Party was on the rise had an interest in their program? If the system itself is in crisis and the political elite hit rock bottom, what prevents the Left from coming to power (something much more likely in the 1930s than it is today)? At that time, it was an existential crisis for the political and business class: Would the conflict arising in the capitalist crisis be answered in a rightwing, fascistic way, or in a socialist way? Might not the crisis conclude with the bursting apart and transcendence of the capitalist system itself?

When we demonstrate against the Nazis we should ask what significance they have, not how many of them there are — 200 or 500. Such figures anyway sometimes get exaggerated in order to inflate the sense of the threat the Nazis pose.

We must discuss what role neo-fascist organizations, their parties, and their armed groups play. My view is that conditions today are massively different from the 1930s. The fascist movement then and today cannot be equated. The political class and the political system have become something quite different. It is absolutely necessary to ask where the true menace lies. I do not believe that the neo-Nazis are the driving protagonists of German racism and nationalism. Racism and nationalism are mainstream and have the support of the majority.  These arrived a long time ago at the center of society. They are represented by political power. The National Democratic Party (NPD) and the other, less organized neo-Nazi groups only express consistently what is already established as mainstream.

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Henning Mächerle: What we are discussing here today depends on the fact that the German workers’ movement of the 1920s and 1930s failed. The Communist Party of Germany was defeated. At the time, it was the biggest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and it failed without organizing any significant armed resistance or, indeed, interfering with the functioning of the Nazi Party on a large scale. The dilemma of the German Left is that we drag this historical burden along with us. That we are mortgaged to history in this way is the occasion for this debate on anti-fascism. To advance our discussion first we need to understand fascism. That is only possible when we describe society as a class society and understand that it is one in which the owners of the means of production — the ruling class — have a compelling interest in the maximization of profit for which a large number of people must sell their labor power. Because of this, the workers’ movement formed and, through its decisive battle with the capitalist class, shaped the last 150 years. For Eric Hobsbawm, the October Revolution was the decisive point of the “short 20th century” that first showed the possibility of establishing a non-capitalist, perhaps socialist society of free and equal people.  The Left was then — unlike today — a truly serious social movement. It was comprised of people who were not primarily ensconced in universities, but had normal wage work and social interests. The big problem of the Communist Party was it only represented a specific milieu within the workers’ movement. Continue reading

The politics of work

Platypus Review
December 2013

Robert Pollin, Stanley Aronowitz, Jason Wright


On September 20 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion entitled The Politics of Work for the Rethinking Marxism conference at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The discussion was moderated by Reid Kotlas of Platypus. The panelists were asked to respond to a prompt of ten questions that included provocative quotations by Joan Robinson, Fredric Jameson, and André Gorz. This prompt asked each panelist to consider the adequacy of the Left’s historic and ongoing attempts to understand and transform social relations of work and unemployment.

What follows is the edited version of the ensuing conversation. A full recording of the event is available online.


Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labour: it is a book about unemployment.

— Fredric Jameson, Representing
Capital: A Reading of Volume One

The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.

— Joan Robinson

The error consists in believing that labor, by which I mean heteronomous, salaried labor, can and must remain the essential matter. It’s just not so. According to American projections, within twenty years labor time will be less than half that of leisure time. I see the task of the left as directing and promoting this process of abolition of labor in a way that will not result in a mass of unemployed on one side, and aristocracy of labor on the other and between them a proletariat which carries out the most distasteful jobs for forty-five hours a week. Instead, let everyone work much less for his salary and thus be free to act in a much more autonomous manner.…Today “communism” is a real possibility and even a realistic proposition, for the abolition of salaried labor through automation saps both capitalist logic and the market economy.

— André Gorz

Opening remarks

Robert Pollin:
 Since we are a Marxist conference I’m going to start with Karl Marx. I love the quote from Jameson, which I had never seen before: “Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labor: it is a book about unemployment.” I think there is a profound truth to that. Not only is chapter 25 of volume 1 about the reserve army of labor and, as far as I know, the first serious analysis of unemployment as a phenomenon, of the necessity for massive unemployment to exist in order for capitalism to function; but also, the arguments Marx makes in chapter 25 are not the only place in which he is talking about unemployment, which is why I love the Jameson quote. That chapter links up with the entire theory of the labor theory of value and extraction of surplus from labor because, in a full employment economy (in the absence of mass unemployment) the working class has more political power, which of course is what Marx explains. When the working class has more political power and has the capacity to bargain up their wages, that means their rate of surplus value declines. You could think of that as offering a fundamental challenge to the prerogatives of capital and its ability to extract surplus from workers. So Marx was the first great theorist of unemployment. Whether the whole book is about unemployment, as Jameson says, is a debate, but Jameson is certainly making a deep point, maybe the deepest insight in the whole of Capital.

If we take the great theorists of unemployment, we go from Marx, certainly, to Keynes. Keynes’ view on unemployment was, very briefly, that this is a solvable problem within capitalism and we need to understand the technical means to control aggregate demand and instability in the investment process due to the power of Wall Street and speculation. Once we can control those, we can tame worst excesses of capital, we can increase public investment and as such, we can organize capitalism around the idea of full employment. So that is obviously a direct challenge to Marx’s notion that unemployment is fundamental to the operations of capitalism. Continue reading

NYC events this weekend: “Global secularisms” and “Isyan and the Turkish Left”

There are two events coming up this weekend in New York that readers of this blog might be interested in attending. Or at least that I’d want to attend. First, there’s the “Global Secularisms” conference at NYU, organized by Michael Rectenwald. Michael is a professor there in the Global Liberal Studies program, and an occasional contributor to Loren Goldner’s journal Insurgent Notes. A few days ago I republished his article “A Singular Deception.” It’s a two day conference with a long list of participants, which you can check out below.

Besides that, there’s also an event on “Isyan and the Turkish Left” at SVA in Manhattan hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society, the organization of which I formerly a member. Though I resigned several months ago now, this still looks like it’ll be an interesting talk. Ivo Furman, a native of Istanbul currently living in London, will lead the discussion. You can read his article “Isyan: The participation of the radical left in the Gezi Park protests,” online. The event description is included below. Continue reading

The antinomy of art and politics

A critique of art as cultural resistance

Image: Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait:
Man Smoking a Pipe (c. 1848-1849)



This article first appeared in September 2011, the same month that Occupy Wall Street officially began its reclamation of public space. It was written by Chris Mansour, a good friend and member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, the organization to which I formerly belonged. My reasons for republishing it here are several: the two-year anniversary of the movement recently came and went to little fanfare, my ongoing interrogation of the relationship between architecture and politics, and my reposting yesterday of an article by the German-French Marxist and architecture critic Claude Schnaidt on “Architecture and Political Commitment.” In that reposting, I recommended Adorno’s essay on “Commitment” as supplementary reading. Chris draws upon this article in the course of his own exposition. A good piece that is worthy of reflection.

Platypus Review № 39, editorial introduction: At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on the theme of “aesthetics in protests.” Panelists Stephen Duncombe (Reclaim the Streets), Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), Laurel Whitney (The Yes Men), were asked to consider: “What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice?” The same theme was the subject of another event held at the New School in NYC on May 23, which featured Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E.), and Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative). A full recording of the discussion at the Left Forum can be found online. The article that follows is a modified version of the opening remarks made by Chris Mansour of Platypus at both events.

The antinomy of art and politics

by Chris Mansour

The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.

— George Orwell

There is an interesting passage in Herbert Marcuse’s short book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, which aims to flesh out how art relates to politics. In reflecting on art’s role in revolutionary struggle, Marcuse writes,

In its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art, the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary.[1]

Marcuse cites the example of Courbet, whose paintings signal the birth of modernity, and who founded a socialist club in 1848 and was later a member of the governing council of the Paris Commune in 1871. Yet, counterintuitive though it is, Marcuse remarks that “[there is] no direct testimony of the revolution in his paintings…[they contain] no political content.”[2] The “weight and sensuality” of Courbet’s still lifes — which were painted shortly after the collapse of the Commune — are far more “powerful” than any “political painting” could ever be.[3] Writing these statements in 1972 — four years after the failed “revolutions” of 1968 — it was becoming clearer to Marcuse that the politics of the New Left were losing their grip and its revolutionary energy was deflating. Likewise, the situation that Courbet found himself in after 1848 or 1871 was probably similar to, if not more tragic than, 1968.

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit, c.1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 23 1/8" × 28 1/4" (59 × 72 cm)

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit (c. 1871). Oil on canvas, 59 × 72 cm.

The separation between art and political activity that Marcuse was pointing to in Courbet may appear a bit strange to self-proclaimed cultural radicals or art-activists today. From Marcuse’s point of view, art remains autonomous from any exterior motives other than itself, and art cannot — and should not — act merely as a functional device for putting forth political aims. [4]  Continue reading